Tag Archive: Consciousness


New research suggests children have a strong sense they existed before they were conceived.

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We’ve all ruminated about the possibility of life after death. But what about the notion of life before birth—or even conception?

While Christian theology denies such a thing is possible, the concept that life precedes physical fertilization is a given for people who believe in reincarnation. But is such an idea learned? Or is it based on an innate feeling about our own immortality?

Newly published research that analyzes answers given by two groups of children—one urban, one rural—suggests the latter. It finds youngsters intuitively believe that their own existence, at least in the form of feelings and wants, pre-dated their conception.

“Even kids who had biological knowledge about reproduction still seemed to think that they had existed in some sort of eternal form,” lead author Natalie Emmons, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Boston University, told the institution’s news service. “And that form really seemed to be about emotions and desires.”

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A new study suggests the existence of a state of mind called dysanaesthesia, which is neither consciousness nor unconsciousness.

Man in a coma

With anesthetics properly given, very few patients wake up during surgery. However, new findings point to the possibility of a state of mind in which a patient is neither fully conscious nor unconscious, experts say.
This possible third state of consciousness, may be a state in which patients can respond to a command, but are not disturbed by pain or the surgery, according to Dr. Jaideep Pandit, anesthetist at St John’s College in England.
Pandit dubbed this state dysanaesthesia, and said the evidence that it exists comes partly from a recent study, in which 34 surgical patients were anesthetized, and had their whole body paralyzed except for their forearm, allowing them to move their fingers in response to commands or to signify if they are awake or in pain during surgery.

Conscious awareness is an all-or-nothing brain response, and now we have seen how it develops in babies <i>(Image: Nino Gehrig/plainpicture)</i>

A glimpse of consciousness emerging in the brains of babies has been recorded for the first time. Insights gleaned from the work may aid the monitoring of babies under anaesthesia, and give a better understanding of awareness in people in vegetative states – and possibly even in animals.

The human brain develops dramatically in a baby’s first year, transforming the baby from being unaware to being fully engaged with its surroundings. To capture this change, Sid Kouider at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, France, and colleagues used electroencephalography (EEG) to record electrical activity in the brains of 80 infants while they were briefly shown pictures of faces.

In adults, awareness of a stimulus is known to be linked to a two-stage pattern of brain activity. Immediately after a visual stimulus is presented, areas of the visual cortex fire. About 300 milliseconds later other areas light up, including the prefrontal cortex, which deals with higher-level cognition. Conscious awareness kicks in only after the second stage of neural activity reaches a specific threshold. “It’s an all-or-nothing response,” says Kouider.

Adults can verbally describe being aware of a stimulus, but a baby is a closed book. “We have learned a lot about consciousness in people who can talk about it, but very little in those who cannot,” says Tristan Bekinschtein at the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the work.

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Metacognition, or the ability to think about thinking, is not an ability solely limited to humans according to a new study. Scientists at Georgia State University and the University of Buffalo recently revealed that chimpanzees, humans’ closest relatives, also appear to have the ability.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, is the work of Michael J. Beran and Bonnie M. Perdue of the Georgia State Language Research Center (LRC), and J. David Smith of the University at Buffalo.

“The demonstration of metacognition in nonhuman primates has important implications regarding the emergence of self-reflective mind during humans’ cognitive evolution,” the research team noted.

The ability to recognize one’s own cognitive states is called metacognition. An example of this ability is a game show contestant judging his or her own confidence level to decide if they should risk it all or “phone a friend.”

“There has been an intense debate in the scientific literature in recent years over whether metacognition is unique to humans,” Beran said.

The scientists at Georgia State’s LRC have trained chimpanzees to use a language-like system of symbols to name things. This gives researchers a novel way to investigate the animals’ states of knowing or not knowing.

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Terry Wallis showed only fleeting hints of consciousness for 19 years after he suffered a brain injury in a road accident. But then, in 2003, at age 39, he began to speak. It started with “Mom,” and then “Pepsi,” but soon he was slowly stringing sentences together and holding down his end of a conversation.

Far too often, patients like Wallis are given up for gone, left to languish in nursing homes where no one bothers with physical therapy or even to check for glimmers of regained consciousness, says Joseph Fins, a medical ethicist at Weill Cornell Medical College.

That’s at odds with a growing body of research showing that many patients with no outward signs of awareness retain some degree of consciousness. “We began to see patients who looked like they were vegetative, but they weren’t,” said Fins. “They were beginning to show responsiveness, they were sort of breaking the rules.”

In Wallis’ case, brain scans revealed evidence that his brain had rewired itself to some extent to compensate for the injury. Although such dramatic recoveries are exceedingly rare, a 2009 study by Belgian researchers found that 41 percent of hospital and rehab patients with a vegetative state diagnosis were actually minimally conscious. “It’s like a flickering light, and you’re going to miss it unless you systematically look for it,” Fins said.

At a conference last month at Duke University, researchers discussed emerging technology that could help doctors detect that flicker. In recent years, neuroscientists have developed fMRI brain scans and other methods to assess consciousness. In a few cases, this technology has enabled rudimentary communication with patients trapped inside an unresponsive body. In the future, some scientists believe, it may be possible to directly decode these patients’ thoughts.

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Scientists read dreams

Scientists have learned how to discover what you are dreaming about while you sleep.

A team of researchers led by Yukiyasu Kamitani of the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, used functional neuroimaging to scan the brains of three people as they slept, simultaneously recording their brain waves using electroencephalography (EEG).

The researchers woke the participants whenever they detected the pattern of brain waves associated with sleep onset, asked them what they had just dreamed about, and then asked them to go back to sleep.

This was done in three-hour blocks, and repeated between seven and ten times, on different days, for each participant. During each block, participants were woken up ten times per hour. Each volunteer reported having visual dreams six or seven times every hour, giving the researchers a total of around 200 dream reports.

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“Romantic reductionist” neuroscientist Christof Koch discusses the scientific side of consciousness, including the notion that all matter is, to varying degrees, sentient.

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If you had to list the hardest problems in science — the questions even some scientists say are insoluble — you would probably end up with two:

  • Where do the laws of physics come from?
  • How does the physical stuff in our brains produce conscious experience?

Even though philosophers have obsessed over the “mind-body problem” for centuries, the mystery of consciousness wasn’t considered a proper scientific question until two or three decades ago. Then, a couple of things happened. Brain-imaging technologies finally gave neuroscience some high-powered tools to peer inside our brains while we think. And a few renowned scientists — most famously, Francis Crick — claimed that neuroscientists had to tackle consciousness if they were ever going to understand the brain.

By the 1980s, Crick had jumped from molecular biology to neuroscience and moved from England to California. There he found a brilliant young collaborator, Christof Koch, the son of German diplomats who’d recently landed a job as an assistant professor of biology and engineering at the California Institute of Technology. For the next 16 years — until Crick’s death in 1994 — they worked together, searching for the neural correlates of consciousness.

Koch remains on the front lines of neurobiology. In fact, he will soon leave Caltech to work full-time as Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. After years of publishing scientific papers, he has now written a trade book, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Somewhere between memoir and popular science, the book offers a highly personal glimpse into the mind of an unconventional scientist: a lapsed Catholic who teamed up with the staunch atheist Crick, and the eminent neuroscientist who speculates about the consciousness of bees and squid and even bacteria. In the first of a two-part interview, we talked about the wiring of our brains and the possibility that the Internet itself may become conscious.

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Awakening from anesthesia is often associated with an initial phase of delirious struggle before the full restoration of awareness and orientation to one’s surroundings. Scientists now know why this may occur: primitive consciousness emerges first. Using brain imaging techniques in healthy volunteers, a team of scientists led by Adjunct Professor Harry Scheinin, M.D. from the University of Turku, Turku, Finland in collaboration with investigators from the University of California, Irvine, USA, have now imaged the process of returning consciousness after general anesthesia. The emergence of consciousness was found to be associated with activations of deep, primitive brain structures rather than the evolutionary younger neocortex. These results may represent an important step forward in the scientific explanation of human consciousness.

The study was part of the Research Programme on Neuroscience by the Academy of Finland.

“We expected to see the outer bits of brain, the cerebral cortex (often thought to be the seat of higher human consciousness), would turn back on when consciousness was restored following anesthesia. Surprisingly, that is not what the images showed us. In fact, the central core structures of the more primitive brain structures including the thalamus and parts of the limbic system appeared to become functional first, suggesting that a foundational primitive conscious state must be restored before higher order conscious activity can occur” Scheinin said.

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During surgery, a patient awakes but is unable to move. She sees people dressed in green who talk in strange slowed-down voices. There seem to be tombstones nearby and she assumes she is at her own funeral. Slipping back into oblivion, she awakes later in her hospital bed, troubled by her frightening experiences.

These are genuine memories from a patient who regained awareness during an operation. Her experiences are clearly a distorted version of reality but crucially, none of the medical team was able to tell she was conscious.

This is because medical tests for consciousness are based on your behavior. Essentially, someone talks to you or prods you, and if you don’t respond, you’re assumed to be out cold. Consciousness, however, is not defined as a behavioral response but as a mental experience. If I were completely paralyzed, I could still be conscious and I could still experience the world, even if I was unable to communicate this to anyone else.

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Scientists at the University of Hull have found that some people have the ability to hallucinate colours at will — even without the help of hypnosis.

The study, published this week in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, was carried out in the Department of Psychology at the University of Hull. It focused on a group of people that had shown themselves to be ‘highly suggestible’ in hypnosis.

The subjects were asked to look at a series of monochrome patterns and to see colour in them. They were tested under hypnosis and without hypnosis and both times reported that they were able to see colours.

Individuals’ reactions to the patterns were also captured using an MRI scanner, which enabled the researchers to monitor differences in brain activity between the suggestible and non-suggestible subjects. The results of the research, showed significant changes in brain activity in areas of the brain responsible for visual perception among the suggestible subjects only.

Professor Giuliana Mazzoni, lead researcher on the project says: “These are very talented people. They can change their perception and experience of the world in ways that the rest of us cannot.”

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Trust Us: The Secret You

With the help of a hammer-wielding scientist, Jennifer Aniston and a general anesthetic, Professor Marcus du Sautoy goes in search of answers to one of science’s greatest mysteries: how do we know who we are? While the thoughts that make us feel as though we know ourselves are easy to experience, they are notoriously difficult to explain. So, in order to find out where they come from, Marcus subjects himself to a series of probing experiments.

…To get your mind straight!

We have five senses but are descended from ancestors with a sixth sense to detect electrical fields in water to find prey and communicate, U.S. scientists say.

A study in the journal Nature Communications says about 30,000 species of land animals — including humans– descended from a common marine ancestor that had a well-developed electroreceptive system.

This ancestor was probably a predatory marine fish with good eyesight, jaws and teeth, and a lateral line system for detecting water movements, visible as a stripe along the flank of most current fish such as sharks that have such a sixth sense, a Cornell University release said Tuesday.

Living about 500 million years ago, it was the common ancestor of the vast majority of about 65,000 living vertebrate land and marine creatures, they said.

Some land vertebrates, including salamanders such as the Mexican axolotl, have electroreception, Cornell evolutionary biologist Willy Bemis said, but adaptation to terrestrial life meant reptiles, birds and mammals lost electrosense. More here.

“Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves.” Bill Hicks

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