Don’t Listen to the Voices: Understanding Consciousness
There is a voice in my head. Don’t worry it’s mine… I think [a story for another time I’m sure], but why is my voice inside my head? What causes me to hear myself while I type these very words, or even better you to hear them in your voice as you read them? Consciousness is a complex and very confusing thing. I think therefore I am? Science has had trouble cracking that nut and philosophy just won’t cut it in the realm of neuroscience.
It might seem like an impossible thing to ever really understand. Yet, new research suggests that consciousness lies well within the realm of scientific inquiry — as impossible as that may currently seem. Although scientists have yet to agree on an objective measure to index consciousness, slow and steady progress has been made with this goal in several labs around the world [Get ready for quite a bit of quotes].
“The debate about the neural basis of consciousness rages because there is no widely accepted theory about what happens in the brain to make consciousness possible,” said Ken Paller, professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern.
“Scientists and others acknowledge that damage to the brain can lead to systematic changes in consciousness. Yet, we don’t know exactly what differentiates brain activity associated with conscious experience from brain activity that is instead associated with mental activity that remains unconscious,” he went on to say.
In a new article, the researchers point out flawed assumptions about consciousness. They go on to suggest that a wide range of scientific perspectives can offer useful clues about consciousness. It should be noted that they aren’t suggesting any sort of “alternative” science,they just mean approaching the subject from different angles to better grasp the full complexity of consciousness.
“It’s normal to think that if you attentively inspect something you must be aware of it and that analyzing it to a high level would necessitate consciousness,” Suzuki noted. “Results from experiments on perception belie these assumptions.”Likewise, it feels like we can freely decide at a precise moment, when actually the process of deciding begins earlier, via neurocognitive processing that does not enter awareness,” Paller said.
The researchers say that unconscious processing can influence our conscious decisions in ways we never might suspect. If these and other similar assumptions are incorrect, the researchers state in their article, then mistaken reasoning might be behind arguments for taking the science of consciousness off the table. Sort of like arguing that vaccines cause autism. If you make that conclusion [which is known to be false] then you take away other, better options for consideration.
“Neuroscientists sometimes argue that we must focus on understanding other aspects of brain function, because consciousness is never going to be understood,” Paller said. “On the other hand, many neuroscientists are actively engaged in probing the neural basis of consciousness, and, in many ways, this is less of a taboo area of research than it used to be.”
Of course, experimental evidence has supported some theories about consciousness that appeal to specific types of neural communication. These are usually described in neural terms or more abstractly [for people like me] in computational terms. Further theoretical advances can be expected if specific measures of neural activity can be brought to bear on these ideas.
Paller and Suzuki both conduct research that touches on consciousness. Suzuki studies perception, and Paller studies memory. They said it was important for them to write the article to counter the view that it is hopeless to ever make progress through scientific research on this topic. To make their argument they outlined recent advances that provide reason to be optimistic about future scientific inquiries into consciousness and about the benefits that this knowledge could bring for society.
“For example, continuing research on the brain basis of consciousness could inform our concerns about human rights, help us explain and treat diseases that impinge on consciousness, and help us perpetuate environments and technologies that optimally contribute to the well being of individuals and of our society,” the authors wrote.
They conclude that research on human consciousness belongs within the purview of science, despite philosophical or religious arguments to the contrary. As with anything in science, there should be little fear in trying to explore how we perceive our reality. This does not and would not take away anything from religion and ideally religion will not try to take anything away from this field of research.
I don’t know about you, but it would be incredible to understand how you or I could perceive the world the way we do. At the very least there are medical aspects that research like this could help, things like depression, schizophrenia, or any other sort of disorder that affects the brain in that way could benefit from understanding how the brain perceives things. It will be interesting to see how quickly this research pans out. And now for your reading pleasure, Morgan Freeman:
Fascinating, no? Can’t get enough? Then you probably want the full study, which you can find —here!
Paller, K., & Suzuki, S. (2014). The source of consciousness Trends in Cognitive Sciences DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2014.05.012