Consciousness: The Most Baffling Problem in the Science of the Mind

by Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD of The Doctor Weighs In

Here is a thought that occurred to me as I was walking Sherman, my big Black Lab: Does he know that he is a dog? Did it ever enter his mind to ask: ‘Who am I? What’s my purpose in life? Just eat and chase the ball?‘ I asked him, but he just looked at me, as if to say: ‘Are you nuts? You expect me to have what you people call consciousness?’

Wait a minute, you might think — dogs are far removed from us humans, genetically speaking. Okay, so what about the mother gorilla I observed in the Impenetrable Forest of Uganda? She was grooming her babies just like any human mother would. But did she contemplate for a minute what the future holds for her young offspring? Did she make any long term plans for them? Was she even aware that her time on earth is finite and eventually she’d die? Bear in mind, this gorilla shares 99% of her genes with us!

So, why do we think about things like that?

Since antiquity philosophers have been grappling with this age-old conundrum: What is consciousness? Then along came René Descartes, the famous 17th-century philosopher who said that the mere capacity to think about these questions proves our existence as…thinking human beings. That is what he meant when he famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” Forgive me, my dear Renè, if I detect a bit of circular reasoning here. Be it as it may, like many other philosophical musings — it poses the question, but it offers no answer.

David Chalmers, a philosophy professor and Director of the Center for Consciousness at the Australian National University, is a rare breed of a mathematics and physics-trained philosopher. He made the observation that “consciousness poses the most baffling problem in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain.”

The “soul”

In most religions, consciousness is equated with the notion of ‘soul’. It is considered to be something that animates our feelings, as in ‘soulful music’, something that is beyond our physical being, as in Marc Chagall’s images floating above their ‘real’ physical beings.

The soul in Jewish tradition (Neshama) shares the same root, and close meaning, with breath (Neshima). When one gives out his last breath, his soul still survives in the ether. Christianity evolved similar concepts. In Hindu religion, the soul even precedes, not just survives, the physical being. And animists all over the world (Africa, Asia, Oceania) believe that their ancestors’ spirits are watching over them and require constant offerings.

Every time I have tried to persuade somebody that consciousness must reside in the brain, I would get the skeptical query: “Yes, but how do you explain this something extra, the ‘soul’?” The answer is, it’s tough. And here is why.

Where is the seat of consciousness?

Kristoff Koch and Francis Crick, the molecular biologist who famously helped discover thedouble-helix structure of DNA, hypothesized that a region called the claustrum mightintegrate information across different parts of the brain, like the conductor of a symphony. What an inspired speculation. Recently, researchers discovered that the claustrum indeed acts as a kind of on-off switch for the brain. When they electrically stimulated this region, the patient became unconscious instantly.

Does this describe the physical location of consciousness? Only to the limited extent of describing the state of being conscious and losing consciousness. This is akin to a light switch controlling the presence or absence of electrical light. But it falls far short of describing the experience of the ‘warm light’ of the impressionists or the ‘cold light’ of a Hopper painting that evokes a sense of extreme loneliness. Obviously, consciousness is more than the opposite of unconsciousness.

Apparently, there is no “seat of consciousness” in the brain. Even if we examine a ‘simple’ trait such as face recognition, we find that recognition of the face in outline form resides in one area — that structural details of the face are recognized in another. To make things even more complicated, facial movement is tracked in two other areas of the brain and the emotional content of our reaction to a face is subserved by yet another area. All these areas send their messages to yet another area, which filters out ‘noise’ signals and integrates the strong (hence, important) signals, and then sends that message on to the prefrontal cortex, which renders a judgment: “I like this person” or “He gives me the creeps.”

Could the detailed understanding of the working of one ‘simple’ function, such as face recognition, give us a clue about the workings of an infinitely more complex trait as consciousness?

How can we explain it without resorting to magical thinking?

Here we come to the realm of theories.

Several theories of the brain look at it as an incredibly complex computer. The brain has about 86 billion neurons, and about 10,000–100,000 connections of each neuron to other neurons. But this enormous jumble of interconnected neurons is far from chaotic.

Neurons form networks and sub-networks. And, these are not static networks. They can be part of a larger mega network at one point, and then become part of another network an instant later. They are dynamic!

This incessant, restless electrical activity in different areas of the brain, such as when we read a novel, has been demonstrated by placing electrodes on the reader’s head. So, one theory is that consciousness ‘simply’ draws on the vast number of neuronal networks, coordinating their activities into a coherent outcome, very much like the face recognition task, only vastly more complex. That makes a lot of sense but is unsatisfying. The same type of organization can be seen in a supercomputer, yet, these machines are not self-conscious, suggesting that something else is needed.

Indeed, we see the creation of this ‘something extra’ all around us. Look at an ant colony. Each individual is functioning according to pre-set rules of behavior, collecting food, guarding the nest, feeding the larvae. Each activity in itself still does not amount to a functioning society. But put all these activities together in a coordinated fashion, and you get a living, breathing colony. Or, put differently, a higher order of organization.

Or take something that we do every day without giving it a second thought: communicate through language. Consider the meaning of the words “compare”, “summer”, “day”. Each word has a well-defined, circumscribed meaning. But put together these words in a certain order, and you get Shakespeare’s evocative “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Such qualitative transformations occur in science as well.

Such qualitative transformations occur in science as well. Scientists make tedious progress by making incremental advances in the field. But all those seemingly disparate observations, most seeming quite inconsequential in themselves, come together at one point and lo and behold: a scientific revolution occurs — what we call a paradigm shift. Newton’s Laws of Mechanics, the laws governing the motion of stars formulated by Kepler, along with the mathematics developed by Leibniz all existed in isolation for hundreds of years and shaped the way we viewed the world. But then came Albert Einstein, who mixed that brew of sciences and from it created a brand new view of the world, a higher order of understanding the universe, a scientific revolution called the Theory of Relativity.

What does all this have to do with the brain and consciousness?

All these neurons, sub-networks, networks, interacting networks ever creating, shifting, dissolving in order to create new ones become a generative system. That is to say, their disparate, even contradictory actions, come together to generate something bigger than the sum of the parts — something that we may call consciousness.

I like this theory because it doesn’t posit a brand new phenomenon; we see it all around us. It is not based on magical thinking (e.g. the existence of metaphysical spheres of being) but rather on physical matter (the brain) and its known functions. And finally, it fulfills the necessary condition of any scientific theory — it is testable.

In the final analysis, neither the pontification of philosophers, nor the rhapsodies of dreamy poets, nor the fervent beliefs of the religiously-inclined will solve the mystery of the conscious self. Science will.

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Originally posted on our blog, The Doctor Weighs In.