Published On: Tue, Aug 24th, 2010

What Is Consciousness – Study Aims To Settle The Debate

what is consciousness

WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS

The subject of this article is  about something that involves everything we experience, namely….what Is consciousness?

William James once wrote that the discovery of precisely what is consciousness will make all other scientific discoveries pale by comparison. Taken from a special report by World Science

THE HARD PROBLEM – WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS

In sci­ence, plen­ty of prob­lems are hard. But per­haps just one is so grue­somely try­ing that sci­en­tists them­selves have termed it, well, “the hard prob­lem.” How does con­scious­ness arise—the liv­ing, aware ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing?

Some the­o­ries hold that it comes from, or is even iden­ti­cal to, elec­tri­cal and chem­i­cal pro­cesses known to un­fold in the brain. Oth­ers say it arises else­where: in some even sub­tler, yet-un­dis­cov­ered brain pro­cesses, or per­haps a mind-stuff quite dis­tinct from the brain—some call it a soul.

Few on ei­ther side claim to have fi­nal an­swers. But they of­ten ar­gue pas­sion­ately over who’s at least in the right play­ing field.

TESTING PROPOSITIONS
Now a group of re­search­ers has be­gun a study that they say might set­tle the is­sue. “We can ac­tu­ally test this, and put and end to all these de­bates,” said Sam Par­nia, a crit­i­cal care doc­tor at Weill Cor­nell Med­i­cal Cen­ter in New York.

Par­nia has spent years stu­dying re­ports that some car­di­ac-ar­rest pa­tients keep hav­ing clear, dis­tinct thought pro­cesses af­ter they’re clin­ic­ally dead and de­tect­a­ble brain ac­ti­vity has ceased. Pa­tients com­monly re­count these men­tal ex­pe­ri­ences, which of­ten in­clude see­ing a light at the end of a tun­nel, af­ter be­ing re­vived.

Parnia and colleagues aim to put these re­ports to a test: spe­cif­ic sounds will be played to such pa­tients, and they’ll be asked to re­call the sounds af­ter re­viv­ing. If they do, it would con­firm the ac­counts of thoughts with­out brain ac­ti­vity—sup­port­ing the claims that “con­scious­ness is a sep­a­rate, yet un­disco­vered sci­en­tif­ic ent­ity” from the brain, Par­nia wrote in a pa­per in the the April 23 ad­vance on­line edi­tion of the re­search jour­nal Med­i­cal Hy­pothe­ses.

CRITIQUES
The study “looks like an in­ter­est­ing pro­pos­al,” wrote Da­vid Chal­mers, a phi­los­o­pher and di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Con­scious­ness at the Aus­tral­ian Na­tional Un­ivers­ity in Can­ber­ra, Aus­tral­ia, in an e­mail. If the claims are con­firmed, it would “pose an in­ter­est­ing chal­lenge for sci­en­tists to ex­plain,” re­marked Chal­mers, au­thor of sev­er­al books on con­scious­ness.

But it probably would­n’t set­tle the most bas­ic, long­stand­ing dis­pute: wheth­er mind and brain are dif­fer­ent things, Chal­mers added. For in­stance, even if pa­tients’ claims are ver­i­fied, they “could be due to as­pects of brain func­tion­ing dur­ing car­di­ac ar­rest that are not cap­tured by the mea­sure­ments” Par­nia is us­ing, Chal­mers wrote. These mea­sure­ments are tak­en by elec­tro­en­ce­pha­lo­gram, a tech­nique in which sen­si­tive elec­trodes at­tached to the head rec­ord elec­tri­cal brain ac­ti­vity.

TRIALS AND PROTOCOLS
Par­nia said the tri­als be­gan on a pi­lot ba­sis in Jan­u­ary at two U.K. hos­pi­tals with 10 pa­tients; he aims to ex­pand the study to oth­er coun­tries and re­cruit over 1,000 pa­tients.

Per­haps the most strin­gent test in the study is al­so the one that ad­dresses the most ex­tra­or­di­nary no­tion. Crit­ic­ally ill pa­tients some­times re­port “out-of-body” ex­pe­ri­ences in which they feel they have floated out of their own bod­ies and are watch­ing them­selves from above.

Mark well: Par­nia is not test­ing wheth­er pa­tients gen­u­inely feel their minds have floated away. He wants to test wheth­er the minds ac­tu­ally do float away—a con­tro­ver­sial idea to say the least. His team plans to place pic­tures stra­te­gic­ally around pa­tients’ rooms where they’re vis­i­ble only from near the ceil­ing. Pa­tients would la­ter be asked about the im­ages. “Thus, the claims of con­scious awareness and out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ences will be tested in­de­pen­dent­ly,” he wrote in the pa­per.

FOR OR AGAINST AN “OUTRAGEOUS” VIEW?
He ad­mit­ted some would find the idea out­land­ish. A study pub­lished in 2002 found that just elec­tric­ally stim­u­lat­ing spe­cif­ic brain ar­eas could trig­ger an out-of-body-like ex­pe­ri­ence—ev­i­dence to some that the sensa­t­ions are il­lu­so­ry.

Dan­iel Den­nett, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Cog­ni­tive Stud­ies at Tufts Un­ivers­ity in Med­ford, Mass., wrote in an e­mail that he’s nev­er seen ev­i­dence that the events are an­ything more than hal­lu­cina­t­ions. The ex­pe­ri­ments, “if con­ducted with scru­pu­lous care,” will surely con­firm this, added Den­nett, a phil­o­so­pher who is al­so au­thor of sev­er­al books on con­scious­ness.

Yet, said Par­nia—in de­fense of the op­po­site view—pa­tients have ac­cu­rately re­ported events in their hos­pi­tal rooms that oc­curred dur­ing out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ences, while they were clin­ic­ally dead. “If we get 200 peo­ple, and all claim to have an out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence but none can iden­ti­fy the im­ages, that would very much sup­port the idea that this is a false mem­o­ry,” Par­nia said. “If on the oth­er hand, 200 peo­ple iden­ti­fy these im­ages… then we’d have to ac­cept that may­be hu­man con­scious­ness, as bi­zarre as it may sound, could be non-local to the brain.”

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