Friday, June 19, 2015

Consciousness research: waiting for a breakthrough

The twentieth century has seen a revolution in the sciences. General relativity claims that fields are a crucial, deterministic part of reality. Quantum mechanics and string theory have shown a difficult to predict and non-intuitive physical world. Biological Sciences also opened many secrets; Watson and Crick unveiled the structure of DNA in 1953. Enzymatic pathways in the cell have been uncovered in intricate detail. Another milestone was the sequencing of the human genome, but consciousness science should be a sweeping transformation of how we view ourselves and even how we live our lives. 

It is not that we do not think about the mental world. On the contrary, people have been interested in their own minds for thousands of years, making consciousness perhaps the most discussed philosophical subject. The ancient philosophical questions of whether the mind is physical, spiritual, or dual in its nature have 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? Santiago Ramón y Cajal and Korbinian Brodman were the early pioneers of brain anatomy. Cajal's neural drawings still illustrate anatomy textbooks, and cortical areas are named after Brodman. The brain's electric activity was first studied by Hans Berger in 1924. Over the past two decades, careful and ingenious studies have shown the crucial, interrelated relationship between frequencies and brain function. The shocking realization 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. However, the material brain gives rise to spontaneous energy vibrations. These oscillations form a self-regulating system. When the brain's energy neutrality is upended, emotions generate, dictating actions that recover an 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 sensory kaleidoscope of transient ideas and possibilities that distill a single decision or understanding. The sensory "forest" coalescences a single, unified experience: all other options cease to exist once we decide on a problem. 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 memories and accumulated experience of the cortex constantly changes. 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 conscious perception. Therefore, consciousness is a highly subjective (holographic) mental landscape, unknowable, with the power to surprise even the self. The holographic self is experienced differently by the viewer and the self. Although separate, consciousness is an interconnected part of the material world. This, and a physical basis for evolution and consciousness science, is the subject of The Science of Consciousness, my 2015 book.

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

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  1. ||The shocking realization 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.||

    Complete materialist crap. Indeed, it's incoherent to imagine consciousness per se is wholly causally inefficacious. No, it's not my neurons saying that, it's *me*.

    1. Scientific conclusions must start from experiments, which say that "the concerted firings of neurons give rise to emotions, attitudes, and, finally, specific behavior."