Searching for Consciousness - The Ghost in the Machine

Exploring the potential of the human mind and body

Research is unraveling the greatest mystery of the mind

Josh Marshall — Unsplash

Scientists and philosophers have grappled with the question of consciousness for over two thousand years. But, despite more than 7 billion humans on the planet — experiencing and aware — until recently, scientists have been in the dark regarding the feeling of life itself. Consciousness “does not appear in the equations of physics, nor in chemistry’s periodic table, nor in the [..] molecular chatter of our genes. Somehow it emerges from the nervous system,” says Christof Koch, Neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle.

Consciousness appears to float above the physical brain (cognitive scientists refer to it as epiphenomena) like bubbles at the top of a glass of lemonade. Its presence suggests awareness, self-knowledge, and a set of beliefs and emotions about the self and the environment. But it is not “just the stuff in your head. It is the subjective experience of that stuff,” says Michael Graziano, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University.

Philosophers have, in the past, suggested consciousness may not be physical — a ‘ghost in the machine’ — able to inhabit and operate (but not be part of) the body. Research, however, has confirmed that the mind, like any other part of our anatomy, follows physical laws. “Consciousness is a biological phenomenon, like photosynthesis, digestion, mitosis and exists within the body like digestion,” says John Searle, philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley in a 2013 TEDx talk.

Over the last decade, a series of advancements in neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, and AI has provided a glimpse inside the most complex structure in the known universe — the brain. Scientists are beginning to understand what it means to be conscious, and, in turn, what defines us as human beings.

But where is consciousness?

Researchers have proposed several theories to understand, measure, and model consciousness. The Integrated Information Theory describes consciousness as emergent — arising out of — the behavior of complex systems. And, It has a value, phi. “The larger the phi, the richer the conscious experience of the system,” says Koch. An awake, alert, healthy, human brain has the highest measure.

Research in 2018 attached electrodes to the scalp of patients undergoing anesthesia to detect and record brain waves. Consciousness, it turns out, is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. It is progressive. As the anesthetic dose increases, phi falls, and the patient drifts towards unconsciousness. They pass from light-headedness to being unable to respond to commands, before ultimately failing to respond even to pain. Their consciousness — whatever that is — has left.

However, despite two centuries of using anesthesia to perform surgery, scientists have only recently begun to uncover how patients become unconscious. Research by Michael Alkire, professor of anesthesiology at the University of Oregon, identified that anesthesia deactivates the brain’s arousal system and blocks its ability to integrate information.

Another approach to understanding consciousness, the Global Workspace Theory, suggests a continuous flow of information — within the brain and from the senses — that threatens to overwhelm the mind. Consciousness manages this mental overload by integrating information from specialized processes and selective attention. Our focus, and in turn, what we are conscious of, is like a narrow beam of light in a darkened room. The stimulus that wins the competition for our attention is subsequently made available for deep processing.

However, research led by Vanessa Troiani at the Center for Autism Research, Philadelphia, challenges this view. Participants were presented with images of frightening faces beyond their field of view. Despite appearing ‘unaware’ of what they were shown, scans indicated activation of the amygdala — linked to survival instincts, emotions, and memory — and confirmed consciousness can occur in the absence of attention.

But, it is in medicine, where we find the most significant gains.

Every year, as a result of head injuries, more than 1.7 million people are left with severely reduced levels of awareness, or in extreme cases, an inability to respond to simple commands. Unbelievably, scientists have found a way of recovering consciousness. A ground-breaking, 2010 study implanted electrodes into the brains of 21 patients in a vegetative state. Of those who received the targeted, electrical impulses, eight recovered consciousness and were able to provide normal responses.

But, “sometimes, the best way to understand a thing is to build it,” says Graziano.

“Consciousness results from specific types of information-processing computations, physically realized by the hardware of the brain,” says Stanislas Dehaene, cognitive neuroscientist at the Collège de France in a 2017 paper. Information processing alone is not, therefore, insufficient to produce consciousness. A machine must both mentally represent an object — making it available for further processing — but also be able to reflect on its processing.

The answer may be to simulate the very structure of the brain. Last month, Cornell University, New York, reported a computer able to mirror the behavior of 77,000 neurons in the sensory cortex in real-time. “This particular program lets people model how networks of neurons interact rather than computing information … it can be a building block for more complex models of things like sensory processing,” says Oliver Rhodes, lead researcher on the project, based at the University of Manchester.

Our understanding of consciousness is open to investigation using the latest techniques from science and computing. New models will arise that will help scientists understand its nature and its attachment to the biophysics of the brain. The lessons learned from exploring human, and modeling artificial, consciousness, will benefit our knowledge of intelligence, and the very nature of awareness, sensation, and being. “Consciousness is lived reality. It is the feeling of life itself. It is the only bit of eternity to which I am entitled. Without experience, I would be a zombie, a nothing to myself,” says Koch in the recently published, The Feeling of Life Itself.


Searching for Consciousness — The Ghost in the Machine

Research is unraveling the greatest mystery of the mind

Josh Marshall — Unsplash

Scientists and philosophers have grappled with the question of consciousness for over two thousand years. But, despite more than 7 billion humans on the planet — experiencing and aware — until recently, scientists have been in the dark regarding the feeling of life itself. Consciousness “does not appear in the equations of physics, nor in chemistry’s periodic table, nor in the [..] molecular chatter of our genes. Somehow it emerges from the nervous system,” says Christof Koch, Neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle.

Consciousness appears to float above the physical brain (cognitive scientists refer to it as epiphenomena) like bubbles at the top of a glass of lemonade. Its presence suggests awareness, self-knowledge, and a set of beliefs and emotions about the self and the environment. But it is not “just the stuff in your head. It is the subjective experience of that stuff,” says Michael Graziano, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University.

Philosophers have, in the past, suggested consciousness may not be physical — a ‘ghost in the machine’ — able to inhabit and operate (but not be part of) the body. Research, however, has confirmed that the mind, like any other part of our anatomy, follows physical laws. “Consciousness is a biological phenomenon, like photosynthesis, digestion, mitosis and exists within the body like digestion,” says John Searle, philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley in a 2013 TEDx talk.

Over the last decade, a series of advancements in neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, and AI has provided a glimpse inside the most complex structure in the known universe — the brain. Scientists are beginning to understand what it means to be conscious, and, in turn, what defines us as human beings.

But where is consciousness?

Researchers have proposed several theories to understand, measure, and model consciousness. The Integrated Information Theory describes consciousness as emergent — arising out of — the behavior of complex systems. And, It has a value, phi. “The larger the phi, the richer the conscious experience of the system,” says Koch. An awake, alert, healthy, human brain has the highest measure.

Research in 2018 attached electrodes to the scalp of patients undergoing anesthesia to detect and record brain waves. Consciousness, it turns out, is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. It is progressive. As the anesthetic dose increases, phi falls, and the patient drifts towards unconsciousness. They pass from light-headedness to being unable to respond to commands, before ultimately failing to respond even to pain. Their consciousness — whatever that is — has left.

However, despite two centuries of using anesthesia to perform surgery, scientists have only recently begun to uncover how patients become unconscious. Research by Michael Alkire, professor of anesthesiology at the University of Oregon, identified that anesthesia deactivates the brain’s arousal system and blocks its ability to integrate information.

Another approach to understanding consciousness, the Global Workspace Theory, suggests a continuous flow of information — within the brain and from the senses — that threatens to overwhelm the mind. Consciousness manages this mental overload by integrating information from specialized processes and selective attention. Our focus, and in turn, what we are conscious of, is like a narrow beam of light in a darkened room. The stimulus that wins the competition for our attention is subsequently made available for deep processing.

However, research led by Vanessa Troiani at the Center for Autism Research, Philadelphia, challenges this view. Participants were presented with images of frightening faces beyond their field of view. Despite appearing ‘unaware’ of what they were shown, scans indicated activation of the amygdala — linked to survival instincts, emotions, and memory — and confirmed consciousness can occur in the absence of attention.

But, it is in medicine, where we find the most significant gains.

Every year, as a result of head injuries, more than 1.7 million people are left with severely reduced levels of awareness, or in extreme cases, an inability to respond to simple commands. Unbelievably, scientists have found a way of recovering consciousness. A ground-breaking, 2010 study implanted electrodes into the brains of 21 patients in a vegetative state. Of those who received the targeted, electrical impulses, eight recovered consciousness and were able to provide normal responses.

But, “sometimes, the best way to understand a thing is to build it,” says Graziano.

“Consciousness results from specific types of information-processing computations, physically realized by the hardware of the brain,” says Stanislas Dehaene, cognitive neuroscientist at the Collège de France in a 2017 paper. Information processing alone is not, therefore, insufficient to produce consciousness. A machine must both mentally represent an object — making it available for further processing — but also be able to reflect on its processing.

The answer may be to simulate the very structure of the brain. Last month, Cornell University, New York, reported a computer able to mirror the behavior of 77,000 neurons in the sensory cortex in real-time. “This particular program lets people model how networks of neurons interact rather than computing information … it can be a building block for more complex models of things like sensory processing,” says Oliver Rhodes, lead researcher on the project, based at the University of Manchester.

Our understanding of consciousness is open to investigation using the latest techniques from science and computing. New models will arise that will help scientists understand its nature and its attachment to the biophysics of the brain. The lessons learned from exploring human, and modeling artificial, consciousness, will benefit our knowledge of intelligence, and the very nature of awareness, sensation, and being. “Consciousness is lived reality. It is the feeling of life itself. It is the only bit of eternity to which I am entitled. Without experience, I would be a zombie, a nothing to myself,” says Koch in the recently published, The Feeling of Life Itself.

This article, along with others, originally appeared on Medium