Neuron News

Preparing for Consciousness

In preparation for Andrew’s birth, I am re-reading the wonderful overview book by Alwyn Scott, Stairway to the Mind. He does not present a particular new or definitive theory (or, more appropriately an hypothesis) on the nature of consciousness, but gives a fabulous overview of current ideas and philosophies (up to “modern day” as of 1995).

This book is strongly recommended by Neuron News for anyone interested in obtaining a nice feel for the broad and wild fields covering the study of consciousness, and we are currently featuring it in our recommended books list. Sadly, Prof. Scott passed away last year at the age of 75 after dealing with lung cancer.

What is consciousness? What is the nature of the mind? A few initial, interesting, yet informal overviews may be found on Wikipedia under ConsciousnessSelf-awarness, and evenPhilosophy of Mind. But, the issue of consciousness from a scientific perspective is still so vague and so complicated… it is almost like we do not yet have the mathematical language to describe the seemingly miraculous phenomenon that we feel emanating from our heads.

As a vague beginning on outlining an approach to understanding the human mind, Prof. Scott emphasizes that consciousness is potentially the result of a hierarchy of a broad range of physical phenomena all interacting with one another in complex ways. So, borrowing his outline from the book, we present an interesting–although mostly intuitive–structure for considering the path through which consciousness might emerge during human existence:

An Experiment to Discover the Transition to Consiousness

Within a week, my wonderful wife, Michelle, will deliver our second child. Our little boy, Andrew, will be a lump of cells working in amazing synchrony to survive in a wild and scary universe. All of the actions are the result of a profoundly self-organized system that can successfully respond to its environment and maintain its internal cycles and processes in order to allow it to continue to develop and evolve as a living creature.

However, it is my understanding and hypothesis that the neuron network composing his infant brain is not yet entirely developed into what we would consider a fully-functioning conscious system. My son will certainly be a human being, and will have already been one for quite some time while growing in Mommy’s tummy, but there is still something missing… that “something” behind his eyes that allows him to be self-aware and fully able to make decisions to guide his body’s behavior, no matter how remedial the decisions might still be.

Our first child, Elizabeth Noelle, is nearly three years old now, and she, too–like all of us conscious beings–began as this glob of organized, interacting cells. And I noticed one day with her that something changed… it wasn’t entirely clear… but, it seemed to me that one day when I looked into her eyes there was something more. Something was working at a higher level inside her head… my cute little human being that I helped create had developed into something more… a self-aware, conscious human being.

Unfortunately, my observations were mostly an afterthought and not documented in any way other than personal reflections. So, with our second child I intend to conduct a more thorough observational experiment and create a more scientific record here on Neuron News of his development from a human being into a conscious human being. Although I anticipate this transition to be quite fluid and difficult to pinpoint, I hope that something might be taken from the considerations that could provide at least a slight glimmer of understanding into the nature of the consciousness of my son.

Each of my observations will be recorded here under the Topical Category “Raising Consciousness.” I am also very much interested in your responses, ideas, and feedback… and even observational guidance as we begin what I expect to be an exciting and interesting journey into what is the fundamental nature of human consciousness.

Non-invasive Direct Electrical Recording of the Brain

The terminology “non-invasive” and “direct recording” have never been a happy couple in neurotechnology because it is so tough to literally touch the brain–a goopy ball of mostly water–with electrodes without inflicting potentially debilitating and paralyzing damage to the host.

Until recently…

Researchers from the Wadsworth Center have developed a unique thin-film electrode membrane that cleverly “sticks and grabs” to the squishy surface of the brain instead of exerting enough force to penetrate. The technology can be immediately used to improve current techniques of electrocorticography (ECoG), which is used by brain surgeons to map out functional areas in the brain to avoid during surgery. The ECoG information provides much more detailed spacial maps for the corresponding electroencephalography (EEG) recordings taken purely non-invasively through the skull.

By studying the electrical activity for specific motion, auditory responses, or visual responses during these open-brain recording sessions, the researchers hope to learn more about the language of the brain in an attempt to develop future implantable electrode devices to control integrated prosthetic systems.

There is still a long way to go with this approach, however. Even though the ECoG method is taken directly at the surface of the brain, this still represents a significant averaging of neural activity. It is yet to be determined if this level of measurement is specific enough to represent exact functional responses between the brain and the body (or external prosthetic device). But, it is certainly an important technological leap that can lead to new information on understanding brain function and how to directly communicate with our networked neurons.

“Less-Invasive Brain Interfaces” :: Technology Review by MIT :: November 21, 2008 :: [READ]

WATCH VIDEO OF ELECTRODE DEVICE ]

A New … and Different … Idea on the Brain

Avoiding the notion of an “homunculus” in the brain … or any single, overlord power that controls the function and decisions of the brain has been a deeply embedded faux pas in the neuroscience and neurophilosophy circles for many decades.

After years of trying to be accepted into a peer-reviewed journal, Prof. Asim Roy of Arizona State University will have his day in the sun. Using established ideas from the “connectionist” model of the brain–where information and control processing is considered to be distributed and non-local–he actually claims to proves that a hierarchical system exists in brain function.

One potential realization of this hypothesis (because we cannot call any idea related to brain function a theory, yet!) is that if Prof. Roy’s ideas are correct, then the brain may in fact work more like conventional computer artificial intelligence systems of today, which have countless rules pre-programmed in the code to provide the resulting behavior of the AI software or machine. If this is the case, then we may only need a sufficiently large enough processor chip to emulate true human brain behavior and the Singularity Event might come sooner than expected.

Although Neuron News carries a strong bias against the notion that the human brain is locally-controlled (even though it feels like we have a conscious single controller sitting in our heads), these alternative ideas are still important to progress with advances in understanding brain function. Are we at a road-block? We need to somehow break-through our limited ability to grasp the essentially higher-dimensionality of complex networks, and it’s going to take one exciting “ah-ha!” moment to get there… so let us know if you have one.

“Professor Finally Publishes Controversial Brain Theory” :: PhysOrg.com :: November 19, 2008 :: [ READ ]

“Connectionism, Controllers, and a Brain Theory” :: Systems, Man and Cybernetics, Part A, IEEE Transactions on :: November 2008, Volume: 38, Issue: 6, Pages: 1434-1441 :: [ READ THE ABSTRACT ]

Explore the new Neuroscience Information Framework Database Online

Developing from an attempt of the NIH to help interconnect the information transfer between the multitude of government agencies supporting neuroscience research, a new online database collaboration began in 2005. The result is currently in the form of the newNeuroscience Information Framework as a publicly-accessible database of neuroscience-related information that is searchable from its online interface.

The database is not intended at this time to store the information, but rather be a searchable portal for users to look for information that is currently presented throughout the Internet.

Although this portal is still under development, it should prove to be a useful resource for efficiently disseminating critical neuroscience information to support the progress of research developments around the world… as well as help spur the interests and excitement of those on the edges of the professional research world (like the author here at Neuron News!).

Try out the database, discover something exciting, and let us know what you think…

The Neuroscience Information Framework from the NIH :: Access the NIF Database

“The Neuroscience Information Framework: A Data and Knowledge Environment for Neuroscience” :: Neuroinformatics Vol. 6, No. 3 September 2008 :: [ READ ]

It’s the Complex Neuron Network

The absolute key to ultimately understanding how the brain works is developing a complete structural map of the neuron network and relating this structure to the overall network function.

As a comparison for example only, the Internet continues to develop as a complex network, but it still does not compare to the immensity of the lump of cells in our head. The structure of the neuron network directly leads to the resulting functionality of the human brain.

A wonderful visualization of a single neuron buried deep inside a network was created by the Blue Brain Project group from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Reflect for a while with the animation presented below, and then learn more about EPFL with their feature video presentation.

Link to Video

Last updated March 28, 2020