Tag Archive: Consciousness


“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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