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Decoding you: Science’s quest to understand consciousness

Can we really ever understand what makes you… you? Will we ever understand consciousness? Some certainly seem to think so…

For many people, a discussion about consciousness immediately exits the realm of scientific discovery. This is because some scientists believe that we may never be able to understand the nature of consciousness. With so many smart people proven wrong when they make a claim about what humanity will never accomplish (or what amount of memory should be enough), you’d think people would hesitate to make such claims… yet here we are.

Why do we care about understanding consciousness? Because if we’re addicted to, say, tech, as we claim, then it’s obviously appealing to us on some baser level, but without understanding ourselves, how can we ever expect to learn why we love the things we love? In fact, can we ever truly understand ourselves? This cover story will first dig into showing you theories about what consciousness might be, in order to raise your level of…err…consciousness! Then we’re going to look at why we’re addicted to technology, and also explore ideas about how we could be getting suckered into liking stuff – you’re going to love the psychological mind games we’re capable of playing on one another!

decoding you
Adelson’s checkerboard shows a point A and B, and B looks far lighter than A, when in fact the two checks are identically coloured. Stop believing your eyes!

Back to the theory of consciousness: the main objection people have against being able to understand it is that you cannot really use something to understand itself. Logic would dictate that a hammer cannot use itself to understand itself. (Assuming of course hammers could understand anything at all). To many of us, our ability to think, to be logical, to observe, to exist itself… it’s all a part of what we call consciousness. However, to others, just an ability of an organism to be able to sense its own existence is consciousness. How can we ever explain it, if we can’t even agree on a definition?

decoding you
More clearly visible here with a grey line of the same colour drawn to connect them

Some, however, believe that although we cannot describe it coherently, all of us have a sense of what consciousness is… and then they proceed to call that sense itself… consciousness.

Now, all of you reading this, have immediately started thinking about what consciousness is, and all of you are right (or wrong!). Because who is to tell a conscious mind what its own consciousness is? This is why people believe that it’s not a scientific question, and perhaps a scientific answer can never be found. This was widely considered to be a valid proposition by most people (including scientists) until modern advancements gave us the confidence to be able to question that assertion.

Tech to the rescue!

We believe that one invention of modern medicine in particular has changed our perception of what consciousness is. MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is the technology that changed the way we look at everything in a human body, but it especially allowed us to look inside the brains of living human beings – something we couldn’t ever do before.

Of course, CT (Computed Tomography) scans were available a few years before MRI, but they use X-rays, which as we all know, are best taken in as small doses as possible, or if possible, best avoided. MRI on the other hand uses very strong magnetic fields and radio waves to generate images of inside our bodies. The biggest drawback of MRI scans is that the patient is subjected to very loud sounds, and because of the extremely strong magnetic fields that are generated, patients cannot have any sort of metal implant or foreign objects in their bodies. The MRI won its inventor, Paul C. Lauterbur, the Nobel prize in medicine in 2003.

decoding you
An MRI machine helps us look inside our own brains

Because of the MRI, (and also CT scans to be fair) we were able to understand living brains like never before. Previous brain studies were always conducted on cadavers, because cutting open the brain of a healthy individual usually meant a very dead individual!

However, doctors were able to study every aspect of the brain in great detail, and, for example, were able to find how different areas of the brain adversely affected (by stroke, or brain damage) a normal human brain. Soon patterns started forming, and we were able to understand what each part of the brain did. We’d be lying if we said that there were no gaps in the knowledge of science today when it comes to the human brain, because there are plenty. What we are, however, is far, far less ignorant than we were before.

Disciplines

decoding you
It was René Descartes who famously said,
“I think, therefore I am”.

Since science has been divided into various disciplines, each dealing with its own specific area of study, you’d think the study of consciousness was a purely biology-based question, and it should be biologists who attempt to answer it. You would be wrong. Physicists, as usual, love to show off their expertise in everything, and seem to want to chime in with their own theories. Of course, their theories turn out to not be bad at all, and it’s the reason why we’re breaking this story into explanations based in physics, and then the other explanations of consciousness that seem promising. Why “the rest” and physics separated? Because physicists are special enough to warrant their own group, and it’s just easier if we separate them from the others in order to keep things peaceful… (we’re joking, calm down!). We’ll get to the physics in a bit… First we’ll look at biological ways in which to try and define consciousness.

Obviously, the easiest way to describe consciousness is to consider it to be the ability to sense. All of our senses (taste, touch, smell, see, hear)combine to give us a sense of the world around us. Exterior to us, a sense of existing, for example.

Another way would be to look at it as something that allows us to think and react to the world around us. However, as scientific philosophers such as René Descartes advocated, there was a difference between the physical and the mental. Modern science isn’t sure about this divide anymore…

*poof* Gone!

Where do you go when you sleep? Where were you before you were born? When we say “you” we mean your consciousness, obviously. And it’s a valid question. Every day, all of us lose consciousness when we sleep, often a dreamless sleep. Some of the unlucky few amongst us might need to be given general anaesthesia in order to have surgery performed on us… where do we go when under anaesthesia? An even smaller portion of us would have had a near death experience, and undoubtedly, would have “died” before being brought back to life. Where were we when we were dead?

What about brain dead individuals? What about people who have suffered from a stroke? People who are totally paralysed in body, but still healthy in mind? What about the opposite, with people who suffer from Alzheimer’s slowly losing all sense of self, despite keeping relatively healthy bodies?

decoding you

Needless to say, it’s obvious that the consciousness is tied into the brain intrinsically, and we know quite a lot more about the brain than we did before. We know which parts of the brain do what (roughly) and know in which parts what kind of “processing” occurs. We know certain parts of the brain are so important that slight damage renders us vegetables for life, or can kill us. Whatever the case, there’s no doubt that the concept of “consciousness” is so heavily dependent on the body, that it cannot be something that’s abstract and external of the body, or independent of it.

decoding you
Our most complex organ, and what we know about it, despite not truly understanding how it works!

Evolutionary Neurodynamics

The idea of this new field of study is that equates how the brain functions to evolution… no, it’s not just saying that evolution is responsible for our brain… because that would be stating the obvious. What this field is suggesting is that natural selection occurs in your brain on a daily basis!

The field proposes that inside your brain, there are replicators which, well, are a lot like individuals reproducing. However, it also says that there is natural selection happening, constantly, and thus ideas are being selected based on their fitness. An overtly simplistic way of understanding this, is to look at how the brain sends signals from one part to another, and see if the pathways change based on efficiency (as they would if naturally selected).

This is being tested by studying human brains, by studying human behaviour, and by building AI based on the learnings of this field to see if AI can evolve as well. Thus far, AI has not been able to “evolve” because mutations that we program in don’t always select for something better, whereas the proponents of this new field believe that evolution will essentially build better and better machines (both flesh-based or silicon-based!).

The work being done in this field is looking to use their technique in AI robots, to teach them, to say, walk over different types of materials, or get up when they fall, much in the way a baby or toddler “learns” how to do these things. We humans go from very unsteady little children to being more sure on our feet (well most of us), and in theory, this field of study will not only help us understand our own consciousness, but build better AI.

The Physics of consciousness

In 2016, Edward Witten, widely regarded as one of the smartest physicists alive and major proponent of String theory (and M theory) – the proposed theory of everything, revealed in an interview that the concept of consciousness might always remain a mystery. Here was a physicist who deals with imagining 21 dimensions on a daily basis, who thought that an explanation of consciousness might always elude scientists. A theory of consciousness means something totally different to a physicist than it does a biologist – although both seem to be flummoxed by it.

We can at best come up with a fuzzy explanation for what it is – consciousness is the ability of the mind to be aware of what is happening around us. While this definition itself raises a multitude of questions, let us assume for the sake of this piece that this definition suffices. Two distinct ways of tackling this major research problem have come up – the physicists’ way and the neurobiologists’ way. Physicists like to predict the way matter around us behaves. They encapsulate this behavior by a set of rules built around the language of mathematics. Can consciousness be described in the same language?

decoding you
A representative image to demonstrate common understanding of consciousness

Neurobiologists, as we’ve shown above want to pinpoint the region in the brain that governs consciousness. Even if biologists succeed in the quest of mapping each known human function to a particular region in the brain, there is the hard pressing question of how gray and white matter combine to enable us with a highly subjective and perspective view of the world around us.

Of course, it may also be that consciousness might naturally arise from a feature of nature that is so fundamental that it remains hidden and hence unknown to us. This seemingly insurmountable hurdle, however, hasn’t stopped physicists from trying to describe consciousness. Let’s look at some of the best efforts and theories, none of which have been validated, and in fact, many of which are still hotly debated.

Quantum mechanics

Quantum Mechanics is usually the first stop for all things physics these days, because it’s the golden feather in the hat of twentieth-century theoretical physics. Quantum mechanics has long been associated with being the ‘weird’ theory that explains ‘weird’ behavior at the atomic scale. It only fits that a quantum mechanical theory of consciousness would be floated at some time or other. For starters, quantum mechanics postulates that rather than any property having an absolute value, it is smeared out as probability governed by a wave function. Any number that a measurement device throws up is because on making this measurement the wave function ‘collapses’ to give us the one specific value of the property. Essentially according to the dictat of quantum mechanics, objects (at the quantum level of course) are allowed to coexist in a superposition of states. This counterintuitive effect is made use of to create quantum computers out of units called qubits that act as computing devices. According to one of the most controversial theories in modern time, qubit like units might be responsible for consciousness – and quantum effects might be responsible for driving cognition.

Roger Penrose, a well known British physicist, hypothesized way back in the 1980’s that there must be a deep link between quantum mechanics and consciousness. At the crux of his theory lies the ability of individual units in the brain to behave like quantum qubits and exist in a superposition of multiple states – each also having the ability to ‘collapse’ to one single state. A bunch of such qubit like units in one state acting together as a collective phenomenon could lead to what physicist’s like to call quantum coherence. In collaboration with physician Stuart Hameroff, the duo even suggested a candidate for qubits in the brain – microtubules. These are protein like structures which are tubular and help secure synaptic connections in neurons. Often called Orch-OR (Orchestrated Objective Reduction), the theory makes use of Penrose’s other debated theories on quantum gravity to, in simpler terms, claim the following:

  1. Cellular microtubules can behave as qubits and even store information with memory.
  2. These qubits can occupy a superposition of states and certain associated proteins in microtubules can, via synaptic impulses, ‘tune’ these states to ‘orchestrate’ coherence in an organized manner.
  3. These ‘orchestrated’ coherent states can influence neural impulses from within the neuron, leading to a ‘conscious’ decision or state of mind.
decoding you
British Physicist Roger Penrose famous for his work on black holes and now his controversial theory of consciousness

The theory likens the brain to a functioning quantum computer. Another analogy might help here. Think of the qubits as independent, talented musicians in an orchestra. They can play any instrument and any piece of music. If they do so randomly, it results in cacophony. Even if they play the right instrument and piece of music, unless each group plays its part at the right time, there is still no orchestra. Enter the conductor who ‘orchestrates’ the collection of musicians to produce music.

As wacky as it may sound some research groups have tried to corroborate the theory by carrying out experiments. As recently as 2013, a group found out EEG rhythms derive from microtubule vibrations indicating that may be, at some level, quantum weirdness in microtubules has some role in modulating brain waves. Another group claimed that anesthesia that is responsible for controlling consciousness in particular part acts via microtubules. These results, while encouraging do not, however, mention any events quantum in nature. Then there is the icky problem of quantum – decoherence.

The effect of quantum coherence more often than not occurs at low temperatures. The brain with all its electronic impulses is warm – warm enough to be hostile against such quantum events. Even though evidence of quantum effects in warm environments, most notably in photosynthesis in plants, has been pointed out, there has been some damning criticism against Orch-OR – none more than a paper published in 2000. The author of the study, physicist Max Tegmark calculated that interactions between atoms in a coherent state and a neuron would produce enough noise to result in a decoherence event. Calculations suggest that quantum coherence ‘leaks’ away much quicker than the time it must hold for driving and discharging signals. But what if aside from microtubules, another object could sustain coherence for a longer time?

More quantum goodness

Matthew Fisher, a well-regarded scientist, (and son of Michael Fisher, a leading figure in statistical physics) also has a theory of consciousness. Matthew Fisher claims that phosphorus, abundant in living cells in the form of ions (with electrons lost or gained), in special ‘entangled’ states, can replace the qubits of Penrose’s theory. Quantum objects in an entangled state are rigidly codependent, in the sense that the properties of one object strongly depends on the other. If these phosphate ions are in conjunction with calcium ions in a larger ‘super molecule,’ then it turns out entanglement saves them from decoherence. These molecules called Posner molecules, once entangled can resist decoherence for even a day, then becoming a candidate for affecting brain function at realistic timescales. Because this entanglement occurs via the spins of the individual nuclei, it is more resistant to leakage via interactions with surroundings. Here’s how this would work. Once the hypothetical Posner molecule enters a neuron, it would shed calcium and trigger an impulse. Because Posner molecules are entangled via spins, a collection of such signals can manifest like a coherent thought. Fisher’s theory provides an elegant solution to the coherence decay problem posed by Penrose-Hameroff theory by replacing microtubules with Posner molecules as the fundamental quantum unit, nuclear spins being the seat for the brain’s quantum processing. By combining concepts of organic biochemistry, neuroscience, and quantum mechanics, Fisher shows that phosphorus in a tailored state can form a stable biological qubit – in theory. The challenge now is to verify these claims experimentally, most notably check if Posner molecules can and are being formed in our nervous system.

IIT (no, not the college)

Moving on from quantum mechanics, scientists have tried to ascertain if consciousness can be described by the one thing that defines the current century more than anything else – information. A modern theory born out of this endeavor is Integrated Information Theory (IIT). The two core postulates of this theory are:

Consciousness rather than being one unifying perception is made of a multitude of different frames filled with massive amount of information.

All this information is integrated and connected such that you cannot selectively ignore any of it.

At the heart of this theory lies the belief that the brain is deeply integrated, enough to perceive each frame of consciousness, all of its information and relate ‘meaning’ to it. For example, take the movie Boyhood, a movie set over a 12 -year span in the life on a single boy. To a computer, the movie’s constituent frames are all independent and disconnected. The computer cannot recognize that the bug toothed boy in the first half of the film is the lanky teenager in the second half, purely from looking at the frames. But we can, because our brain curiously interlinks all of the information. IIT sets the amount of interconnectedness as a measure of consciousness.

These abstract postulates are described using principles of mathematics. Given a particular brain structure and all the constituent elements in it, one can, at least in principle, calculate how deeply connected the brain is. This integratedness throws up a single number (phi) which tells ‘how much’ consciousness can a collection of interacting and connecting units subsume. As it is, the theory does tick quite a few boxes. It explains why losing the cerebellum while drastically impairing bodily function yet preserves consciousness, but damage to the cerebral cortex can severely hinder the ability to perceive features of our surroundings we often take for granted – this is because the cerebral cortex is characterized by a more complex brain circuitry and hence a larger value of phi. There are some other salient features of consciousness that IIT can give convincing explanations for and though out of the scope of the current article; it suffices to say that this relatively new theory does an impressive job.

Entropy?

In the same vein but using a highly different approach, earlier this year, scientists proposed a theory of consciousness based on entropy. Entropy put simply is a measure of disorder or randomness of a system and the higher the entropy of a given system the more stable it is. Naturally, systems tend to move towards a state of high entropy, and living systems are in constant decay. The question the theory aims to answer is, “Can we explain consciousness as a consequence of the brain wanting to attain a state of higher entropy?” The scientists looked at how the network of neurons in the brain fired in three stages of an epileptic patient – during wakefulness, sleep and seizure. Results show that the wakeful state is marked by the neurons firing in the largest number of different patterns – indicating a greater number of possible network configurations and thus a higher entropy. The conclusion – consciousness is a byproduct of the brain following the law of decay and increasing entropy, governed not by the complexity of connections but rather how many different ways these connections between neuron groups can be made – a stark departure from IIT.

decoding you
A visualization of the neuron connections in human brain

Both, IIT and the entropic theory of consciousness use a toolset much different from quantum mechanics to explain consciousness. IIT looks at it as a measure of the connection complexity while the entropic theory makes consciousness as a property that arises from the brains endeavor to stay within the limits of thermodynamics. Both theories, while less fanciful than the quantum theories, come with their caveats. The study sample size for the entropy study was too small and maybe including other states of mind like drugged and half asleep might help solidify the findings. For IIT, the computation of phi, even for simple organisms remains a pipe dream, and the theory predicts that even creatures as simple as a single celled organism will have a non-zero value of phi and thus finite consciousness.

Combined theories?

There are some who believe that consciousness doesn’t care if your favourite topic is physics or math or biology because all of those are in fact the creations of our consciousness, made up to try and understand the world! It’s a bit like a mathematician trying to write a book using only numbers, or a literature major trying to do the same with only quotes from other books… while it’s possible to try and do so, a much better book would be one that’s written by using whatever language or method is apt at the time. If we are ever to understand consciousness, we’re going to have to come up with an explanation that holds true in all fields of study – especially neurobiology and physics.

One thing is for sure, while many might consider the boundaries of uncertainty in their respective fields as the cutting edge of science, or the big questions that remain unanswered, pretty much anyone, scientist or man on the street, will agree that the biggest unanswered question to date is what makes us tick!

 


This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Ronak Gupta

Robert Sovereign-Smith