What is consciousness? A scientist’s perspective.

 What is consciousness? A scientist’s perspective.We all know what consciousness is. We can tell when we’re awake, when we’re thinking, when we’re pondering the universe, but can anyone really explain the nature of this perception? Or even what separates conscious thought from subconscious thought?

Historically any debate over the nature of consciousness has fallen to philosophers and religious scholars rather than scientists. However, as our understanding of the brain increases so do the number of scientists willing and able to tackle this tricky subject.

What is consciousness?

 What is consciousness? A scientist’s perspective.A good analogy of consciousness is explained here based on work by Giulio Tononi. Imagine the difference between the image of an apple to your brain and a digital camera. The raw image is the same whether on a camera screen or in your head. The camera treats each pixel independently and doesn’t recognise an object. Your brain, however, will combine parts of the image to identify an object, that it is an apple and that it is food. Here, the camera can be seen as ‘unconscious’ and the brain as ‘conscious’.

The bigger the better?

This example works as a simple analogy of how the brain processes information, but doesn’t explain the heightened consciousness of a human in comparison to say a mouse. Some people believe that brain size is linked with consciousness. A human brain contains roughly 86 billion neurons whereas a mouse brain contains only 75 million (over a thousand times less). A person might then argue that it is because our brains are bigger and contain more nerve cells that we can form more complex thoughts. While this may hold to a certain extent, it still doesn’t really explain how consciousness arises.

To explain why brain size isn’t the only thing that matters, we need to consider our brain in terms of the different structures/areas it consists of and not just as a single entity. The human cerebellum at the base of the brain contains roughly 70 billion neurons, whereas the cerebral cortex at the top of the brain contains roughly 16 billion. If you cut off a bit of your cerebellum (don’t try this at home) then you may walk a bit lopsided, but you would still be able to form conscious thoughts. If however, you decided to cut off a bit of your cortex, the outer-most folds of the brain, your conscious thought would be severely diminished and your life drastically impacted. So it seems that the number of brain cells we have doesn’t necessarily relate to conscious thought.

 What is consciousness? A scientist’s perspective.

Linking information

As a general rule the more primal areas of the brain, such as the brain stem and cerebellum act a bit like the camera. Like the camera, they are purely responsible for receiving individual pieces of information from our sensory organs and don’t care for linking this information together. As you move higher up the brain, links form between different aspects of our sensory experiences. This linking begins in mid-brain structures (such as the thalamus) then these links are made more intricate and permanent in the cerebrum.

Tononi believes that it is this linking of information that is the basis for consciousness. As cells become more interlinked, information can be combined more readily and therefore the essence of complicated thought can be explained. The more possible links between cells, the more possible combinations there are and therefore a greater number of ‘thoughts’ are possible.

There may be more neurons in the cerebellum than the cerebrum, but because they are not as extensively linked to each other, they cannot form as complicated thoughts as the cerebrum. When information is relayed upwards from the cerebellum in the brain, it is passed to neurons that have more connections and can therefore make more abstract links. Perhaps a neuron responsible for telling the colour red links with a neuron responsible for the representation of a round object, giving you the notion of a red apple. If you multiply this process up a couple of times, cells soon hold a lot of combined information – smell, taste, colour etc. all come together to create your representation of the apple.

Too much connectivity

So it’s the number of connections that matter? The more connections the better? Well no, sadly it’s not quite that simple. The cells at the higher levels need to be highly interconnected but if all the cells in the brain were too interconnected then you would really be back to square one, where the whole system is either on or off. All the cells fire, or none of them do. Here, you lose all specific information and your brain doesn’t know whether it is red or round or anything, it just knows there’s something. Because along with your red apple cells, all your blue cells will fire, all your bicycle cells will fire and so on, meaning you’ll get no clear information about the apple whatsoever.

The key is that cells at the basic level need to be focused and not have their message conflicted by other information. They then pass their message up to a more connected cell that combines it with other information before passing it up a level, and so on and so forth. Now we have an entity that can build up complicated information from small bits. According to Tononi it is the ability to combine lots of information efficiently that yields the ability to analyse abstract concepts and thus gives us ‘consciousness’.

How do we become unconscious?

The true test of how good a theory of consciousness this is is whether it can also explain a loss of consciousness. Tononi believes that unconsciousness is brought on when the system becomes fragmented and connectivity in the brain decreases. This is exactly what seems to happen when in a deep sleep (when we don’t dream) or under general anaesthetic. Normally when awake and alert, fast activity can be found all over the brain and signals can be passed between areas. When we go into a deep sleep however, the brain moves to a state where signals cannot easily pass between different areas. Tononi believes that the cells temporarily shut off their connections with each other in order to rest and recuperate, therefore losing interconnectivity and associated higher thought processes.

 What is consciousness? A scientist’s perspective.

While it may seem a far reach to suggest that consciousness is purely a state of high interconnectivity, what Tononi has done is to present the beginnings of a tangible scientific theory, backed by evidence that suggests interconnectivity is crucial for higher brain power. The question of why we can form conscious thoughts is more of a philosophical one but the scientific view seems to be that it is a fundamental property of our brains. The evolution of man has led our brains to become highly efficient at processing complex information, giving us a vast repertoire of possible thoughts. This repertoire has expanded to such an extent that we can now debate our very existence and purpose. Whatever you believe about the reasons behind consciousness, however, scientists are beginning to have their say about what rules may govern consciousness in the brain.

Post by: Oliver Freeman @ojfreeman

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126 Responses to What is consciousness? A scientist’s perspective.

  1. Jayarava says:

    This article completely fails to address, let alone answer, the stated question: “what is consciousness?” It flirts with some of the phenomenology of brain activity and consciousness. We know that the brain must be involved, that it must process and integrate sensory information. But so what? The question was not – “what is the relationship between the phenomenology of consciousness and brain activity?”

    The assumption here seems to be that consciousness is simply an epiphenomenon of brain activity, which is one view amongst many. In a way it is the path of least resistance for physical scientists, which is why philosophers don’t take scientists seriously as philosophers. Scientists seem unconcerned by their own assumptions and presuppositions when it comes to consciousness.

    An amoeba can identify an object it comes into contact with as food or not food. Indeed single celled organism are able to respond to their environment in a variety of ways – tropism is hardly consciousness though, is it? So that analogy breaks down, unless the author is suggesting that an amoeba is conscious.

    Rather than pretending that these observations and the (untested) inferences which some of the more speculative scientists draw from them are an explanation of what consciousness *is*, the author would have been better to settle for the less grandiose task of describing what consciousness begins to look like from the outside. It looks like a camera that includes pattern recognition – though that is not how we experience seeing from the inside. Describing the externally visible phenomena of consciousness is far from a complete project – the research described has merely scratched the surface – and it is only half the problem of what consciousness is.

    • Lesley says:

      What a great rebuttal!

      • Jennifer Demers says:

        I had a feeling of let down after reading the article. After I read your rebuttal, I knew why. You are a fantastic writer.

    • Stuart Mathieson says:

      What’s wrong with “flirting with the phenomenology”? Your simply saying “flirting with the way we experience it”.
      What are you suggesting? We should be discussing x the way we don’t experience it?
      In anycase, a more tractable question is “what is mind?”. So-called “consciousness” is simply an aspect of mind and mind is how we escape being locked into the actual present, a capacity that allows us to “visualise” and “actualise” possible states of affairs, a somewhat mixed blessing it seems but which allowed us to outstrip and exploit less flexible creatures.

    • Stuart Mathieson says:

      If you think consciousness can be explained in its own terms you are howling at the moon. Explaining consciousness by itemising it’s content is tautologous for a start. All systems have to be explained in terms other than itself. Subjective reports of conscious agents are usefull but have to be mapped against other observable phenomena, fRMI scans, ethnological and behavioural studies and other cunning ploys to identify its functional ambit. Part of that investigation must include the cognitive processing introspective consciousness does not reveal. There is no point in saying “that is not consciousness”. As I say, that sort of demand explains nothing. My best guess is that consciousness is the means by which aspects of our experience are represented, stored, retrieved and shared with other minds via language and other signals. It seems to be the case that some at least of our reification of the world via our experience is culturally and linguistically structured, particularly items that are inferred from accumulated cultural and social knowledge. Evolutionary theory, or politics are processes real enough but not observable without a complex of cultural assumptions. Social realities as Searle calls them. Our best guess I would say is that consciousness and its role can only be inferred by external observation of its deployment in more general operations of the mind and it’s interaction with other minds. No simple matter.

      • Parag Jasani says:

        While interacting in our day-to-day life, we need to act or react to bodily processes and the happenings in the world, sometimes instantly, to provide us beneficial outcomes.

        Consciousness is designed by the evolutionary process to allow data from such interactions that requires judgmental power to become available for making decisions, thereby benefiting from the capability of making free will decisions (If there were no free will, there was no requirement of consciousness).

  2. Geoff Wales says:

    Excellent response. Science has no answers to the question of consciousness. I suspect consciousness develops because we form ideas and symbols through systems such as language, logic and mathematics. In ‘lower’ animals there may be a primitive consciousness, a basic sense of ‘self’, but there is no capacity to form ideas.

    Consciousness is also very closely linked to free will, which is expressed through our rational faculties. For instance, If I toss a coin, I can make my choice based on the result of the toss, detaching my actions entirely from any internal or environmental ‘causal chains’, as the outcome is purely a chance result, and my action follows from that only.

    Was Plato right all along? Is the material world just clothing for the real world? Does materialism/empiricism blind us to the essential ‘purposefulness’ of phenomena? I mean that every object, however small, is defined not by its physical ‘essence’ which we cannot determine, but it’s properties – charge, spin, mass, etc. While these are physical properties, they are also labels attached to the ‘thing-itself’, and not what it actually is.

    Consciousness is also the medium through which a subject perceives an object. Until we come up with a way of separating objects from our subjective POV, we must allow consciousness a central role in any attempt to define the external material world, which leads us to the paradox at the heart of epistomology.

    • Jayarava says:

      Hi Geoff,

      No. It’s not that science has no answer to the question of consciousness. I don’t think that is the case either. But this article does not address the problem. However a number of scientists – and Antonio Damasio and Thomas Metzinger are my favourites do address the problem of what consciousness is. They seek to go beyond describing what is does, and to explain how it works (which is a step further along).

      You, like the author of the article, also seem more concerned with the phenomenology of consciousness (in quite a scientific way), i.e. what it does, than with the question of what it is or how it workd.

      I think Plato was answered quite comprehensively by Kant, and I don’t understand why anyone gets excited about Plato’s answers to his own questions in this day and age when his insights are so obviously outmoded and anachronistic.

      • Geoff Wales says:

        ‘Plato is famous for his theory of forms – The world of the Forms is eternal and unchanging. Time and change belong only to the lower sensory world. “Time is a moving image of Eternity”.’

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphysics

        Still seems fresh to me. In physics, especially cosmology and quantum physics, the questions arise whether our physical laws transcend space and time. Nobody has an answer to that one.

        Neuroscience, like all good science, is absolutely empirical. But consciousness is not an empirical phenomenon. Subjectivity is something only ‘I’ experience. You might be an automaton, but I know am not. You can’t prove you are not an automaton, and you can’t prove that I am one.

        It is this internal quality of the mind, that places it beyond objective analysis. The experience and knowledge of self is a priori, as Kant said. To the subject, all things are phenomena, whether mental or physical. In fact the distinction is academic. We cannot distinguish between real sensory perceptions and artificial ones, because we are forever trapped inside our nervous system. The world we think we see is constructed in and by our imagination, from a reality utterly beyond our true understanding.

        • John Kahler says:

          The issue if time is tied to consciousness in important ways. Since our senses perceive sights, sounds, smells and tastes via receptors which pass information up the chain of neural circuits, the information often arrives out of sync and must be processed back into order. Additionally, we are always “conscious” of the world as it existed in the past, rather than the instantaneous present- granted the awareness we possess is only milliseconds behind but nonetheless our awareness is of the recent past.

        • Rafael says:

          What really bothers me its how our free will works,our capability of make random decisions because,if our brain works based on chemical reactions between our neurons,the idea that it gives to me is that the brain is programed therefore,its predictble,but its not!In mine humble opinion,conciousness its something beyond our knowlege and by that i mean it is what we can’t perceive or detect.I think it do not works based on atoms or some especific wavelenght of light wich are the things that compose the universe organized in the 4 dimensions.In short,i think we are too limited to study our conciesness that is,in some way,so far from us.

      • Stuart Mathieson says:

        The problem with Plato’s, Berkeley’s, Hume’s and Kant’s formulations are that they subscribe to the doctrine of Ideas, ie the so-called “Cartesian theatre” that treats ideas as objects of perception. As Thomas Reid clearly discerned, this leads to skepticism and potentially solipsism with no rejoinder available in those terms. Kant’s two world model (phenomena and Noumena) paralysed progress for two hundred years. Kant isn’t even consistent. He postulates a noumenal reality and then declares we are incapable of saying anything about it. Nietsche and Russel recognised the tautology inherent in it and David Stove called it the “Gem” argument. The only coherent resolution is to replace it with a “what” “how” distinction. There is a mind Independant reality and this is how we perceive it. This seems to be consistent with how we think the world works in general and how our minds work in particular. Consciousness is an aspect of the “how” that conflates the world and the objects in it into meaningful representations that preempts tedious cognitive processing.

        • scott says:

          It could be that wherever complex networks exists there emerges some form of consciousness. Perhaps the internet has a form of consciousness it is argued! We now have evidence that plants have consciousness for example. However for us perceptions and experience are constructs of the mind as a tool for navigating the world we live in. An example: Awareness and a range of perception exist for us in our consciousness so as to make choices that would promote our survival and procreation. The learning process from all experiences feeds our subconsious so as to save energy and time greatly needed in every day life. This is why after learning a skill we can perform it “without thinking about it”. That learned skill is hard coded in our brains sub conscious. So we can see there are different kinds of consciousness that exists even within our own mind like a hierarchy. There seem be all kinds of consciousness phenomenon existing in nature. In fact with what we know about mirror neurons in humans and the fact that animals and plants seem to interact within nature, consciousness could be an ever expanding and emerging “property” in the universe, existing wherever there is complex networks.

          • Stuart Mathieson says:

            Yes there are many levels of sentience (which is a minimalist concept of awareness).

            http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=smelly-microbes-help-hyenas-to-communicate-with-each-other&WT.mc_id=SA_CAT_EVO_20131118

            Shows the kind of chemical mechanisms that convey information. They may (probably) trigger attention that concatenates through an assembly of behaviours and interactions where the triggering mechanisms are invisible but the urge to act is palpable. It is the palpable, the qualia we experience as conscious creatures we seem to be discussing. But we need to take care we don’t exalt the phenomenon as a supernatural complete and independent entity. In fact it seems to be like the topological surface of a complex array of psychosocial processing as represented in individual brains.

          • scott says:

            Could consciousness be the phenomenon caused by networks of matter that share information electrically? The nature and complexity of that network determining the nature and complexity of the conscious phenomenon. This may imply that the ingredients for consciousness lay dormant in the universe until evolution brings the right properties together in order to build the hierarchy upon which levels of awareness are built.

          • Stuart Mathieson says:

            It’s important to resist the temptation to think of sentience (consciousness) in qualitative terms. That simply produces a pseudo answer like “dormative virtues”.
            Martin Nowak evolutionary biologist and mathematician believes a capacity for intense mental construction of immediate reality and the capacity to extrapolate possibilities within it is quite possibly an inevitable evolutionary development given our biological baggage. Yochai Benkler “The Penguin and the Leviathan” pretty much says the same.
            The principal ingredients seem to be the synergy of social and cooperative behaviour which requires information exchange, anticipation and a capacity to have a shared picture of reality and needs. Often described as a theory of other minds which among philosophers raises sceptical issues. Culture preserves the thinking of other minds remote in time and space so that we can benefit from someone else’s mistakes. These sort of descriptions are empirically verifiable whereas immaterialism by definition isn’t.
            So I think we should focus on this sort of approach. Theorisation, implication, prediction and verification is the most powerful explanatory device humanity has yet devised and so I think that is the only approach worth considering.

          • scott says:

            “It’s important to resist the temptation to think of sentience (consciousness) in qualitative terms. That simply produces a pseudo answer like “dormative virtues”.

            This is truly the stance that most scientists take on consciousness. However my question of whether consciousness might in fact be the result of complexity in nature was influenced by articles ive come across recently. excerpts from Christof Koch in an article found at wired.com:

            “The electric charge of an electron doesn’t arise out of more elemental properties. It simply has a charge. Likewise, I argue that we live in a universe of space, time, mass, energy, and consciousness arising out of complex systems.”

            In the case of the brain, it’s the whole system that’s conscious, not the individual nerve cells. For any one ecosystem, it’s a question of how richly the individual components, such as the trees in a forest, are integrated within themselves as compared to causal interactions between trees.”

            “We live in a universe where, for reasons we don’t understand, quantum physics simply is the reigning explanation. With consciousness, it’s ultimately going to be like that. We live in a universe where organized bits of matter give rise to consciousness.”

            http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/11/christof-koch-panpsychism-consciousness/

            And just to be complete here is the skeptiko show with Koch:

            http://www.skeptiko.com/160-christof-koch-consciousness-and-near-death-experience-research/

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  5. Jay Briel says:

    The direction of things in general should change as the notion of a subject directing brain processes is found to be false.

  6. thebrainbank says:

    Hi All,

    Thank you very much for your comments – I’ll try to respond to the common themes.

    Jayarava, let me start by agreeing with you that this theory is only scratching the surface of trying to understand the basis for consciousness. This should not be used to attack this theory however; as scientists we accept this and enjoy the possibility of more questions. To us, nothing is ever answered completely, and this is what excites us. My final paragraph says ‘…what Tononi has done is to present the beginnings of a tangible scientific theory’ so this point had been addressed.

    Your assumption that this theory is untested in relation to consciousness is not entirely correct I’m afraid. For example, Tononi has carried out experiments using transcranial magnetic stimulation to induce activity in the human brain whilst awake or asleep. The findings show that the induced activity can propagate around the brain whilst awake whereas whilst asleep, activity stays largely isolated and cannot propagate to different areas of the brain. He argues that this lack of propagation supports the connectivity theory. Once again, please don’t take away that this experiment categorically proves his point and this is a shut-book case – there is much more work to be done. There will always be more work to be done in scientific research.

    As for your view that this only explains how the brain processes information, that is true also but the view provided at the end of the article is that consciousness may just be an advanced form of information processing and could simply be down to the physical architecture of our brain. I appreciate this view does not sit well with religious people and similarly, religious views continue to collide with scientific views on many topics. I’m interested by your comment that philosophers take other philosophers more seriously than scientists and I’m sure that is the case. I’d say that the reverse is also true and I don’t think we will ever see eye-to-eye on this. There is a difference in mindset when it comes to a philosophical analysis and a scientific one and I won’t try to convert your thinking.

    Geoff, as for your view that ‘science has no answer to the question of consciousness’ I would say that science seeks predominantly to explain HOW things are the way they are, not WHY. Philosophy seems to me to be a discipline all about why things are the way they are and this is what your comment addresses. Science does not predominantly focus on this aspect and prefers to show how things work through the scientific method. I’d refer you to my previously discussed points about why your views that ‘consciousness is not an empirical phenomenon’ conflict with my scientific view. The scientific rationale which you seem to agree with when you say, ‘We cannot distinguish between real sensory perceptions and artificial ones, because we are forever trapped inside our nervous system.’

    A final point from me on Jayarava’s amoeba retort. I think here you should follow through my reasoning once more, particularly the section on ‘Linking Information’. When describing how an amoeba recognises food you are describing a simple reflexive signalling process. The amoeba will detect a chemical, and navigate towards/away from it based on simple signalling. A nervous system correlate of this could be a spinal reflex in the human – finger detects heat, message is sent up to spine which relays a message straight back, contracting muscles to move hand. This is a very simple neural circuit with few links to other circuits – hence non-conscious. The mere recognition of food was NOT an argument for a conscious being but an example of an aspect one link might represent.

    Thanks for your time and comments,

    Olly

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  8. Patrick says:

    I have been attracted to this website as I have the puzzling question on my mind too.
    Am I the result of very precisely orchestrated interacting chemical reactions, a fine mazed system of chemical connectivity, or is this fine system inside me just a gateway through which something divine can interact with the world around me?
    No I am not religious, nor am I here to ‘sell’ that thought, I just can’t believe my highest thoughts and reflections are the result of a very fine and complex organic computer called ‘my brain’. The only result I obtain by selfreflection is that something ‘divine’ is put inside, not because I necessarily want to believe I am divine, no, it’s just that I can’t form understanding that free will, thoughts, direction of thoughts and so forth are the result of organic material.
    It’s a truely magical thing consciousness, but at this moment of my life (43 years) I tend to think that something has to be put inside that system.
    The cruel thought came up that at the same time somebody in a less developed place on Earth isn’t at all occupied with this while begging for food or dedicating his or her day to find useful parts in a huge pile of waste.
    Or people we call ‘less intelligent’…it that pure back luck by raw nature that those persons have less developed levels of consciousness?
    It’s a strange inconsistent product a human being, don’t you think so?
    It’s coming close to perfection, and it’s truely amazing to see a daughter grow up with developing thoughts… with all respect for millions of years of evolution, I find it divine, consciousness, it’s fluid, it’s continuous, without interuption when awoke.
    Fine to know I have 86 billion neurons (not being sarcastic about that finding at all, I find it amazing we know it) forming the most fantastic reality interface which ever came into existance but isn’t our brain like Excel?
    Finely mazed, lots of possibilities, but something has to get hold of that system and drive it, occupy it is my belief. Well, this issue which will remain unanswered for me may be, but I hope to find opinions on the internet!
    Ciao Ciao!

    • Justaspaz says:

      Just food for thought Patrick regarding free will. I believe we do have some sort of free will, but not really. For example, when making a quick easy decision, there is a very rapid process of neurons firing off, but more importantly various inhibitory process in which one choice will rule out. “Should I order the healthy salad, or the cheeseburger?” Well maybe I know I should get the salad, but certain parts of my brain that want that reward might actually inhibit the logical parts and the cheeseburger wins out. (This has been studied extensively and is a similar process to swarms of bees picking a new home.)

      Ok so now I’m mad at myself for eating the burger, and this emotion/memory might make the salad win the battle of my brain next time.

      I know this is certainly over-simplified and I don’t mean to imply we are robots who can only do what our brains tell us. It’s a known fact that our environment and our interactions with it can alter the connections in the brain. For example if a child spends most of his childhood practicing and playing basketball, the parts of the brain involved in that are going to develop more. So in a way we can manipulate this.

      Just to push a little further, what about people with Down’s Syndrome, Autism, Parkinson’s Disease, Tourette’s… Do you think they are choosing to be like that of free will? Of course not. I myself have ADHD and I can assure you firsthand that what I want to do does not always match up with what I end up doing. It’s a highly frustrating thing, and people with more severe conditions pacting their brain chemistry, I would argue, have even less freedom to do what they want.

      Just food for thought

  9. thebrainbank says:

    Hi Both,

    Thanks for your comments.

    You raise some very interesting points Patrick. I think a lot of people, myself included, struggle to fully accept that consciousness can be ‘hard-wired’ into our brains; that it is purely a result of our brain development. We long to be able to say that we are in control and have ‘free will’ and choice of our own destiny.

    Justaspaz’s points on free will are very good and I agree. I don’t really think we have free will at all, or at least not much of it. We seem to be driven by our primal desires, just like Justaspaz’s burger vs salad analogy. I think we humans have a huge desire to explain things. We can’t accept that we don’t know how something works. That’s why we have scientists, philosophers etc. When there isn’t sufficient scientific backing for an idea we will fill that with our own thoughts and premonitions. Much like religious theories for the change in weather of times gone by or now, our discussions over consciousness.

    I believe ‘free will’ is largely a man-made idea that we have described out of comfort. There must be a point to us being here? We like to believe we have control over all our decisions but most of them are driven by our primal desires. I’m also very interested in Justaspaz’s point on neurological diseases. He will understand far more than myself how ADHD affects his decision making and what this means for the idea that he has a divine centre to him so he can drive his own decisions.

    You might be interested to read another article by a colleague of mine – http://thebrainbank.scienceblog.com/2012/06/22/blame-it-on-the-brain-can-you-be-held-legally-responsible-for-your-brain/ . Her article explores whether criminals who are mentally ill can really be held responsible for their actions. It seems that a fault in your brain can cause decision making to go awry and thus, this leads to believe that consciousness is governed by the intrinsic properties of the brain.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion,

    Olly

  10. Jim says:

    I had been reading about stilling the chatter in my brain and experiencing consciousness. Now that I can experience uncluttered consciousness for short periods of time, I find that there is no clear definition for what is actually happening when I do this. I guess I’ll need to think about it some more.

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  13. John B says:

    We do know that there must be a physiological basis for consciousness because general anesthetics, as well as mood altering, and psycho-mimetic drugs, certainly exist. However, we have access only to the content of consciousness but not to consciousness itself. We do not yet know the right questions to ask.

    • Larry P. says:

      “we have access only to the content of consciousness but not to consciousness itself”
      Is not that like saying we have access to the effects of pain but not to pain itself?
      If consciousness is nothing more than neurons firing and neuro-transmitters being released and reabsorbed, then every time we experience an event we are feeling our brain. In other words if you are looking at a red ball the neurons do not cause you to see red, they ARE the red (in your brain).

  14. jeff says:

    i think this man has thought about it quite a lot and presents a very interesting and well formed case for it. better than any case i’ve read here anyway.

    • Rui Escada says:

      Very good sharing, thanks!

      • Theo A.H. says:

        A very interesting video indeed. And on point to this thread.

        The core assumption in the video is: Consciousness is a separate category that could not possibly be merely a stream of patterns at the top of a cerebral cortex. This is self-evident from the experience of consciousness.

        You might react to that assumption by demanding “Why on earth should we assume that consciousness need be added into our fundamental theories, instead of emerging out of them like soooooo many other phenomena that those theories explain?”

        Peter Russel draws on Descartes insight to provide his motivation for that assumption:

        Alice: I can doubt that I have a brain, but I cannot doubt that I am conscious.

        Bob: But if you don’t have a brain you can’t doubt anything at all!

        Alice: Prove it.

        Bob: If I turn off your brain, you stop talking or moving or anything, you are unconscious.

        Alice: But just because I’m not in my body, you don’t know that my consciousness isn’t somewhere else.

        Russel asserts that the only thing we know for sure is that we are conscious… whatever that means. We can be more certain of that, even than we are of having a brain at all. We shouldn’t feel so sure we grasp the physical world anyways: Currently, we believe that everything is made of particles that aren’t even particles, they’re “eigenstates of a wave function.” Shouldn’t we be more certain of our Sense of Being (i.e. consciousness) than we are of our forever-t0-be-incomplete materialistic models? Why should it be crazy to assume that Consciousness is a knowing-of-itself that is everywhere all at once that, and that is metaphysically prior to all? At least that theory explains the one thing we know for certain!

        But as far as we can see, nearly EVERYTHING is what we would call “unconscious,” except for brains. So isn’t that highly suggestive that consciousness arises out of brains and nothing else? The only things that are conscious are things that walk around saying “I am conscious,” and those things all have brains.

        Well… let’s get more refined on what we mean by conscious.

        I Am.
        Things Are.
        Those two sentences are different, but not distinct. Because:
        If you meditate on the idea that “I” is just a bunch of stuff happening randomly in your brain, you can change your mind about being an “I”. It does not mean you have ceased to be conscious. Just that you lose the fantasy of a core spirit that makes free will decisions. Instead, you can just feel your brain happening to itself. Then you would not be a person who would say “I’m here, I’m conscious.” You would say “The universe is being itself in and around this body.” What is consciousness? you ask yourself. All you know is a felt beingness. You know it is unique to you, and unique to this moment, yet it is nothing but a continuous affirmation the one, ultimate, featureless, eternal, truth that all being things share – that they are. WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BEING AND KNOWING THAT YOU ARE BEING? What does it mean to know. What does it mean to feel. If it is a stream of states of your brain, existing, then all states of all things, existing, are a kind of knowing and feeling.

        Because of that, we should say that, whatever consciousness is, if it lies in “I,” then it also lies in “things.” Then if consciousness IS an additional special sauce in the universe, it connects everything.

        From a scientific perspective, the real question is whether or not consciousness deserves to be added as a separate category on a fundamental physical level. Whether such an inclusion would add predictive power to our models of physics.

        Until someone writes down those equations and tests them, or until I have undeniable experiences of collective consciousness (as many have), I will remain agnostic. Unless one of you has a convincing argument?

  15. Nick says:

    Animal’s brains also process information in this way (don’t they?).. which would surely be evidence of consciousness too, wouldn’t it? (unless I’ve missed something).

    • thebrainbank says:

      Hi Nick,

      We believe that animal’s brains do process information in the same way, yes. But this is not an argument for their consciousness.

      The argument for consciousness here is that it needs the right amount of connectivity so that we can seamlessly link together information that we need. This has developed to such an extent that we have many connections between our thalamus and our cerebrum (see my final diagram). This gives us the possibility to link high levels of detailed information together.

      If you look at an animal’s brain, the cerebrum isn’t as big, the surface isn’t as folded (important because of the increase in surface area) and we judge that their consciousness isn’t as developed. I’d imagine animals do have a certain level of consciousness, awareness is perhaps a better word, but to the extent of pondering their place in the universe… this is suspected to come from the higher order connectivity of our cerebrum/thalamus.

      Animals will have similar processing capabilities in the ‘lower’ brain regions they share with us, the brain steam, cerebellum etc. (once again see diagram). But less processing capabilities in the ‘higher’ regions. And this is where we are talking about ‘consciousness’ coming from. The elements in the animals brain will be the same, but the extent of the connectivity will be different.

      I hope this addresses your question.

      Thanks for commenting,

      Olly

  16. Eve A says:

    Maybe it’s exactly this need to explain things after the fact what makes us being conscious. I think that ‘lower’ animals don’t think about such things and don’t try to explain their behavior.

    This is by no means a scientific response. It’s just what came to mind when I read all the comments.

  17. Larry P says:

    Perhaps the problem lies in the complexity of consciousness vs our ability to understand complex phenomena.
    Though it could probably be argued that as early hominids our immediate environment was enormously complex,
    there are perhaps phenomena as much as a million times more complex (consciousness? dark energy? black hole physics?).
    What’s interesting is that we now have the ability to supplement our understanding of complexity with artificial
    machines that could, perhaps in a few decades, equal or surpass human understanding. Especially if we allow them to
    assist in their own design. By reducing (not eliminating) the over riding primal desires and emotions we may be able
    to make substantial inroads in bringing complexity under control. You might even make the case that we are speeding up
    the evolution of our own cortexes.

  18. ArunKumar K.P. says:

    Nice information about brain ! I wanted to share my views on ‘unpredictable’ nature of our concious decisions. I feel the unpredictability arise from complex logics involved in brain. The logic in one person’s brain is not necessarily same as others. Also I see the difference between a computer (unconcious) and humans (concious) is “how the logic is created”. Living beings comes pre-programmed with logics and higher-organisms like humans have dynamic logic generation in brain. But computers are programmed by humans and hence we can predict its outcome.

  19. Havard says:

    I think the problem, Mr. Freeman, is that you are adressing what David Chalmers has dubbed “easy problems” of consciousness. When people google “what is consciousness?” (which is what I did to find this post), I think they are mostly looking for discussion on the hard problem of consciousness.

    To quote the problems Wikipedia page, it’s “the problem of explaining how and why we have qualia or phenomenal experiences — how sensations acquire characteristics, such as colors and tastes.”

    The discussion on this page doesn’t distinguish between easy problems and the hard problem, so people are talking past eachother.

  20. Joachim says:

    What is the relationship between brain and consciousness and what is the connection between consciousness and information?

    Pivotal questions! Oliver Freeman’s outline refers mostly to the work of Giulio Tononi, which certainly contains many interesting ideas and considerations. However, reduced to the essential, the represented point of view is absolutely in line with the prevailing point of view of the scientific community, saying that the brain is a complex information processor whose highly interconnected neural circuits somehow produce consciousness.

    There is a big problem with this point of view: no matter how much one stresses complexity and interconnectivity, there will always be an explanatory gap because none of the theories and equations on the basis of which we describe the activity of the brain (be it on a physical, a chemical or a biological level) contains a reference to the phenomenal aspects of consciousness (inner life, feelings, emotions).

    It is my conviction that the only satisfying and natural solution is to postulate that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe. So, the core message of my approach is that consciousness is not produced by the brain, but based on an all-pervasive substrate. From this perspective, our individual consciousness results from the dynamic interaction between the brain and this substrate, or in other words, whenever the activity of the brain leaves a finger print (an information state) in this substrate, it generates a conscious state.

    This is a very elegant approach. However, it raises three key questions:
    1. What is this substrate?
    2. What is the underlying interaction mechanism?
    3. Can this mechanism be detected (verified) in the brain?

    Interestingly, stochastic electrodynamics (SED), a promising theoretical framework that provides a deeper understanding of quantum physics, gives the answers to these questions. SED furnishes the substrate as well as the appropriate mechanism and the neurophysiological body of evidence suggests that exactly this mechanism can be found in the brain.

    What does this mean explicitly: The brain is not a computer, but rather a resonant stochastic oscillator that operates near the critical point of a phase transition. The default mode is the disordered phase. A suitable sensory input induces a transition to the ordered phase and prompts a cell assembly to fall into an attractor (a perfectly synchronized activity pattern). Whenever a stable attractor is reached, an information state in the substrate of consciousness is generated and a conscious experience arises. In this way, the brain does not produce consciousness as such, but rather filters a conscious state out of the ubiquitous sea of consciousness.

    The details of this approach can be found in the following article: A new perspective on the functioning of the brain and the mechanisms behind conscious processes.

  21. Stuart Mathieson says:

    Great article Oliver from my philosophical perspective.
    Your right. It’s all about information processing. Information of a particular kind. Social information with which we can record and predict (exploit) variable flexible behavioural responses. This character may be responsible for science which seeks to understand and predict formally enexplained phenomena. Flexible social behaviour and a capacity to understand it co-evolved of course.
    I think it is a miserable response to condemn these efforts because there is still much to do and establish.
    There is an evolutionary trajectory toward complexification because new possibilities of being become available (emergentism). Behavioural flexibility is one of them and cultural processing including symbolic representation (which this debate exploits) is the best flexible capacity we have yet developed. But it needs higher order processing that produces models of ourselves, others, the world and the way it works. To process this we seemed to have developed a “specious present” which gives us time to process disparate information into goal orientated representations. By the time it reaches consciousness, the information is already indelibly stamped with a priori inclinations and interests. This provides the motivation to act as David Hume observed. Something along those lines anyway.
    This has to be one of the most exciting frontiers on the planet because it explores reality by exploring our capacity to relate to it. There is of course an agenda in some circles to shut down these investigations as an intrusion into the “holy of holies”. We must push on regardless.

  22. Stuart Mathieson says:

    To all concerned and no one in particular, the “explanatory gap” may turn out to be a non-issue. It reminds me of the “anthropic principle” which asks “why us?” or “why me? A question even thriving tape worms might ask (in principle). Given our evolved (presumeably) capacity to represent the world, it is hardly surprising we have a “colour coded” direct pre scientific apprehension of the world we call qualia or phenomenology. It is instructive here to consider synathesia which shows different qualia can represent the world. As long as it discriminates it works and if it works it is explained (and justified).

  23. John StJohn says:

    Regarding free will, I think we do have it, but only when we choose to. Most of the things we do during the day, such as taking a shower, fixing a sandwich, or driving a car, don’t require free will. I like to think of it as being on autopilot. It works well most of the time, but sometimes it fails me, and my conscious free will has to take over and get things back on track.

    Free will sets policy and generally gives broad direction. If you’re doing something non-routine, the boss, your free will, gets into the details. I exercised my free will in composing this comment. I wouldn’t trust my autopilot with it.

    How much free will you have depends on how much you choose to use it.

  24. compuskills says:

    Regarding consciousnesses, adequate evidence of it’s workings have yet to be provided by science. Only theories with too many holes to hold together.

    Whether or not consciousness resides in our brains or whether our brains interact with consciousness is up for debate but the answer is somewhere in our brains.

    Unfortunately we are only just scratching the surface of our brains and are many lifetimes away from the answer.

  25. Bret Varcados says:

    ~ The differnces of conscious and subconscious behaviors? My perspective

    ~ Simply put consciousness is the state of mind when we are spiritually aware of what we are sensing, and can extrapolate to make choices which control the effects we have on our surroundings. This occurs when we are alerted by our senses while being awake.

    ~ Unconsciousness occurs when our body is veiled from the outside senses, and the still functions in an intelligent manner that sustains our bodies life, with little control of our physical actions or choices. This occurs when we are asleep or sedated, then the mind is free to experience a world created by its own thoughts. The deeper the sleep or sedation, the less alert and active we become to our entirely sensed surroundings.

    This blog describes the process quite well with the apple and camera, the camera has only optical senses and nothing else to define the apple. As far as the camera knows it could be a banana, yet the camera is not unconscious, as it has no other purpose other than to collect light and deliver it to the film or memory of a inanimate object.

    ~ However then he goes on to try and compare brain size to intelligence, which is totally off base, and humanly bias. Using the example of a mouse and human we can see the difference in size, but that does not mean a mouse isn’t capable of intelligent thought. Mice and rats have often been used in maze experiments that prove they are capable of extrapolating from their experiences. The first time they are but in a maze they go through a process of trail and error to find the reward at the end. The second time they get more familiar with the course, and by the third, fourth, or maybe fifth time, depending on the intelligence of the mouse, they know the way.

    Humans act in just the same way, if we are put into a maze we search for the end by trial and error. The more times we enter the maze, the better we get at finding or remembering the correct path through. Yet this too is directly relevant to our individual level of naturally varying intelligence. A mouse does not need to think of complex problems because they are unconcerned with fame or fortune, all they are concerned with is food, shelter, survival, and mating.

    If only life was so simple for man, even though we would not have money, multiple forms of entertainment, and the toys that occupy our time, we would have less problems and live happier lifes concentrating on how we coexist and treat each other, rather than how to profit and from kill each other. but anyway thats a whole differnet topic and discussion.

    A brain is a brain, consciousness or unconsiusness or should i say aware or unaware are relative terms that apply to our state of mind. A sleeping body allows the mind and soul to concentrate on inner ideas and thoughts which we see as dreams. If we are in a deep sleep or sedated, we may not remember our dreams and inner thoughts, but we will always subconsciously remember and think to control our bodies life support system.

    Complicated thought and memories are the effect of repetative thoughts and experiances that allow our neurons and receptors to form habitual pathways, which then allows us to arrive and a conclusion faster so that we can consciously make a choice. Our choices are always based on individual knowledge, beliefs, or ideas that spring from our creativity, imagination, or even some subconscious thought that was created while we rested.

    Indeed the higher brain activity the more interlinked and quickly accessed our retained experiance or knowledge becomes, which allows for faster information recovery and greator possibilities of imagination. But the quantity of our thoughts are not as important as the concentration or focus of an important one to its completion and evolution. If we had a million thoughts in our head at once we would not be able to focus on or accomplish anything. Thus the term scatter brain is coined.

    Unconsciousness is more of a choice that we make when the body needs rest, rather than an effect of fragmentation, although it can be induced by anethsticia and sedative, this to is a choice made by someone. There are also the rare occasions of people people daydreaming or focusing to much on one thought without consideration for any other, which makes them unconscious of the people or enviornment around them. But as this occurs while we are awake, it is easily snapped out of if something grabs our attention.

    In conclusion consciousness is more a state of spiritual and physical awarness, than it is interconnectivity. A person can remain conscious regardless of their intelligence, or ability to formulate higher brain functions. Regardless of our evolution and current mental capabilities, not everone cares about where we come from or why we are here.

    MAtter of fact it seems more and more obvious that many people are only concerned with whats happening to them at the moment, and what they wish to happen in the next. Often this occurs to such a point that many don’t plan for the future as the squires bears and animals that hibernate do.

    ~ Which leads me into a question, has our society become so self concerned or obsorbed in themselves and the moment, that they have become less intelligent than many animals.? Think about it,,

    The difference between intelligence and wisdom is found in ones perspecive and attitude.
    ~ Everything is a matter of perspective and opinion, no matter where you are.

    ~ Have a great day and help create a better future with wisdom and mutually respectful choices.
    May all your paths and journey’s be filled with the beauty of understanding, the joy of knowing, and the compassion for sharing. ~ <3 ~

    • Stuart Mathieson says:

      Does anyone know what “spiritually aware” means? I don’t but if someone can explain I would be delighted. I can accept “mind” as a label for higher order integrated representations of the world because it doesn’t beg “spooky” metaphysics but “spiritual” in an ontological or “being” sense leaves me cognitively prostrate. I can accept “spiritual” as a category of idealistic aspirations of course but as an independent realm? Too spooky for me.

  26. Sushil says:

    Spiritual awareness is controlling every nerve fibre to make it work only the way you want it to perform/function.
    It is beyond thinkable concept that only discovered in India (because the primary requirements including Geographical architect play a key role to prepare the ground to enter Spirituality which are available in India) and later on spread across the globe because Indian spirituals have been adventurous by the way. Take example of Swami Vivekananda.

    • Stuart Mathieson says:

      I’ve had a quick read of Swami Vivekananda. He doesn’t use any argument whatsoever to establish spiritual reality. He actually starts with that assumption.
      It is revealing that on the one hand skeptics claim material explanations of consciousness are full of holes and then go on to “argue” for spiritual reality (souls) with nothing but holes.

  27. George says:

    Consciousness is just simply an emergent property of a very complex brain.
    The reason this is so hard for people to accept is because people have been programmed since childhood to believe in fairy tales and heroes and gods and spirits and have been told how wonderful and grand they are. Nonsense.
    You are just a more complex animal than a mouse or dog, so the way we in particular interact with the world, ourselves, and others…we give the grand name of consciousness. But how about a severely mentally handicapped human with extreme retardation, blindness, deafness, and lack of mobility and social interaction? How well would you view their “consciousness”? Only as good as their physical state. Period.

    • jeff says:

      if that’s true George…and i’m not saying you’re wrong…. can you explain how insentient matter (ie: atoms) of which everything is made of can give rise to conciousness? a rock presumably doesn’t know it exists but we do. we’re both made of the same stuff. is this magic?

      it defies the most rudimentary laws of science so while i’m not attacking your position there are empirical reasons to doubt that what you call nonsense is in fact nonsense and i am far less cavalier to be sure of anything like this.

      • Stuart Mathieson says:

        Your strawman argument commits the fallacy of division.
        1. Atoms don’t have consciousness.
        2. Therefore aggregates of atoms can’t have consciousness.

        My brain is conscious therefore it has something other aggregates of atoms don’t have.

        Indeed it does. Consciousness emerges when matter is organised in communities of living cells which in turn emerges when molecules are organised into DNA, proteins, enzymes etc etc.

        It may be that brains need to be organised with the potential to be social and cultural nodes as well for consciousness to emerge. It may be linked to theories or expectations of other minds hard wired into their DNA. It has been established that new brain cells are hard wired to look for signals from other cells that “speak the same language”.

        Clearly very speculative and gappy but there is no reason to assume this naturalistic extrapolation won’t deliver the goods eventually.

        • jeff says:

          i am not in any way an expert on this and while you call it “my strawman argument”…i’m not arguing. I just don’t understand like you and George seem to.

          You still haven’t really addressed in any way that I could accept how it’s possible that something insentient can give rise to something sentient.

          that’s all i’m saying.

          • Stuart Mathieson says:

            I didn’t mean to demean your perspective or your questions. I’m just a philosophy graduate who cobbles together a bit of neuroscience from other peoples clever work. The point I was making is that organised structures can do things their components cannot. This isn’t an argument for Creationism because evolution, blind and random, can organise matter into novel combinations that confer new properties that allow new niches to be exploited.
            Conscious social interaction with a capacity to exchange knowledge culturally seems a very powerful adaptive asset to human flourishing. There are modest forerunners of it among other social animals too. It is difficult to prove other animals have or don’t have some sort of self and other awareness but a naturalistic approach would keep an open mind on the subject. If complex flexibility among social animals requires some “knowledge” of self and others within a spatiotemperal framework with a sense of past, present and future, that combination may be what the dreaded “C” thing is?

          • Stuart Mathieson says:

            How come my pontifications are getting narrower? Is it something to do with replies to replies?

          • Stuart Mathieson says:

            This bear of little brain is tired and needs to nod off.

      • Stuart Mathieson says:

        The following article from the Boston Review may give us an insight into why we think our “sense of conscious self” is not amenable to naturalistic explanation when we have no demonstrative reason to conclude so.

        http://www.bostonreview.net/arts-culture/can-science-deliver-benefits-religion?utm_source=Biweekly+Newsletter+Aug+13%2C+2013&utm_campaign=Biweekly+Newsletter+Aug+13&utm_medium=email

  28. Stuart Mathieson says:

    I seem to be hogging the mike but it’s 2.56 am and ideas are popping.
    Consider this:
    When we learn a new task, say riding a bike, writing with a pen, driving a car, our minds seem to be very active in a conscious focused sort of way. This seems to be the case for all new skills. Once we achieve a certain level of competence it becomes increasingly automatic and mindless.
    Scientists have established (I’m not sure how) that the object or tool be it pen, bike or car actually behaves as a direct extension of our will or intention. On some way our brain/mind calibrates itself so that the action is incorporated into the intention or so it seems. This may give us an insight into mind and consciousness and unconsciousness for that matter. Consciousness may be nothing more than the purposeful content of mind, or the process that makes it so. Consciousness is associated with the unfamiar and is less required for the familiar. Though one presumes it is ready to flick its dragon eye open if there is any suggestion a task adjustment may be required which in many situations remains a constant possibility. Sleep is only possible when alertness is least required. It has also been established that the focussed “conscious” state is energy hungry and requires rest and refuelling.
    This fairly conclusively demonstrates it obeys the laws of thermodynamics and suggests spooky spiritual states are contraindicated.

    • jeff says:

      I would humbly (extremely humbly) submit that you are speaking about what is referred to as “the easy problem” of conciousness…brain function after the fact.

      The topics you speak of are not prior to the seemingly impossible fact that it exists.
      The fact that somehow (spooky or not spooky)…insentient matter gives rise to sentient beings.

      • Stuart Mathieson says:

        I would simply (and humbly) suggest insentient matter can be organised to produce sentient processes. Consciousness is simply an aspect of high level sentient processing. Even plants warn each other of browsing. It’s done by the release of molecules from macerated surfaces but it causes neighbouring vegetation to secrete molecules that are less palatable to the browser. That’s a kind of social interaction deemed biological altruism. It is tautologous to presume sentience is spooky “all the way down”.
        That is no more explanatory than claiming sleep is caused by a dormative principle.

  29. Stuart Mathieson says:

    This bear of little brain is tired and needs to nod off.

  30. Kit says:

    Hi
    I’m trying to find out what the state of research is with regard to the neurology of consciousness (also of conscience and empathy)>
    Do any of you know the answer to this or can you point me to a good site?

    I want to know whether the brain research indicates the neurological processes involved in self-consciousness, more specifically, in the exercise of compassionate and/or moral decisions.

    Would appreciate a reply here. Thanks.

  31. ky says:

    I am a lover of Science, but Science can’t tell us how consciousness works as it doesn’t know, there is currently only theory. The most fundamental question relating to consciousness (from a scientific perspective), is how does matter produce mind when it supposedly doesn’t constitute mind within it? Such logic would therefore purport the emergence of mind. A physical thing (the brain) is somehow able to behold non-physical properties such as consciousness – This doesn’t make logical sense and once we drill down deeper into the properties of nature, it actually creates a paradox for science, as not only is there a problem simply in accounting for the emergence of something so distinctive as consciousness from mere matter, it is surprisingly difficult to articulate a form of emergentism without considering a supreme power.
    http://theawakenment.com/what-is-consciousness/#sthash.r8mDejew.dpbs

    • Stuart Mathieson says:

      Much science is theory but not airy fairey. Scientific theory is explanatory not speculative. Typically science starts of
      1. with a problem or speculation.
      2. It then produces hypotheses which would explain if true and satisfy other criteria such as reliable predictions and novel predictions. ie this is how the world works.
      3. If those conditions are met then our confidence in the explanatory theory grows.
      4. The convergence of widely differing disciplines increases our confidence level. Ie climate change.
      Stuart.

  32. Amy says:

    The artical was extremely well written but I agree that you failed to answer the most important question.What is consciousness?

  33. scott says:

    Hi All,

    Perhaps there is a middle ground? By this I mean that our brain is a highly evolved machine millions of years in the making. Our frontal cortex is the crowning achievement of the human brain. Billions of complex neurons and a highly sophisticated brain “knows” how to process input from our sensory senses in order to bind this information into a way for us to navigate our reality. But obviously our brains do much more than help us find food or escape danger. Possibly as a side effect of these highly evolved unified systems in our brain we can also find “meaning” in our perceptions. We can choose to decide between what is “good” and what is “bad” by comparing information and predicting outcomes. We have an imagination that allows us to create a great technological world that fullfills a “vision” that was born in the mind. We have the ability to focus on whatever it is we want and then actually make it happen. Our thoughts and emotions can change our physical physiology. If you think of something that disgusts you you can literally make yourself sick. You can literally “worry yourself to death” or your faith in a placebo can cure you of an ailment. Our thoughts can even build neural networks in the physical structures of our brain and simply by learning and practicing we strengthen those connections. The point being that our “thoughts” and “experiences” however immaterial they are, give rise to the physical world “out there”.

    The point is that as amazing and spiritual as consciousness really is, it speaks to the evolutionary process and how in time even magic can be produced by this process. However consciousness arises really doesnt matter to me. We have something truly divine within us and we are just skimming the surface of how truly amazing this divine organ truly is.

    • Stuart Mathieson says:

      I agree we construct models of reality and these “perceptions” can be manipulated, in laboratories and elsewhere. Of course this explanation is a constructed model too but it need not be a viscious regress. This one may be true (more or less). Seems to accord with our experience and that’s all we have to go on, that and the law of no contradiction.

  34. Paul Roe says:

    Still no description of consciousness. It is admittedly really really challenging to empirically describe it, but the theories presented here are more oriented toward explaining how it may arise, and not actually describing it.

    Come on, someone out there: Just try to describe it. Language inadequate? Use some other means. Doesn’t have to be scientific, but should be clinical or empirical. Art and verse lover here, but that’s not what I want to see on this theory: that is more for when I am painting or visiting the MOMA. Here, though, no. This subject is endless in its depth and probing of truth.

    • Ky says:

      Awareness. Simple as that really. You’ll find a bit more of a description at http://www.theawakenment.com

    • Scott says:

      Consciousness is the internal awareness of being. It is described scientifically only by means of its correlation to brain function such as the binding of neurological processes that correlate to thoughts and experiences in the brain. As to where thoughts and experiences arise is up for debate. It’s a chicken or egg issue until proven objectively. For now consciousness seems to be of a subjective reality. After cardiac arrest there is objective evidence that experiential awareness continues at least for approximately 30 seconds according to recent experiments. There is also evidence of consciousness existing in some who are in a coma or a vegetative state. Also worthy to note is that people who are revived as much as 10 hours after clinical death have regained consciousness. This implies that after clinical death consciousness is not annihilated. This begs the question of the nature of consciousness and is it really a product of the brain. If it is then why does consciousness not cease along with brain function? And how can consciousness be revived into a previously dead person? Did it hibernate while the brain was “dead”? Or is it something separate from the machine of the brain altogether? So far science can only observe the correlations but not the cause. Therefor it’s still speculation for now.

      • Stuart Mathieson says:

        It does not mean conscious is independent of brain state. If it was the individual’s experience would continue unabated and consistently reported accordingly. The facts in fact “suggest” consciousness emerges out of higher level brain processing. This can be attenuated by tiredness, blood sugar levels, apoxia and drugs. All the empirical evidence suggests it is simply a higher level brain function that is somehow connected to behavioural flexibility in social and cultural contexts. In part it may be to do with empathy and anticipation. We anticipate the mental state of others by reflecting on our own mental state. That suggests our own mental state has to be bounded and distinguishable from the world. Still spectacularly speculative but reluctant to suspend the laws of thermodynamics.

        • scott says:

          Your comments point to the correlation of consciousness to brain function, namely “higher” brain function. I dont think it is conclusive that it “emerges” from these functions alone. When the cerebral cortex fires up when focusing on a complicated task, this deosnt prove that the thinking involved originated from the cerebral cortex. In fact it is shown more to be a unified process of different parts of the brain assembling information and somehow binding this information into an awareness and an experience as well as encoding the information into short term memory as the process builds upon that information in order to fullfill an intention or purpose. We commonly refer to this as will or “free will”. My personal thoughts with regard to the binding problem is that there is a detectable field of electromagnetic energy produced by the electrical firings of neurons. This field exists within the skull and isnt affected by external interference. The recently developed technique of magnetoencephalography (MEG) uses a superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) and detects the fields generated by the brain. Our brain generates an em-field that encompasses a significant fraction of its neurones. I think it is highly possible that our consciousness is a product of the em-field generated by our brain and that the conscious em-field of the brain influences neuronal firing. Fortunately, this is all testable and the research leads me to think this may be the way consciousness works. Changing magnetic fields couple more strongly to tissue by inducing electrical fields that may stimulate neuron firing. And there is abundant evidence that rapidly changing magnetic fields do indeed affect brain activity. There is abundant evidence that the changes to the brain’s em field correlates with conscious awareness. Researchers observe that there exists an inevitable feedback loop between the brain’s neuronal network and the field generated by that network. The theory is that this em field becomes a seat of consciousness by which will is directed and the loop back provides the process of thinking and experiencing. Such a radical idea is now being employed by artificial intelligence researchers like John McFadden who believes that this em field may be the component needed to make artificial intelligence in robotics a reality. It could also explain why NDE’rs can have experience (at least temporary) after the brain dies. The feelings of detachment, an awareness of being outside the body, of time etc. Im not saying that this indeed proves why people have NDE’s but its just a thought.

          • JEFF says:

            you guys are clearly way more versed in all of this than me but I still can’t get my head around the one thorny question of how ‘insentient matter can give rise to anything sentient’.

            here’s my science.
            dead matter + dead matter = dead matter.

            does this not necessarily conclude that matter, despite what we think…is in fact not as ‘dead’ as we think?

            it seems to me – correct me if i’m missing something – ‘what is conciousness’ is the less important question compared to ‘how is it possible that anyone could ever have a single thought?’

            respectfully.

          • Stuart Mathieson says:

            I don’t think of matter as “dead”. In fact I don’t even think of matter as “matter” (any more). If the physicists are correct, the universe(s) is frothing with energy and that’s all there is. So-called matter, I.e. solid stuff are localised warpings of energy fields we experience as “solid stuff” in spite of the fact we know most of it is “empty” space. It’s the attractive and repellant forces that constitutes atoms, molecules, cells, organisms, sensation and cognition. That’s all.

  35. scott says:

    To Jeff ” ‘how is it possible that anyone could ever have a single thought?’ I think depending on what you mean by that question, the answer is pretty easy at this point. If you mean “how can something as tangible as matter ever give rise to something as immaterial as an experience” well thats a harder question.

    When you consider the billions of synapses and networks, the millions of microtubules and all the intricate pieces and parts of the brain it becomes apparent that this just might have something to do with it! It just might be a long process for us to put it all together and understand how all this forms thoughts and experience. But we have come a long way and can find the many components that make it possible thanks to technology that detect energy fields in the brain. I also believe that as energy consciousness may work at the quantum level as well. It seems a bit mystical at first to think that animal consciousness (we are animals as well) is connected to the fundamental geometry of reality and can tap into that unified “oneness” (not to go woo woo here) but this isnt so supernatural I dont suppose.

    We have learned that all matter is energy and its by products such as thinking is also energy that we can detect. All energy is connected at the planke scale fundamentally. This is fundamental level is refered to as the unified field. Is it possible that consciousness and our thoughts interacts at the quantum level in some bizarre way? The double slit experiments seem to fit that hypothesis. I dont know for sure of course but it wouldnt shock me if it were true.

    • JEFF says:

      “how can something as tangible as matter ever give rise to something as immaterial as an experience”

      yes this is what is truly baffling me. and with regards to woo woo it’s interesting and funny to me that the deeper you go scientifically on this question the more like ‘woo woo’ it all sounds.

      thanks for your thoughts….if they even exist.

  36. Stuart Mathieson says:

    If you look at the work of Suddendorf and Corballis the very plausible hypothesis that conscious thinking is an aspect of mind relating to reality simulation. The general idea is that the human primate with a complex social environment has to generate simulations of novel and unfamiliar states of affairs. There is an increasing body of evidence supporting this idea for example;
    1. The world is complex and the brain capacity finite. Our brains are organised for construction or simulation rather than bulk storage and much of our knowledge is coded and stored off-line in cultural representations.
    2. Visualisations are taxing on blood sugar and brain space.
    3. It requires higher order processing to knit together discrete gappy bits of coding into “seamless” representations.
    Electrical activity over the whole cortex seems to be a feature of this higher order processing.
    4. The segmented tensed character of human language seems to be suited to representations of complex actual and possible states of affairs, a pre-requisite presumeably for technical innovation, a useful but dangerous capacity we have.
    5. Our capacity to perform mundane familiar functions without much thought like driving to work but our capacity for the dragon’s eye to open when something unusual arises (as I said in a previous posting).
    Hope this provokes some thought.
    The lit can be found by Google Scholar using for example “mind as reality simulation”.

  37. ccl says:

    Very interesting reading. Almost everybody loves to go on and on with very intelligent arguments. Although no one yet has given an answer to the basic question that Jeff is pointing out. Forget about how our brains works how smart we are. Even the stupidest animal knows that he exists. We know that there is a limited amount of elements that everything is made off. Galaxies, universes and everything visible is made of the same stuff. Myriads of combination of atoms are being made every second without creating a single speck of life. So the question is: what is life and derivative of it consciousness (not intelligence) considering that we are made from the same stuff that that the planets is made off.

    • Stuart Mathieson says:

      I think you are prejudging or defining consciousness uniquely and non naturalistically knowing full well such a definition (arbitrary) is not derivable from the material. It’s a soul “explanation” you are after.
      But I say the subjective experience of being conscious doesn’t require any spooky assumptions or conclusions.
      We know consciousness varies according to natural laws (the five levels of conscious every first aider learns). If it responds to material naturalistic variables then it must be material and naturalistic. We know the human body can be reduced to two or three bars of soap and some fertiliser and water but that doesn’t mean that’s equivalent to a living organism. Life (and consciousness) is just chemistry but of a very complex organised kind.

    • Stuart Mathieson says:

      Life (and consciousness) is not special “stuff”. It is just your ordinary cosmic dust that has produced increasingly complex arrangements over eons. I’ll bet life and it’s precoursers are distributed throughout the universe in compatible environments.
      The contrary assumption that we (homo saps) are special is just the collective narcism we call religion. I no more have a soul than my dogs do. But that doesn’t mean life isn’t worthy of respect and consciousness with it. My dogs are pretty conscious of my states of mind and moods, and I of theirs. The exceptionalism accorded humanity seems unfortunately associated with a contempt for other creatures (and all too frequently races).
      That’s why I call it collective narcism.
      Neuroscientists are now capable of predicting some of your thoughts from brain scans. Boy! Is that scary?

      • scott says:

        If by soul you mean an immaterial, invisible observer of reality that also has an affect on you, your physiology and the world around you then I would say that you do have a soul or perhaps the soul has you! Consciousness is the word to describe that invisible part of you that brings a certain quality to life. Our experience and perception of reality depends on a state of consciousness. Yet this very fundamental part of human life is only measured by the correlations to our brain. We still wrestle with the hard problem of why we should have a rich experience associated with brain functions. It seems quite unnecessary.

    • Stuart Mathieson says:

      You claim to be conscious but we only have your word for that. None of your words are conscious!

  38. Stuart Mathieson says:

    The supernaturalist thinks he has a trump card:
    You can’t pull a supernaturalistic rabbit out of a naturalistic hat!
    My response is:
    No, but I can pull a naturalistic rabbit that seems supernaturalistic out of a naturalistic hat. Just as the partly submerged stick seems bent etc etc.

    • jeff says:

      Agnostic is the only reasonable stance for me.
      either side of that line is just a guess no matter how well marshalled the rhetoric is.

      • Frank says:

        …either side of that line is just a guess no matter how well marshalled the rhetoric is.

        True, to a degree, however this puts religious people into the rather uncomfortable territory of admitting that, at best, they too are agnostic. Not a stance they would readily accept I would venture.

        I personally have no problem climbing off the fence towards atheism; it is up to religion to prove to me there is a god, rather than the onus on me to prove the non-exisitence of something. I guess that’s why they introduced ‘faith’ into the concept.

        Interesting discussion.

        • jeff says:

          i stand and stare at atheism and think, “yeah probably”
          then i realize how incredibly finite my brain is and consider how impossible it would be for my cat to understand shakespeare and think, “how the hell do we know?” and to be “sure” of much is to so arrogant i feel.

          traditional religion – i’m an atheist.

          metaphysical suspicions tend to correct my gaze to agnostic.

          that’s just me though.

  39. Stuart Mathieson says:

    The universe is always consistent because it has all the relevant information, the human mind isn’t because it doesn’t!

    • scott says:

      I dont personally believe in the supernatural as history shows that in many cases what was once the supernatural yesterday is now todays science. I remember a few years ago that claims of Lucid dreaming was not accepted as a serious phenomenon. Any scientist trying to prove the phenomenon was looked at as a psuedo scientist out to sell books or just plain woo woo. Science explained it away as illusory at best. Later it had been proven as a “real” phenomenon once able to be measured and verified in the lab thanks to then new technology. Now science deosnt bat an eye. The point is not that we should jump on supernatural explanations but to learn from history. There is nothing supernatural. There is only missing pieces to the puzzle. It doesnt mean we have to write phenomenon off or deny anything. Aknowledging the wonder of the mind isnt a step backwards. It just means that reality may be more mysterious than we imagine and therefor we have our work cut out for us.

  40. Christiane says:

    Thanks for finally writing about > What is consciousness?
    A scientist’s perspective. | The Brain
    Bank < Liked it!

  41. ahmed says:

    Hi the brain bank
    I hope to answer these questions
    1-How does the conductivity of the upper cerebrum cells lose under sleep statu? Which factor is depended on?
    2- If the brain receives different sensory directives of the body at once how the brain can be distinguished according to their source?
    2-Let us imagin a man did not have experience such that , he did not see things previously , can he distingush them by his consciousness when his eyes look for , though he has same brain as the other?

  42. Scott says:

    Very interesting article. It is a good start to point to the observed correlations. Hopefully one day soon science will unveil how formless consciousness can arise from matter. I don’t think its dependent on having the complex connections we see in animal and human brains only. Even plants have a certain conscious awareness as it turns out. These forms of life can’t run to a watering hole when thirsty or hunt for food as they aren’t mobile. So nature has found another way for plants to survive because they are rooted. However expiriments show that they respond to stimulus. They sense pain. My point being that forms of consciousness can arise in different ways. Perhaps consciousness is comparative to electricity. The right combinations and conditions in nature can cause consciousness to arise. Why it should arise is a harder question. Why should a rich experience exist with brain functions at all? A philosophical zombie can succeed as good as a conscious and aware organism could. The good news in my opinion is that science (a practice of consciousness) will unlock her secrets soon.

  43. Stuart Mathieson says:

    We tend to privilege consciousness because I suspect we assume it is unique to humans. A broader question is “what is sentience?” and it doesn’t have to be conscious. Much of what we do is not at the focus of our conscious attention. Watch a child playing with toys. They are to some degree oblivious of other things consciously. But that doesn’t mean the wider environment is not being observed. Blindsight for example when the brain responds more or less appropriately without the attention of conscious thought. we know the brain makes action descisions before the subject is conscious. The subject thinks this is a conscious decision. It isn’t, at least in some cases. I don’t think we can explore the origins and role of consciousness until we understand sentience more thoroughly. There are other issues too regarding the accumulation of experience and response at the group or population level. There is a sense in which creatures adapt and respond at the group and collective level. This is particularly obvious in species whose populations are made up of peculiarly specialised asexual individuals as one finds in various ant species. Even bacteria react surprisingly quickly to environmental challenges and plants certainly do, even to the browsing of their foliage which chemically signals to adjacent con-specifics. Does this count as sentience? Chemical sentience? Humans react to pheromones. Very important apparently. Even in mate choice. Is this chemical sentience?
    It is very obvious humans priviledge their own peculiarities and downgrade other forms of sentience accordingly.
    My belief is that human consciousness is not supernatural or transcendental. It is a device which achieves efficiency and power by constructing simulations from small amounts of sensory data based on accumulated experience and genetic hard wiring. Because it is constructed from outside input it has to be perceived inwardly. This gives the illusion of direct experience of the outside world and in a sense it is except that it is packaged or coded with our own wants and needs for survival and perhaps flourishing. We see positive features (for flourishing) in our environment as attractive, mates for example and other features as repellent. The ancient doctrine of ideas was a simplistic variant of this idea because it confused how we perceive with what we perceive. We don’t perceive constructs, constructs are how we perceive. Consciousness is an extra loop in the process probably binding the output from many subroutines in the brain.

    • scott says:

      I agree with you here. Consciousness is not supernatural. It just “is what is is” and we humans are like apes facinated with whats in front of them! Afterall it is amazing to us. It produces meaning for anything and everything, it identifies patterns within anything and everything that actually serves us well for the most part. At the same time we know that the brain only produces for us an illusion of the “out there”. Not that whats out there isnt real, but it isnt what it seems to be. Our brains are limited to detect and understand only that which is necessary for our survival basically and yet we are also capable of building instruments and technology that allow us to percieve so much more! The study of autistic savants shows the extraordinary ability of the brain when “wired” a little different to percieve and grasp very complex mathamatical computations at will and compose symphonies and other abilities unlike most people. The study of the brain on Psychodelics show how the brain when in altered states can produced feelings of euphoria and open up greater mental strengths and abilities. All of these experiences produced by the brain is what creates our “reality”. It is the organ responsible for everything that makes us human and give our lives depth and meaning and anything else we could imagine. To me its natural magic and a demonstration of what billions of years of evolution can produce in this strange cold yet beautiful universe we exist in.

  44. Peter says:

    The explanation of consciousness is dead simple: we are the universe. We are the infinite/multiverse/whatever, and it all acts as one single eternal interconnected entity. There never was a physical plane and a conscious plane, these two are one and the same, only humans have evolved a dual way of percieving the world, hence the illusion of duality and all the fantasizing about how conscious stuff is somehow emerging from unconscious stuff. So the hard problem is nothing more than a complete misunderstanding, a question based on a duality that never existed. It makes no sense and that’s why it can’t be “solved”.

    What is going on in the individual mind is what is going on in the individual brain, I actually just wrote the same thing twice. The individual brain/mind is part of the infinite like everything else, so it is always “conscious” even before or after death. So basically consciousness means to be part of the universe/the infinite in the eternal now.

    • mirel jaber says:

      If it was so, how can you prove it in ways that should convince others?? Stated like that, is just equivalent to saying: “it is so because I say so, trust me”; and until further notice, the world will keep spinning around missing the sense and meaning of existence, failing to see that all greatness and madness of us depends on how we keep looking upon the world – especially true for science, economy and politics – that if we keep manhandling the seed and the sapling, they will grow up distorted and ill?

  45. Parag Jasani says:

    First ever casual explanation of the mechanism responsible for human consciousness you can verify with your subjective experiences http://www.whatismind.com/SCAA.aspx

    • Parag Jasani says:

      While interacting in our day-to-day life, we need to act or react to bodily processes and the happenings in the world, sometimes instantly, to provide us beneficial outcomes.

      Consciousness is designed by the evolutionary process to allow data from such interactions that requires judgmental power to become available for making decisions, thereby benefiting from the capability of making free will decisions (If there were no free will, there was no requirement of consciousness). To understand how interactions are continuously scrutinized for the requirement of judgmental power and how free will decisions are made, visit http://www.whatismind.com

      • scott says:

        Wow that is a very good point! “If there is no free will, there is no requirement of consciousness”. That is an angle I havent really stated plainly in such a way although it is my firm belief in that understanding. Whenever I engage with some people in the discussion of consciousness, free will comes up. Most people regard free will as an illusion as it seems to be posited by many authorities in the physics field as well as in neuroscience. Studies showing that sub conscious drives our behavior for example. And decisions being made milli seconds before we are aware of them and etc. But something about these statements which are based on such observations lack something for me. If free will is an “illusion” then why wouldn’t consciousness itself also be an illusion leading to the question of how could we be certain about any observations at all? It is apparent that our observations are usually correct for most of us as we have managed to survive and thrive in the reality we exist quite successfully. I agree that our “perceptions” are essentially an illusion but not in the sense of not being “real”. And thats what many scientists mean when they say free will is an illusion, that it isnt “real”. But we perceive ourselves having a free will to choose just as I perceive the things I am choosing between. And what good is consciousness if it isnt to be able to do just that?

        • Frank says:

          I think it’s important to define ‘illusion’ in this sense. Rather than meaning unreal, or not real, it is used in this case to mean that ‘which deceives, or miselads intellectually’. This is an important distinction to make because we are not saying that what we see isn’t there, just that it may be not be perceived by us accurately. We know there is a whole different world which exists within our own; just look down a microscope and you’ll see things the naked eye isn’t capable of seeing. Yet, we wouldn’t doubt that atoms are present when we look at a coffee table, or a cup, or if we take a breath. If we were to walk around seeing everything magnified to this level, we would see a very different world to that which we perceive currently. We don’t doubt that that micro-world exists, but our perception of the world as we see it doesn’t include this level of detail. Could we then argue that what we see is only the reality that is decoded and interpreted for us by our brain functions. To this end, we could then take one step further and say that we are never really sure of what we are seeing in the first place. Our mind has created something for us which we call ‘real’, and have a shared experience of with one another, to ultimately conclude that this is what exists in front of us.

          Scott said, “And decisions being made milli seconds before we are aware of them.”

          I find this fascinating, and it certainly implies that free-will is questionable , but like you, I don’t know whether the action hasn’t still been generated by our will to do it. This is a conundrum that makes my head hurt frankly.

          I think I confuse myself when I really start thinking about this kind of thing and never really know whether I’m looking at it from a philosophical view-point, or a scientific one; maybe a bit of both. I think both would need to come together in any case, and to some extent, for these problems to be addressed.

          • Parag Jasani says:

            With reference to the following

            Scott said, “And decisions being made milli seconds before we are aware of them.” I find this fascinating, and it certainly implies that free-will is questionable , but like you, I don’t know whether the action hasn’t still been generated by our will to do it. This is a conundrum that makes my head hurt frankly.

            (from whatismind.com)
            “Ever since neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet did it for the first time in 1983, many experiments are performed where subjects, while their brains are being scanned for neuronal activity, are asked to initiate a random action or make a random choice, e.g. pressing the left or right button on a device. The subjects are also asked to note down the time when they become aware of making the decision of pressing the particular button. All such experiments result into scans predicting the activity for which the decision is made, either left or right button, before the subjects are consciously aware of making it. In other words, the scans predict with good accuracy what button the subject is going to press before he is aware of making it. This gives rise to the belief that whatever action a person decides to execute is a result of his brain’s neuronal activity or something else, but not of his conscious free will, and thus, free will does not exist. For otherwise, how could a machine foretell which button the subject is going to press before he himself becomes aware of making it?

            The reason they become aware of making the decision at a later stage is that, as a random choice is to be made at a non-specified time…”

            More at
            FREE WILL – in detail
            http://www.whatismind.com/FWID.aspx
            http://www.whatismind.com/FWID2.aspx
            http://www.whatismind.com/FWID3.aspx

          • John E Quantum says:

            A key factor for delay between decision (or initiation of action) and conscious awareness is the miniscule yet finite amount of time that lapses between sensory input at the source (say, a photon striking the retina or a sound wave reaching the skin and eardrum) and the propagation of the signal through the various electrochemical pathways to the brain, and then through various brain structures that filter, amplify and either record or discard the signal. The processing performed by the brain often brings things that are not perfectly in sync as detected by our senses into sync when we become conscious of them. We become conscious of things after they have occurred (even if only by a matter of milliseconds), yet we experience them as in the immediate present. Free will is not the illusion- our perception of the world as conveyed by our senses is the illusion.

          • scott says:

            To compound this, their are brain experiments that tells us 6 seconds in advance of what a person will decide! Consciousness actually comes in at a very late stage of the process of making decisions! The sub conscious has certain beliefs and mechanisms that unfold and determine to go a certain way at a later point in time, even before we are aware of it. These tests are performed in an MRI scanner and computer that measures brain activity in real time with the experiments. Very strange indeed.

          • rafael says:

            Wow! Where can i find about this?Could you give me a link or the name of those tests?

          • scott says:

            Yes here is a youtube interview I found regarding the experiment.

  46. scott says:

    Sam Harris describes how Free will isnt real as in it deosnt exist.

    • Frank says:

      The problem I have with the idea that free will is illusory is that it suggests some degree of pre-determination. This itself leads to yet another blind-alley. Harris says we shouldn’t approach this illusion with the response, “…well what’s the point of choosing to do anything then…,” but rather look at it as: we can still make choices that are important, in order to put ourselves in a position so as we can create a number of (hopefully) beneficial avenues to ‘choose’ from, of which the choice has already been made. If I have understood this correctly, there’s a contradiction therein.

      • scott says:

        I honestly dont like the idea of predestination. I personally find it a useless thing to believe in. Why should we evolve such a sophisticated way of perceiving and making decisions if those decisions aren’t “ours” but the unfolding of the universe? Why then should we have experience and consciousness in the first place? We can unfold according to probable outcomes without it. On the other hand the experiments are what they are. And if I am to be rational I should accept the evidence. On the otherhand its very liberating in a way. Our goals will be reached and our story will unfold just the way its supposed to regardless of how much we worry about making these happen! Its kind of spiritual but better. We have evidence to support our claims!

        • Frank says:

          There are also counter-claims to the Libit experiments in that there are variables and discrepancies with respect to timing. I’m not sure how conclusive they are, but as you say, the results are what they are. Most of my frustration is centred around the fact some of these problems are unanswerable; the fact I am not in control of any decision I make I can perhaps live with, no matter how unsettling this may be…then again, maybe I am in denial!!

  47. jeff says:

    forgive my dumbness but isn’t this sort of a different topic….related and fascinating but more in a conscious vs un-conscious sort of way?

    being ‘downstream’ of consciously knowing you’ve made a decision isn’t the same phenomena as how does matter organize itself to give rise to an experiencing being….how is there a stream at all? i suppose has been the dominant query in this thread….the hard problem.

    am i wrong?

    peace either way.

    • scott says:

      I would say that we can gain clues about the how and why of this phenomenon of consciousness by looking at all aspects of it. Such as the decision experiment. To say that 6 seconds before a person is aware of the decision implies that even before the test is ran, the brain knows how it will answer! How would this be possible? Are we living in a kind of predestined biological computer simulation and we simply unfold according to the program? If this were the case it could explain a whole lot as to the nature of consciousness! If this is crazy talk then we explore other alternatives. But whatever we find will still tell us a whole lot about where and how consciousness arises.

  48. Ricardo says:

    Outstanding post but I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more
    on this topic? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit
    more. Thank you!

  49. Prabuddha says:

    ‘Tononi believes that unconsciousness is brought on when the system becomes fragmented and connectivity in the brain decreases’.

    So what induces ‘the system’ to get fragmented and decrease neuronal connectivity, esp. when we tuck ourselves in bed and prepare to ‘voluntarily’ undergo the unconscious state of sleep? And how and why ‘the system’ regains that sort of neuronal connectivity during the transition from deep sleep (unconscious) to fully awake state (conscious)?

  50. Joel Solonche says:

    mu

  51. Parag Jasani says:

    (my new website http://www.consciousnessexplained.org) DOS model not only explains what consciousness is and how, when and why does it emerge, it also explains causal relations of consciousness to sensations, perception, thoughts, awareness, attention, pain, hunger, etc. besides explaining how all such phenomena work.

  52. Randy Reichert says:

    What is consciousness? Interaction, plain and simple. Consciousness IS interaction. All our senses, our emotions, our feelings of self awareness, everything that we call “consciousness”, is all a form of interaction…complex interactions. The human brain is a highly evolved mechanism which allows us to interact on very complex levels. The less evolved or the less complex brains are, the less complex those interactions are, the less aware an organism or creature is and the less ability it has to interact with its environment. If a brain is injured or damaged or that complex arrangement is altered, it affects our ability to interact. Fundamentally, what are interactions? Interactions are forces of nature which are present everywhere in the universe, gravity, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. It is by these fundamental interactions that ANYTHING is able to interact at all. We humans interact via the fundamental forces. It is because of the complex arrangement in our brains that those fundamental interactions or forces can perform such complex functions. When it boils down to it, we are not really “conscious”, we are just forms of matter which interact in a more complex manner than other forms. There is no true consciousness, there is only INTERACTION and that is fundamental. Everything – all matter – interacts at some level.

  53. scott says:

    I agree that consciousness may be what complexity of matter deos however what is the tipping point where unconscious matter becomes conscious? Some parts of the brain or body may have more neuron connections and are not considered conscious.

    • Parag Jasani says:

      “consciousness may be what complexity of matter deos”. It’s a pity that even Christof Koch, who is the leading researcher in the field of consciousness is also of the same opinion. Any discussion on what is the nature of consciousness or how and why it emerges is pure guesswork, as such opinions are based on beliefs, not causality. The only causal account of consciousness is offered by DOS model, which says that it is a result of the optimizing aspects of the evolutionary process (consciousness allows us to consume information that is necessary to reach our goals in an optimized manner). The model explains how, when and why consciousness emerges and how subconscious and unconscious thoughts and processes influence decisions and behaviour, besides explaining causal relations of consciousness to sensations, perceptions, thoughts, awareness, attention, pain, hunger, etc. Many aspects such explanations are also subjectively verifiable.

  54. Luke says:

    Interesting conversations. Consciousness a complex manifestation of a will to survive built over millions of years. What this will is and why it came from nothing is the real question? Free will is the choice we have of how we try to survive.

    Science is an invaluable tool that helps us understand things from our perspective through empirical evidence. This doesn’t take away from how beautiful the things it attempts to explain are. Also like linguistics scientific theories and facts are still just our labels or simplifications of of the real thing. Even if we create a consciousness greater than our own through technology and scientific advances we are still the ones creating it with those tools and we do have the power to create life, you know if you’ve ever had a kid.

  55. Jason says:

    So, question to everyone. In theory, if consciousness is based purely on matter, no God, does that mean that when we die, as long as somewhere down the line our consciousness is assembled in a new form to the state we died in, we will simultaneously experience reawakening in that new place, for better or worse?

  56. Wilfredo says:

    maybe the consciousness it is in just one cell ,that receive and process the information and send the orders.

  57. Wilfredo says:

    That might be the reason why mental illnesses are so tough to cure , because it is inside a cellula where the problem might actually be .

  58. Pingback: The Argument from Consciousness | The Complete History of the Universe: A Personal Journey

  59. Jello Brain says:

    The mechanistic (0r strictly chemical) view of consciousness doesn’t make sense to me. I like Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic resonance, or a “field” of consciousness that is interpreted by our brains. We are not separate from the world and yet we still look at our physical parts in isolation.

    Also, philosophy is the best process we have at keep science in check. Philosophy is not religion, and it’s imperative that scientists don’t dismiss it since it helps reveal science’s faith and belief structure. Everything in the end is a leap of faith, even science. It’s your consciousness that will be the only thing that tells you otherwise.

    • scott says:

      Most of science believes in the philosophy of determinism. That all matter in the universe is determined to one outcome. The brain is also matter, therefor it is predetermined to act and function in a certain predetermined way. There is no free will and no need for consciousness. Consciousness is only an illusion. I disagree.

      For this to be true would ultimately negate the idea of a controlled experiment and ultimately science as a reliable method. I do see that evolution favored time towards intelligence. Meaning that after a certain amount of time, intelligence emerged in order to evolve towards intelligent entities to will choices for its own survival and thriving within the framework of a deterministic world. There are of course barriers to free will in a vast cosmos of deterministic causes and event chains, however there are so many examples of where we as intelligent creatures have improved our ability to survive and thrive in a deterministic world by using methods based on determinism! We are able to step away to some degree by means of our consciousness or qualities of consciousness such as intelligence, creativity, and the ability to imagine and foresee or predict the future.

      So I see consciousness as a transcending quality of reality. I see on one end of the spectrum determinism and on the other is free will which is a quality of consciousness itself. Perhaps the universe determined that consciousness and free will exist in flourish to some degree. Perhaps the only real answer we can give to where consciousness comes from is simply the universe!

  60. Ken McDonald says:

    If the smaller ‘inside’ parts of our brain are the receivers (input) and the larger ‘outside’ parts of our brain provide the element of consciousness (processing), does that not mean that our ability to be conscious of external input, or to decipher and process this input, is directly related to the ability of the outside areas of our brain to do this deciphering and processing. Now comes the real question – given that the speed of information transfer between neurons is finite, and increased brain size relates to increased distance between neurons (or even if you fill the space with more neurons, there will be less connections) – is there an optimum brain size which will result in maximum ‘consciousness’, (or does the brain need to undergo a fundamental change (upgrade with more specialised external processing areas) to allow this to happen.
    Thanks
    Ken

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