The 2016 State of Consciousness Research

This article was instigated by samim, inspired by the great discussions had at the last Google solve-for-x European meeting with Ville Vesterinen, Mikko Jarvenpaa, and Mihai Streza, and informed by the 11th Swiss Biennale on Science, Technics, and Aesthetics, whose speakers were Prof. Dr. Christof Koch, Prof. Dr. Sir Roger Penrose, Dr. Luis Eduardo Luna, Dr. Matthieu Ricard, Dr. Fritjof Capra, Prof. Dr. Ernst Peter Fischer, and Dr. Thupten Jinpa Langri. 
For a general overview into all aspects of consciousness, read

Consciousness is a fascinating topic, and very controversial. The quest for understanding Consciousness requires us to look inside of ourselves, and confronting our private experiences. The subject generates strong views and lively arguments. It is difficult to find common ground. Nevertheless, consciousness can be studied rigorously, and at the same time fully appreciated as an experience.

Let’s get this straight out of the way: 
Can we ever understand consciousness? 
Yes, and probably within the next decade. 
How? There are 3 main approaches:

  • The Western Scientific Method,
  • The Eastern Self Examination, and
  • The Amerindian Internal Observation.

I need to assume the same definition of consciousness for all approaches, that is that being conscious means having the experience of a subjective, phenomenal “what it is like” to see an image, hear a sound, think a thought or feel an emotion [C.Koch]. Consciousness is the state or quality of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself [R.vanGulick].

The Western approach is by far the most quantified. This doesn’t necessarily make it right, but it allows for progressive creation. It is the Western view that provides a sufficiently large and deep body of knowledge to assume that there are physical components that create our conscious experience, and that they can be understood.

The Eastern and Amerindian approaches study consciousness mainly by altering the state of consciousness, and confronting the experiences. These approaches push a very familiar phenomenon: Modulation of consciousness happens when we are gently falling asleep or when we “go under” because of anesthesia.

Self Examination of our Conscious Experience

The Eastern Way of studying consciousness is through meditation and introspection. Meditation allows reducing the metabolic activity in the pursuit of emptiness, and enlightenment. The practitioners describe their experience, and confront it with others, and with tradition.

Despite the millennial tradition, it remains difficult to advance the understanding of consciousness because the output of the meditation remains subjective. To bridge the chasm, cross-cultural experiments allow building upon the tradition and the expertise of long-time meditators, such as Buddhist monks. For instance, it has been shown that a Buddhist monk can elicit specific brain activity within just a few seconds of meditation. The gamma waves that were elicited are thought to play a role in solving the Binding problem: How does the brain combine separate features, like color, smell, and shape into a unified and coherent mental representation?

Mathieu Ricard being measured during meditation.

Leveraging decades of rigorous practice potentially enables for discoveries that can’t be found with just the help of naive subjects.

Interdisciplinary Side Note: This example shows that expertise, despite being represented in little quantities, can provide insights and accuracy that are beyond the reach of statistical methods like Big Data and Machine Learning.

Internal Observation after External Modification

The Amerindian way modulates consciousness by savvy use of plants. The practice has a very long tradition, going back to Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilizations. It is particularly interesting because the Americas have been isolated from the rest of the world for very long, giving space for a different view on consciousness. Unfortunately the majority of knowledge and biodiversity has been lost to European invasion.

Ayahuasca, for instance, allows to spend hours “in a conscious but dream-like state”. A natural blend of 2 plants also known as yage, it contains the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and it is an integral part of some tribal societies. Peru’s government claimed that consumption of the “teacher” or “wisdom” plant “constitutes the gateway to the spiritual world and its secrets, which is why traditional Amazon medicine has been structured around the ayahuasca ritual”.

A cross-cultural study has found that the vivid, conscious imagery experienced after the ingestion, is likely due to ayahuasca’s ability to enhanced neural activity as low as the primary visual areas of the brain.

Ayahuasca enables neural responses at low level of sensory abstraction, which translates in vivid imagery.

Like Eastern introspection, the Amerindian tradition offers millennial knowledge that remains largely unexplored elsewhere. The reference to the sacred and religious makes it likely hard to question, define rigorously, and advance objectively.

Scientific Study of the Correlates of Consciousness

The Western approach to investigating consciousness provided verifiable knowledge. This is what we know to be true [C.Koch]:

  • Consciousness is associated with some complex, adaptive, biological networks (not immune nor enteric nervous systems)
  • Consciousness doesn’t require behavior, as we can be conscious in our dreams and in other non-behaving states (e.g., locked-in syndrome)
  • Consciousness doesn’t require emotions
  • Consciousness can be dissociated from selective attention 
    (even flies can be attentive)
  • Consciousness doesn’t require language — babies and aphasics are shown to be conscious
  • Consciousness doesn’t require self-consciousness
  • Consciousness doesn’t require long-term memory
  • Consciousness can occur in one cerebral hemisphere -which means that we could have 2 simultaneous separate conscious experiences 
    (think about what this means for conditions like schizophrenia and multiple personalities)
  • Destruction of cortical regions interferes with specific content of consciousness -which indicates that there isn’t a “center of consciousness” in the brain, but it arises from distributed activity.

These facts are very interesting, and provide us with a specific lens to form hypotheses on how consciousness works, and could be created. A number of theories have been proposed.

For instance, Penrose and Hameroff believe that consciousness arises from quantum interactions in neurons at multiple frequency levels. Entangled quantum “bings” lead to simultaneous increases in activity in different parts of the brain. While in the past biological information processes have been considered too noisy for quantum effects to be relevant, recent studies have demonstrated functional properties. For instance, the photosynthesis of certain systems exploit quantum dynamics to convert 100% of absorbed light into electrical charge.

Another example is the Integrated Information Theory [G.Tononi and C.Koch]. It proposes that consciousness has information regarding its experience, and that the experience is integrated to the extent that parts of an experience are informative of each other. If there is sufficient integration, the physical system is conscious. Although rigorous and widely considered, the theory is also considered wrong as “it unavoidably predicts vast amounts of consciousness in physical systems that no sane person would regard as particularly conscious at all”.

None of the current scientific theories are complete, nor do they propose clear mechanisms for consciousness to arise. In general, the underlying development concept is that, as soon as a certain critical mass is reached, consciousness will appear.

The road ahead — Ways to Accelerate Consciousness Research

The Eastern, Amerindian, and Western ways are all valid approaches to investigate consciousness. Definitions however remain an issue. Great for having multiple approaches, not for integration and maximising progress.

The power of the Scientific Method, is that it builds upon previous hypotheses, know-how, and knowledge using domain codification (e.g., translation into mathematical terms), logic, data, and interpretation. Its limits however reside in the worldview it creates, in which what cannot be measured doesn’t exist. For instance, it took 100 years to confirm the existence of Gravitational Waves.

2 colliding black holes making sound

Gravitational Waves were sought because Einstein was able to predict and codify them in terms of physics and math, and he had quite a track record. Other hypotheses are not so fortunate of standing on the shoulders of such a giant. This means that there are many current questions and problems of the real world that could already have been solved, if measurement technology were available or if they were codified differently.

Similarly, if Eastern and Amerindian knowledge and know-how were codified in scientific terms, their millennial traditions and different perspectives could be more informative, and contribute more to progress in the field. This also requires an openness to potential partial or full refutation, which is quite an issue if the knowledge is considered sacred. On the other hand, too much skepticism closes opportunities. Integrating different perspectives is important because it allows to overcome local minima. For instance, when the side-effects of pain medication are serious, meditating is an effective alternative.

To advance integration with ever limited time and resources, it is necessary to prioritise and filter. A very efficient method is trying to kill hypotheses (similar to Astro Teller’s Moonshot philosophy of killing projects): codify knowledge and devise simple experiments with the goal of refuting the hypotheses. Then iterate while refining the hypothesis.

Understanding consciousness goes beyond the Eastern, Amerindian, and Western macro-groups — it goes down to each one of us. We all modulate consciousness every day. We dream, we get distracted, we get lost, we appreciate situations and feelings. These activities of personal mindfulness are known to very beneficial, even in facilitating flow and improving physical conditions. Integrating different perspectives amplifies these benefits, and ultimately accelerates our shared quest for understanding consciousness.

Epilogue — Building Synthetic Consciousness

Can we ever create a conscious artificial being? That’s more difficult to say, because it is likely that we need dense hardware and software that is yet unavailable. Additionally, how will we recognize consciousness? Will it need to use language? Just nod appropriately? Do we need an extension of the Turing test? What do we expect from a conscious artificial being? The worst thing that could happen is that we create synthetic consciousness, but still don’t understand how it works — one of the perils of the current Machine Learning culture [That being said it’d be interesting to train a neural network to recognize consciousness]. This is unlikely in the current state of the art because consciousness integrates heterogeneous information to create a unified and coherent representation. Personally, I believe that complementing neural networks with a diffuse information transmission helps integrating information from different areas under consistent contexts.

Thanks for reading, and let me know your thoughts,

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