Stuart Haroeroff.MD – How does the brain produce consciousness
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What is the process through which the brain generates consciousness? first posted on Quora, a knowledge exchange network where people with unique perspectives answer fascinating questions.
Yohan John, Ph.D. in Cognitive and Neural Systems, responded on Quora:
Is awareness created by the brain? I’m not convinced. At the very least, I am aware that no neuroscientist has ever caught the brain “red-handed” producing awareness.
… are we symbols?
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Over a membrane?
(This is a lyric from Yeasayer’s latest album.)
The conventional materialist viewpoint holds that consciousness is inextricably linked to the brain. From studies of brain injury to the well-known effects of mind-altering substances, there is plenty of evidence that the brain impacts consciousness (and vice versa!).
The challenge with moving beyond this correlational fact is that no one understands how to define consciousness objectively, from a third-person perspective. We can only reach one consciousness: our own. Every other awareness may be deduced from conduct. Because inference is a social process, the argument over animal awareness is unlikely to conclude very soon. We consider individuals as aware because they appear conscious to us, and this apparent consciousness is the result of both our developed perceptual systems and the cultural structures that function on top of them. The fact that people disagree on whether or not a certain animal species is aware shows that there is no universal sense concerning consciousness.
Because the topic of consciousness is a definitional problem, some neuroscientists have opted to take a stand and define it. Guilio Tononi and Cristoph Koch offered a popular current concept in integrated information theory. The obvious implication of their concept is that almost anything may be aware provided it possesses the appropriate level of “information integratedness.” This line of thought was pursued by a philosopher named Eric Schwitzgebel, who sought to demonstrate that if materialism is true, the United States is most likely conscious.
Tononi and Koch, to their credit, appear to have bitten the bullet and adopted a version of panpsychism – the belief that everything is sentient. Some philosophers reject overly wide definitions, which they refer to as “bloating.” In my perspective, it is a useful notion. If everything from electrons to galaxies is somewhat aware (due to being somewhere on the “information integratedness” scale), then consciousness becomes less relevant as a description of observable occurrences. (On the other hand, perhaps we never genuinely see awareness in the first place.) We observe with awareness. Awareness appears to have no material qualities; only the objects or targets of consciousness appear to have material attributes.)
This is why it is always useful to return to philosophical and mystic conceptions of awareness. These concepts are far closer to our everyday notion of consciousness than any neuroscientists have presented. The area of subjective experience is consciousness. We can transmit portions of this experience, but we can never directly share awareness with anybody other than ourselves. We are unable to answer the question, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” We can hardly even hazard a guess.
Julian Jaynes’ odd and lovely book The Origin of Awareness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind contains one of my favorite accounts of consciousness.
This small nation of the mind is a WORLD of unseen vistas and audible silences! What unfathomable essences, these unshowable reveries and touchless memories! And then there’s the privacy! An unseen house of all moods, reflections, and mysteries, an unending resort of disappointments and discoveries, a secret theater of silent monologue and preventative advice. A huge realm where each of us rules alone, questioning what we want and demanding what we can. A hidden hermitage where we might examine the problematic book of what we have done and what we may do in the future. An introvert who is more like me than anything I can see in the mirror. What is this awareness that is myself of selves, that is everything and yet nothing at all?
And how did it get there?
And why is that?
Such descriptions also indicate why neuroscience will always struggle to investigate consciousness in its entirety. How can we examine something that is a “hidden hermitage”? We never observe awareness in action. We only observe the repercussions of conduct. So, when we look for neural correlates of consciousness, we are really looking for neural correlates of certain measurable behaviors that we believe are closely related to consciousness, such as attention, self-awareness, information access, and (perhaps most importantly) the ability to comprehend and communicate. If there is a sort of awareness that we are unable to act upon or even recall, we will simply be unable to examine it scientifically.
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