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BERNSTEIN: Consciousness research could be science's next big step


Column: Mind You

Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year looking to major in cognitive science and biomathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Fridays.
Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year looking to major in cognitive science and biomathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Fridays.

Although we have made mammoth leaps in biology, chemistry and physics, neuroscience lags behind these disciplines in terms of groundbreaking developments. 

A number of reasons share responsibility for neuroscience’s delayed growth: It is a newer science, it focuses on an exceedingly complex organ whose activity is difficult to measure ethically and the dogmas attached to it are especially tenacious. While modern physics questioned our understanding of the cosmos and biology our understanding of our origins, modern neuroscience threatens to uproot long-held beliefs about ourselves. 

But these reservations should not hamper the aspirations of our next generation of neuroscientists, whose unimpeded research may prove as fruitful as the discoveries of 20th-century physicists. In particular, a great deal of goodwill comes out of promoting inquiry into one of neuroscience’s most enigmatic and controversial sub-fields: research into consciousness itself.

Consciousness research has wallowed in relative obscurity in academia for several reasons. The first and foremost is simply that, until recently, empirical research into consciousness was virtually impossible. Twentieth-century behaviorists did not shy away from cognition simply out of stubbornness: They lacked the technology sufficient to safely peer into the brain and make claims about cognitive processes, let alone consciousness. 

Additionally, many scientists and philosophers still argue that consciousness is ineffable and that it belongs in the realm of philosophy instead of empirical inquiry — or, at the very least, that consciousness is too difficult to study and that discoveries would not yield practical information worth the effort of research.

Yes, the ethical questions surrounding consciousness and the implications of the nature of consciousness lie in the jurisdiction of philosophy. But this should only further encourage the empirical study of consciousness so that philosophers have a more vibrant factual basis with which to tackle the ethical questions and implications.

Moreover, everything we know about neuroscience suggests that awareness, in fact, does arise from physical systems and is as much an objective phenomenon as is gravity: For example, we can empirically observe the difference in neural activity across different states of consciousness (waking, coma, sleeping, etc.). 

What about practical reasons to study consciousness? Understanding how the brain produces conscious experience has the capacity to revolutionize how we understand mental disorders, neurodegenerative diseases and traumatic brain injuries which impair function and responsiveness in patients. 

Although a good deal of research has illuminated the symptoms, clinical treatments and biochemical mechanisms of these disorders and diseases, we still find ourselves in the dark regarding how the underlying mechanisms and features translate into subjective experience. 

Consciousness research has the potential to illuminate key factors of positive mental states as well. What makes, for example, the practice of meditation conducive to enhanced focus, feelings of greater mental well-being (including increased gratitude and empathy) and profound experiences which transform practitioners’ understanding of the nature of awareness?  

Among the research organizations investigating the nature of consciousness is the Qualia Research Institute in San Francisco, which has proposed the “symmetry theory of valence.” This theory posits that we can represent conscious experiences mathematically, and it relates the positivity of an experience with its mathematical symmetry. Regardless of the ultimate success of this theory, it marks a unique effort in a relatively uncharted, but important, branch of neuroscience.

Even loftier goals follow as well. If we entertain the possibility that consciousness could be instantiated in a machine or other “artificial” construct, then research into the nature of consciousness is crucial to creating a “conscious artifact.” Likewise, the pursuit of better AI models will surely benefit from a deeper understanding of how the human brain, the most complex and intelligent self-aware system of which we know, produces conscious experience.

I dedicate these last paragraphs to a theory which may uncover significant discoveries about consciousness. Integrated Information Theory (IIT), conceived by Wisconsin-based neuroscientist Giulio Tononi, posits that consciousness can be quantitatively defined as a measure both of how much information a system processes and how much the sub-parts of that system necessarily share information with other parts of the system.

A system that processes lots of information, but can be broken down into independent sub-parts without changing the nature of the information-processing, would not be conscious, according to this theory. On the other hand, if the sub-parts of that system processed information at a high level of codependence with other sub-parts, it would have some level of conscious experience. 

Christof Koch, a collaborator of Tononi’s, has also done research into the “neuronal correlates of consciousness,” which he defines as the “minimal neuronal mechanisms jointly sufficient for any specific conscious experience.” His work has helped to distinguish which parts of the brain are responsible for consciousness (cortical areas, for example, are implicated in consciousness, but not the cerebellum).

Since the work of Tononi, Koch and their colleagues have yielded testable theories of consciousness, their research is among the few serious efforts to understand the nature of the mind empirically. But, it is only the tip of the iceberg. 

If the science community embraces consciousness research, we have the chance to make great leaps in neuroscience in the coming decades.

Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year looking to major in cognitive science and biomathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Fridays. 

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