The Search for Consciousness. Where are we in 2010?Stephen Farah
In April this year the Centre for Consciousness Studies, at the University of Arizona, will hold their 9th, bi-annual, conference. As this approaches I thought it a good time to reflect on some of the presenters and their thoughts at the last conference in 2008.
The initiative started in 1994 by Professor Stuart Hameroff, University of Arizona, and David Chalmers, Australian National University, is a cross-disciplinary, scientific, investigation into the phenomenon of consciousness.
The conference is well supported and draws a diverse group of investigators every second year to sunny Tucson. 2008 saw some eight hundred delegates in attendance to listen to and share their views with neuroscientists from such eminent institutions as Caltech, MIT and CNRS of Lyons, France, to name a few; as well as psychologists; physicists; philosophers; computer scientists; and many other varied investigators.
With such a diverse group, as was present, it is hardly surprising that the gamut of topics, presentations and points of view were very broad in scope; so much so, in fact, that one could be forgiven for wondering whether the delegates understanding of the concept, of consciousness, was in the same ballpark, let alone approaching a consistent, clearly defined consensus.
A variety of approaches
To give just a small sample of some of this diversity, presentations included: Mathematical Physics to model the Neural Correlates of Brain Activity in Perception and Consciousness, Quantum Mechanisms in Neurological Activity, Lucid Dreaming, Consciousness and Self-Consciousness in Eastern and Western Philosophy, Panpsychism, Altered States of Consciousness in Eastern Meditative Practices, Artificial Intelligence, The Conscious Field in Mayan Mythology amongst many other, at times quite animated, presentations.
Gamma Synchrony was the candidate of choice for the neuroscientists as the best neural correlate for consciousness, currently the Holy Grail in the search for consciousness at least from a neuroscience perspective. This topic was included in the presentations of a number of delegates, including Christof Koch, Caltech; Wolf Singer, Max Planck Institute of Brain Research, Frankfurt; Stanisloas Dehaene, College de France and Naotsugu Tsuchiya, Caltech, with his colorfully titled presentation, ‘Decoding monkey’s conscious experience during ambiguous and unambiguous motion precept.’
The research presented suggests high-level-brain-wave synchrony, most predominantly Gamma, but also Beta and Theta, as the neurological signature for conscious activity. This works using the Global Workspace Theory as a virtual embodiment of conscious activity, marked by synchronous activity between dispersed neurons acting convergently; rather than a particular neuronal area for the ‘conscious pilot’.
It appears there is no homunculus, (little man), that sits in a central-executive-chair of the brain directing conscious activity. In fact it is a test of any theory of the mind that the appearance of the homunculus in the theory exposes it as flawed; naturally, were the homunculus to appear, we would be on an ever recursive investigation.
Benjamin Libet and delayed choice
The work of the late Benjamin Libet received much attention. The research into the delayed-choice-experiment has been continued by a number of investigators, some of whom presented their findings at the conference. These extensive, experimental, investigations confirm Libet’s original findings. This type of experiment shows the following, counter intuitive, discovery: a subject given a volitional variable (free choice) always shows unconscious, neural, activity which indicates the chosen variable (choice), prior to the conscious awareness of making such choice.
This is truly a profound finding, seemingly contradicting the traditional world view of conscious choice, suggesting that all choices are made unconsciously and consciousness is only the awareness of a choice already made. Now, depending on your sense of self, you any find this less, or more, disturbing a concept. To put into context though, if you are the centre of your conscious awareness, which is the traditional psychological definition of the ego, then you do not make any choices, you are merely the awareness of choices already made!
Quantum physics and its possible role in the explanation of various aspects of consciousness and some anomalous empirical findings, explained in part through known quantum phenomenon, was a prominent topic.
The better known role suggested for quantum mechanics involves the Hameroff-Penrose theory.
Consciousness as consequence of a quantum process in the brain, as opposed to an analogue operation of neurons switching on and off, is a hypothesis which, despite being severely criticized by many investigators, gained some ground at this year’s conference. This ‘Quantum Consciousness’ hypothesis has been proposed by Hammeroff, an anesthetist by profession, and Conference Director, who became intrigued by the subject of consciousness, wondering where his patients’ consciousness ‘went’ when under general anesthetic and Sir Roger Penrose, the acclaimed mathematical physicist.
Penrose has authored two books, The Emperors New Mind and Shadows of the Mind, aimed at showing that human consciousness and comprehension is not a purely algorithmic process and that that it cannot be duplicated by binary code, this is partly based on G’del’s Incompleteness Theorem and flies in the face of current Strong-AI aspirations.
Together Hameroff and Penrose have hypothesized that a quantum-gravitational- process takes place in the neuronal microtubules; this process results in a series of discontinuous, linked, moments of quantum-state-reduction which is experienced as consciousness.
The biggest challenge the theorists face, is proving that a quantum process could take place in the human brain, which is generally believed to be too warm and wet for a state of quantum superposition to occur. When Quantum Commuters are constructed the quantum processing takes place in a near zero temperature to suspend decoherence.
Other quantum hypothesis
Less well known, but equally interesting, is the convergence of investigations into consciousness, with quantum theory, as a phenomenal, fundamental and universal state or property, which goes beyond the Hammeroff-Penrose hypothesis. The Hammeroff-Penrose theory that is, could be described as a kind of Quantum Mechanical description of neurological process; whereas the two propositions which I detail below, in as far as they are influenced by Quantum Physics, could best be described as using a quantum interpretation of phenomenological reality. This was illustrated by the following experimental findings which are difficult to explain in terms of classical physics.
Dick Bierman and backwards causation
The first one, presented by Dick Bierman, a Social and Behavioral Scientist at The University of Amsterdam, involves a subjects being shown one, of three random slides, each one consistently eliciting a predictable level and type of neural activity.
This in itself of course is unremarkable. What is bizarre though is that Bierman found there is significant parallel, sympathetic neural activity on the timeline prior to the exposure of the slide. Furthermore should the slide’s immanent exposure be stopped prior to it being exposed then this phenomenon does not occur.
So, in other words, there is a knowing somewhere in the experimental process which understands what is going to occur and reacts to it, prior to the event occurring in the standard, chronological, timeline. This occurs across all subjects; and is not thought to be a form of telepathy or some such paranormal phenomenon. Rather it is explainable through quantum physics which demonstrates in this, as well as other experimental scenarios, what is referred to as backward causation, i.e. a future event causing something to happen in the present or past. As is typical of the bizarre laws of quantum physics time appears to run backwards as well as forwards.
Rupert Sheldrake and the Morphogenetic field
The second one, also involving Bierman, is his alternative, quantum, explanation of the results of PSI activity, found by Rupert Sheldrake, of Cambridge Clare Collage UK, and his work on what he terms ‘action at a distance’ or the ‘morphogenetic field’. In his, detailed and very well documented presentation, Sheldrake showed the results of various tests in which some form of presentiment or telepathy occurs.
These involved principally the phenomenon, widely reported, and then subjected to extensive observation, by Sheldrake and his team, of subjects reporting knowing who was on the phone or sending them an email prior to answering the call or seeing the email.
Other studies were on the observable and testable phenomenon of presentiment in animals about their owner’s immanent arrival home. This was tested and videotaped, ensuring that the timeframes for the return were random, and that the distance at which they were initiated precluded the possibility of the animal becoming aware of the return through their heightened hearing and smell.
Sheldrake consistently found an occurrence of presentiment which exceeded a random probability; this he presented with accompanying video footage of some of the more impressive experimental results, as proof of some form of ‘telepathic’ or ‘morphogenetic’
Bierman counters the morphogenetic field proposal with quantum entanglement
His conclusion, at least at Tucson 2008, was that this called for a new scientific discipline to study these well documented, empirical proofs of activity, heretofore dismissed by the mainstream scientific community.
Bierman following a similar experimental protocol found no probability of PSI in his subjects, beyond the random statistical norm. Bierman’s explanation? No need for a new scientific discipline to look into parapsychology but rather that, incidents of presentiment are explainable through the known laws of quantum physics, backwards causation as in the slideshow presentiment or quantum entanglement between the researcher and his experiment. Sheldrake achieves the results in his test group, and Bierman, not, in his, because each is influencing the experimental process through a quantum entanglement process!
In conclusion it appears that despite this having been the eighth, bi- annual, conference on the subject, it still is very about a movement towards a science of consciousness rather than a quantifiable, scientific discipline as yet. Consciousness appears to be an elusive quality of mind to find, objectivise and conclusively define.
It was refreshing to see the degree of humility displayed by the scientific community, as a whole, with respect to the enormity of this aspiration. An aspiration which, after all, has kept philosophers, in the Western Tradition, speculating since the inception of Western Metaphysics, some two and a half thousand years ago.
Furthermore what has emerged from the study challenges many of our cherished beliefs about our sense of identity, suggesting that the concept of self, as that which occupies a central executive position in the psyche, may be conceptual rather than materially fundamental. And following this, the concept of the transcendence of consciousness and free will are looking increasingly doubtful.
Ironically, in the eyes of this writer, at least, the evidence emerging suggests a possible renaissance of Depth Psychology and the major (!) role played by the unconscious mind in psychic life. Just maybe in the rush of psychology to uncouple itself from its academic antecedent, philosophy, and sanitize itself from metaphysics of Jung, the opaqueness of Lacan and the perversity of Freud’s infantile sexuality and rush, arms open, into the bosom of modern, scientific, reductionism it has run into its opposite; an enantios dromos, (opposite course) if ever there was one:-).
I look forward with great enthusiasm to the conference this year. Undoubtedly we are in for a treat as we see where the last two years have taken our investigators, in the search for the ever elusive scientific explanation of consciousness. Whilst the more cynical among us may doubt their ever successfully answering this question, it is the most topical of topics and one which can really no longer be avoided by mainstream science.
For more information on this year’s conference please go to http://www.consciousness.arizona.edu/