The Inchoate Science of Consciousness
New approaches could help quantify the mind-body gap
By Christof Koch
A new scientific field is being born, one that seeks to understand which organisms have subjective states, what purpose theymight serve, and how distinct states of consciousness come about. Here, the Holy Grail is to provide a satisfactory, quantitative account for why select states of complicated, neuronal networks go hand-in-hand with experiences such as seeing blue, feeling pain, smelling a dog that's just come in from the rain, or of simply being.
Philosophers call these feelings and sensations that constitute the elements of consciousness "qualia." In contrast, most brain states are not directly associated with conscious sensations: We have almost no access to the structures that give rise to speech, to depth perception or color vision, to the rapid sequence of sensory-motor transformations necessary to play soccer, climb a rock wall, or return a tennis ball, let alone those influencing perspiration, heart rate, or the action of our immune systems. Unlike qualia, these proceed in blankness. Where is the difference between the two?
THE PROBLEM WITH MIND
The body-mind conundrum traces back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Yet during the past 2,300 years, progress on these questions has been almost imperceptible. Centuries passed before people realized that the brain, rather than, say, the heart or liver, has the most intimate relationship with the mind. Only towards the latter part of the 19th century did it become apparent that the cerebral cortex is not just a homogeneous, reactive tissue, but instead comprises different parts performing distinct functions. That nervous systems are made up of discrete, complex, and interconnected nerve cells constituted another great advance at the end of the 19th century. In the 20th century, technology began to deliver reliable and inexpensive methods to record, store, and analyze electrical activity from individual neurons in anesthetized and, later on, in awake animals - even in people.1 In the closing decades of the millennium, technologies to peer safely inside the living human brain, and witness it in action, became widely accessible to the research community.
Today, there is a newfound optimism among philosophers, scientists, clinicians, and other scholars, that science can successfully tackle the mystery of how brain matter expresses subjective feelings. This was evident at the ninth annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC9) this past June.
Full Text at TheScientist
Robert Karl Stonjek
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