Can Science Crack Consciousness?

Researchers seek to disentangle the complexity of the human mind from a cross-disciplinary perspective, but the phenomenon may be out of the reach of human understanding.

By Paul L. Nunez | November 1, 2016

PROMETHEUS BOOKS, NOVEMBER 2016Ever since I switched my research focus from theoretical physics to neuroscience many years ago, my professional life has focused on the “easy problem” of consciousness—exploring relationships between brain activity and mind. So-called signatures of consciousness, such as increased blood oxygen or electrical activity patterns in different brain regions, are recorded using several different imaging methods, including electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The “hard problem”— how and why neural activity produces our conscious awareness—presents a much more profound puzzle. Like many scientists and nonscientists alike, I have a long-running fascination with the mystery of consciousness, which serves as the inspiration for my latest book, The New Science of Consciousness.

A new approach to studying consciousness is emerging based on collaborations between neuroscientists and complexity scientists. Such partnerships encompass subfields of mathematics, physics, psychology, psychiatry, philosophy, and more. This cross-disciplinary effort aims to reveal fresh insights into the major challenges of both the easy and the hard problems. How does human consciousness differ from the apparent consciousness of other animals? Do we enjoy genuine free will or are we slaves to unconscious systems? Above all, how can the interactions of a hundred billion nerve cells lead to the mysterious condition called consciousness?

I recruit a number of analogies and metaphors, showing how brain behavior can be compared to the collective behaviors of other large-scale systems. Our global social system, for example, harbors novel features such as wars and economic depressions that emerge though they are absent from the small component parts. Similarly, many scientists believe that consciousness emerges from brain networks. But how is this possible?

My approach to both the easy and hard problems rests on the following conceptual framework, which is consistent with mainstream science: (1) human brains and minds are correlated; that is, many consciousness signatures have been discovered; (2) human brains and those of many other species are genuinely complex systems; (3) brains, like other complex systems, consist of nested hierarchies of subsystems that operate at different levels of organization (spatial scales); (4) accordingly, signatures of consciousness are observed over a wide range of scales; (5) multiple conscious, unconscious, and semiconscious entities coexist within each human brain; (6) interactions between these subsystems contribute substantially to making the human brain human.

This conceptual framework supports an idea called “the multiscale conjecture,” which posits that consciousness manifests at multiple levels of brain organization, from confined neural networks to large brain regions, and no single scale need be special. Thus, the various dynamic patterns of information observed as consciousness signatures may all contribute to the mind. In this view, consciousness is rooted in the dynamic patterns of multiple interacting scales.

Although fully consistent with peer-reviewed research, the multiscale conjecture allows room for both reductionist and nonreductionist interpretations. I approach the consciousness challenge with questions about a category beyond ordinary information—that is, ultra-information—defined broadly to include ordinary information, hidden physical processes, and consciousness. Thoughts, emotions, self-awareness, memory, and the contents of the unconscious are, by definition, categories of ultra-information whether or not these mental processes also involve ordinary information. This idea is fully consistent with modern physics, which tells us that some kinds of information are fundamentally unknowable. For example, all interpretations of quantum mechanics rely on the existence of some sort of hidden reality that we can never observe directly, but that nevertheless influences the familiar world that is available to our senses. This hidden reality has been given a number of fancy labels, including wavefunction collapse, many worlds, multiverse, implicate order, coherent histories, and more. By my definition, this hidden world contains ultra-information. Many have speculated that consciousness is somehow related to such hidden reality, but it appears that nobody really knows how this might occur. 

Paul L. Nunez is an emeritus professor of biomedical engineering at Tulane University and heads the small consulting firm Cognitive Dissonance LLC. Read an excerpt from The New Science of Consciousness.

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Avatar of: Telekinetic


Posts: 5

November 9, 2016

Only until you have an out-of-body experience, where your "consciousness" leaves your physical body will you be able to comprehend what it is, which is the most profound experience one can have!

Avatar of: Raman


Posts: 5

November 9, 2016

To know that [I am conscious or that I have consciousness], there is no need for a means of knowledge - for it is self-evident.  In the coma of one, observable by others, the residual brain activity is needed for just the blood to flow and heart to function.  All the sensory functions are gone (or nearly gone), because the mind (the mirror required for consciousness to be "observed") would be blank and dormant -- but it would get animated upon the "return" of consciousness.  In other words, no instrument can detect its presence or abscence and there can be no means of knowledge to study it, except its own "cooperation"!  In its Proximity, all the animate objects appear to show function.  Consciousness is Pragnanam in Sanskrit is one of the names given in the Hindu scripture("Pragnanam  Brahma" is one of the mahavakhyas [Great Sentence]) and most of us may refer to it as God.

Avatar of: tonyseb


Posts: 1

November 9, 2016

Calling consciousness the "hard problem" prejudices the question, since it may not be "hard" in the sense of being a non-cognitive function. Calling it "consciousness" further muddies the water, as that word is only an abstraction or normalization of a functional activity, namely that of experiencing events of reality consciously.

To experience something means to receive information from external or internal realities, then process the information in such a way as to lead to a response that accords with the fundamental biological imperative to survive and reproduce. Such experiencing may be performed non-consciously or consciously. To experience consciously means to receive the information that we otherwise experience non-consciously, then process that information in such a way, again, as to lead to a response that accords with the biological imperative to survive and reproduce.

You can scratch an itch non-consciously, i.e., without conscious awareness. But when you receive information that you are doing so, your experiencing it non-consciously becomes experiencing it consciously. 

Avatar of: Rdruhl


Posts: 9

November 9, 2016

How about this possibility? 

The brain is not the mind and the mind is not the brain, but the mind uses the brain, hence when the brain has a dysfunction, the mind cannot express itself. 

Avatar of: mightythor


Posts: 88

November 9, 2016

Too complicated.  Consciousness is basically a form of short term memory.  It has to do with temporal organization rather than spatial organization.  That's how you have to attack it.

"You don't realize how easy this game is until you get up in that broadcasting  booth."  -Mickey Mantle   : ))

Avatar of: Rachel Francon

Rachel Francon

Posts: 3

November 12, 2016

OMG..when you have nothing to say other than mash up the cliches of a few generations, why say it.  Uggghhh  This is a ragically silly pile-up of words....going in entirely the wrong direction (other than selling a book, which i presume is the right direction for some).  

Concsciousness?  OK What about it. What makes anyone think it is a relation of the human organism with itself akin to something like "awareness of itself"....The self' is a notion. The body is a notion. We may have awaerness of our body, but every organism has that.

We may speak about "consciousenss" as if its some kind of other "awareness" of self that orher organisms dont' have. But that is totally groundless. But then again we can speak of the devil as possessing people we meet as wel. So what/ Al

A point on the GPS is  real enough..since if we don't use it we won't get where we are going.  When we expand our organismic repertoire with enhanced  inguistic/logic functions of the newer areas of brain and cortex...we need to navigate in that way as well. The "sefl' is a way we navigate. It doesn't do the navigation.  

It is another kind of GPS system  thi  organisms has for winding our way down the road of language expression. It is not an awareness or some sort of quasi perceptual encounter or knowing or self observing orf any kind....but it is a useful device that our organism has,bulit up on the manner in which other mammals manage to know just where in the maze of life they are as they are running around looking for sugar....or money?  

Even a few sections already make someone concerned with genuinely tackling the problem feel like they are rubbernecking and driving past the incredible intellectual cartoon science carnage on the other side of the road.

Keep driving and eyes "ahead" on the road....and spare yourself looking at the contorted intellectual notions splattered along that other side of the road.

Avatar of: Raman


Posts: 5

November 14, 2016

You may want to explore this Youtube presentation on the Vastness of Consciousness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KS4aUfBRKx8 by Swamy Tadatmananda of Arsha Bodha Center (arshabodha.org).  Thanks!

Avatar of: Alexandru


Posts: 97

December 20, 2016

Can Science Crack Consciousness?

  Yes! The Science is the seventh divine candle (Revelation 3.14-22), the Spirit of truth (John 14.16-17), and can already control the consciousness.

"I’m extremely excited about the work going on in Ed Boyden’s lab at MIT. Being able to control consciousness through genetic engineering combined with electronics may be the most significant work human beings will ever do." (Austen Heinz - http://www.ipscell.com/2015/01/cambrian/)

If you carefully read my comments exposed on The Scientist Magazine about the similitude of paternal and maternal mitochondria with antennas of communications (especially the life creation procedure -

https://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/31691/title/Indiana-Senate-Backs-Creationism-Bill/), you can understand that “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Genesis 3.22)

Evil means the man without paternal mitochondria.

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