Have you ever thought about your state of being? Who are you? Why do you think, have opinions, or even have emotions? How does your brain, a hunk of tissue, produce complex thoughts, and what is that inner voice in your head?
I never really paid much attention to the concept of consciousness until listening to a research presentation from an EEG researcher named Joel Frohlich. His research focused on the EEG signature associated with consciousness, specifically in children with Angelman Syndrome, a genetic, neurological condition. Throughout his presentation, I found it so interesting that consciousness is both a scientific and philosophical issue that is so complex, yet also equally taken for granted. What does it mean to be aware and present, both from a
philosophical and neurological standpoint? What contributes to varying levels of consciousness? How can BCI help study consciousness, both from a clinical and research standpoint? These are all the questions that I want to answer, and to do so, I am going to be writing a five part series on consciousness this quarter! Each part will be released roughly every other week, with this post being the first part to the series. This first part will deal with the philosophy of consciousness and identifying various subfields of consciousness research. Parts two and three will delve more into the neuroscience of consciousness and how BCI can be used to conduct consciousness research, part three will focus on the importance of consciousness research especially from a clinical standpoint, and part four will close off the series by discussing the issues and gaps within the field of consciousness research as well as how you can learn more about consciousness.
So what is consciousness, and how do we define it? Consciousness is synonymous with awakeness, and can be formally defined as a state of awareness of one’s sense of being, thoughts, feelings, environment, and sensations. Essentially, consciousness is a “sense of self.” Philosophers throughout time have struggled to grasp the exact meaning and concept of consciousness, thus leading to some central considerations throughout the history of the philosophy of consciousness. These considerations include consciousness beyond the human species, recognizing consciousness, systematically explaining and categorizing consciousness, and the distinction between the mind and the body (or how consciousness arises from a physical being such as ourselves). A lot of these considerations have also translated to formal investigations within modern consciousness research, which we will dissect later.
Due to the debatable, complex nature of consciousness, many theories have arisen on how exactly to characterize and define consciousness. Although René Descartes was thought to be the first philosopher to think about consciousness back in the 17th century, history suggests that the Mayans and Incans may have actually been the first civilizations to ponder what it means to be conscious. The Mayans believed that consciousness is the most rudimentary form of organismal existence, and that this characteristic is capable of evolution. The Incans instead defined consciousness as a form of awareness and empathy that develops, and is enhanced, over time. Now, jumping to the 17th century, René Descartes was a French philosopher who
developed perhaps the most famous historical theory on consciousness. Termed “cogito ergo sum,” Descartes summed up the concept of consciousness as “I think, therefore I am.” He also distinguished between the mind and the body, believing they were two separate entities. Another famous European philosopher to ponder consciousness was John Locke, who was one of the first philosophers to actually start writing about consciousness. He believed that consciousness is the essence of our identity and is mainly defined as our memories. He, similar to Descartes, also distinguished between the mind and the body, proposing that consciousness can pass between souls and can survive even after our physical bodies die. Another great mind to theorize about consciousness was Sigmund Freud, a famous neurologist and psychoanalyst from the 19th century. He shaped western perspectives on consciousness by breaking it down into three levels of awareness: the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious. The unconscious is composed of distant memories, unpleasant thoughts, and unacceptable desires that are outside of our conscious awareness and often suppressed; however, they still influence our behavior. The preconscious is mainly a collection of memories and repressed thoughts that are typically unconscious but are definitely accessible to our conscious. Our conscious then is that “inner voice” within us that deals with thoughts we know and are aware of about ourselves and the environment.
Although great, historical minds have contemplated consciousness, that does not mean that all of our questions have been answered. Modern scientists and philosophers continue to tackle the concept of consciousness, developing multiple theories. For example, one of the most famous theories of consciousness may be Integrated Information Theory (IIT), although it has been dismissed by some experts in the field. Developed by Dr. Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this theory attempts to understand the neural mechanisms of consciousness by first thinking about consciousness itself. Through this theory, consciousness is defined as the “integration” of a plethora of external, sensory information, thus explaining how there are varying levels of consciousness depending on the organism. Since information is integrated, the sensory experience you have once your brain processes and receives this information cannot be reduced to its simple components. Overall, this theory asserts that consciousness is a complex sensory experience that transcends a simple sum of individual components. Another well-known modern theory of consciousness is the Global Workspace Theory. Unlike IIT, global workspace attempts to explain the broader working and mechanisms of consciousness. This theory, developed by Dr. Bernard Baars, a neuroscientist from the Neuroscience Institute in La Jolla, California, equates consciousness to computer memory, thus explaining consciousness more systematically (which, remember, was actually a goal of early philosophers). Essentially, this theory asserts that consciousness allows us to recall and retain past memories and sensory experiences in a sort of “memory bank” in our brain, which Dr. Baars relates to the “blackboard.” The Blackboard is an old AI concept, and it is essentially a memory bank that is accessible via various different computer programs. He elaborates that other brain areas can also then receive these memories that are uploaded to the brain’s “blackboard” for further processing, and this act of transmitting experiences from the “blackboard” to the rest of the brain is the essence of consciousness.
Different scientific disciplines in modern academia also have different perspectives on consciousness. For example, developmental psychologists believe that consciousness is a developmental process with progressive higher-order cognitive and spiritual levels. This implies that consciousness is a characteristic capable of improving over time in terms of its quality and extent of consciousness. This then also explains how abnormal development, as is the case with psychiatric disorders, alter consciousness. Social psychologists, on the other hand, believe that consciousness is a cultural product and is not really molded by the actual individual. Differences in culture can thus explain different experiences and interpretations of the world. Building on this idea, social psychologists maintain that language is the main mode of conveying consciousness, so analyzing language clues a person into one’s mentality. Lastly, neuropsychologists view consciousness from a much more biological lens. They focus on neural systems and the brain’s physicality to draw relationships between verbally reported experiences and the analogous activity in the brain. Thus, neuropsychologists utilize BCI and neuroimaging in the hopes of finding a brain region or pattern of brain activity that can indicate awareness and consciousness.
Clearly, different academic disciplines view consciousness differently. Thus, the sheer volume of academic research on consciousness is extremely large. So, what are the different subdivisions of research focused on understanding consciousness from all angles? Some different areas of consciousness research include:
Perception and Subliminal Perception
Understanding Consciousness from Both a Biological and Psychological Standpoint
Altered States of Consciousness (ie - psychotropic drugs, spiritual and meditative techniques, altered mental states, psychiatric disorders, etc.)
The Neural Source of Consciousness
For example, Harvard scientists, through fMRI studies, believe consciousness stems from three brain regions: the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum (a small region in the brainstem) and two other small areas in the cortex of the brain. Supporting their conclusion is the fact that they also found these brain regions to be affected by disorders of consciousness in multiple patients.
Defining and Detecting Consciousness (using measures of brain activity)
How Consciousness Develops
The Boundary Between Consciousness and Unconsciousness
Disorders of Consciousness and Severe Brain Injuries
Neural Plasticity and Consciousness
Sleep vs. Wakefulness
Brain Mechanisms Associated with the Conscious Processing of External Information
It is also interesting to note that some of these fields of research intersect with the earlier historical goals of consciousness philosophy as detailed earlier!
Clearly, consciousness is a complicated topic that is a hotspot for philosophers and scientific researchers alike, but how does neurotechnology fit into this large field? How can BCI help progress the field of consciousness research in ways we could have never imagined, and what are we even looking for when we use BCI to study consciousness? Stay tuned to learn more in Part 2 of this consciousness series