Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Understanding the Mind - Consciousness

Image result for consciousness

The great question of understanding consciousness became another of my favourite avenues of self directed scholarly study some years ago when I started this whole journey of research and discovery into the human brain and what drives "us". As with everything that goes into this blog, this was for two basic reasons; one was a pure joy and passion I found in studying the topic and taking part in or following discussions and sharing of information on what was happening in the world of consciousness studies and two, it became my very firm belief that a better understanding of consciousness was vital for better understanding the various mental experiences that make up any one case of a mental health disorder. We'll return to that in a moment. 

Better understanding consciousness is also the foundation for better understanding much of who "we" are; how we think, how we perceive, how we act, how we decide - or how (and why) we not do any of those. Any discussion on or understanding of the question of self-agency, AKA "free will", is not possible without a solid grasp of consciousness. The concept, study and understanding of consciousness is the very crux of what it is and means to be human. 

It is has been my driving passion for six years now to learn and understand as much as possible about the neurological basis for such things as thoughts, mental phenomenon, behaviours and even subjective reality as it will be various combinations of these "going awry" that will make up the symptoms of - and the suffering thereof - any mental health disorder (or what I am increasingly regarding as a neurological disorder). And so it has been in my pursuit of understanding consciousness and what it means to us

The study and understanding of consciousness - like all my study of the brain and human behaviour - is more than just an idle philosophical dalliance for me. Because I take all and every aspect of mental health so seriously, and because I so firmly believe that mental health disorders are so linked with our conscious experience, I take it - I think - more seriously or with greater urgency than most. For me there is very, very tangible real world "skin in the game". Endless debate and virtually empty discussion over the various competing theories that give us no kind of concrete understanding that we can apply to our lives are meaningless to me. I find, I confess, abstract philosophical discussion simply frustrating. 

As such, it has come to be my very firm position that we must let go of notions rooted long in the past, such as dualism; the pervasive and persisting belief most famously put forward by Descartes nearly 350 years ago that mind and conscious thought are somehow separate from the body and brain. An enormous amount has been learned in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience in the past twenty to thirty years (let alone since Descartes' time!) and it this veritable wealth of new information upon which we must base our modern understanding. 

There are libraries full of literature on this topic from the world of philosophy going back 2,000+ years along with thousands of research papers from the various (and often fiercely competing) fields of neuroscience. Needless to say even the briefest of summaries of all that has been written would stretch the boundaries of what we can fit into this piece. As interesting as a lot of that may be (and it certainly is), we are going to cheerfully (I hope) skip past the great majority of past musings and draw mostly from what the most advanced brain research in history and the modern neurological approach has discovered. Even that is rather voluminous but I shall endeavor to keep it as concise as I can while leading us to the most informed and illuminated understanding we can hope for from within the limited confines of space and time (not to mention mental bandwidth) we have available to us here.

I must add, before we move into the thick of things, that while I believe there is much to learn about the evolution of our consciousness by studying animal consciousness we are only going to be looking at human consciousness in this piece.

Without further ado then, let's bravely leap in. 

What is Consciousness?

Welcome to the question that has vexed the human mind for several millennia and which led to those libraries of volumes containing our long philosophical exploration of the question along with the more recent investigation using some of the most advanced scientific research methods in our history in quest of the answer.

Which is, in a word, elusive. 

To understand a bit more about why the answer eludes us so, to consider the general nature of "consciousness" is to explore the very essence of concepts such as "thought(s)", "mind", "subjective experience", "perspective", "attention", "mental states" and perhaps even "reality" itself. All of these, you will note, have no readily apparent concrete physicality to them, they are abstract concepts (all in quotation marks, by the way, because each in itself is a rather fluid term lacking consensus definitions). Though speculative claims are sometimes made, there is no one place in the brain for any of them for us to point at and say "Ah-ha! There it is!" 

This is greatly disconcerting to the scientific mind (of which our dear Descartes above was one) or any mind that tends to need hard knowable answers. The classical scientific mind is driven to reduce all problems down to knowable laws of physics, chemistry and mathematics. On the one hand this draws cries of "reductionism foul" or failing that what has led down the path to declaring some form of "dualism" (essentially that abstract aspects of the human mind or consciousness for which there is no apparent physical "spot" thus must somehow exist separate from our physical makeup).

Therefore consciousness widely being regarded - by some of the most brilliant minds we have, mind you - as the "hard problem"

The renowned British psychologist Stuart Sutherland, perhaps in a less generous mood during one of his phases (1), once wrote of consciousness in the International Dictionary of Psychology, "The term is impossible to define without a grasp of what consciousness means ... nothing worth reading has been written about it".

Nonetheless, we must remain undaunted so on we tread.

As I sometimes like to do in looking to grasp something difficult, to better understand what consciousness is let's touch a bit on what it isn't. For that it is required to understand a little about two concepts: the subconscious and what it is to be unconscious. While these terms are often used interchangeably (along with preconscious and nonconscious) for our understanding here today we need to think of them differently. 

Let's start with "unconscious". To be unconscious is to be unaware of most if not all outside stimuli (sight, sound, smells, touch) such as when we are sleeping (though this varies somewhat depending on the phase of sleep) and even inner stimuli (IE: thoughts, feelings, imagination, etc). This can also be as a result of fainting or a concussion during which a person will be "blacked out" and unresponsive to any stimuli nor have any memory of the time while unconscious or it can be while we are under general anaesthetic for surgery or, most seriously, in certain states of coma (conscious studies have discovered not all states of coma are alike and that many patients in apparent coma are much more conscious than previously thought). 

To not be in any of those states then is to be conscious, which is to be experiencing varying levels of awareness of what all five of our senses plus that increasingly well known "second brain" in the gut are bringing in along with the "stuff of mind"; thoughts (much of which is random), imagination, reasoning, mental tasks such as mathematics, composing and writing, specific directed thoughts on myriad aspects of our lives, the world, problems, purposeful interactions with others and so on.

What we generally refer to as the "subconscious" is rather a different matter.

It is impossible to overstate just how much of what's going on in our brains that drives our behaviours, decisions, thoughts and so on lies "beneath the surface" (hence "sub") of our conscious awareness and control. This is just in the brain itself, never mind how much goes on between the brain and body and even the brain and its environment at any given point. The ratio of subconscious goings on to what we are consciously aware of and/or working on at any one time is staggeringly high. Whatever consciousness is, however we define it or whatever we do with it or how we experience it at any one time, it is a very thin veneer on top of an enormously complex and deep amount of subconscious brain activity. 

To even tap slightly beneath the surface of that veneer would really overtax our time and space here so for the time being we're just going to take at face value what virtually all of neuroscience and cognitive psychology study has revealed in enormous amounts of research and experiments in the last several decades - all that is "you" and whatever you experience is made up by and controlled by the astronomically tangled and complex anatomy and biology that is our brain activity along with nearly unfathomably intricate and ever ongoing interplay between our DNA and environment (Eagleman, Dahaene, Sapolsky, and countless others). 

Somehow what we experience as consciousness both "emerges" from all that brain activity yet paradoxically seems not quite part of it either. You should now be starting to appreciate more why it's the "hard problem". 

I think then that it may be more useful for us to not think of what it "is" but more what it "seems to be". 

Let's begin then with some (very) brief summaries of how some of the current great minds in neuroscience approach this wacky elusive brain and mental phenomenon we call "consciousness". 

The popular neuroscientist David Eagleman in his book Incognito took what I think is one of the more practical and straight forward approaches to explaining consciousness so we're going to start there and build on that. To repeat (and perhaps rephrase somewhat) what I wrote in a previous piece regarding consciousness, Eagleman simplifies the essential purpose of the brain by stating that "the brain is in the business of gathering information and steering behaviour appropriately" and, to that end, that "consciousness developed because it was advantageous (in the classic evolutionary success sense), but advantageous only in limited amounts".

We shall revisit that a little later but to flesh out better what it is about consciousness that makes it "advantageous" let's dig a bit deeper.

Some years ago the neuroscientists Francis Crick (he of the double helix structure of DNA fame) and Christof Koch wondered why, if our brains are just a bunch of specialized autonomous "programs" burned into our neuronal circuitry, are we aware of anything at all. Their answer, and Eagleman would build on this, was that consciousness existed as a means to "control" or "distribute control" over all the various "programs" our brains could run at any one time in response to any given situation as opposed to countless other species whose brains' circuitry and "programs" work remarkably similar fashion to ours. 

[Beware the use of the word "control" here, however; neither Crick and Koch nor Eagleman mean that word in the sense that is used regarding "free will" control.]

They, and others, see consciousness as a sort of "CEO" of the "large corporation" that is our brain (many different departments, levels and machinations, etc), or we might think of it as the "conductor" of the "orchestra" of our brain activities. Note that both a corporation or an orchestra can operate on their own but a CEO or conductor are necessary to exert "executive control" to give all the parts a concerted direction, coordination and smooth operation. We'll come back to this notion of "executive control" a little later in the more cognitive neuroscience sense of the term. 

Let's now consider some of the more highly regarded theories of consciousness which explore its role a little deeper.

First put forward in 1999, we have Antonio Damasio's three layered model of consciousness which works on a hierarchy from most basic to a highest level that I feel ties in well with our evolutionary development. We start with what he terms the "protoself" in which the brain seeks the basic elements required for survival and homeostatis on a moment by moment basis, something shared by most species. At a higher order, we have what he calls "core consciousness" where there is an awareness of feelings associated with changes in body state (or homeostatis). At this level the organism is capable of a greater sense of "self" (this is where we begin the argument for animal consciousness) as it responds to internal and external stimuli and feelings and moves from largely unconscious states and reactions to experiencing patterns of images that "float into the organism's awareness". From this the organism's mind is able to create and respond to a greater sense of relation to its self and objects around it albeit limited to the here and now present. This level is shared by many species and does not require language nor does it involve long term memory or a sense of past or future (personal note, I think there's something from the studies of animal consciousness and cognition to add here). 

Atop of protoself and core consciousness we have "extended consciousness" which requires vastly different memory capacity and function, a full sense of past, present and future, along with much higher order cognition. It would appear that we homo sapiens stand alone with this level (though we are capable of operating at all three levels). 

While Damasio's model is useful for understanding how our present level of human consciousness got to where it is (and if you dig deeper into this hierarchy, you'll see the three levels match up to the three levels of the Triune Brain), it still doesn't adequately sate our hunger for a deeper understanding of what it is that we experience as consciousness. 

To look a little more into that we will now consider one of the most enduring and widely cited theories of consciousness, that of Bernard Baars's Global Workspace. (2) In this model consciousness is a form of brain-wide "information sharing" brought together in a "workspace" where it is attended to (in ways we'll look at a little more below). This model fits in well with the aforementioned concepts of "top down CEO control" put forward by Eagleman, Crick and Koch and others. 

While intimately related, Baars also carefully distinguishes attention from consciousness; the former being more of a "bottom up" process for sifting through the tremendous amount of "data" brought to our brains via our sensory equipment and prioritizing what needs to be attended to whereas the latter is the higher order "top down" executive functions of how to attend to a prioritized matter of attention - plan, decide between options and so on - and to set other areas of the brain into action. For the former think mostly the limbic region, for the latter we're talking mostly prefrontal cortex. Or using Damasio's model, awareness is more at the "core consciousness" level, the conscious processing Baars proposes being "extended consciousness". 

Though not to be confused with Baars' theory, similarly titled and similar in concept, is Stanislas Dehaene's Global Neuronal Workspace model of consciousness. His work very much pays homage to and builds on Baars' ideas of global information access and broadcasting.

He brings some clarity to the aforementioned "confused state of affairs" by asserting that contemporary science distinguishes a minimum of three concepts: "vigilance" - the state of wakefulness which varies when we fall asleep or wake up; "attention" - the focusing of our mental resources onto a specific piece of internal or environmental information; and "conscious access" - the fact that some of the attended information rises from the unknown subliminal processing entering our awareness to become "reportable". He firmly argues that it is this "conscious access" where the rubber meets the road in defining the human experience of consciousness, furthermore that it can easily be studied in the laboratory. He along with his research partners have for more than two decades put enormous amounts of highly sophisticated lab work into demonstrating just that - how subconscious brain wide neuronal "information sharing and processing" moves from the subliminal to the conscious "workspace" of our minds. His work is very impressive and very compelling. We'll touch on a bit of that below. 

In his view it is this basic element of "conscious access" that is the gateway to the more complex forms of conscious experience many of us think of and which have inspired so much philosophical navel gazing (our sense of self, this "I" that can look down on itself, comment on itself and so on, knows what it knows and doesn't know). He happily reports that even these higher order meanings are no longer inaccessible to the lab. 
In each of these models for human consciousness we too see suggested an element of "control" and organization and direction over our cognitive and emotional capacities along with plans, actions and so on based on those. 

Now, if that all seems like it's making sense and you're breathing a sigh of relief thinking "phew, I am a conscious being after all", we must consider this; there are those from the arenas of philosophy who argue - quite compellingly - that consciousness may well be an illusion (for many similar reasons as to why "free will" is an illusion). These include philosophers such as Daniel Dennet and Thomas Nagel. Given how much of what we individually perceive as "reality" is an illusion and how difficult this whole business is of pinning down any physical basis for consciousness and how much our conscious experience is related to our sense of reality, it would appear to be pretty hard to argue against this. 

Yet, as even the consciousness as an illusion proponents will say, it's a necessary illusion (at least for we homo sapiens) and our individual subjective realism is real enough to us. As is the reality that goes on all around us as we try to navigate through our life spans on earth.

Those who question the very existence of consciousness notwithstanding, it seems to be this odd metacognition sense of "self" that we have (hence subconscious pioneer Sigmund Freud's concept of "ego") and self-awareness ("I think therefore I am"), a more highly aware "arena" in which we "think or plan things through" (theories by Baars and Dehaenes cited above), a higher sense of our feelings and thoughts and experiences and what those mean to not only ourselves but those around us, a vastly more sophisticated view of our surroundings and environments in comparison to other creatures' conscious abilities (or lack thereof), a vastly more complex sense of time past, present and future and abilities to plan actions based on those, higher cognitive abilities, greatly more sophisticated means of communication, to imagine - and then create - things that do not or did not exist and so on. 

So whether or not consciousness is "a thing" (physically identifiable and thus not an illusion), it is, to come back to Eagleman's pragmatic understanding, "advantageous" to our day to day actions and survival and it does (or can) help in how our brains "gather information and steer behaviour appropriately" as we move from cradle to grave. I think too that by now you may be sensing a growing appreciation for the kinds of all out "turf wars" there are in the fields of consciousness studies.

That said, speaking of identifying consciousness physically, 

Where does consciousness come from?

Ah-ha! This makes the problem of defining consciousness look like child's play. Searching for the physical properties in the brain (and body) of consciousness has created - quite literally - a multi-billion dollar industry (there's gold in them thar hills!). 

Nonetheless, in a process that mirrors evolutionary progress itself, "successes" do emerge from the chaos and failures. 

As I've stated from the beginning, whatever we are, whoever we are, or who we imagine we are, or how we think, act, emote, bond, etcetera or not do any of those things will all be "created" by that 3.1 blob of tofu like substance between our ears which is (and I don't doubt there are those that are tiring of me saying this) the most complex organism in the four billion year history of life on earth and in the known (emphasis on known) universe. 

There simply exists no credible evidence to indicate anything else. 

Now, as we look at the neurological factors that are possibly involved in "giving rise to consciousness" and/or "conscious experience" I'd ask you to bear in mind that those are two related but distinctly different concepts we're talking about. Recall that to "be conscious" is the opposite of being in a state of unconscious, IE: in deep sleep, blacked out from a fainting spell or blow to the head, under an anaesthetic or possibly in a coma. "Conscious experience" is that "moving picture show" and ongoing dialog in your head that comes "to life" when you are conscious. 

To be conscious is at least somewhat straightforward. 

For these types of "seats" and "switches" for consciousness we must journey deep down into the lower limbic region and brain stem to look at two such possibilities (among others). It is here where we'll find the thalamus which a great deal of research has closely implicated as being key to "switching off" consciousness (such as when anaesthetized).

Further on the thalamus, fascinating recent research into a specific subregion, the central lateral thalamus, produced strong evidence of correlation between stimulation or activity in the CLT and specific layers of the cortex in producing conscious states. 

Deeper yet we will find a very small nodule with a rather cumbersome name, the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentumResearch on brain lesions in this area revealed that damage here resulted in coma or lack of consciousness. No consciousness, obviously no conscious experience. Hurrah, we have our "seat of consciousness" (or seats if we also include the thalamus). 

Not so fast. We share these two nodules with all mammals so while these may well be the "seats" of consciousness in the sense of being fully awake, aware and functioning, this is not precisely the sense of consciousness that gives rise to "I think therefore I am" that has vexed us so. 

For that sense of consciousness, it is, as we'll see and as I say about many mental functions, "everywhere and nowhere". 

As I originally conceived this piece and how to demonstrate that, I thought we'd look at a number of neuroanatomical and neurobiological features and functions of the brain and imagine what would happen if we "subtracted" those or made them disappear from our brains. 

Forgive me in advance if this seems to mirror much of what we saw in Neuroanatomy 101

The best known feature of the brain is neurons. It'd be a bit silly to imagine subtracting all neurons from the brain because there simply wouldn't be a brain at all (let alone a conscious one). There are many types of neurons, however, some more critical to the higher sense of consciousness we're examining than others. For brevity's sake we'll focus today on the pyramidal neurons. These are among the largest neurons in the brain and have unique and often very far reaching axon and dendrite extensions as well as being some of the most widely connected neurons. Research both old and new demonstrates that they are critical for higher cognitive processing. As they are the most populous of the excititory class of neurons (as opposed to inhibitory neurons), they have been demonstrated to be key to something known as "global ignition" - a mass of brain cells reaching action potential in large coordinated ways leading to - tada - us consciously experiencing a piece of heretofore subliminal brain activity (Dehaenes). 

Damage to these neurons is highly implicated in several neurological diseases and cognitive decline or impairment. 

Next in the very basics of neuroanatomy is the "wiring" and "connections": axons, dendrites and synapses. You could have a brain with all 86-odd billion neurons in brilliant good functioning health but if they aren't connected to one another, needless to say not a lot is going to happen; including, obviously, consciousness (of any kind). Thus if we see synaptic connections disappear, we'll see memory loss, cognitive decline, along with many of the other mental phenomenon we associate with conscious experience. No need to point out that the myriad of neurobiology involved in making synaptic connections "work" each and all play critical roles without which, again, we have no consciousness at all, never mind the experience of such. 

At a larger "wiring" scale, we have the brain's white matter or "connectome". This "wiring harness" of long axons carries or directs signalling between all brain regions (which are neuronal groups and nodules large and small). Connectome expert the neuroscientist Sebastian Seung argues quite passionately (naturally, it being his specialty) that while many brain areas are important for consciousness the connectome is the "stream bed" of consciousness. That's pretty hard to argue against given that without lightening fast brain wide communication through hundreds of channels between hundreds of brain regions you wouldn't experience much of anything and certainly nothing resembling normal consciousness. 

Yes, I know, these elementary basics may all seems tediously obvious but it is just to drive home the point that there is no one "seat" of consciousness. 

One more elementary brain area and function then we'll get onto some "sexier" brain stuff involved in consciousness. 

That would be everything to do with the stress response system. 


Let's say you're driving along in your car on an average day. As your stream of conscious experience tends to all kinds of trivial matters, your subconscious "zombie programs" are busily taking care of almost everything to do with navigating your car through traffic. So, you're humming away to that tune on the radio, with thoughts of work on your mind, an earlier argument with your partner, the previous night's baseball scores and on and on. 

Suddenly, ahead of you, a large semi trailer unit has lurched sideways and a 300 pound truck tire is rolling and bouncing straight for your car. Before you consciously perceive this, your stress response system has already "taken the wheel" - literally and figuratively - and several hundred thousands of a second before the danger has penetrated your conscious access your feet and hands have already begun to respond. From there "you" are not in control (as much as it may "feel" like you are) but all kinds of deep burned in brain circuitry, now fully guided by the stress response system, in reflex action is doing everything possible to avoid that truck tire. 

Your car brakes and veers, the tire and other traffic is miraculously avoided and "you" find yourself safely pulled to the side of the road breathing very heavily and perhaps wondering what the hell just happened. 

It is here where we see what Eagleman meant by consciousness being "advantageous only in limited amounts". It is these kinds of situations where conscious focus elsewhere gives you a good chance of getting killed and thus not very advantageous in the evolutionary sense. 

So if part of consciousness means what our brains put on our "conscious awareness plate", millions of years of evolutionary forces have shaped our stress response system to "take the wheel" of conscious control in times of danger. 

If we are in the camp that human consciousness is different or more evolved than animal consciousness, it then behooves us to look at and consider some anatomical features that set the human brain apart from all others. 

If we were to compare the cerebral cortex of several higher order mammal species and that of homo sapiens, we would see in the latter very pronounced bumps and fissures known as sulci and gyri respectively that are not seen in the former. These are the result of the unique way that the outer cortex of the human brain develops and is "folded" into the skull. What this means is that a far greater volume of the higher functioning cerebral cortex fits into the smaller space of the human skull. It is also believed that these folds allow different lobes to "communicate" or coordinate with each other more efficiently and quickly through brain waves. 

Following that it is quite possible that this feature of the human brain helps give rise to human conscious functioning.

Also unique from our evolutionary forebears is the most advanced bit of "brain ware" in existence - the vaunted prefrontal cortex of we homo sapiens. It is here that we find what cognitive neuroscientists refer to as "executive function"; the abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine comparatives (good and bad, better and best for example), future consequences of present activities and higher predictive abilities, goal directed actions and expectations based thereon, and social control (the ability to suppress urges that could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes). It is here that "willpower" is exercised or not and, quite interestingly, the "will to live".

So, if we return to where we started with the theories of consciousness that suggest "control" or "planning" and cognitive processes that we see in Global Workspace theory and similar theories, is the prefrontal cortex the "seat of consciousness"? Some in the fields of conscious study say so. But proper PFC functioning depends on healthy neurons and synaptic connections, strong connectivity through the connectome and ... well, every other detail we've touched on (not to mention oceans of finer detailed neuro-activity). Indeed, when we see neurodegeneration in these areas, we see marked decline in conscious processing and even experience.  

Theories on the purpose of and function of consciousness in the human brain often refer to learning processes or conscious effort in problem solving (and planning, etc) or various types of deliberation involved in decisions . Learning might be a new skill or routine; driving a car or a different commuting route to a new job, for example. At work or at home we may have to find solutions to problems or issues, take part in short and long term planning and make minor and major decisions. In each many aspects may have to be weighed all of which requires much conscious deliberation. Learning something new (in)famously can take much conscious effort before the skills and new information is "burned into" our neuronal circuitry where it begins to come more "naturally" without so much conscious effort.  

If we apply Baars' Global Workspace theory, these processes will heavily involve working memory, not to mention other executive function "cognitive tools" we saw above in the PFC. Working memory, sometimes referred to as short term memory, itself has a neuronal basis and areas in the brain and both "recalls" and "stores" information related to the task. As such there will be great interplay between it and long term memory for which we must return to the limbic region and the hippocampus from and through which all manner of information is "stored and recalled" throughout the brain. Higher cognitive tasks such as we see in GWT seldom work in an emotional vacuum, therefor many brain regions to do with emotions will also be activated in these conscious processes. Motivation and possible reward will also play roles as we soldier through higher conscious processes and that brings into play dopamine related pathways that stretch from the brain stem right up the frontal lobes (and many "stops" in between). Imagination is often greatly applied to conscious processes as we visualize this solution or that plan and so on. This too draws on brain wide neuronal networks. 

So even in a relatively precise model of consciousness like Baars' (and/or related or similar models) we can see it would appear to be rather a hopeless task to pin down any "seat" or "center" of consciousness as so much coordinated neuronal activity between far flung brain regions is involved, hence the "global" aspect of the theory.  

Aaahh, but let's look a little deeper at this idea of "coordinated neuronal activity". We can only touch on a few examples here. 

Located in the general area of the insula (roughly in front of the tops of your ears) is an enigmatic and seemingly nondescript sheet like neuronal structure called the claustrum. (For some of the best research work on the claustrum and consciousness we must return to our dynamic duo of Crick & Koch). Unimposing in structure, it occupies a mere one quarter of one percent of our cerebral cortex. Yet - yet! - remarkably, it turns out it's "very well connected" as it receives input from almost all areas of the cortex and projects back to almost all areas of the cortex. 

Again, if are looking at globally coordinated brain activity as being critical to the human experience of consciousness and consciously directed effort, this inconspicuous sheet of "brain ware" appears to be a significant "orchestrater".

To depart from strict neuronal basis of consciousness and/or conscious experience or activity, a very interesting approach to explaining consciousness "came across my desk" a few weeks ago based on energy. While the model of that theory may seem a bit "out there" I can imagine little argument against the fact of how energy dependent the brain is. Individual neurons don't "fire" without energy, let alone any task specific group of neurons or coordinated activity between them nor can axons do their thing without enormous amounts of energy. Very very elementary, dear Watson. From there then we must include everything in our body that brings energy to the brain - nutrients and oxygen to name two elementary basics - and most importantly those little "energy engines" of all cells and most critically, brain cells - mitochondria (a personal favourite of mine). I hardly need to point out then that any kind of brain function, let alone consciousness, will grind to a darkened halt without energy. 

Related to energy, we cannot ignore the role(s) of brain waves in conscious processes and experiences. While not without controversy (granted, nothing about any kind of brain function is without controversy, if not outright academic wars), growing bodies of research - such as those cited and summarized here - indicated that beta and gamma wave activity are strongly associated with - tada - the kind of brain wide coordination of neuronal activity that gives rise to conscious perception of previously subliminal brain activity as well as selection and flow of neuronal based information. Research from MIT has found evidence that low frequency beta waves help control "what we think" and working memory which leads back to the theories of consciousness from Baars and Lehaene we briefly looked at. 

Electrical activity in the brain takes us into the arena of physics which is a whole other ball of wax that is quite beyond our space here today.

There are of course dozens of other theories and approaches for understanding consciousness from those involving quantum mechanics to panpsychism to collective consciousness that while worth looking at, we just can't get to today. 

I think, however, that one may now get the idea that consciousness and conscious experience are "everywhere and nowhere" in the brain; it's all global brain activity involving virtually all aspects of brain matter and function (everywhere) with no one "seat" or "center" responsible for all of what it is (nowhere). 

For the record, I am of the belief that as intractable a problem understanding human consciousness is it is solvable. Researchers from (again) Crick & Koch to Dehaene and many others are of this mind as well.

Also for the record, I am exceedingly (and painfully) aware - or conscious of, if you will - that I could only touch on some major theories in the briefest manner possible and as such could not do them the justice they deserve. With that in mind, I can only hope the piece was thought provoking and inspires further reading into those mentioned here. There are also vast amounts of fascinating and highly relevant neuroanatomical and neurobiological detail that I had to leave out as well. Perhaps another time soon.


If you made it this far, I applaud you yet you're probably wondering why the hell you should care about all this philosophical and neuroscientific obsession with something nobody can "see" or come to any consensus understanding. To try answer that I am going to reiterate what the position of this blog has been since the outset. 

One, we do not create our conscious experiences and behaviours. All the evidence - and I do mean all - points to those being created in a vastly complex relationship between brain activity, on going genetic activity and environmental conditions and circumstances (to put it as concisely as possible). The less we understand this, the more we deny this (as individuals, as a society, as a species) the more we will fruitlessly blame ourselves and others for thoughts, actions, reactions, behaviours, inabilities and so on that are very difficult to control, the less chance we have of leading people - and you - out of the woods of everything from mental health disorders to all kinds to addictions to a great deal of what is considered "criminal" behaviour. 

Two, it has been a long percolating theory of mine that most if not all "mental illnesses" are in fact "disordered conscious experiences"; a fully healthy functioning brain gives rise to healthy conscious experience and the ability to properly regulate unhealthy mental states, thoughts and behaviours, a brain that is somehow not functioning at optimal levels gives rise to an unhealthy or disordered conscious experience and increasing difficulties to properly regulate unhealthy mental states, thoughts and behaviours, or in other words everything that makes up the symptoms of a given psychiatric disorder or might be involved in other behaviours that run against the grain of modern society. 

Three, I strongly suggest that learning to better understand consciousness and your subjective (or individual) conscious experience is to better understand all the shifting mental states, reactions and behaviours and their power over "you" that make up whatever psychiatric or mood disorder you may be dealing with and more importantly how you can gain more "top down executive control" over them. 

It is at this intersection of subconscious brain activity and consciousness experience and conscious "executive control" where we learn what we can control and what we have difficulty controlling. It is at the intersection of the almost infinitely varied human brain and subjective conscious experience that we must learn to truly understand individual differences. Everything I have done to improve my own mental states, thoughts and behaviours - and life - have been based on exactly this.

Thank you as always for reading. 

1 - As great as he was in the emerging field of cognitive psychology, Stuart Sutherland also lived with manic depressive disorder (today known as bipolar disorder) and like many of us, suffered from - and the resultant reputation brought on by - fearsome swings of mental states. Which makes him rather a kindred spirit. 

2 - On a personal note regarding Bernard Baars; for a magical time in early to mid 2016 I had the great fortune and honour of not only "meeting" him via online means (his personal assistant was a long good online friend of mine) but developing a collaborative relationship (for a project that unfortunately did not come to fruition) in which he also tutored me on the meaning and exploration of consciousness. However, this relationship had nothing to do with the inclusion of his theory here; it simply remains one of the most widely cited and influential theories of consciousness.