Awakening and Science: Research in Consciousness

How can the flux of ions and electrical currents in little specks of jelly the neurons in my brain generate the whole subjective world of sensations like red, warmth, cold or pain?”

-Dr. V. S. Ramachandran

774 - Neuron Connection - Pattern

Creative Commons License photo credit: Patrick Hoesly

Here, I list some interesting research into consciousness.

The illusion of free will

Benjamin Libet and others have done some experiments which show free will may be an illusion. You are asked to wriggle your finger when you want to while a PET scan is done. The scan shows that you decided to move the finger at the same time that the finger moved. However, a type of EEG potential (called Readiness Potential) consistently shows that the brain gears up, getting ready to move the finger, almost a second before you actually decide to move the finger. So the brain autonomously decides to move the finger and then a second later makes you think that you have decided to move the finger.

Free will is a delusion. The best perhaps that we can do in this particular case is to consciously veto the decision to move the finger (in which case, someone joked, we don’t have free will, we have free won’t). But the decision to veto may be similarly autonomous.

Ok, so we don’t have free will, at least in this particular experiment—that’s bizarre enough, but why has natural selection gone to the trouble of creating a delusion of decision-making? Why is it important to natural selection that we believe that our decisions are not only free-willed but also instantly effect movement?

In another experiment, psychologist Dan Wegner, describes a party game in which a person sits in front of a mirror and someone behind him moves the subject’s arms around. If at the same time the subject hears a tape telling the person how to move his arms, he begins to feel that he is actually in command.

The brain, particularly the left-brain, is pretty skilled at this sort of spin-doctoring.

Autonomous function

A young woman barely survives a car crash, and is left in a “persistent vegetative state.” A team of British and Belgian scientists are astonished to find that despite her outward non-reaction, MRI scans which detect blood flow to active areas of her brain her brain show that her brain responds just as any healthy brain would. They say things to her and the language centers light up; they ask her to imagine moving through her house and the navigation areas of the brain light up. They ask her to imagine playing tennis, and motor control areas light up. It’s as if her brain is fully working, but she is not aware. Or is she?

Blindsight

Patients who have this has damage to certain areas of the brain, and although they can see, they a blind spot in their visual field. They can’t see objects in the blind spot, that is they don’t see it in their mind’s eye. But when asked to point to the object, they accurately point to it. If the object moves, they know it moved. But they can’t see it. This challenges the idea that we are or can be aware of everything that goes on. (Epiphenomenalism.)

Cotard’s syndrome

This is weird one. The patient claims to be dead. He can even smell rotting flesh and feel the crawling of maggots and worms. This may be an exaggerated form of Capgrass syndrome, where many areas of sensing and perception are cut off from the limbic (emotional) center.

Qualia

This is a label for magic. By what process does the flow of chemicals and ions in the brain produce the subjective experience of sensations like warmth and cold and love and green and good and bad and me and awareness? This is the “hard” problem in consciousness research.

Anosognosia: phantoms in the mind

A disorder where a person with a paralyzed limb believes it is still fully functioning.  A very intelligent and lucid patient, who was completely aware that she suffered a stroke, claimed that her non-functioning left arm continued to work. This may have to do with the differences of function between the right and left sides of the brain. It seems the left side of the brain, which controls the right side of the body, will make stories when it is faced with confusing evidence, such as a paralyzed arm. The right side is more accepting.

The fallacy of beliefs, or, the Capgras’ delusion

A highly intelligent, perfectly normal young man is in an accident. He seems to recover completely, except for the one quirk that he is convinced that his mom and dad are impostors. They look and talk and behave exactly like his mom and his dad, but he is convinced they are not. One explanation is that the areas of the brain concerned with visual recognition are intact, but the connection to the limbic system, that is the part where emotions happen, is cut, so that patient’s brain recognizes people, but there is not emotional response, and so there is confusion, and brain’s explanation is that they must be impostors.

Who’s driving?

Most of us have an intuitive feeling that there is an executive “I” running the show in our minds. We have emotions and consciousness and awareness and thoughts, but we also feel that there is a “me” which is somehow more essential and it’s the “me” which is responsible for free-will and discipline and decisions.

Dr. Ramanchandran is prominent brain researcher and here’s what he says

“But what about the self? The last remaining great mystery in science, it’s something that everybody’s interested in – and especially if you’re from India, like me. Now obviously self and qualia are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have free-floating sensations or qualia with no-one to experience it and you can’t have a self completely devoid of sensory experiences, memories or emotions. For example as we saw in Cotard’s syndrome, sensations and perceptions lose all their significance and meaning – and this leads to a dissolution of self.

What exactly do people mean when they speak of the self? Its defining characteristics are fourfold. First of all, continuity. You’ve a sense of time, a sense of past, a sense of future. There seems to be a thread running through your personality, through your mind. Second, closely related is the idea of unity or coherence of self. In spite of the diversity of sensory experiences, memories, beliefs and thoughts, you experience yourself as one person, as a unity.

So there’s continuity, there’s unity. And then there’s the sense of embodiment or ownership – yourself as anchored to your body. And fourth is a sense of agency, what we call free will, your sense of being in charge of your own destiny. I moved my finger.

Now as we’ve seen in my lectures so far, these different aspects of self can be differentially disturbed in brain disease, which leads me to believe that the self really isn’t one thing, but many. Just like love or happiness, we have one word but it’s actually lumping together many different phenomena. For example, if I stimulate your right parietal cortex with an electrode (you’re conscious and awake) you will momentarily feel that you are floating near the ceiling watching your own body down below. You have an out-of-the-body experience. The embodiment of self is abandoned. One of the axiomatic foundations of your Self is temporarily abandoned. And this is true of each of those aspects of self I was talking about. They can be selectively affected in brain disease…”

Is the brain just a wet machine?

We’d like to believe that there is an executive “I” running the show, but is there really? We know that our minds can be pushed around by physical manipulation. Electrodes, surgery, chemicals like caffeine and alcohol and Prozac and LSD, and oxygen deprivation and brain tumors can profoundly affect us.

Synesthesia

Some people have a mixed sense. When they see numbers, they see a haze of specific colors around specific numbers, or they give a color to specific tastes, or they taste specific colors in specific ways. Is this the origin of language, where the mixing of sensations allowed us to associate sounds with shapes and colors? Does synesthesia explain methaphors and poetry and art? Dr. Ramachandran gives an example which shows that we are all synesthesics. Imagine a bulbous, undulating, soft, round thing. Next to it, imagine another thing which is of similar size but has sharp, jagged edges and moves jerkily. One is named Bobo, and the other Kiki. Which is which? Most people say Bobo is the soft, undulating thing.

Is awakening a shift to the right brain?

Listen to this captivating video of Jill Bolte Taylor, who is brain researcher, and describes a left-brain stroke. Does her experience sound like enlightenment?

Closing…

I have great hope for science. Science is clearly based on mind and intellect, and yet I believe it will fuse with awakening, which of course has nothing to with the mind or intellect.

Why?

Well, because both science and awakening are ultimately rational. Neither is based on faith or beliefs. Both ultimately rely on experience.

Science is full of assumptions, though it claims not to be, and the history of science is a history of falling assumptions. The most fundamental assumption in science is that we live in an objective universe in which space and time and matter are fundamental components of reality. This paradigm is cracking with research into consciousness and quantum mechanics. What if the fundamental component of reality is not matter or time or space? What if it is consciousness?

It’s very possible that our brains are not capable of understanding this. I had a very intelligent Doberman. As smart as he was, I know that if I had spent every hour he had teaching him calculus, he would have still blinked dumbly at derivatives and integrals. His brain was simply not configured for that kind of understanding. It’s possible that the human brain can never achieve an understanding of itself, or the universe.

Science breaks the understanding of consciousness into the “easy” problem and the “hard” problem. The easy problem is the correlation between the brain and mental functions. How does the brain process stimulus from the senses, and how does it remember, and how does it signal movement and so on. In a sense, the “easy” problem looks at the brain as a wet machine. It’s called the “easy” problem because scientists believe that with enough funding and time and research, the “easy” problem will be solved.

The “hard” problem is how the brain produces consciousness or self-awareness. How does the brain experience the sheer greenness of the color green? How is it that movement of electric energy inside the brain gives rise to the subjective experience of self-awareness?

Some big names in Consciousness research: Dr. V. S. Ramachandran, David Chalmers, Susan Blakemore,  Steven Pinker, Francis Crick, Peter Russell.

9 thoughts on “Awakening and Science: Research in Consciousness

    1. Kaushik Post author

      Hi Janice,
      Well, there can really be no such thing as an academic awakening. In some Indian philosophies, there are references to jnana and vidya, which refer to knowledge. But it’s not knowledge as in academic, intellectual knowledge. It’s the experience. As Jesus said, it’s the peace which surpasses all understanding.

      I don’t think we can awaken by trying to analyze awakening. I wrote this article just for a bit of variety. I am also writing one on quantum mechanics, and another on some very interesting psychology experiments.

      I hope you are well!

      love and peace,
      k

  1. Evan

    I think these scientists need to do some basic philosophy. They might come to understand that the way they put the question is the problem. E.g. presuming that I am not my body in the question makes it hard to find an answer to how I am my body.

    1. Kaushik Post author

      Hi Evan,
      Your statement today would sound “strange” to science. But then again, so did the proposition that the earth is not flat but a round rock floating in space, and so did quantum mechanics. Max Planck, the guy who discovered Quantum Mechanics said, ” A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

      To be fair, science is doing well. The ideas in Quantum Mechanics are bizarre for an objective world, but still science has accepted them, though they have not penetrated conventional wisdom.

      The scientific wisdom is that the brain is the mind and soul. In other words, consciousness is product of physical processes in the brain. When that is seen as the assumption that it is, we may have a paradigm shift.

      love and peace,
      k

  2. Liara Covert

    Many people ask what they are supposed to believe. Science is the pursuit of truth in the external world. One can apply similar principles to the inward journey. Living experience tests things out yet sometimes rationality and logic are misplaced. Discover the feeling of internal graces.

    One view is consciousness exists outside the mind and cannot be grasped by brain processes.

    1. Kaushik Post author

      Hi Liara,
      Very well said, and in much fewer words than I used!

      I admire science for courageously breaking through many of the mind’s assumptions. But it is still holds fast to certain assumptions.

      Love and peace,
      k

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  4. Brenda (betaphi)

    I have long felt that free will is mostly illusion. I can choose what I want for breakfast, what I want to wear, etc. but on a macro level it feels as though the large events in my life have come to me unexpectedly. I’m not familiar with the six authors you mentioned; do they reject free will as well? It’s rare to run across this view.

    The scientific community is slow but also competent at rejecting long-held assumptions. There is no loss in doing that. One can always go back and latch on to the old assumption. Belief systems probably serve us best when they are fluid rather than fixed. There is no harm in imagining that consciousness, not mind, runs everything. I like the word ‘spirit’ better though because it’s cuter. 🙂

    1. Kaushik Post author

      Hi Brenda,

      The six are in the science community, involved in consciousness or brain research. I don’t know if they all reject free will, but Lidet’s experiments are well known. You can choose what you want to wear or have for breakfast, and these feel like conscious choices, but it’s very possible that the choices are autonomous, and the feeling that they are conscious choices is itself an autonomous delusion. That’s what the experiment indicates–that decisions are autonomous, and for some reason, evolution has purposely designed designed brain circuitry makes us believe that an executive “I” is running the show. Or perhaps the feeling that an “I” exists is mind-conjured.

      Yes, I agree, there is hope in science. Spirit is better–and shorter!

      I hope you are well!

      love and peace,
      k

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