By Bhuvanesh Awasthi
Since time immemorial, science has viewed consciousness with suspicion. Now, with the growing insistence on consciousness studies, has this attitude changed?
If you can’t explain it, deny it.’ This behaviourist approach is no longer accepted in the scientific community. Science, after all, is a process of building mental models that represent our experiences. If the models are useful and enable future experiences to be predicted, they are retained. If they break down when tested, they are rejected. And scientific thought today is waking up to more vital areas of human experience, asking questions like why do we experience and have sensations.
The retina of a frog is very much like a human retina. Both contain two kinds of light receptors, rods for vision in dim light, cones for bright light. Both contain similar pigments. Both retinas are composed of the same three nerve layers and have parallel connections to the brain. But we know we can see. Does a frog see? It reacts to light; so does a photoelectric plate. Does the frog know that it is reacting to light, is it self-aware?
Why Study Consciousness?
The 17th century Cartesian dualism or reductionism that later became positivism suggested that the mind (and mental events), is separate from matter (and material events) and thus cannot be studied within the realm of material science. Our very language is based on dualism, on the idea that we are separate from the universe and can observe it objectively. With this view, scientists describe an objective universe ‘out there’ with ever-increasing accuracy, and the questions raised by religion and mysticism are considered outside the scope and methodology of science.
Roger Sperry of California Institute of Technology, US, shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his work in human split-brain studies. His research focused on left and right hemispheric differences in the brain. He spoke of the importance of a neglected area of science, namely the study of human subjective experience. Now the challenge before modern science is how to accommodate the primacy of inner conscious awareness as a causal reality. Must science accommodate it at all? Another Nobel laureate, British neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles, also emphasizes the need to deal scientifically with the neglected area of conscious awareness. He says (in The Self and Its Brain, with Karl Popper), ‘We have to assume that our self-conscious mind has some coherence with the neuronal operations of the brain, but we have furthermore to recognize that it is not in a passive relationship.’
In a stronger voice, it is widely proposed by scientists that the brain is causally necessary and sufficient for the mind. Consciousness is simply a fallout of the complex processes in the brain and has no separate existence of its own. According to D.M. Armstrong, consciousness is a sort of inner perception. He compared it with ‘proprioception’. A case of proprio-ception occurs when with our eyes shut and without touch, we are immediately aware of the angle at which our elbow is bent. However the immediate awareness of a brain state and a process like proprioception are governed by different neural mechanisms.
Consciousness gives us no physical signals or clues about its location in the body. It is not a thing in space and time and therefore not measurable. Here lies the problem of its study by science. Then, if we ask what it means to assert that something exists for which we have no ‘evidence’, we encounter a deep ambiguity between being and being known.
Recent developments in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, experimental psychology, mind-body medicine and quantum mechanics have catapulted the idea towards understanding consciousness in a scientific perspective. Neuroscientific developments emphasize the brain to be the material seat for consciousness. Lesion studies, EEG, MRI scan and other imaging techniques have suggested the necessity of the presence of the physical brain in order to exhibit conscious behavior. Research findings in affective sciences (emotion research) suggest that the two brain hemispheres differ in their structure and function and regulate our emotions generated at the mid-brain region. Charles-bonnet syndrome, prosopognosia, anosognosia, face blindness, hemi-neglect, phantom limbs and phantom pain diagnoses have suggested that the brain plays a vital role in the way we experience this world.
Will new technologies serve neuroscience for reading brain language, and so, understanding the role of consciousness? Will it show us why color and pain seem so immediate, though sensations depend on elaborate mechanisms and chains of inferences? For, given that the mind is generated by brain processes, there would seem to be no conceptual objections to the possibility of reading the brain as a book. And if we do come to read brain activity to such a level, we should find out why some inferences or other brain processes are unconscious while others are conscious. This may sound like science fiction, but it seems to be a valid and surely the most exciting goal of neuroscience.
Though well-known biophysical and electrochemical processes and individual neurons operate on a low level of information, they respond to, and produce, sequences of impulses (bit streams). That is, individual neurons are media for discrete information. In contrast, networks of neurons are media for statistical information. Thus, the network operates on a higher order of information than the bit streams of neurons. Because neurons and neural networks behave in a radically different manner, the behaviour of discrete neurons doesn’t predict the behaviour of the network. That is, we would not know enough to describe the behaviour of the network neurons – even if we could know the behaviour of every neuron in the system. By analogy, a single neuron is to a network as a single pixel is to a television picture. Therefore, to describe a living brain (or to assemble a television picture), we need additional information: a map of the relationships among the elements of the array. This network is an enformed ensemble of neurons.
The map of the brain’s network is four dimensional, that is, the relationships among the neurons changes from instant to instant. And at any one time, a subset of the overall pattern of the ensemble is identifiable to the person as an evanescent thought. So, is a neuron aware of the thought? Or the neural network? Clearly, neurons and networks recognize patterns of activity (perception) and process this information (thinking). However, there is no reason to define them as self-aware. Still, we are not justified in annihilating the concept of consciousness by tossing it on the ‘epiphenomenon’ heap. Research findings in parapsychology tend to suggest how much more complex the body-mind system is than we can imagine. Telepathy experiments in which ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’ were in electromagnetically screened rooms have shown that apparent instances of telepathy were not due to electromagnetic waves traveling through space.
Human psyche is more complex than was previously thought. Observed cases of multiple personality would be difficult to explain on the basis of the widely accepted idea that the brain is nothing more than a fleshy computer lodged in the cranium, reacting with reinforced conditioned reflexes. In an ‘out of body’ experience, the neural correlates correspond to the right angulate gyrus. Also, a considerable number of temporal lobe epilepsy patients have reported spiritual experiences accompanied by seizures. Our personalities may be just temporary things and without the conditioning of the pre-structured brain, may perhaps cease to exist. Neuro-anatomical findings increasingly suggest several neural correlates to our emotions and mental states in terms of neuro-transmitters, neuropeptides and synaptic plasticity.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a sub-discipline of computer science that aims not only to present a theoretical explanation of our cognitive essence, but to create it in machines as well. The idea originates from the notion of a computationalistic model of the mind, as suggested by modern research in neuroscience and neural networks. Viewed in this manner, the only difficulty in resolving the AI debate becomes apparent; that as long as our own notions of human cognition are based on mechanistic neurobiological conceptions, there can definitely be a possibility of having intelligent thinking machines, at least in principle. AI has attracted several critics, but the issue of difference between machine-simulated behaviour and human cognition remains. Can a manmade machine compute, and so, have sensations? Can it experience colors and pains? Certainly computers can handle symbols differently, so if they had the appropriate computations to perform, why should they not also see red and feel pain? It is hard to deny this as a possibility without having to evoke some special substance for consciousness.
A few years ago, demonstrating understanding would have been sufficient for claiming consciousness, but as AI advances, criteria both of intelligence and consciousness recede, so they lie always just beyond current attainment. This shows, however, that we do not accept only behavioral evidence for consciousness. Most people are loath to call a machine conscious, whatever its behavioral performance. There is, however, another conceivable test for consciousness in a non-human candidate – whether or not sensation is regarded as given by inference or computations. This will depend on establishing just which, and preferably how, some computations produce consciousness. Also it assumes that how they are carried out (by protoplasm or the semiconductor chip), is unimportant. So, we might need an adequate general hypothesis, in which certain kinds of computations are seen to produce sensations and perceptions. This might be similar to seeing how the armature coils of a dynamo, revolving in a magnetic field, produce electricity, or how a car engine, from the interacting parts, produces power – all of which can only be understood by immersion in hypotheses. If a philosopher objects that it is not certain understanding and knowledge, and so is inadequate for ‘solving the problem of consciousness’, we may reply that he asks for too much; he asks for more than science ever provides.
Dr. Bhuvanesh Awasthi is a Researcher in the field of
Consciousness Studies. He also practices Complimentary and
Alternative Medicine and is interested in Vedic Astrology.
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