What neuroscience has to say about consciousness:

Do we have free will or we are a bunch of neuronal circuits?

The complexity of our biology is greater than our ability to understand it, it doesn’t seem to be intuitive and we need to use experimental resources to achieve any fragment of this vast knowledge. Each person’s brain has 86 billion of neurons and trillions of synapses and we are trying to figure it out where is consciousness or, at least, any biological place to dictate it existence. Do we know what is consciousness? This is the first problem in this journey. How can we investigate something so difficult to describe and so obvious to us at the same time?

Psychology and neuroscience share a common definition talking about consciousness, it is our ability to focus attentional processes in the environment and within ourselves. Like a system which principal function is to guide our behavior to survive and reproduce.  Like the Attention Schema Theory (AST) said, consciousness arises in our evolution as a solution of one of the most complicated problem that face any high capacity computational system “too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed”.

Antonio Damasio, who is a Portuguese-American neuroscientist and university professor, consider it as a divide experience but a whole one. If an organism is capable of mental representations and it has neuronal pathways it will experience “something” about itself, if this organism can recognize its feelings, thoughts, and the differences between environment and other creatures, we can start talking about the core of consciousness. Damasio also described a higher level called extended consciousness which gives evidence of attention over a large domain of information that is present, not just in the external environment but also internally, in the environment of its mind. This organism becomes consciously aware of feelings associated with changes occurring to its internal bodily state and it can recognize that his thoughts are his own.

The first philosophical problem we experienced reading this academic division is that we hardly recognize more than one consciousness, in a daily life we watch it fading or getting clear as a spectrum. We cannot separate it “one from another” we just experience one way to be here in the world. Sometimes things seem obscure, blurred when you are falling asleep; clear and sparkly when you drink coffee or melted and fuzzy while drinking alcohol. It is the same consciousness being exposed to different states and moments but we cannot divide it, at least in a common day without a strong introspection. However, we can easily describe the feeling of being conscious and unconscious “it’s like I just stop existing and then I open my eyes” “I don’t know where I am and then I am fully aware of myself again”. Being unconscious is related to seeing everything black, numb and cold, we can describe the very beginning and the very end of it and we are certain that there is a moment where we stop receiving information.

Activation of specific neural circuits triggers sleep and wakefulness and it was tested in cats. Doing an electrical stimulation of the cholinergic neurons near the junction of pons and midbrain (the reticular activating system) causes a sleeping cat to awaken. Meanwhile, slow electrical stimulation of the thalamus causes an awake cat to fall asleep. Is this where consciousness is located? Trying to find a spot in the brain is a really challenging task, we need to consider that everything is connected and related to another areas, because being awake is not necessary being aware. People with strokes and other illness like Alzheimer can illustrate all the mixed possibilities which interact this philosophical and empirical problem.

How can we find a place inside the brain that brings the ability of seeing ourselves as the carrier of all our memories, feelings and experiences? If we practice a moment of introspection, for example watching our hands right now, we experience the awareness of our bodies at the first stage of it, legs, neck and arms, we start knowing what is the posture I am using, how are my arms positioned, my legs, the temperature, the intensity of the light. Then we realize we have thoughts, some random ideas that jump and steal our attention, if we keep tracking them, we notice that they are running in circles, repeating, creating and mixing with other thoughts, then we can be aware of the feelings those thoughts are bringing back, also our imagination, pictures and memories from events back in the past and desires from the future; changing moving on like they are made of nothing and you can replace any thought with another one, like a river that is crossing through your head which you just cannot stop. Once you realize you are more than those thoughts, once you have realized that you can observe your own river, you are not anymore what you think. You can observe your hands as you can observe your thoughts, your identity, your life and all the information you consider represent yourself. You are now aware that the information inside you is processed as that, as information, but the ability to observe is pure and unique. This ability is consciousness.

Do we choose freely? Is consciousness letting us to choose once we can be aware about everything inside and around us? As it seems this is not a necessary correlation. We can be aware about everything is caching our attention but there are some processes in the brain that are away from consciousness, we cannot be aware of everything what is happening in the brain. Following this idea, we can be aware about the decision our brain is making for us. John-Dylan Haynes found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 seconds before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness. There is the Libert experiment where found that the unconscious brain activity leading up to the conscious decision by the subject to flick his wrist began approximately half a second before the subject consciously felt that he had decided to move. This is not the full story, and some others have some problems about these findings because we cannot be sure about if this brain activity is about free will or just the demonstration of an attentional processes.

There are so many detail in this story that is impossible to grab by one side and we hope this problem would be solved one day. It could be, we are aware about how our brain takes our decisions, likewise our consciousness itself is an epiphenomenon and it is just a background noise of the total functioning system. There is the possibility that our consciousness is something more that our biological system and It gives us the utterly gift from the universe: to observe.

 More to explore

Libet, Benjamin; Gleason, Curtis A.; Wright, Elwood W.; Pearl, Dennis K. (1983). “Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential)”. Brain. 106 (3): 623–42. doi:10.1093/brain/106.3.623

Libet, Benjamin (1993). “Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action”. Neurophysiology of Consciousness. Contemporary Neuroscientists. pp. 269–306. doi:10.1007/978-1-4612-0355-1_16     

Soon, Chun Siong; Brass, Marcel; Heinze, Hans-Jochen; Haynes, John-Dylan (2008). “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain”. Nature Neuroscience. 11 (5): 543–5. doi:10.1038/nn.2112



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