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Neural and Behavioral Sciences Senior Seminar

vpina's picture


Vadilson Pina

May 5, 2010

The Neuroscience of Consciousness: From Cells to Self


            Consciousness was a much debated topic even within our group. At first David and I had to discuss whether we would be talking about consciousness as in self-awareness or consciousness as in being awake and alert. We decided that the consciousness that relates directly to being awake and alert seemed to be more geared towards this class and it was really what we wanted to speak upon the entire time. Once making this decision the article about how elephants are now found to be self-aware, though interesting, was no longer needed.

            The debate of what is consciousness has been argued for centuries and no clear distinction has been made. We offer articles such as A complex theory of mind to explain how there are many different aspects of life that could be considered conscious depending on who you are, for example a very small population would think a computer is conscious. There are even articles that delved into whether the subconscious and conscious could be looked at under a brain scan as separate images when they appear. Also articles such as You won’t find consciousness in the brain try to explain a different hypothesis that consciousness is a full bodily experience that cannot be pin pointed down to the brain. All of these different types of articles have sparked up different responses from fellow classmates and I will try and answer some of these questions as presented.

            Sasha posted some very in-depth questions that relate to our previous definition of consciousness in referring to her lab rats. 


Considering none of our rats have yet to escape or even bitten me (and i don't think any of them have taken over the world) I would most likely agree with the idea that animals lack the ability to have an internal dialogue or self reflection. Does this mean they are not conscious? Is there a division between consciousness and self awareness? ...What about animals like chimps that we teach language to? Does learning a language lead to self awareness? (Sasha, Reflection)    


Self-awareness was the other consciousness we were debating about discussing in class and the two are different. It would be very difficult to prove that the rats had consciousness at least with the technology most currently provided but there are reasons to believe that it is in a rat’s nature to fear things that are bigger than it unless they were taught differently. Survival is key in those certain animal’s nature so just from that experience it is hard to say anything especially without knowing the rat’s length of memory. In response to language learning self awareness I can only say from watching movies on animals with language the animals are now able to express themselves in a way humans can understand. 

For example Koko the signing gorilla learned sign language and could communicate with humans and showed a lot of abilities that would make it possible for us to see that she has consciousness in the sense that she feels emotions and understands enough to communicate. This does not mean that because she learned sign language she now has consciousness, this just means that now that she can communicate we as observers can see to what dept does her consciousness lye.

LMcCormick makes a key point in her argument that the phi value (info and connections) is missing a key component if it is really the correlation of intelligence that results in consciousness. I would agree that this is a slippery slop if we make this the end all be all definition. First of all if intelligence is measured in long term knowledge than the internet might be the most conscious of all seeing that it can remember many facts and do complex almost anything in mere seconds to minutes depending on your download speed. I don’t think this would solve too much but the inclusion of needing to be a living, breathing organism would at least solve the issue of the internet or computers being the most conscious things. 

Bo-Rin Kim brings up the point of differences between the conscious and subconscious and whether we can really see those differences. Though this is fictional situation it brings up a great point and shows the views of both sides. In an episode of House named “The Black Hole” the idea of viewing the subconscious was talked about. House is a fictional show about a doctor that accepts odd cases that most doctors cannot solve what the issue with the patient is and though odd measures solves the mystery to the illness. In this episode a young girl is very sick, hallucinating, and lying without control. Dr. House decides that he would like to perform a futurist design where the doctors could see into the patient’s subconscious and thus maybe there lies the answer to the mystery. Fellow colleague Dr. Forman is clearly against the whole procedure and believes like most doctors that this is an impossible result to fathom. Through a series of quick flashing images pictures are planted into the subconscious and mapped so that when the patient is thinking subconsciously a picture can be mapped passed on their brain pattern.

Of course something like this is at least 50 years in the future but in this episode the subconscious was mapped properly and the mystery was solved. What does this suggest? Well it gives thought towards the idea that the conscious and subconscious actually look differently on a cat-scan and maybe can be mapped. Other articles have pointed out that in simple yes no response questions if the instructor asks you the participant to think of a house for yes and a dog for no than they can usually tell your response by your thoughts. Now of course this is nothing more than a party trick at this point because unless this was something that was to be used for partially brain dead people who could not respond it wouldn’t be helpful. More development will be done in this area and maybe one day something like on the episode of House can be possible.

Jeremy points out that “consciousness is defined by an awareness of a separate self and non-self” as paraphrasing Paul and this is an interesting definition. I agree that consciousness can be seen as a somewhat separate entity as well as the subconscious but to say that all of this can be viewed by neurons is debatable. I like the statement Paul made that “we are many wholes in one whole” as the definition of consciousness. It sums up the debate about how we can have these somewhat opposite things within up that we can use either simultaneously or just use the subconscious. Both views have their points and maybe EB Ver Hoeve comments on not being able to rationalize certain things is also possible and this is one of those irrational topics that we cannot get to the bottom of.

The idea of the subconscious as an advantageous piece of evolution I think is proper in saying. If it were not for the subconscious than certain things known as reflexes like breathing would have to be consciously thought of and every waking or sleeping moment we could forget to breath and die. That would be such a cognitive load that there would be no way that the human race would revive. Yes the subconscious has many positives and it keeps us as individuals moving while we are in a daze or at work day dreaming. The definition of consciousness as a whole is something that is not so clear. It is a difficult topic to pin down as I have previously claimed and maybe it is because we are universalizing the term like Paul is suggesting or maybe it could be because we don’t know of the building blocks behind it. Either way it can be agreed upon that it is an advantageous piece to human life.



Paul Grobstein's picture

defining consciousness

"consciousness as in self-awareness or consciousness as in being awake and alert"

What about the problem of fugue states, or of sleep walking, where one appears to be "awake and alert"?  And the problem of dreaming, where one is clearly not "awake and alert" but .... ?  And the problem of "awake and alert" behavior in virtually all organisms?  For all these reasons, I'd be inclined to use something other than "awake and alert" as the defining characteristic of consciousness.