Book Excerpt from The New Science of Consciousness

In Chapter 1, author Paul L. Nunez sets the stage for a scientific exploration of the inky depths of consciousness.

By | November 1, 2016

PROMETHEUS BOOKS, NOVEMBER 2016The Deep Mystery of Consciousness 

The challenge of consciousness is uniquely curious. I am conscious, but what about you? We have no direct experience of any consciousness other than our own. We infer that others share similar kinds of internal experiences mainly because they look, behave and talk as we do. These similarities encourage the belief that others are aware of their own existence, thoughts, and environment just as we are. But, how much do we really know about the internal experiences of others? How do you experience a Mozart concerto, a bungee jump, a cockroach in your kitchen,   or a nude person surprising you in an elevator? What about your dog or cat? What kinds of internal experiences do they have? Or, in the colorful words of one philosopher, “What is it like to be a bat?”

The word “self” in this book’s subtitle suggests that even if consciousness emerges from brain complexity as believed by most scientists, the very existence of the phenomenon of self-awareness remains a deep mystery. The title also suggests that self-awareness involves developments beyond mind; some lower animals can have “minds” but apparently lack a sense of “self.” In other words, lower animals probably have “primary consciousness,” an awareness of their current environment. They may, however, lack the “higher consciousness” of higher animals, that is, those with awareness of self and its relation to the past, present, and future. If this distinction is indeed valid, just where do we draw the line separating higher from lower animals? Most of us think that dolphins, chimps, and dogs are conscious. But to what extent are they conscious and how are humans unique?

The phenomenon of consciousness is the major unsolved challenge of our age. Not only do we not have answers, we are often unsure of the right questions. This is not to say that the study of consciousness lies outside the province of science. The consciousness challenge may be divided into two parts, the so-called easy problem and the hard problem. The easy problem is concerned with the various electrical or chemical measures of brain functions that occur in different brain states. These measures, called conscious correlates or signatures of consciousness, are indicated symbolically in fig. 1-1, where the lighted regions might indicate any one of several kinds of brain activity. For example, what happens to blood oxygen levels in different brain regions when we recognize a face or carry out some task? Or, how do electrical patterns over the brain change between waking and sleeping or with various depths of anesthesia?  How do brain injuries or diseases that afflict certain brain structures change our consciousness? What causes autism, schizophrenia, or Alzheimer’s disease?  And the really big question—how can the massive interactions between nerve cells (neurons), shown in fig. 1-2, determine our thoughts and behaviors?

No one questions that these studies of conscious correlates represent legitimate science. By contrast, the hard problem is concerned with the very existence of the amazing phenomenon of conscious experience. Many scientists do not consider the hard problem to be a scientific problem at all; they would leave this issue at the feet of philosophers. We will look into this controversy from several perspectives in the following chapters. Suffice it to say, our scientific knowledge about how brains work grows every day, yet a central theme that permeates our story is the delicate balance between knowledge and ignorance: how much we know, but how little we know of consciousness.

Brains are “complex” in the manner understood in the field of complexity science, an exciting new approach adopted to study everything from social systems to ecology to economics to weather patterns. Plausible assumptions about the underlying causes for various healthy and disease states of brains are suggested by analogy to other complex systems that are better understood and more easily visualized, for example human and animal social systems. Human social networks interact with each other in many complex ways; they are also embedded within larger cultures that act top-down on the local networks. The profound idea of top-down influences across multiple levels of organization applies to many areas of science as well as our everyday lives. We will return to this issue many times in later chapters, but the following outline summarizes the general idea.

Our interactions with friends on religious, political, financial, and other issues are likely to be substantially influenced by larger systems like the mass media or the culture of our local geographic region as indicated in fig. 1-3. The arrows, both vertical and horizontal, indicate top-down influences across levels of organization.  Are you a Democrat or Republican? Are you a born again Christian or an atheist? Regardless of our beliefs, the activities of any of our many overlapping social networks are likely to look quite different in Texas than in California. To take a more obvious example, imagine that one of your social networks in the United States were to be suddenly transported to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi laws and customs would provide major top-down influences. Ask your wife to drive you to the airport? Forget it. Meet with friends to have drinks at a local restaurant?  Don’t even think about it. Such top-down social interactions provide useful and intriguing metaphors for the brain’s neural networks, which are similarly influenced by top-down effects. As discussed in later chapters, top-down influences on neural networks originate from both inside and outside the brain as indicated in fig. 1-4. With such metaphors in mind, one might label this approach to brain science as neuron sociology.

From The New Science of Consciousness: Exploring the Complexity of Brain, Mind, and Self By Paul L. Nunez, published by Prometheus Books. Copyright by Paul L. Nunez, 2016.

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