Matthew T. Dearing

Consciousness Raising

Your brain is composed of some 100 billion interconnected neurons. Maybe it’s not too much of a leap of faith to accept that this extremely complicated network allows you to function and interact with your environment each and every day. For example, light from your computer monitor is being input, organized, and interpreted to allow you to read these words.

However, there’s more to this picture: you also are understanding these words, which allows you to form your own impressions, biases, and conclusions. You will make a decision based on your personal interests and history whether or not to click on the links below. And, you will consider if you will ever return to this web site.

This example just touches the surface of the extended functions and capabilities of your brain above and beyond the more rudimentary tasks of maintaining your heart beat and breathing cycles. We often attribute these “extra” amazing properties, including your personal awareness of yourself (“I think therefore I am!“), to your consciousness.

But, what is your consciousness? Where is it located in your brain, if anywhere? How does is come to be? Does a separate consciousness even exist outside the context of your brain’s neuron networks?

These very difficult questions have been debated since, well, since man become conscious!

Although it’s not a first for today’s scientists, Johnjoe McFadden is presenting another hypothesis for a physical correlate of consciousness. His idea centers on how electromagnetic fields resulting from synchronous electrical activity between neurons somehow feeds back to the neurons to enhance or alter their communication.

I am currently reviewing McFadden’s paper and will report back once I’ve finished. After my initial skim I did not see any equations, graphs, or illustrative examples of computational or experimental work. This greatly concerns me as to how far McFadden’s “theory” (as he claims) has moved beyond more than just a thought he came up with while singing in the shower.

[Read the article from Wired News]

[Read the paper describing the idea (PDF). Johnjoe McFadden Journal of Consciousness Studies 9, p. 23-50 (2002)]

Mind over Matter

This group at Brown University is trying to develop an implantable electrode array that will transmit your thoughts into a corresponding action via a connected computer, robot, or electrodes elsewhere in your body.

Currently, they are working to provide patients with debilitating diseases, like locked-in syndrome, with more physical control in their lives. These research efforts will prove to be critical stepping stones for making neuron devices commonplace prosthetics and cosmetics in our culture.

The research group is also trying to finance a company, called Cyberkinetics, Inc., to help bring these new technologies into the marketplace.

[Read the Article from Brown Alumni Magazine Online]

Neurons with Designer Genes

Nerves talk to one another by passing electrical pulses through a complex network of “telephone lines”. Unfortunately, these cells can sometimes be a little too chatty causing your heart, for example, to beat in erratic and devastating ways.

A new experiment at New York University slightly altered the genetic make-up of cells in a small neuron network forcing them to hang up the phone.

Although this technique may not provide real-time, or dynamic control of neuron behaviors, it brings a new understanding in the relationship between genetic structure and neuron function. It also might lead to new treatments for diseases related by run away electrical activity.

[Read the article from ScienceDaily]

The Bionic Human

This article from the San Francisco Chronicle provides a nice overview of the history and current state of prosthetic devices and implants. The report makes the important distinction between what is reality and what is still fantasy for the “bionic human”.

Don’t forget our bodies are composed of living tissue, which doesn’t like sitting near plastic and metal. This is the most difficult limitation at this time making the prospect of humans entirely re-composed of artificial parts very arduous.

Until we can build functioning devices out of the living tissue itself, don’t expect seeing Bionic Woman walking around in your neighborhood any time soon.

[Read the article]

The Ethics of Neurotechnology

Large wakes of ethical outcries tend to follow new applications of genetic research. Among the many concerns are parents deciding how to engineer their undeveloped child into the “perfect” human being.

These public debates are so massive that legislation is in the works for placing bans on certain types of genetic work. We seem to have a difficult time allowing ourselves to take advantage of beneficial technologies (in the name of bettering our health and well-being) for fear of evil-doers altering these technologies for use against our well-being.

recent opinion article from the Economist, brings up these same ethical cries in another human arena: neuroscience. The dooms-day warnings presented here focus on how neuroengineering technologies can destroy our privacy, provide body- and personality-altering drugs to the rich, and potentially bring down the curtain on what we currently deem important in “being human”.

Although some of these concerns are just as valid as worries about the unproven ways genetic engineering can bring negative effects to our society, a key difference when applied to neuroengineering is in that of choice. Many (but not all) genetic technologies are applied before an embryo develops, so the resulting altered human does not have any say as to what is to become of it. On the other hand, plugging into a memory enhancing neuron device must be implemented by yourself.

The final sense that is portrayed in this article is that the authors are scared to discover what we really are all about. What will we do if the claims from philosophers and theologians as to what is the essence of being human is debunked by future discoveries in brain research? The argument made here seems to be that if this happens, then we will all of a sudden not be human anymore. We may know the truth, but that science doesn’t match with what we want.

The prospects of a mad scientist or Big Brother controlling our society via genetic and neuroengineering are certainly frightening. However, they just aren’t very likely unless the voting public remains painfully uneducated. Instead, an equally scary world is one in which we allow policy to force limitations on our development as a society because we don’t want to take the risk of finding out that what we want the world to be like is not really the case.

No matter what deeper understandings come out of future neuroscience research, we will still be human. The only difference is that we will really know what it means to be human, instead of just hoping and guessing. Just because it’s uncomfortable, doesn’t mean we should hide from reality. This is often referred to as denial.

[Read the article]

Last updated October 19, 2020