Neuroscience: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness

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Generally speaking, when I have been involved in debates, discussions and research projects involving the concept of human consciousness over the years, the general consensus has been that there is no ‘proof’ that consciousness exists – despite the rather obvious contradiction that it is the capacity to be ‘conscious’ that has led to this paradoxical conclusion! It is often stated that if any part of the physical organ of the brain is examined, at no point can consciousness be identified, extracted and then measured. However, this is similar to looking at an inert bicep muscle and not be able to envisage it contracting to pick up a book, for example. Looking at organs with the naked eye is not always the best method to discern the full range of function of that organ, and so other methods (usually technological) are required. Of course, a deceased brain can only give details of its own anatomy, but a fully functioning brain grants access to its physiology. With the aid of various scanning devices the electrical activity of the brain can be clearly seen, mapped and analysed. This investigation has shown a correlation between conscious awareness and the operation of three areas of the brain, a) the Lateral Prefrontal Cortex, b) the (internal) Thalamus, and c) the Posterior Parietal Cortex:

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The Thalamus appears to act as a relay point between the Lateral Prefrontal Cortex and the Posterior Parietal Cortex – both recognised areas of higher thought. When brain function is impaired, these areas either cease to function entirely or in part. It is these areas that are much more developed in humans than in other animals, and despite the fact that the entirety of the brain function defines conscious existence, it is these highly specialised areas that appear to be the seat of consciousness. higher consciousness and awareness is the product of synaptic connection, the quantity of synaptic connection, and the quality of synaptic connection. What connects these nerve fibres is chemically produced and transmitted bio-electrical energy. Too little of this energy and the brain ceases to function properly, and too much of this energy leads to epileptic seizures. When viewed in this context, human consciousness is the product of a physical brain structure, and the interaction of bio-chemical (electrical) processes, produced and conditioned over millions of years (through the process of evolution via natural selection).

One theory of consciousness in the ‘global neuronal workspace’, which suggests that the brain receives data from the environment (via the senses) and unconsciously processes this information (through other regions). This information only becomes ‘conscious’ if there is a need for it to enter the prefrontal and parietal cortices, with these areas communicating with one another through ultra-fast brain waves. Another model that seeks to explain consciousness is the ‘information integration theory’, which states that consciousness is the combining of data in such a manner that it becomes more than its parts. Both theories agree that consciousness appears to be a matter of information processing through a coherent network of data transference, and that there is an ‘awareness’ of this process as a result. Consciousness is not just data, data gathering, data storage, data processing or data sharing – it is all these things and more. Consciousness is also the ‘awareness’ of this function in operation (hence human consciousness being defined as being greater than its parts).

Reference: New Scientist – Instant Expert – How Your Brain Works, John Murray Learning, (2017), Pages 113-124

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