Consciousness in the Chemistry

This article from the Washington Post summarizes a few of the current opinions in consciousness studies.

Most philosophers and scientists today firmly believe that a little controller sitting somewhere in your head directing conscious activities does not exist, as René Descartes purported in the 17th century. Consciousness somehow arises from, as is quoted here, “highly organized brain chemistry”. This is somewhat understated, however, because your consciousness certainly is the result of a “highly organized” system, but there’s more than just chemistry.

A few major players in consciousness thinking are quoted. Their ideas for the origins of consciousness cover the gamut from “mundane” mechanisms or it’s a fundamental property of the Universe, like gravity, to the idea that consciousness is only an illusion.

Consider each carefully. You must keep in mind that your brain is a very complex system and no one yet knows the power of billions of interconnected neurons.

[Read the article from the Washington Post]

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]

Last updated October 26, 2021