Last night my wife and I, along with two neighbor friends, attended a talk in Portland, Oregon by neuroscientist Christof Koch. Title: "The Quest for Consciousness."
What is consciousness? What is hiding in our unconscious mind? And how can you harness both for a more fulfilling life? Consciousness is like an orchestra, and our brain is its conductor. Stemming in part from a long-standing collaboration with the late Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, Christof Koch, Ph.D., will be exploring how the flickering of nerve cells in the brain leads to information processing and the unforgettable experiences that make us who we are.
Koch, like virtually all neuroscientists, considers that consciousness arises from goings-on within the physical brain.
He made a point that I've frequently emphasized in my blog posts: if someone hits you in the back of the head with a baseball bat, you'll "see stars." And maybe lose consciousness. Ditto if you're given anesthesia.
This alone does a pretty good job of demolishing claims that consciousness somehow is immaterial, or that we possess a conscious soul/spirit. If this were the case, why do people lose consciousness when the brain is impacted?
During the question and answer period, Koch said that he had taken part in meetings with the Dalai Lama and some leading Buddhist monks.
The monks would try to argue that consciousness is non-physical, the supernatural equivalent of radio waves filling space. A brain, according to the monks, is needed to receive and interpret the consciousness "signal," but the signal is immaterial.
Koch said that when he asked the monks to explain how something non-physical (consciousness) could interact with something physical (a brain), "I got a bunch of hand-waving." Meaning, nonsensical pseudo-explanations.
"Consciousness is a physical thing," Koch told us. "It's the brain."
In his view, consciousness is an integral aspect of the universe, like time, space, energy, matter. Organized pieces of matter have an additional property, Koch said, consciousness.
Consciousness doesn't require language or self-consciousness.
That inner voice which speaks inside our heads much of the time isn't needed for consciousness. Koch is an avid runner and rock climber. He said that doing these things, along with biking, motorcycling, and other activities requiring a lot of focus, can put us in a pleasant state of "flow" where we just do, rather than thinking I must do..."
Figuring things out comes into play when we encounter a problem, like a stretch of rock face that doesn't seem to have any hand-holds. Then, Koch said, the brain has to engage in some logical problem-solving.
Otherwise, most of what we do arises from unconscious processes. We don't consciously decide how to speak, write, move our hands, walk, or do most of our daily activities. Likewise, our bodily organs -- liver, heart, and so on -- don't require consciousness to function.
At least, apparently they don't.
Koch didn't have time to get into the details of how it is possible to tell the difference between entities that have consciousness, and entities that don't. Personally, I like the idea that consciousness is a continuum, with plants, for example, possessing a small degree of consciousness and us humans, a lot.
One of his chief quests as the chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle is to search for the neural correlates of consciousness, NCC. Wikipedia defines this as "the minimal set of neuronal events and mechanisms sufficient for a specific conscious percept."
At the Institute, they've set out to map the entire mouse brain. Koch said that it is obvious that the NCC for vision isn't in the eye, because we can "see" things in our imagination and dreams. And hallucinate what isn't seen by the eye.
With the human brain having 89 billion neurons, each connected to thousands of other neurons, obviously the search for neural correlates of consciousness, and understanding of how the brain works generally, is hugely complex.
Yet the cortex, Koch demonstrated, is about the size of a sheet of pizza dough. He flopped around a thin piece of flexible material, saying that human consciousness is contained within a similarly-sized bit of brain matter (what I like to term, "brain meat").
This, for me, was the unsurprising, yet still deeply fascinating, centerpiece of Koch's talk: that consciousness is thoroughly material, and also thoroughly mysterious. Not in a supernatural sense, obviously -- a natural sense.
Which stimulates as much awe, if not more, than religious, spiritual, and mystical conceptions of consciousness.
Koch concluded his talk with a several minute-long video of a journey through a cubic millimeter of mouse brain. Various parts of the brain -- neurons, synapses, other connections? (can't remember) -- were shown in different colors.
It was sort of like an actual Fantastic Voyage, a tour of the very, very small bits of brain that, combined, make it possible for mice, humans, and other conscious creatures to be aware of the vast wide world.
Just this single cubic millimeter of mouse brain, with its 100,000 neurons (remember: the human brain has 89 billion!) was astoundingly complex. Bit by bit, the video tour "descended" through the various levels of this 1 millimeter, showing the intricate neuronal interconnections.
This, albeit on a vastly grander scale, is who we are, as a Homo sapiens brain.
Matter. Energy. Chemicals. Electricity. All organized in such a fashion as to make it possible to ponder in a self-reflective/reflexive manner the brain that is both being pondered, and doing the pondering.
Near the end of Koch's book, "Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist," he says:
The pioneering generation of stars had to die in spectacular supernova fashion to seed space with the heavier elements necessary for the second act of creation -- the rise of self-replicating bags of chemicals on a rocky planet orbiting a young star at just the right distance.
The competitive pressures of natural selection triggered the third act of creation -- the accession of creatures endowed with sentience, with subjective states.
As the complexity of their nervous systems grew to staggering proportions, some of these creatures evolved the ability to think about themselves and to contemplate the splendidly beautiful and terrifyingly cruel world around them.
Along with the amazing world within them. Which, in fact, is them: the brain that makes consciousness possible.