Philosophers, neuroscientists and laypeople have long wondered how the conscious mind comes to be. A more complete understanding of the workings of the brain ought to lead to an eventual solution.
Continuation from Blog Post from THE MIND EXTENSION
As millennium drew to a close, it is apparent that one question towers above all others in the life sciences; How does the set of processes we call mind emerged from the activity of or another for centuries. Once it became possible to pose the question and not be burned at the stake, it has been asked openly and insistently. Recently the question preoccupied both the experts neuroscientist, cognitive scientists and philosophers – and others who wonder about the origin of the mind, specify the conscious mind.
The question of the consciousness now occupies center stage because biology in general and neuroscience in particular have been so remarkably successful at unraveling a great many of life’s secrets. More may have been learned about the brain and the mind in the 1990s the so called decade of the brain than during the entire previous history of psychology and neuroscience. Elucidating the neurobiological basis of the conscious mind a version of the classic mind-body problem has become almost a residual challenge.
Contemplation of the mind may induce timidity in the contemplator, especially when consciousness became the focus of the inquiry. Some thinkers, expert and amateur alike, believe the question may be unanswerable in principle. For others, the relentless and exponential increase in new knowledge may give rise to a vertiginous feeling that no problem can resist the assault of science if only the theory is tight and the techniques are powerful enough. The debate is intriguing and even unexpected, as no comparable doubts have been raised over the likelihood of explaining how the brain is responsible for processes such as vision or memory, which are obvious components of the larger process of the conscious mind.
I am firmly in the confident camp: a substantial explanation for the mind’s emergence from the brain will be produced and perhaps soon. The giddy feeling, however, is tempered by the acknowledgment of some sobering difficultes.
Nothing is more familiar than the mind. Yet the pilgrim in search of the sources and mechanisms behind the mind embarks on a journy into a strange and extoic landscape. In no particular order, what follows are the main problems facing those who seek the biological basis for the conscious mind.
The first quandary involves the perspective one must adopt to study the conscious mind in relation to the brain in which we believe it originates. Anyone’s body and brain are observable to third parties; the mind though, is observable only to its owner. Multiple individual confronted with the same body or brain can make the same observations of that body or brain, but not comparable direct third person observation is possible for anyone’s mind. The body and its brain are public, exposed, external and unequivocally objective entities. The mind is a private, hidden, internal unequivocally subjective entity.
How and where then does the dependence of the first-person mind on a third-person body occur precisely? Techniques used to study the brain include refined brain scans and the measurement of patterns of activity in the brain’s neurons. The naysayers argue that the exhaustive compilation of all these data adds up to correlates of mental states but nothing resembling an actual mental state. For them , detailed observation of living matter thus leads not to mind by simply to the details of living matter. The understanding of how living matter generates the sense of self that is the hallmark of a conscious mind the sense that images in my mind are mine and are formed my perspective is simply not possible. This argument, though incorrect, tends to silence most hopeful investigators of the conscious mind.
To the pessimists, the conscious-mind problem seems so intractable that it is not even possible to explain why the mind is even about something-why mental processes represent internal states or interactions with external objects. (Philosophers refer to this respenstational quality of the mind with the confusing term ‘intentionality’) This argument is false.
The final negative contention is the reminder that elucidating the emergence of the conscious mind depends on the existence of that same conscious mind. Conducting an investigation with the very instrument being investigated makes both the definition of the problem and the approach to a solution especially complicated. Given the conflict between observer and observed, we are told the human intellect is unlikely to be up to the task of comprehending how mind emerges from brain. This conflict is real, but the notation that it is insurmountable is inaccurate.
In summary, the apparent uniqueness of the conscious-mind problem and the difficulties that complicate ways to get at the problem generate two effect; they frustrate those researcher committed to finding a solution and confirm the conviction of the others who intuitively believe that a solution is beyond reach.
Those who cite the inability of research on the living matter of the brain to reveal the substance of mind assume that the current knowledge of that living matter is sufficient to make such judgement final. This notion is entirely unacceptable. The current description of neurobiological phenomena is quite incomplete, any way you slice it. We have yet to resolve numerous details about the function of neurons and circuits at the molecular level; we do not yet grasp the behaviour of populations of neurons within a local brain region; and our understanding of the large-scale systems made up of multiple brain regions is also incomplete. We are barely beginning to address the fact that interactions among many noncontiguous brain regions probably yield highly complex biological states that are vastly more than the sum of their parts.
In fact, the explanation of the physics related to biological events is still incomplete. Consequently, declaring the conscious-mind problem insoluble because we have studied either neurobiology or its related physics. For example, at the finest level of description of mind, the swift construction, manipulation and superposition of many sensory images might require explanation at the quantum manipulation and superposition of many sensory images might require explanation at the quantum level. Incidentally, the notion of a possible role for quantum physic in the elucidation of mind, an idea usually associated with mathematical physicist Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford, is not an endorsement of his specific proposals, namely, that consciousness is based on quantum level of operations might help explain how we have a mind, but I regard it as unnecessary to explain how we know that we own that mind- the issue I regard as most critical for a comprehensive account of consciousness.
The strangeness of the conscious-mind problem mostly reflects ignorance, which limits the imagination and has the curious effect of making the possible seem impossible. Science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clark has said, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is distinguishable from ‘magic’. The ‘technology’ of the brain is so complex as they appear ‘magical’. or at least unknowable. The appearance of a gulf between mental states and physical/biological phenomena comes from the large disparity between two bodies of knowledge- the good understanding of mind we have achieved through centuries of introspection and the efforts of neuroscience. But there is no reason to expect that neurobiology cannot bridge the gulf. Nothing indicates that we have reached the edge of an abyss that would separate, in principle the mental form the neural.
Therefore, I contend that the biological processes now presumed to correspond to mind processes in fact mind processes and will be seen to be so when understood in sufficient detail. I am not denying the existence of the mind or saying that once we know what we need to know about the biological mind or saying that once we know what we need to know about biology of the mind ceases to exist. I simply believe that the private, persona mind precious and unique, indeed biological and will one day be described in terms both biological and mental.
The other main objection to an understanding of mind is that the real conflict between observer and observed makes the human intellect unfit to study itself. I tried, I feel I have succeeded in understanding and knowing my mind and the entity of the mind. It is important, however, to point out that the brain and mind are not a monolith’ they have multiple structural levels, and the highest of those levels creates instruments that permit the observation of the other levels. For example, language endowed the mind with the power to categorize and manipulate knowledge according to logical principle, and the helps us classify observations as true or false. We should be modest about the likelihood of ever observing our entire nature. But declaring defeat before we even make the attempt defies Aristotle’s observation that human beings are infinitely curious about their own nature.
There was a time where we were just curious of our nature. We have come to a time where you do not want to accept your nature. When one proclaims thy know my self, the observer should understand that they have come into awareness. Waking up to the world is understanding your senses and the awareness of the environment around you. You also become aware of the level of control that is projected over one’s mind. Those that do not understand the concept of the mind are afraid, call it supernatural, this is far from the truth. With the emergence of new sciences such as neuroscience we are able to prove that this a normal functioning and debunks the truth of self-actualization. That we don not die when we reach the top of the pyramid but in fact able to take into consideration all the tiers and their level of importance to exist.
Reasons of Optimism
My proposal for a solution to the conundrum of the conscious mind requires breaking the problem into two parts. The first concern is how we generate what I call a movie-in-the-brain. This movie is a metaphor for the integrated and unified composite of diverse sensory images-visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and others- that constitutes the multimedia show we call mind. The second issue is the self and how we automatically generate a sense of ownership for the movie-in-the-brain. Two parts of the problem are related, with the latter nested in the former. Separating them is a useful research strategy, as each require its own solution.
Neuroscientists have been attempting unwittingly to solve the movie-in-the-brain part of the conscious-mind problem for most of the history of the field. The endeavor of mapping the brain regions involved in constructing the movie began almost a century and half ago, when Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke first suggested that different regions of the brain were involved in processing different aspects of language. More recently, thanks to advent of ever more sophisticated tools, the effort has begun to reap handsome rewards.
Researchers can now directly record the activity of a single neuron or a group of neurons and relate that activity to aspects of a specific mental state, such as the perception of the colour red or a curved line. Brain-imaging techniques such as PET (positron emission tomography) scans and fmR (functional magnetic resonance) scans reveal how different brain regions in a normal living person are engaged by a certain mental effort, such as relating a word to an object or learning a particular face. Investigators can determine how molecules within microscopic neuron circuits participate in such diverse mental task, and they can identify the genes necessary for the production and deployment of those molecule.
Progress in these fields has been swift even since David. H. Hubel and Torsten Wiesel of Harvard University provided the first clue for how brain circuits represent the shape of a given object, by demonstrating that neurons in the primary visual cortex were selectively tuned to respond to edges oriented in varied angles. Hubel and Margaret S. Livingstone, also at Harvard, later showed that other neurons in the primary visual cortex respond selectively to color but not shape. Semir Zeki of University College London found that brain regions that receive sensory information after the primary visual cortex did were specialized for the further processing of color or movement. These results provided a counterpart to observations made in living neurological patients; damage to distinct regions of the visual cortices interferes with color perception while leaving discernment of shape and movement intact.
A large body of work, in fact, now points to the existence of a correspondence between the structure of an object as taken in by the eye and the pattern of neuron activity generated within the visual cortex of the organism seeing that object as taken in by the eye and pattern of neuron activity generated within the visual cortex of the organism seeing that object.
Further remarkable progress involving aspects of the movie-in-the-brain has led to increased insights related to mechanisms of learning and memory. In rapid succession, research has revealed that the brain uses discrete systems for different types of learning. The basal ganglia and the cerebellum are critical for the acquisition of skills, for example learning how to ride a bike or play a musical instrument; the hippocampus is integral to the learning of facts pertaining to such entities as people, places or events. And once facts are learned, the long-term memory of those facts relies on multicomponent brain systems, whose key parts are located in the vast brain expenses known as cerebral cortices.
Moreover, the process by which newly learned facts are consolidated in long-term memory goes beyond properly working hippocampus and cerebral cortices. Certain processes must take place, at the level of neurons and molecules, so that the neural circuits are etched, so to speak, with the impressions of a newly learned fact. The etching depends on strengthening or weakening the contacts between neurons, known as synapses. A provocative recent finding by Eric R. Kandel of Columbia University and Timothy P. Tully of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is that etching the impression requires the synthesis of fresh proteins, which in turn rely on the engagement of specific genes within the neurons charged with supporting that consolidated memory.
These brief illustrations of progress could be expanded with other revelations from the study of language, emotion and decision making. Whatever mental function we consider, it is possible to identify distinct parts of the brain that contribute to the production of a function by working in concert; a close correspondence exists between the appearance of a mental state or behaviour and the activity of selected brain regions. And that correspondences can be established between a given macroscopically identifiable region. (for example, the primary visual cortex, a language-related area or an emotion-related nucleus) and the microscopic neuron circuits that constitute the region.
Most exciting is that these impressive advances in the study of the brain are a mere beginning. New analytical techniques continuously improve the ability to study neural function at the molecular level and to investigate the highly complex large-scale phenomena arising from the whole brain. Revelations from those two areas will make possible even finer correspondences between brain states and mental states, between brain and mind. As technology develops and the ingenuity of researchers grows, the fine grain of physical structures and biological activities that constitute the movie-in-the-brian will gradually come into focus.
Confronting the Self
The momentum of current research on cognitive neuroscience, and the sheer accumulation of powerful facts, may well convince many doubters that the neural basis for the movie-in-the-brain can be identified. But the skeptics will still find it difficult to accept that the second part of the conscious-mind problem-the emergence of a sense of self-can be solved at all. Although I grant that solving this part of the problem is by no means obvious, a possible solution has been proposed and a hypothesis is being tested.
The main ideas behind the hypothesis involve the unique representational ability of the brain. Cells in the kidney or liver perform their assigned functional roles and do not represent any other cellular functions. But brain cells, at every level of the nervous system, represent enetitles or events occuming elsewhere in the orgasims. Brain Cells are assigned by design to be about other things and other doings. They are born cartographers of the geography of an organism and of the events that take place within that geography. The oft-quoted mystery of the international mind relative to the representation of external objects turns out to be no mystery at all. The philosophical despair that surrounds this intentionality hurdle alluded to earlier why mental states represent internal emotions or interactions with external objects-lifts with the consideration of the brain in a darwinian context evolution has crafted a brain that is the business of directly respensting the organism and indirectly representing whatever the organism interacts with.
The brain’s natural intentionality then takes us to another established fact; the bain possess devices within this structure that are designed to manage the life of the organism in such a way that the internal chemical balances indispensable for survival are maintained at all times. These devices are neither hyportheical nor abstract; they are located in the brain’s core, the brainstem and hypothalamus. The brain evisex that simulate life also represent, of necessity, the constantly changing states of the organism as they occur. In other words, the brain has a natural means to represent the structure and state of the whole living organism.
But how is it possible to move from such biological self to the sent of ownership of one’s thoughts, the sense that one’s thoughts are constructed in one’s own perspective, without falling into the trap if invoking an all-knowing homunculus who interprets one’s reality? How it it possible to know about self and surroundings? How is it possible to know about self and surroundings? I have argued that what happens at the biological foundation for the sense of self can be found in those brain devices that represent, moment by moment, the continuity of the same individual organism.
Simply put, hypothesis suggests that the brain uses structures designed to map both the organism and externa; objects to create a fresh, second-order representation. This representation indicates that the organism, as mapped in the brain, is involved in interacting with a n object, also mapped in the brain. The second-order representation is no abstraction; it occurs in neural structures such as the thalamus and the cingulate cortices.
Such newly minted knowledge adds important information to the evolving mental process. Specifically, it presents within the mental process the information that the organism is the owner of the mental process. It volunteers an answer to a question never posed: To whom is this happening? The sense of the self in the act of knowing is thus created, and the forms the basis for the first-person perspective that characterizes the conscious mind.
Again from an evolutionary perspective, the imperative for a sense of self becomes clear. As Willy Loan’s wife says in Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman: “Attention must be paid!’ Imagine a self-aware organism versus the same type of organism lacking it. A self aware organism has an incentive to heed the alarm signals provided by the movie-in-brain (for instance, pain caused by a particular object) and plan the future avoidance of such an object. Evolution of self rewards awarnessnes, which is clearly a survival advantage.
I would be foolish to make predictions about what can and cannot be discovered or about when something might be discovered and the route of a discovery. Nevertheless, It is probably safe to say that there is sufficient knowledge of biological phenomena that accepts the dualistic speratios of body/brain, body/mind and brain/mind.
Observers fear that by pinning down its physical structure something as precious and dignified as the human mind may be downgraded or varnish entirely. But explaining the origins and workings of the mind in biological tissue will not do away with the mind, and the awe we have for it can be extended to the amazing microstructure of the organism and to the immensely complex functions that allow such a microstructure to generate the mind. By understanding the mind at a deeper level, we will see it as nature’s most complex set of biological phenomenal rather than as a mystery within an unknown nature. The mind will survive explanation, just as a rose’s perfume, its molecular structure deduced, will still smell as sweet.