Friday, June 19, 2015

Consciousness research: waiting for a breakthrough

The twentieth century has seen a revolution in the sciences. General relativity claimed that fields are crucial, deterministic part of everyday reality. Quantum mechanics and string theory have shown that the material world is bizarre, difficult to predict and non-intuitive. Biological sciences also opened a lot of secrets, for example, the structure of DNA was unveiled by Watson and Crick in 1953. Enzymatic pathways in the cell have been uncovered in more and more complicated detail. Sequencing the human genome was another milestone in understanding our own species and our place in the animal kingdom. The next research frontier, the understanding of consciousness, should be a sweeping transformation of how we view ourselves and even how we live our lives. It is not that we did not think about the mental world. People were interested in their own minds for thousands of years, which made consciousness perhaps the most discussed subject is philosophy. The basic philosophical questions about consciousness, whether the mind is physical, spiritual or dual in its nature, were asked by the Greeks. Philosophers progressed surprisingly little since then. However, the progress in understanding brain operation during the twentieth century prepared the ground for science to finally investigate the true nature of consciousness.

What do we know about the brain? The pioneers of brain anatomy were Cajal and Brodman. Cajal's drawings of the neural structure still illustrate anatomy textbooks and areas of the cortex are still named after Brodman. The brain's electric activity has also been studied. The first human electroencephalogram (EEG) recording has transpired in 1924 by Hans Berger. More recently, careful and ingenious studies over the past two decades have shown the crucial, interrelated relationship between the brain’s function and its frequencies, which form according to strict anatomical order and function. The shocking realization, however, is not that a person's attitudes cause the brain's neural activity, but that the concerted firings of neurons give rise to emotions, attitudes and finally specific behavior. String theory daringly states that energy vibrations are matter. Turning this around, the material brain gives rise to spontaneous energy vibrations. These oscillations form a self-regulating and energy-neutral system, which is the mind. When the brain's energy neutrality is upended, emotions are generated, which dictate actions that recover the energy neutral state. Indeed, it is consistently found that unity is an essential feature of the mind. The body’s representation in the brain allows a feeling of oneness with the body. Ideas and thoughts form a highly fluid, malleable mental background over which interaction with the outside world becomes possible. The mind is a cacophonous sensory kaleidoscope, peppered with transient ideas and possibilities that distill into a single decision or understanding. The sensory „forest” coalescences a single, unified experience: once we decide on a problem all other options cease to exist. As early as 1957, the powerful inner drive to maintain cognitive consonance was recognized by Leon Festinger. His cognitive dissonance theory states that incongruent belief or behavior forces a mental change to avoid the frustration of cognitive or emotional discrepancy. Even core beliefs can be sacrificed to maintain or restore mental congruence. The constancy of self becomes particularly apparent when changes, even dramatic ones, affect the body or the brain.

The cortex formulates a „temporal horizon,” which becomes the memories and accumulated experience of a constantly changing cortical projection. Of the billions of photons hitting the retina and the millions projected to the optic nerve, only a few thousand bits of information or even fewer produce the conscious perception of the moment. Therefore, consciousness forms in a momentarily changing and highly subjective (holographic) mental landscape, unknowable, with the power to surprise even the self. The holographic self is a projection, which is experienced differently by the viewer and the self. Yet consciousness somehow is an organic part of the material world. Solving this mystery is the subject of the book, The Science of Consciousness, which also introduces a physical basis for evolution and consciousness science.

Image credit: "Blausen gallery 2014" and By OpenStax College 

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