Consciousness & Mind

fEITER image of an anaesthetised brain.

A Live View of Unconsciousness

It’s difficult to know what you are thinking — or what is happening in your own brain — as you loose consciousness. There are many instances where this loss might happen, including getting whacked up side the head, inhaling a large volume of non-medically-inspired drugs, or, to the preference of many, falling into a deep sleep during anesthesia before an invasive operation.

Many research groups have studied the brain during its influence to anesthetic drugs, in particular Stuart Hameroff from the University of Arizona. The brain seems to become almost numb and nearly shuts down entirely, enabling trained professionals to freely cut into the human body without the distraction of painful screams and cries for help from the patient. But, this is a rather interesting phenomena, that is not entirely understood.

fEITER image of an anaesthetised brain.
Reconstruction of the brain during the onset of anaesthesia. CREDIT: University of Manchester via

Directly watching the brain as it slips into unconsciousness would certainly be an interesting approach to trying to solve not only the mysteries of anesthesia, but to also better understand what it means for the brain to be conscious, or at least aware. Now, with a new observational technique developed by the University of Manchester, called functional electrical impedance tomography by evoked response (fEITER), the attempt is underway to create live views of the brain’s electrical activity as it shuts down from anesthetic drugs. With this near real-time recording, the research team, lead by Brian Pollard, Professor of Anaesthesia at the University of Manchester, is hoping to learn more about the differences between an unaware and aware brain and how these differences might lead to a better understanding of what the phenomenon of consciousness really is for human beings.

Notice, here, that a subtle change of words was made from “consciousness” to “awareness” and back again. This difference seems to be important, however, and should not be used lightly. A brain might be considered “aware” of its surroundings by responding to pain being induced on its body, or to the intense colors and lights surrounding its head during a walk through Times Square in New York City. But, a simple diode light sensor switching off an automatic garage door motor might also be considered to be “aware” of the puppy dog running through its beam just before the door touches ground.

So, what seems to be an additional specialty to humans is that our brains are more than just aware. There is something more to consciousness; something to being self-aware. Or, maybe not… we just don’t understand, yet. However, the real-time, three-dimensional electrical views generated by fEITER devices should provide some extremely interesting comparisons between the aware and unaware brain. And, it is seemingly from this awareness that emerges our sensation of consciousness, so understanding the electrical requirements for awareness is an important step to understanding the neural correlate of consciousness.

“3-D Images Reveal What Happens as Brain Loses Consciousness” :: LiveScience :: June 10, 2011 [ READ ]

Conscious Learning in the Unconscious

Sitting at the bed side of a loved one who has slipped into a coma and simply reading a story, talking about the day, or just holding hands most likely feels like a pointless and endless effort for the recovery of the vegetative patient. There can only be the glimmer of hope that maybe they can sense your presence, but there is no definitive way to know for sure if your interactions are falling on a deaf brain.

We all can make personal judgments that we are conscious right here and right now. But, making this sort of judgment for another individual when their interactions with the world are limited or apparently absent is not only challenging, but also ethically dangerous as your decision can mean life or death. But now, a new, low-cost study on the interactions of patients who are considered to be in a “minimally conscious state” (MCS) is showing a very exciting result that basic learning seems to take place in some individuals.

The type of learning is simple–the sort of classic conditioning demonstrated by Pavlov’s dog who salivated at the sound of a bell. Here, a tone is sounded followed by a light air puff to the eye. This is certainly an annoyance, so a conscious observer would tend to squeeze their eyelid shut to protect the pupil. After a short time of the repeated events, patients who physically responded to the air puff and who were seemingly unconscious demonstrated the same eyelid reaction after only the sounding of the tone.

The open question is to wonder if this sort of basic learning is so fundamental that true human consciousness is not required. So, Pavlov’s dog might be somewhat smart, but still not conscious. Or, if only a minimum level of consciousness is needed for basic learning (as the result of new, functional connections developing in the brain’s neural network), then a simple test of a successful Pavlovian response could be an important benchmark for determining the state of a patient who cannot communicate with the world. The hope would be that if simple learning is still possible, then further recovery and improvement in the brain’s responses could also be anticipated with additional therapies.

It’s certainly not a clear test of consciousness, but the approach is so simple and does not carry the enormous costs of brain imaging technologies. Therefore, essentially any hospital with low-conscious patients can perform this sort of experiment, which can further develop our weak understanding of human consciousness, and to improve the successful predictions required by doctors when dealing with patients on the verge of life or unconscious death.

“Conditional Consciousness: Patients in Vegetative States Can Learn, Predicting Recovery” :: Scientific American :: September 20, 2009 :: [ READ ]

Read more about MCS by Dr. Douglas I. Katz from [ READ ]

The Mind’s Free Will is more Complicated than the Brain’s Free Will

The notion of Free Will has been debated at least since the days of Aristotle, and the proper identification of what this human sensation really is or how it works remains far from our grasp.

However, a recent fascinating study from Angela Sirigu at CNRS Cognitive Neuroscience Centre in Bron, France was published in Science that discovers a possible bread crumb as to how our brain processes what we sense as Free Will. The research uses direct cortical stimulation in awake patients undergoing surgery to identify areas in the brain that seem to directly link to one’s “desire” to move an arm or a tongue and to the actual sensation of movement… even when no actual movement of a limb occurred.

Pulling a direct connection from this work to the observation of Free Will is like pulling a magic rabbit out of a top hat. Free Will as we personally sense it is so much more than a causal relationship between one neural network in the brain telling another neural network to do something else. In fact, it seems that this very description of direct causality is the antithesis of what Free Will might be.

Free Will is more like … well, it’s more like … Of course, if I could complete this sentence then I would be considered more brilliant than 2300+ years of human thinkers. But, it is certainly a real sensation than human beings have, which is why we’ve been talking about it for so long. It’s a complicated sensation and one that can only emerge from a complicated computational network like our brain.

“Possible site of free will found in brain” :: NewScientist :: May 7, 2009 :: [ READ ]

A little background on Free Will … [ here ] and [ here ]

What do you think?

The Human Brain’s Light Bulb Might be on a Dimmer Switch

Sometimes it just comes to us. Sometimes we have to ponder so hard that we break a sweat. But, whatever sort of conscious considering we feel we are performing while trying to solve a problem, it might be the case that all of the real thinking work is happening elsewhere in our brain… just slightly out of reach.

Recent research from Goldsmiths’ College in London and the University of Houston is trying to electrically monitor and predict the moment in a human brain when the “light bulb” turns on. And, it turns out that the light bulb might be flickering on moments before we even consciously know about it.

Our sub-conscious neural networks are working non-stop. You’re likely breathing steadily while reading and you don’t even realize it. (Don’t think about it too hard, or you might breath out of sync!) The research suggests that this sub-conscious also works hard while we are in the process of trying to solve a complex problem, and it might be the one to figure it out before we are aware of the solution.

It almost makes it seem like our consciousness is working hard not at trying to solve the problem at hand, but rather at trying to access the solution from the depths of our brain. Or, maybe the conscious brain is indirectly guiding or monitoring the unconscious efforts while it’s busy cranking away at the numbers… like a nosy boss who is pushing the office assistant to finish the daily reports before tee-time.

However, experimental evidence that might possibly point to this notion of a top-level system controlling a lower-level “ghost” does bring back those old-age ideas–now considered to be bollocks–of the homunculus of the mind where there is a separate entity or function that is the real brain behind the brain. So, how many personalities do you have, now?

“Conscious and unconscious thought” :: Incognito from The Economist:: April 16, 2009 [ READ ]

Is Consciousness Just an Illusion or an Evolutionary Advantage?

Nicholas Humphrey posted this thought-provoking article nearly a year ago on Seed Magazine, and although it initially sounds a little out-of-whack, and too flippant for real scientific consideration, after a second thought it does pose a potentially useful thesis and alternative viewpoint (which are certainly needed right now!) for how to approach the understanding of our conscious experience.

As human beings we all experience some form of “magical mystery” in our brains. It’s absolutely not clear what it is, how it is formed, or why it’s there, but there does seem to besomething. Neuroscience would love to provide a thorough explanation of the “NCC”–the neural correlate of consciousness–but the notion of consciousness still seems to be buried deep in the confines of philosophical reasoning and a wide variety of non-specific, generalized notions of mental states and “qualia.”

But, it does seem interesting to ask the question: maybe the magic coming from our brain isn’t really magical at all. Maybe there really isn’t a specific physical correlate to what we consider the conscious experience, but it is rather only an illusion, of sorts, that we somehow sense only as a perception from some as-of-yet unexplainable result of the high level of complexity in our brain’s system.

Remember, the neuron networks comprising your brain is unbelievably complex. There is a structure to the system, but we really have no idea as to the nature of the structure and how this can affect the functioning of the system. We know so much about stars and galaxies billions of light years away, but there is so much still unknown about the closest physical structure to ourselves.

Understanding the nature of consciousness–and if there is even any nature of sorts to understand!–is critically important for neurotechnological developments in the long term. In particular, how will integrated neuron devices affect our perceptions, conscious reasoning, emotions, and overall network function in our brain? If we plug in a few neurons into the back of our heads, will the front of our heads flip out? We really have no idea at this point, and we barely have the ability to write down the best questions to ask to even begin addressing the issue.

Finally, Mr. Humphrey proposes a final idea that suggests that even if a physical nature of consciousness is only a perceived illusion, it is still an experienced illusion that we all have and this could have developed as an evolutionary advantage for our species. Consider the notion that you actually enjoy living life because you sense consciousness; that you might even feel that life is worth living because you sense consciousness. If consciousness is an illusion of a vastly complex neural network, it might have been the key evolutionary survival skill required to insure that our species actually wanted to keep on keeping on when times got rough.

Even if you think these considerations are entirely incorrect, it is certainly still an important approach to cracking consciousness and must be addressed and entertained. We have a long way to go to empirically understand our conscious selves, and we need to work through all of the questions that might be put on the table…

“Questioning Consciousness” :: Seed Magazine :: January 28, 2008 :: [ READ ]

Preparing for Consciousness

In preparation for Andrew’s birth, I am re-reading the wonderful overview book by Alwyn Scott, Stairway to the Mind. He does not present a particular new or definitive theory (or, more appropriately an hypothesis) on the nature of consciousness, but gives a fabulous overview of current ideas and philosophies (up to “modern day” as of 1995).

This book is strongly recommended by Neuron News for anyone interested in obtaining a nice feel for the broad and wild fields covering the study of consciousness, and we are currently featuring it in our recommended books list. Sadly, Prof. Scott passed away last year at the age of 75 after dealing with lung cancer.

What is consciousness? What is the nature of the mind? A few initial, interesting, yet informal overviews may be found on Wikipedia under ConsciousnessSelf-awarness, and evenPhilosophy of Mind. But, the issue of consciousness from a scientific perspective is still so vague and so complicated… it is almost like we do not yet have the mathematical language to describe the seemingly miraculous phenomenon that we feel emanating from our heads.

As a vague beginning on outlining an approach to understanding the human mind, Prof. Scott emphasizes that consciousness is potentially the result of a hierarchy of a broad range of physical phenomena all interacting with one another in complex ways. So, borrowing his outline from the book, we present an interesting–although mostly intuitive–structure for considering the path through which consciousness might emerge during human existence:

Last updated August 7, 2022