by Barbara Walas
When I asked my friends, what do they think consciousness is, all of them seemed to know the answer immediately. None of these answers, however, was even close to defined. The more questions I asked to validate the strength of their certainty, the more blurred and questionable their definitions became. The idea of consciousness seems to be an unresolved issue for people, as human drive towards rationality, logic, and reason, as well as our curiosity, elicit the willingness to comprehend any creation of our mind. However, no matter how long do we ponder upon the idea of consciousness, we do not seem to be any closer to finding the right answer. Consequently, people accept that perceptual awareness of the surrounding world is a defining feature of consciousness and the problem of the panoptic yet finite definition becomes the ‘elephant in the room’. The major problem with scientists and philosophers searching for consciousness is that they assume that what we already know is sufficient to find the answer and that the methods we use are appropriate tools. I think, and will aim to prove in this discussion, that with the knowledge we currently possess, the idea of consciousness is not possible to define.
The traditional philosophical view on consciousness was called Cartesian dualism and it stated that “mind and matter are fundamentally different in nature and one cannot be reduced to the other” (Robinson, 2003). According to the author of the above mentioned theory, Rene Descartes, spiritual and physical world communicate with each other via specific brain area. Descartes opined the pineal gland as crucial in this process (NeuroQuantology). My skepticism towards his theory does not only come from the lack of the scientific proof of the Descartes’ theory. Its theorist himself, does not seem to aim reaching the very source of the human consciousness as he uses the idea of God in his evaluations on what makes humans, humans. He said: “I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or machine made of earth, which God forms with the explicit intention of making it as much as possible like us” (Lokhorst, 2013) which suggests the conclusion that it all comes down to what we believe in and therefore, does not explain anything.
Another theory, commonly accepted by neurologists today, focuses rather on the neural activity in the human brain. Different parts of the brain had been characterized as the seats of consciousness in the past, however, the modern approach targets “all the electrochemical signals stimulating the glands to output floods of hormones” (NeuroQuantology) that cause us to experience sensations, perceptions, and emotions, as generators of consciousness. Researchers assume that consciousness is created by brain activity, therefore, they search for what are called the ‘neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) (Taylor, 2013). Up to this point, no scientist found the proof to the brain creating consciousness. The reason for it lies in the inability to observe anything more than the consequences of consciousness. What NCC target are just the correlations between neurology and measurable behaviors that they think are bringing them close to consciousness, such as ability to communicate, comprehend what is happening around, etc. We do not know “what exactly the brain activity represents as part of the conscious experience” (Taylor, 2013).
As it turns out, not all the areas of neural activity are necessary for consciousness which was proven by removal of large parts of the brain that did not render an animal unconscious. Consciousness can persist loss of “hippocampus, the cerebellum, the frontal cortex, or even the entire cerebral hemisphere.” (Cavana & Nani, 2013) However, scientists claim that it cannot exist without the thalamic intralaminar nuclei, the part which project axons widely to all cortical areas, loss of which can result in a permanent loss of ‘consciousness’. Nevertheless, these conclusions address only pieces of the consciousness puzzle suggesting that consciousness exists as long as we are able to see, to hear, to smell, to touch, to taste – and these are the consequences of consciousness, as mentioned earlier, not the source of it. When we conclude that a person has lost the consciousness, how can we determine if the person’s sense of self is gone forever? Perhaps it is just something we cannot assess anymore, because nobody can tell us what they are currently experiencing in that state.
In order to compromise all the evidence, scientists became to claim the overall activity to create an “illusion” of consciousness that best adapted us to the surrounding world (Seth, 2017). They think that what our sense of “me” is, is the creation of brain that aims to develop the best guess of ourselves and the reality around us. It is important to note that this theory assumes that the reality goes on whether we perceive it or not. The time stops for a person in coma, but the objective time does not stop, it passes for conscious people, which contradicts the often brought-up idea that perception is reality. What we see is not everything that is there, there is most likely much more than we are conscious of, but what we know is enough for us to adapt and to survive.
“The contents of consciousness are . . . discriminations made within the neural system” (Edelman, Gally, & Baars, 2011). These discriminations choose what we are conscious of and are made by perceptions, motor activity, and memories – all of which shape, and are shaped by neural connectivity that occurs as an animal interacts with its world (Edelman, Gally, & Baars, 2011). Since natural urges are controlled by chemical factors based on external stimuli, they contribute to our perception of consciousness. As it turns out, our brain can easily get confused by the lack of coherence in the incoming stimuli. Testimony to that is the phantom limb effect which makes people experience pain of a limb they do not possess anymore. The brain merely thinks it is still there but asleep from time to time which is supposedly triggered by emotional thought associated with the loss of a limb. In the study conducted by Vase and colleagues, scientists discovered the biological predisposition to experience phantom limb pain concluding that “cognitive-emotional sensitization contributes to the altered nociceptive processing seen in phantom limb pain patients” (Vase & colleagues, 2011). It proves furthermore that perceiving senses is not everything that our consciousness is based on.
As I have mentioned earlier, memories make up another factor that is thought to contribute to our sense of self. Brain stores episodic memories defining all the events that has ever happened to us, sematic memories which are all the facts and information we have gathered, and implicit memories such as motor memories, etc. (Queensland Brain Institute, 2017). Accepting that human is a sum of their memories and experiences, a question occurs regarding the idea of consciousness- if we find them and implant them in a new brain would it be considered a continuation of one’s consciousness or would it be a brand new ‘self’? This seems particularly abstract since memories themselves are difficult to define. If we wanted to implant the memories, we would have to include experiences of pain and all memories of perceptions that are subjective and experienced differently by people with different biological predispositions. Moreover, the exact seat of the memory has not been yet defined as well. As the Queensland Brain Institute researchers claim to affirm, memories are stored in multiple parts of the brain: hippocampus, neo-cortex, amygdala, basal ganglia, cerebellum, and prefrontal cortex (Queensland Brain Institute, 2017). However, the way memories are ‘coded’ within these areas still remains uncertain as the theory, commonly accepted as the most probable, that the neurons’ synapses play major role in storing memories has recently been disputed by the study of scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles working on the PTSD treatments. Instead, according to their study, “memories may reside inside brain cells” (Jacobson, 2015). None of the conclusions regarding the exact technique brain uses to store the memories was supported by definitive data. Moreover, assuming that we are defined by memories only, we dare to claim that we can only see what we have already seen and we accept Da Vinci’s dogma which has been acclaimed as wrong by scientists who noted that there is a certain amount of knowledge we already possess as infants.
The miscellaneous theories on consciousness show how the mystery of this issue has been intriguing the scholars for as long as the philosophical sources are reaching. Technology develops incessantly and we learn more and more about the human brain, but the actual problem of what we call ‘sense of self’ still remains unexplainable. Many people try to accept one of the existing answers to this eternal question so they agree that consciousness is an effect produced by all the patterns that neural activity creates; all the chemistry of the brain that make us experience emotions and perceptions. The deeper I dived into the issue, I realized the brain cannot be the only stance responsible for consciousness, in fact, it does not comprehend it completely itself. We cannot assume, based on the evidence we have, that perception is consciousness. Perception is nothing more than the “belief in the existence of external objects produced by the means of the senses” (Gibson, 1996). After all, everything comes down to the “What color is the dress?” (Gegenfurtner, et. al, 2015) issue causing people to question existence of the objective reality based on their perceptual differences. Where consciousness comes from, we cannot yet define as we cannot even be sure that the paradigm we operate in, assuming that the idea of ‘me’ truly exist, is correct.
Cavanna, A., & Nani, Andrea. (2014). Consciousness: Theories in neuroscience and philosophy of mind. Berlin Heidelberg, Germany: Springer Verlag.
Edelman, G. M., Gally, J. A., & Baars, B. J. (2011). Biology of Consciousness. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 4.
Gegenfurtner, K.R., Bloj, M., & Toscani, M. (2015). The many colors of ‘the dress’. Cell: Current Biology, 25(13), 543-544.
Gibson, J.J. (1996). The senses considered as perceptual systems. Cornell University, New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Jacobson, R. (2015). Memories May Not Live in Neurons’ Synapses. Scientific American: Mind.
Lokhorst, G. (2013, September 18). Descartes and the Pineal Gland. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Robinson, H. (2003, August 9). Dualism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved December 03.
Ross, C. T. (2016). The Convergence of Computing, Cognitive Neuroscience, Biogenetics and Biology: The Phenomenon of Consciousness. Neuroquantology, 14(4), 770-779. doi:10.14704/nq.2016.14.4.960
Seth, A. (2017). Anil Seth:How Your Brain Hallucinates your Conscious Reality. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/anil_seth_how_your_brain_hallucinates_your_conscious_reality#t-108032
Taylor, J.G. (2013). Solving the Mind-Body Problem by the CODAM Neural Model of Consciousness? University of London, London, United Kingdom: Springer Series in Cognitive and Neural Systems.
The University of Queensland. Where are the memories stored in the brain? Retrieved December 3, 2017, from https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain-basics/memory/where-are-memories-stored
Vase, L., Nikolajsen, L., Christensen, B., Egsgaard, L.L., Nielsen, L., Svensson, P., & Jensen, T.S. (2011). Cognitive-emotional sensitization contributes to wind-up-like pain in phantom limb pain patients. Pain, 152, 1.