Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Deep Thoughts: Human Consciousness

[Johnathan Clayborn]
Greetings, dear readers, and welcome to 2012. As many of us undertake the tradition of New Year’s resolutions and reflect back on our lives over the past year and contemplate our lives during the next 12 months I couldn’t help but be inspired to write an article about that very topic. No, I’m not talking about resolutions, I’m talking about contemplation, reflection, thought; I’m talking about consciousness.
As some of you may know already, I am a voracious reader. I read everything from Gamestop’s Game Informer Magazine to my subscription of Psychology Today to fictional novels by authors like George R. R. Martin, Tom Clancy, and dozens of others. But I also thoroughly enjoy non-fictional works such as Guns, Germs & Steel, and Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, and How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Usually I’m reading two or three books at a time. I keep them in different places and I read different ones depending on where I’m at. Currently I’m reading A Storm of Swords, my ethics textbook, and a Time Magazine special, Your Brain: A User’s Guide.  
This particular book, which is a mere 127 pages in length, has already provided many hours of thought provoking musings. The book is broken down into categories and each category contains a number of related articles. I typically enjoying reading one article at a time and then putting the book down and really contemplating the information for several days before reading the next one. One of the articles I read earlier dealt with the problem of consciousness. Or rather, to be more specific it dealt with two problems relating to consciousness. Neurologists, psychologists and other brain specialists refer to these questions as “the easy problem” and “the hard problem”, but don’t let their names fool you today these two questions would be better named “the hard problem” and “the impossible problem”. That’s not to say that they will never be solved, mind you, just that if we had to provide an answer today based on everything that know right this minute, it would be impossible to do.
So, before we begin about that part, let me explain some background information. The “easy problem” revolves around the biological processes within the brain itself; the “how” and the “where” of brain activity. Over the last few decades there have been astounding medical advancements that have been able to shed some light on this subject; CT Scans, MRI, DOT scans, f-MRI, PET scans, and the newer SPECT scans. These different technologies have allowed us to see inside our heads in a manner that would have been inconceivable 100 years ago, and considered implausible 50 years ago. Yet today not only can we literally map the surface of a specific person’s brain without cutting open their skull, we can also see which areas of the brain light up in different situations. Scientists can tell by a brain scan whether people are thinking about a person’s face, or a place that they’ve been. They can tell if they’re thinking about a bottle or a shoe. They can even tell if a person has specific mental illnesses. Some neurologists can even pick out the brains of serial killers randomly out of a pile of f-MRI scans. As a society we’re closer now to answering “the easy question” than we have ever been at any point in our history.
So far, during the last few decades, we’ve dispelled many myths along the way. The right and left half of the brain do not control “analysis” and “creativity” as we were once taught in school. We now know that these processes are controlled in different, equilateral parts throughout the brain. Some things, like spatial orientation or language, are found solely on one side or the other, but, studies show, this doesn’t always mean that they stay there. There have been many cases where a patient has suffered traumatic brain injury and specific parts of their functions have been lost because the portion of the brain controlling that behavior or process was destroyed. What happens in some cases is that these tasks are re-routed to other parts of the brain. The patient will, in some cases, regain a basic level of functioning as other parts of the brain take on these tasks. They may never be as good as they once were, but they are arguably better than nothing.  Sometimes these "migrations" even occur naturally. In one case study neurologists studied the brain of Scott Flansburg, the so-called "human calculator". He can compute any mathematical equation faster than a calculator. He gets his super-human calculation speed from the fact that his mathematical processes aren't controlled by the same part of the brain that our methematical processes are calculated (the frontal cortex). In Scott's case, this process has migrated into his motor cortex. As such, the theory is that the part of his brain responsible for making quick-second reflexes has taken over his mathematical problem solving ability. Also, setting ethical and moral discussions aside for a moment, scientists have discovered that Alzheimer’s is caused by the degradation of brain tissue and that a direct injection of stem cells into the brain can correct and even reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Despite all of our successes in the medical sciences and our increased understanding of the brain there are still many questions with the “easy question” that elude scientists today. One of them is: which part of the brain controls consciousness? We are no closer to answering that question than we were a decade ago, although not for lack of trying. There are many more theories today than there were then, but theories without proof remain just that; a theory.
Modern science has even proven some neurologist’s worst nightmares to be true.  Brain scans of patients who are in a comatose state often show that the brain hears and in processing the information that is being spoken around them, even though the body is unable to respond and remains in a vegetative state. Thus the term “brain dead” has quickly become outdated in it’s nomenclature and now only refers to a specific type of vegetative state. The question that they’ve been unable to answer now is: does the brain activity of the comatose person equate literal consciousness, or is it an automatic reflex of the brain?
Now, before we get into tackling the “hard question”, I invite you all to stop for a moment and watch this brief Youtube video. It’s about a boy named Ben Breedlove who wrote about his near-death experiences and captured that on film shortly before he succumbed to a fatal heart disease. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QePNEirk5H4
The message that Ben speaks of is profound; God’s love is eternal and it will save you when you die. This is a view that is shared by millions of people all around the world of many different faiths. However, it is a view that many neuroscientists disbelieve. According to science, consciousness is a mechanical process that happens within the brain. It’s not a magical, unexplainable force. Many scientists claim that the “white light” experienced by so many is actually a by-product of a process called binocular rivalry and occurs when the flow of blood to your eyes and your brain has stopped. Scientists also believe that the ethereal images that are seen as you die are also due to a lack of blood. They argue that everything is white because as your body begins to shut down your brain begins to lose processing power and is unable to envision vast details and colors, etc; which is why many survivors of near death experiences tell very similar stories. Is it because there truly is a God and he works in mysterious ways as the churches would have you believe, or is it because our brains function the same way by design and when it shuts down it experiences the same or similar processes because of its design?  
Welcome to the “hard question”. The hard question centers around the question of whether or not our consciousness is an unexplainable gift, or merely the by-product of our own neural processing. There was one particular episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987: The Measure of a Man) in which this topic is discussed. The episode centers on a self-conscious robot who is part of the crew, Lt. Cmdr. Data. Starfleet deems that since he is not human he is property of Starfleet and therefore they have the right to forcibly dismantle him for study (especially since he is the only one in existence in the known universe). However, Cpt. Picard argues on Data’s behalf saying that just because he doesn’t have a brain made up of brain tissue and he’s not made of any blood or skin doesn’t mean that he’s not alive and that he has his own free will and choice.  This is the very question at the center of the “hard problem”; is our consciousness the byproduct of our invisible, immeasurable soul, or is our consciousness the byproduct of naturally occurring physiological processes?
The “hard problem” doesn’t just stop there either, it gets far more complex. For example; what if our conscious thought is a byproduct of biological processes? And what if “happiness” is the result of specific parts of the brain getting signals from different body parts saying that everything is working normally? Now, what if you hacked into a person’s brain and began replacing the actual signals from their nervous system with fake computer generated signals. And suppose that this made the person happy or sad depending on what changed. Would this mean that the person’s consciousness could be reprogrammed as well? And do we think that we’re happy simply because we’re supposed to think that we’re happy due to some biological process, or do we actually have a choice over it?
Now, what I wonder is this: we learn from biology that similar genes yield similar creatures.  The Punnett square provides a fairly good example of this. Within a given familial group you will find a plethora of different traits that are the same or similar; shape of the ears or nose, color of the eyes or hair, overall height or even some general genetic defects. Now, if this is true, and we know that it is, then certainly this same logic should hold true to brain size, shape and structure as well. Consequently, if human consciousness is in fact a byproduct of biological or physiological processes, then why don’t more people of the same family have the same personality? Why is there such a difference in personality? Even in so-called identical twins, personalities can be starkly contrasted. I don’t profess to know the answer to this one, and men and women much smarter than I have already tried to answer this one. However, that doesn’t keep me from pondering this mystery.  How is it, exactly, that we are aware? And, once our bodies die are our conscious thoughts lost forever?

Time, Inc (2009) Your Brain: A User’s Guide. Time Home Entertainment Group. ASIN: B002PSKCLM
Kenneth M. Jaffe, Nayak Lincoln Polissar, Gayle C. Fay, Shiquan Liao, Recovery trends over three years following pediatric traumatic brain injury, Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Volume 76, Issue 1, January 1995, Pages 17-26, ISSN 0003-9993, 10.1016/S0003-9993(95)80037-9.
William M. Jenkins, Michael M. Merzenich, Chapter 21 Reorganization of neocortical representations after brain injury: a neurophysiological model of the bases of recovery from stroke, In: F.J. Seil, E. Herbert and B.M. Carlson, Editor(s), Progress in Brain Research, Elsevier, 1987, Volume 71, Pages 249-266, ISSN 0079-6123, ISBN 9780444808141, 10.1016/S0079-6123(08)61829-4.
M.P Mattson, Emerging neuroprotective strategies for Alzheimer's disease: dietary restriction, telomerase activation, and stem cell therapy, Experimental Gerontology, Volume 35, Issue 4, 1 July 2000, Pages 489-502, ISSN 0531-5565, 10.1016/S0531-5565(00)00115-7.

PJ Whitehouse, DL Price, RG Struble, AW Clark, JT Coyle and MR Delon (Mar 5, 1982) Alzheimer's disease and senile dementia: loss of neurons in the basal forebrain. Journal of Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Vol. 215 no. 4537 pp. 1237-1239 DOI: 10.1126/science.7058341
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1580394,00.html  (ß this article is particular good at breaking down the “easy” and “hard” problems into everyday language).

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These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.