The Neuroscience of Consciousness: From Cells to Self
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2010
The Neuroscience of Consciousness: From Cells to Self
The definition of consciousness and the role of neuroscience in explaining it are both highly contested issues, both on philosophical and empirical grounds. Some argue that we can generate a full picture of consciousness with a more detailed understanding of the brain, while others resist this notion. Even within the former school of thought, scientists diverge in their approaches, some identifying brain regions and others emphasizing connectivity. Which is the right perspective, and how does our answer to this question qualify the capacity of neuroscience as a whole? Do certain approaches allow us to be "less wrong" regarding the idea of consciousness? We will explore some recent empirical findings that shape the way we conceptualize the neuroscience of consciousness, critique their methodologies, and consider ways in which those findings can be applied in a clinical setting.
- A "Complex" Theory of Consciousness Scientific American, July 2009
- Signature of Consciousness Captured in Brain Scans New Scientist, November 2009
- You Won't Find Consciousness in the Brain New Scientist, January 2010
- Reviving Consciousness in Injured Brains Scientific American, January 2010
- Video: Communicating with those in a vegetative state CNN, 2010
- Reproducibility Distinguishes Conscious from Nonconscious Neural Representations (the study) Science, 2009
David Fischer's final paper:
Some relevant thoughts from last week:
Culture defines and makes people more sensitive to any deviations they may display from the societal norm, and this hypersensitivity can exacerbate the symptoms they display ... Labels, while separating people as being different, at the same time give them the recognition that they have a medical condition that is not a sign of weakness or something that can be changed on their own ... Bo-Rin Kim
Perhaps the categorization of people as depressed leads them to feel isolated and alone; but could it also influence them to seek treatment? ... sberman
Although this is a cavalier perspective on depression, if I could enjoy a European cruise for a few years paid for by my health insurance, I just might pretend to have depression ... we want everyone healthy and reenergized but to what extent can mental illnesses open the system to abuse? ... VGopinath
there would be no cohesive structure or unified mechanism of communication without a shared language system. And there is no practical reason to abolish a system simply because some people do not have the ability to assimilate ... LMcCormick
It seems almost impossible to take life on a case-by-case basis, to change our culture to suit the needs of every individual person ... aliss
rather than focus all interventions on changing the disorder; these treatments instead change what is “normal”. Instead of bending patients to fit society these societies bend to fit their patients ... I am not quite sure how this methodology could be integrated with modern care ... dshanin
Our own culture engenders the negative attitude toward mental health illnesses because of its product-driven behavior ... meroberts
What Psychologists need, I think, is a way to contextualize illness without descending into complete relativism ... rdanfort
Could anything that was said in this hypothetical classroom actually stand up against the high powered and competitive culture that exists directly outside the classroom? ... EB Ver Hoeve
There has been a great deal of discussion regarding the Gender Identity Disorder and its place in future versions of the DSM, and I imagine that it could very well go the way of some of the other disorders that once described behavior that was considered abnormal but have since been phased out as culture has changed and as those behaviors have been recognized as not “disordered” ... Jeremy Posner
Is it feasible to imagine a culture in which the ends of "productivity" were defined on an individual basis? ... David F
We [could] create and recreate our culture to make everyone a meaningful contributor to it ... Paul
we can philosophize and discuss and observe human behavior and differences all we want, but unless we have a solid understanding of the physical basis of whats going on in the brain we can never really be sure of whats going on in our head ... Sasha
I think it's worth considering how the brain may be responsible for influencing its own health ... Claire Ceriani
Might an understanding of the "physical basis" of consciousness help with thinking about "how the brain may be responsible for influencing its own health," about depression and mental "illness" generally, and about culture and cultural change?
Discussion summary (Jeremy)
Follow-up on Last Week’s Discussion: can malingering lead to developing a real mental illness? Is it the result of an evaluative bias on the part of people doing the diagnosis or is it perhaps the result of a cultural component of mental illness; a person with a diagnosis of a disorder is treated as though they were disordered and so begins to display the symptoms of that disorder.
Deafness and cultural adaptation: Should the deaf be expected to learn to speak verbally despite how difficult this can be or should those who are not hearing impaired be expected to learn to sign despite the very limited number of times they will likely find it useful in everyday life? It is probably true that those who are not deaf who do learn sign often do so more out of convenience (they regularly encounter the deaf) rather than out of a desire to adapt culturally to avoid disabling those with impaired hearing. Should deaf parents provide a deaf child with a cochlear implant? Is that a decision that should be left up to each family or should every child be given the option to hear? Everyone agrees that it is not unreasonable that the curriculum at Gallaudet be taught in sign.
More on the idea of disability: The argument over merging Asperger’s Syndrome into Autism and resistance to this change from those with the former. The idea that they don’t want to be labeled as having a disability to the degree that is associated with Autism or that Asperger’s is associated with strength as well as with social difficulty and they want that aspect of the diagnosis preserved.
Paul’s proposal: that society is reworked so that people’s strength’s be celebrated while their weaknesses are not held against them. Everyone is allowed to do what they do best and is rewarded for their talent, but without any judgment either of their relative skill in that area or of the worth of that skill so that there is no real perception of different ableness. Class’s immediate reaction: economically unworkable. Further reactions: struggle and challenge are part of the human condition, necessary to appreciate the better things in life, and necessary because people want to be challenged. Would ignoring everyone’s weaknesses mean removing any opportunity or incentive for self improvement? What if people don’t enjoy what they do well? Should everyone just do what they enjoy then? Even at their best most people will be overshadowed in skill by others, is that not still a kind of disability?
Today’s Topic: What is consciousness: In yoga the idea of being present, for example Paul is not present when he walks into the women’s bathroom out of habit. Is this consciousness though, or focus and awareness, Paul is probably conscious of other things when he makes that mistake. Is consciousness required to experience sensation? Is life therefore a prerequisite for consciousness? There seems to be a split here, some believe that something mechanical could never achieve consciousness, others that it’s simply a matter of having the ability to mirror the complexity and design of organic consciousness. What about groups, can a society be conscious? What is the best way to examine consciousness? Using neural correlates or functional correlates? Is it possible to understand exactly what consciousness is simply by examining the function of the brain? Is consciousness somehow greater than the sum of the brain’s many functions? There again seems to be some disagreement here.
We finished with a discussion of the use of conscious and unconscious viewing of images to identify the active processes of consciousness in the brain. The paper argued that one of the major components of identifying neural functions associated with consciousness is consistency and reproducibility. The neural components of consciousness are consistent and reproduced each time a conscious process occurs within the brain. One criticism of the study was that the neural activity observed could easily be the result of attention. Finally back to computers and the idea that simple complexity and ability to process data is not sufficient to achieve consciousness. The interactions of neurons and of the functions of various nuclei combine for form consciousness. Paul proposes a working definition of consciousness as being able to discern separately the self and the non-self, which is a definition that has been used in psyche work in the past.
Continuing discussion in forum below