Saturday, 5 July 2014

Consciously Evicting God From Another Gap

Consciousness on-off switch discovered deep in brain - life - 02 July 2014 - New Scientist

One of the favourite arguments used by religious apologists is that somehow materialism can't explain conscious thought and that a 'random' [sic] process like evolution could only ever give rise to random thoughts and not rational arguments.

Of course, this argument is never revised to accommodate developments in science and in our understanding of neurophysiology and the microscopic structure of neurons, so it is identical in form whether used by C.S.Lewis, William Lane Craig or Ken Ham even though our understanding of the science has been transformed immeasurably in the intervening half century.

But then we need to remember that religious apologists are not seeking to make converts but to keep believers believing and thus to ensure their income stream is maintained and the arrogant claims they make to power and authority over us are not questioned by a large enough sector of the population to threaten them. The argument is nothing more than another straw man, since we know that evolution is not a random process but a process made highly directional by natural selection which will drive a feature of the evolving organism towards fitness to survive long enough to reproduce, and a brain producing random thoughts could have no such survival value.

The other flaw in their argument is that, now they have to argue 'intelligent design' because that's their latest fad, they tacitly acknowledge that the brain is a material organ anyway - they just hypothesise a magic creator of it - so whatever is going on in the brain is going on in a material realm. As ever, apologetics is directed at an ignorant audience looking for 'confirmation' of their pre-existing conclusion and relief from the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. It doesn't concern itself with things like logical coherence, consistency or truth.

We have always known that consciousness is inextricably bound to the structure and physiology of the brain by the simple, irrefutable evidence that it can be altered both by physical injury and chemically. If consciousness existed in some other form it would remain unaffected by brain injury, mind-altering substances or anesthetic drugs. It is not, so it is not separate from the brain but a product of its anatomy and physiology. Consciousness is no different in its fundamentals to rational thought and deductive reasoning. Both processes receive information, process it, use it and store it, and this all takes place in the brain.

Now a team from George Washington University, Washington DC, USA led by Mohamad Koubeissi have shown that consciousness is under the control of a small area of the brain and can be switched on and off by electircal stumulation. If the switch is in the brain, and the structure controlling it is in the brain, how can consciousness be said not to be part of the brain?

Shortly before his death almost exactly ten years ago, the great Francis Crick had been working on a paper with Christof Koch in which they had reasoned that consciousness must involve something analogous to an orchestral conductor in order to integrate information from different sources, both external and internal, and arriving at different times. He had suggested the claustrum, a thin membrane-like structure deep within the brain as a likely candidate.

Abstract
The claustrum is a thin, irregular, sheet-like neuronal structure hidden beneath the inner surface of the neocortex in the general region of the insula. Its function is enigmatic. Its anatomy is quite remarkable in that it receives input from almost all regions of cortex and projects back to almost all regions of cortex. We here briefly summarize what is known about the claustrum, speculate on its possible relationship to the processes that give rise to integrated conscious percepts, propose mechanisms that enable information to travel widely within the claustrum and discuss experiments to address these questions.

Francis C Crick and Christof Koch; What is the function of the claustrum?;
Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 29 June 2005 vol. 360 no. 1458 1271-1279 doi: 10.1098/rstb.2005.1661

For example, the experience of eating a meal has to include sight, scent and taste, texture, temperature, setting, company, etc, etc. The experience of eating a meal, and being conscious of eating a meal, has to integrate information from several different internal and external sources arriving at different times and maybe varying in quality or moderated based on past experience and physiological state such as hunger or general health.

I would liken it to a car. A car on the road has many parts that facilitate its movement – the gas, the transmission, the engine – but there's only one spot where you turn the key and it all switches on and works together. So while consciousness is a complicated process created via many structures and networks – we may have found the key.

Mohamad Koubeissi
The team from Washington University have shown experimentally that high-frequency electrical stimulation of this structure switches consciousness off. Remove the stimulation and the subject instantly regains consciousness. Consciousness is under physiological control and this small structure is almost certainly Crick's 'conductor'. So far, this has only been demonstrated in a single subject who was being treated for epilepsy, so the result must be treated with due caution but the result is none-the-less impressive and lends strong support to Crick's hypothesis. The patient was also shown to be awake even though unconscious during stimulation, demonstrating that sleep and unconsciousness are not the same thing. A sleeping brain is conscious while an unconscious brain can be awake.

But why does electrical stimulation switch consciousness off when one might have assumed it would switch it on? The team noticed that when under induced unconsciousness the different areas of the brain were more synchronised than when she was conscious. It seems the claustrum can only integrate information from different sources if they are out of sync, otherwise it is unable to integrate them into a coherent 'experience'. Maybe something akin to a holographic picture which is constructed from two different light sources being slightly out of phase, only with consciousness, not only are they out of phase but arrive slightly out of time too.

Will this new understanding of consciousness and its anatomical and physiological basis, and the fact that science is rapidly closing another 'god-filled' gap and finding it to be god-free and not to involve magic yet again, integrate itself into the consciousness of religious apologists, creation pseudo-scientists and their unfortunate victims? Of course not. We will undoubtedly see religious apologists trotting out the same misinformation to a dwindling band of acolytes in another half century. Their conclusion is sacred so no facts must be permitted to influence it.

Just as religions still subscribe to Bronze-Age beliefs and behave as though the Universe runs on magic and can be influence by magic words; that evil demons still possess things; that there is another world somewhere 'up' above the stars, and the ancient tribal proto-human alpha male is still sitting on his rocky outcrop overlooking the tribe, both protecting it and enforcing his rules and taking a close interest in our sexual activities lest we infringe his right to first pick of the females, so religions will still believe our bodies work by magic, no matter what the evidence says.

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3 comments :

  1. Thank you, Rosa! Very interesting! And here is another article from the "New Scientist": http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23401-emerging-consciousness-glimpsed-in-babies.html#.U7lhDPmSxcJ .

    Some quotes from that article:

    In adults, awareness of a stimulus is known to be linked to a two-stage pattern of brain activity. Immediately after a visual stimulus is presented, areas of the visual cortex fire. About 300 milliseconds later other areas light up, including the prefrontal cortex, which deals with higher-level cognition. Conscious awareness kicks in only after the second stage of neural activity reaches a specific threshold. "It's an all-or-nothing response," says Kouider.

    (...)

    "Babies have the same mechanisms as adults but they are very slow," says Kouider. "There are things happening in the brain but they are unable to deal with the information."

    (...)

    In young infants, neurons are not yet fully covered with myelin – a fatty insulating sheath. This physiological immaturity explains the delayed signals seen in 5-month-old babies, says Kouider. Developing brains also have more connections than mature ones ( these connections get pruned as different regions become dedicated to certain activities), and the early glut of connections would also disrupt brain signals, he says.

    (...)

    Although the babies' changing brain activity highlights the development of visual perception, it is not yet clear when the second-stage timings become short enough for awareness to kick in.

    No wonder the article has the following headline: Emerging consciousness glimpsed in babies.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Helmer. We're also beginning to see how there appears to be a delay between a decision being made and us becoming conscious of having made it, meaning that we don't make a decision at the level of conscious awareness like it feels.

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  2. Here's another good article that indirectly confirms the findings you write about, Rosa: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228402.300-banishing-consciousness-the-mystery-of-anaesthesia.html?full=true#.U7mDuPmSxcI

    You wrote like this, Rosa: But why does electrical stimulation switch consciousness off when one might have assumed it would switch it on? The team noticed that when under induced unconsciousness the different areas of the brain were more synchronised than when she was conscious. It seems the claustrum can only integrate information from different sources if they are out of sync, otherwise it is unable to integrate them into a coherent 'experience'. Maybe something akin to a holographic picture which is constructed from two different light sources being slightly out of phase, only with consciousness, not only are they out of phase but arrive slightly out of time too.

    In the new article I linked to here above you can read this explanation:

    Engel found that at the deepest levels of anaesthesia, the primary sensory cortex was the only region to respond to the electric shock. "Long-distance communication seems to be blocked, so the brain cannot build the global workspace," says Engel, who presented the work at last year's Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego. "It's like the message is reaching the mailbox, but no one is picking it up."

    What could be causing the blockage? Engel has unpublished EEG data suggesting that propofol interferes with communication between the primary sensory cortex and other brain regions by causing abnormally strong synchrony between them. "It's not just shutting things down. The communication has changed," he says. "If too many neurons fire in a strongly synchronised rhythm, there is no room for exchange of specific messages."

    ReplyDelete

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