Auguste Rodin.
Le Penseur (The Thinker)

Last weekend I saw a play by Tom Stoppard, the intellectually brilliant British playwright, called “The Hard Problem.” It is about the quest to understand consciousness. It was staged by the National Theater in London, filmed live, and shown around the world in movie theaters. It’s an awesome play, guaranteed to give you a major brain ache, but, I guarantee, you will love every minute of it. As much as the intellectual force of the play itself was absolutely overwhelming, the effect it had on the audience after the play was over was also amazing. For a few minutes, the audience sat quietly, as if absorbed in deep thought. So was I, pondering the elemental question of my very identity.

 

Asking the question — Who am I?

Who am I? That’s a seemingly easy question, right? All you have to do is look up my bio on LinkedIn or TDWI. But do those stats and biographical notes actually capture who I really am? And, how about you? Did you ever stop to think about who you really are, beyond the bio?

The fact that we can even ask this question is amazing. I am sure that my big black lab, Sherman, has never stopped to think about it. I don’t know if he is even capable of asking this question. Is he even aware that he exists, let alone asking the more profound question: Who am I?

An important differentiator is that we humans are conscious of our existence. We are capable of looking at ourselves as outside observers. Other animals simply cannot do that which begs the really difficult question: What is consciousness?

 

The hard problem: What is consciousness?

Australian philosopher, David Chalmers, was the first person to call the mystery of consciousness the “hard problem”. It is the difficulty of explaining the phenomenon that we have subjective, first-person experiences. For example, at this moment, I am conscious of these things, among many others:

  • I can see that my coffee is in a mug decorated with red hearts.
  • I can taste that I have sweetened it.
  • I can smell woodsmoke.
  • I can hear voices outside in the garden.
  • And, I can stroke my dog’s silky soft ears.

I owe these various experiences to “the five senses” that are associated with different parts of my body (eyes, tongue, nose, ears, and fingers). But there is more. Just considering my coffee mug alone, I also am aware of the concepts of decoration, red, and heart-shaped. Simultaneously, I am conscious of the concept of time (I have a deadline to get this blog post published) and of self-reproach (I’ve missed it by several hours). And another thing, even if I don’t have a dog, I can still imagine patting a dog.

 

Philosophical musings

An unexamined life is not worth living.” This famous quote comes from Plato’s Apology, a recollection of the speech Socrates gave at his trial. Ever since, Western philosophers have tried to examine our lives and attempted to explain consciousness, but to no avail.

The 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes took a stab at it with his famous statement: “I think, therefore I am.” He actually wrote it in Latin (“cogito, ergo sum“), but, either way, it actually explains little. It does, however, make for a great bumper sticker if you are cruising around in a college town.

Descartes also believed the mind was separate from the material body—a concept known as mind-body duality. He also thought that these realms interact in the brain’s pineal gland. Why? Just because! He had no hard evidence and was just making a “philosophical” guess.

Many modern philosophers have recognized the failing of their profession to explain consciousness, so they have essentially quit and claimed victory, asserting that understanding how the brain produces subjective experience may lie forever beyond the realm of scientific explanation. The philosopher, Colin McGinn, of the University of Miami believes that no matter how much scientists study the brain, the mind is fundamentally incapable of comprehending itself. “We’re rather like Neanderthals trying to understand astronomy or Shakespeare,” McGinn said, “Human brains suffer from a ‘cognitive gap’ in understanding their own consciousness.”

Here is an example of modern philosophical musings on the subject:

“How can the materialistic worldview of mankind explain the phenomenon of consciousness. By its nature, which is totally of an immaterial and invisible, with its inner activity of thinking, also a totally invisible activity, which the whole of the scientific worldview rests upon…”Thinking.” What is thinking if not a non-physical super-sensible invisible, immaterial reality”.

What can I say? I’ll restrain myself, this is a family blog after all…so instead, I’ll quote the physicist David Mermin‘s admonition: “Shut up and calculate.” In other words, stop blabbing and do some real science.

Let me add the general observation that Western Philosophy, since its inception in the 5th century B.C., was very good at posing profound questions, but an utter failure at providing useful answers (with the exception arguably, of Ethics).

 

Can science provide the answer?

Not yet. But it’s on its way. In one well-known experiment, Koch and colleagues discovered that individual neurons can encode abstract concepts, such as a family member or celebrity. They even found so-called “Jennifer Aniston neurons” that were active only when a person saw an image of the actress. The conscious experience is of course much more complex than the activity of single neurons, but scientists can learn a lot from the ways in which these brain cells behave and are connected, Koch explained.

Most scientists agree that consciousness has to involve the integration of activity from several brain networks, allowing us to perceive our surroundings as one single unifying experience rather than isolated sensory perceptions.

One proponent of this idea was Francis Crick, a pioneering neuroscientist who earlier in his career had identified the structure of DNA. With his colleague Christof Koch, at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, he hypothesized that the brain needs something akin to an orchestra conductor. This conductor would need to rapidly integrate information across distinct regions of the brain and bind together information arriving at different times. For example, information about the smell and color of a rose, its name, and a memory of its relevance, can be bound into one conscious experience of being handed a rose on Valentine’s day.

In a remarkable paper, Crick and Koch suggested that the claustrum is perfectly suited to this job. The claustrum is a thin, irregular, sheet of neurons that is attached to the underside of the neocortex in the center of the brain. It is suspected to be present in the brains of all mammals.

Now, proposing a specific area in the brain to control consciousness is remarkable enough. But what was not stated here is just as important. Notice that they proposed the claustrum as controlling consciousness, not wakefulness. One could be awake and yet not be able to smell the rose, or name it, or have any memory of it or of anything else—in other words, have no consciousness. But where is the hard evidence that a specific area in the brain is responsible for regulating consciousness?

Mohamad Koubeissi and his coworkers at George Washington University found it in July 2014. What the researchers did was deliver a series of high-frequency electrical impulses to the claustrum region in a woman suffering from epilepsy. Before the electric shocks, the woman was capable of writing and talking. During the electric shocks, the woman faded out of consciousness and started staring blankly into space, incapable of even the most basic sensory functions. Even her breathing slowed. As soon as the electrical shocks stopped, the woman immediately regained her sensory skills with no memory of the event. Remarkably, she remained awake but unconscious. The same thing happened every time the area was stimulated during two days of experiments.

Why is this so important? Because it gives us the first anatomical/neurological clue of the workings of consciousness. The discovery of an on/off switch for consciousness implies that the experience of consciousness can be wholly explained mechanistically. No additional extrasensory, spiritual, or metaphysical factors are needed.

Does that mean that we are about to lose our sense of wonder of the world, both outer and inner? Not at all, it only increases it. Will we ever be able to duplicate this mind-boggling intricate machinery that produced poetry, and philosophy, and music, and art, and so much more? Who knows?

But consider this: There are 80 billion neurons in an average brain, and each makes about 1000 connections with other neurons, near and far. That is 80 trillion connections! Such complexity is unlikely to be duplicated in my lifetime. Thanks be given to the gods.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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