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The Neural Correlates Of Consciousness

February 9, 2013

In 2004, eight prominent neuroscientists wrote a paper on consciousness which began by stating,

“We have no idea how consciousness emerges from the physical activity of the brain and we do not know whether consciousness can emerge from non-biological systems, such as computers… At this point the reader will expect to find a careful and precise definition of consciousness. You will be disappointed. Consciousness has not yet become a scientific term that can be defined in this way. Currently we all use the term consciousness in many different and often ambiguous ways. Precise definitions of different aspects of consciousness will emerge … but to make precise definitions at this stage is premature.”

– Human Brain Function, by Richard Frackowiak and 7 other neuroscientists

This problem is known to as the neural correlates of consciousness.  What is the minimal amount of neural activity necessary to produce conscious experience?  Why do different types of brain activity give rise to a subjective sense of existence?

I found myself entertaining the idea that if computers were to have conscious experiences, because different systems have varied hardware implementations, if they’re to be considered conscious, then we must be dealing with an information processing concept.  Consciousness must be related to the flow of information through matter.

It’s interesting to speculate about it, but I never felt confident in the idea.  The philosopher John Searle argued that it’s all brain chemistry, so there are varied opinions.  I do feel that our brains are processing information like a computer, but when it comes to us human beings and why we’re conscious, after listening to Terence McKenna, I’m feeling now that there’s much more to it.

He did a lot of research into hallucinogenic drugs and personally tried them out on himself to observe their effects on his state of consciousness.  I find it baffling.  Take dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a naturally occurring neutrotransmitter/neuromodulater floating around in all of us.  Smoke some DMT and this chemical will find its way into your synaptic clefts  and BOOM.  Within 30 seconds your body dissolves and you end up in another dimension, surrounded by beings of great intelligence who try to establish communication.

Now I don’t recommend people go out and do this stuff.  I never would.  But here’s the greater question.  Why does that chemical cause this wild effect on our consciousness?  Why would you be transported to the “dome” and see beings which look like this?

dmt elf

You’ll say, “He’s hallucinating!  Of course he’d see wild things!”  But you’re missing the point.  Why do different chemicals and electrical signals within the brain give rise to the subjective experiences they do?  Our society has a stigma against drugs of all kinds, and a lot of it with good reason.  But we must remember, the brain is a chemical vessel.  It’s biology.  Why does this chemical do this?  The same goes for LSD, shrooms, or any other mind altering substance.

I suspect there are great mysteries we haven’t even begun to discover.  We have no clue what we are or what’s going on.

You know, I was thinking about it just yesterday.  If our subjective consciousness was solely an information process, and you muddled up the flow with this DMT, you should just get static and noise.  Your conscious experience, if anything, should be like the white noise on a television set without an input signal.  Then when the drug gets pumped out, the “picture” should fade back in.

What actually happens?  The “picture” does fade back in, but you didn’t experience noise.  Nothing of the sort.  You see gorgeous spiraling colors, you feel absolute bliss, and you find yourself in another world with celestial beings talking to you.  I sit back in amazement thinking, “What!? That makes no sense at all.”

People’s experiences with it do seem to describe a state where brain activity is firing all over the place, associating strange ideas and concepts together.  Take this first hand account,

“We were still cruising along at the speed of light, now descending backwards together through an amoeboid, octahedral gallery of iridescent vaults. It was at this moment that I became suddenly aware we were not alone. The vaults seemed to zoom explosively outward then and the gallery expanded ad infinitum into a gargantuan, labrynthine, almost interstellar space, and through every vault poured the miraculous and zany imps who make the tryptamine hyperdimension their home. The tentacles of lapis lazuli gathered these capricious, multi-colored enigmas in towards the center, and became the architectonic scaffolding of their new multi-dimensional reality, a world which I found myself dab smack in the middle of. It was like a liquid mind ecology of staggering and alien complexity, the mind as it crosses over into quantum warpdrive and migrates ever further out into the oceanic beyond. At this point the glorious geometries transcended what is even vaguely feasible in this three dimensional mundane, constantly concrescing into new and varigated permutations, exfoliating out of themselves what might be called hyperspherologies of the divine, and to look anywhere was to be shot clean through with scintillating amazement. Crowding and cramming themselves into my field of vision were thousands upon thousands of beings of every imaginable sort and many that were completely unimaginable. They were everywhere jabbering in indecipherable tongues, juggling incandescent neon microworlds of dancing beings, and morphing with a zen-like, diaphanous fluidity that remains a primal miracle no matter how often you lay your all too human eyes on it. The primordial intelligence being manifest before me was palpable, undeniable, transcendently amazing – it shook me to my core in a more-than-real gleeful profundity. All I could do was sit there in divine liquid awe, my soul gaping wide open, and stare at the incalculable proportions of bizarreness and the down right weird that lay before me. It was like being entertained by the 76,000 piece orchestra of an alien civilization in whose classical music each note is not merely a musical tone, but an entire world, each just as intricate and nuancical as our own.”

Even so, I can’t make heads or tails of it.  Those simple ion pumps and channels within our brain’s neurons are doing all of that?  It doesn’t seem real.  I don’t want to believe it.  Something so simple can’t give rise to all of that?!  But it does.  Somehow.

McKenna had an interesting take on what this human experience is.  He called it a “controlled hallucination”.  That just makes me smile.  Our bodies hold us in this experience we call life, and it’s not much different than a controlled hallucination which loses its hold when we go to sleep at night.

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