The Science and Reasoning Behind Consciousness

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The Science and Reasoning Behind Consciousness

Everything we see, taste, hear, and touch is part of our individual experience, made aware through our consciousness / Photo by Kirill Kedrinski via 123RF

 

When we look around us, we can see a wide range of different shapes and colors. We can also hear, taste, smell, and feel things in our surroundings, and we know that we are experiencing them.

But why and how do we know that we “experience” things?

 

What Exactly Is It?

For all of us, consciousness is something that doesn’t need to be activated or thought about. We are all conscious and we’re aware of it. However, defining consciousness or even finding out what creates it or why we even know that consciousness is innate, is something that has baffled philosophers and other learned scholars for thousands of years.

Consciousness, at its most basic, is the entirety of everything we experience. Everything we see, taste, hear, and touch is part of our individual experience, made aware through our consciousness. Qualia, or the origin and nature of experience, still continues to be a mystery to us. Some philosophers have even denied the existence of it or, otherwise, that it could never truly be appreciated in the realm of science. However, most scholars accept the concept of consciousness, as they know it is the way we can experience things and make connections between them.

Most scholars accept the concept of consciousness, as they know it is the way we can experience things and make connections between them / Photo by Thelightwriter via 123RF

 

The Problem

As it is so difficult for us to wrap our heads around the idea of consciousness, many scientists instead look for how it manifests through physical channels, namely the neuronal correlates of consciousness. We know that having consciousness has something to do with our ability to perceive things, and this is achieved through neuronal connections in our brain. After all, we cannot be conscious without a brain.

But what is the minimum amount of neuronal connections needed to form conscious experience? According to the Scientific American, scientists tried to answer questions, such as what and how many neurons would be needed to tell your brain that you were being pinched on your arm. They also attempted to find out if there is a specific region of the brain responsible for realizing conscious experience or if special sorts of neurons are needed for it.

 

Peering into our Brains

What they found was that even if certain parts of your neural system were removed, such as your spinal cord or even your cerebellum, these would not affect consciousness at all. People could still continue living and being aware of experiences even if they could no longer feel in certain limbs or if they’re coordination vanished.

It seems clear to scientists that the seat of consciousness can be found in the cerebral cortex, where emotions and feelings are processed. By performing more experiments and checking brain patterns, they have also found that an area called the posterior hot zone is active when one is perceiving stimuli. It is made up of the parietal, occipital, and temporal lobes that all interconnect and work together in order to track objects with our eyes. The primary visual, auditory, and somatosensory areas of the brain, surprisingly, are not responsible for making sense of the information, but only for receiving the information from the various sensory organs and moving it on to the next part of the process that helps with conscious perception.

These findings are further supported by the fact that when surgeons had to excise parts of the frontal cortex, there were no major detrimental effects to one’s perceptions, but when the posterior portions were removed, the patients were unable to recognize faces or see things such as motion and color. By keeping this in mind, scientists have attempted to measure consciousness in patients with comas by mapping neural activity, though the science is far from practical at the moment.

 

Different Theories

Philosophically speaking, there are a number of theories that have inevitably clashed against one another. The theory of physicalism believes that consciousness is a physical experience entirely. This means that we experience consciousness because of the specific and physical way that atoms have been arranged to afford this situation. It is an attractive explanation for many theorists as it is an incredibly simple explanation. However, it opens up the possibility that machines or computers could also gain consciousness if their circuitry was simply arranged in the right way, with software functioning similarly to the way our brains work.

PsychologyToday.com explains that the other theory is called dualism, which states that consciousness falls in the realm of the non-physical. Some who believe in Cartesian dualism believe that there are things physical and non-physical that can be perceived, and consciousness falls under the latter. Another category, property dualism, states that things have non-physical and physical properties. This includes neural activity, which is what sends signals through our nervous system. If neural signals have a physical property like electromagnetic pulses that can be measured, consciousness is one of its non-physical properties.

There are several more different sets and subsets of theories on the nature of consciousness, spanning thousands of years of study. While we may not be any closer to truly understanding the essence of consciousness or a way to harness it, it is still important that we reflect on such ideas.

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