THE SCIENTIFIC STUDY OF CONSCIOUSNESS

The inquisitiveness about consciousness is as old as the inception of homo sapiens species and it is as prevalent and mysterious as god. Philosophers are contemplating on it for thousands of years but the more it is studied the more confusing it becomes. Since most of scientists are either atheist or agnostic, they were never interested in this topic, also because they did not foresee any potential in the research of consciousness. Scientist largely found this topic ‘unfit’ for science. Although the topic of consciousness was discussed in psychology, but psychology was never considered a mainstream science because of lack of empirical research. Finally, a scientist of mainstream science Dr. Krick, Nobel Prize winner for discovery of double helical structure of DNA, veered off from molecular biology and put great efforts to start research on consciousness. As on today about 100 research papers on this topic are being published every year and research on consciousness has been established a full-fledged discipline of science.

I have bifurcated the discussions on consciousness based on conceptual difference on consciousness in East and West. In the first part I have discussed studies on consciousness by the West and in the second part I have discussed the studies on consciousness by the East. The conceptual difference arises because of difference in approach of study. The Western world has been largely materialistic traditionally which is reflected clearly in their scientific approach to study nature. Therefore, most of scientists think that in physical world there is nothing beyond matter and and consciousness has emerged from matter, i.e. compex assembly of neurons in the brain. The scientists are studying consciousness with this premise.

The study of consciousness started in the East i.e. India in prehistoric period, perhaps 7000 years ago when Rishis (ancient Indian Scholars) started the tradition of meditation. Many Rishis studied nature of mind and consciousness through meditation and the knowledge they generated by meditation is compiled in Vedas of which Advait Vedanta is a part. Advait Vedanta is not a philosophy but Western philosopher consider Advait Vedanta as a philosophical concept. Veda and thus doctrine of Advait Vedanta is based on experiential knowledge or more accurately the Adhyaatmic knowledge.( I have defined the word ‘Adhyaatmic’ in the previous post ) I consider experiential as equivalent to experimental knowledge. Therefore, the description of mind in Vedanta which can be considered as the first ever model of mind is much more advanced than the model of mind proposed by Sigmund Freud which could not survive even decades. Vedantic approach to study consciousness and mind will be discussed in detail in future post. In this post I have discussed scientific approach and status of research in the field of consciousness.

The earliest study of consciousness in the West is attributed to Greek philosopher Plotinus, who proposed that consciousness is related to the experience. According to him the self is made up of different layers of consciousness, each layer representing a different experience. Thus, Plotinus was the first to introduce the notion of subjectivity. In addition to subjective experience, Plotinus may be the first to attribute consciousness to divine soul and introduced the idea of hypostasis, which is akin to concept of ‘Brahman’ given by ancient Indian Rishis and seers and is basis of Advait Vedanta.

Aristotle used the word ‘mind’ for ‘consciousness’ and proposed the theory how mind senses the external objects and events and make an impression in mind. His work can be considered as laying foundation of science of mind. He used the word soul for psyche. Because of efforts of Aristotle, the soul, which was thought to be a divine thing, became a subject of science of Nature. Aristotle can be regarded as father of ‘materialism’ though he did not use the word ‘materialism’. According to him anything that exists, even the soul (psyche), there must be embodiment of it in a material. He also defined the material as the one which can have form or the formulable essence. Aristotle may be regarded as pioneer in setting the terms of reference for the future discussion of problem of consciousness.

Rene’ Descartes, a renowned mathematician and philosopher discussed ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’ through a famous ‘mind-body problem. He identified the mind with consciousness and self-awareness. He considered the brain as the seat of intelligence. In his views, mind is a non-physical and therefore non-spatial substance. Descartes went ahead of previous philosophers and said that mind cannot be discussed without reference to the body (brain). According to him, mind and body are distinct and separable, and this duality of mind and body is known as Cartesiam Dualism.

Discussion on consciousness was limited to philosophical debate till the time of Sigmund Freud who was first to discuss consciousness in the realm of science. He used the concept of consciousness while developing a model of mind based on which he proposed the psychoanalytic theory of personality. Though the model of mind and Psychoanalytic theory faced harsh criticism and collapsed but it paved the way for future research.

The study of consciousness became a subject of scientific investigation when American Psychologist William James, one of the foundation pillars of modern psychology, first coined the phrase “stream of consciousness” of which thoughts are the content. In this way he was quite close to understand the nature of consciousness.

I believe the credit of speeding up research on consciousness should also be given to Mahesh Yogi, the Indian spiritual guru, who taught and popularised the meditation in the West. Since meditation is nothing but the control of consciousness, many scientists started designing experiments to study the effect of meditation on mind.

But it was Francis Krick who launched a sort of campaign to convince the scientists that consciousness is really a subject of main-stream scientific research as he was aware that the subject of consciousness was viewed with deep suspicion in scientific community. Therefore, he wrote in a 1979 editorial of scientific American “……the time has come for science to take the previously forbidden subject of consciousness……”. As a part of his campaign, he wrote a book “Astonishing Hypothesis : the scientific search for Soul”. According to the book, emotions, ambitions and sense of identity are results of behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. He was first to outline an empirical approach to study consciousness for which he chose visual consciousness. He collaborated with Chistof Koch and introduced the concept of “Neural Correlate of Consciousness” or in short NCC.

David Chalmers posed the ‘Easy problem’ and ‘Hard Problem’ of consciousness. Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist proposed integrated information theory (IIT), which he claims can predict whether a system is conscious and and upto to what extent. By this time (2004), the consciousness research was established as full-fledged multi-disciplinary field integrating psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and physiology. Large number of research papers are being published every year in mainstream journals and journals dedicated to consciousness study. A centre for consciousness study in University of Arizona and many similar research institutes have been established with an objective to bring together disciplines like philosophy, cognitive sciences, neuroscience, physical science, and medicine.

WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS

Consciousness is a very broad term with multiple meanings. Oxford dictionary defines consciousness as “The state of being aware of and responsive to surrounding or a person’s awareness or perception of something”. Merriam Webster dictionary defines consciousness as “the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself”. According to Cambridge dictionary, consciousness is a state of understanding and realizing something. Psychologists, scientists, and doctors adhere to this dictionary definition of consciousness. Every normal human being has the experience of being conscious of its surroundings via sensory organs and conscious of what is going on in the mind and body. For scientists and psychologists, human being has the ability to be conscious because of a quality or state of brain which they call ‘consciousness’. The scientists consider consciousness a physical entity that has emerged from brain and they even have proposed a mathematical expression for it which is denoted by symbol ɸ. According to their assumption the consciousness is a physical entity like heat, light and sound etc., but so far, they have not found any physical property of consciousness which is normally attributed to well-known physical entities under the realm of physics. The widely agreed notion about consciousness is the intuition that it exists. Perhaps this may be the reason why consciousness is not a topic of research in Physics. Although there is no well-established physical property of consciousness, the psychologists have agreed upon various states of consciousness. Here I have differentiated consciousness from conscious-ness. The conscious-ness is an abstract noun derived from the adjective ‘conscious’ and consciousness is a hypothesized physical entity. Psychologists, based on observations categorized many states of conscious-ness:

          1) Fully conscious, when person is fully wake,

          2) Fully unconscious, when person is in deep sleep, or when person is

under influence of drug or anaesthesia or he is under coma,

          3) Inter-mediatory conscious when person is in sleep but dreaming

          4) Altered state of conscious-ness when person is under effect of

recreational drug

There are other usages of the word ‘conscious’, when a person drives the car first time, he is fully conscious but when he learns driving the car completely, he becomes less conscious and he starts using mobile. These states of conscious-ness have anything to do with consciousness is a matter of research. However, some modern scientists are so confident in treating consciousness as a physical entity that they are talking of consciousness as having information and have proposed integrated information theory.

Many ancient philosophers expressed their views on consciousness which are different from that of modern scientists who relate consciousness to awareness and subjective experience only. The philosophers who advocated Physicalism like Aristotle regarded consciousness as a matter, he used the word soul or psyche for it. Many philosophers used the words ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’ interchangeably. For example, Rene’ Descartes did not distinguish between mind, consciousness and self-awareness. According to him consciousness is a non-physical and non-matter entity but still can interact with matter (brain). Baruch Spinoza though not used the word ‘consciousness’ but according to him everything that exist is a substance, a substance of God and the thoughts which appear in the mind are given by God.

There are not many physicists who expressed their view on consciousness partly because most of them are materialistic hence either atheist or agnostic. But Max Planck who is considered father of modern science and quantum physics expressed his idea on the consciousness. According to Planck, consciousness is all pervading and matter has evolved from the consciousness. Another physicist Eugene Wigner has similar views as of Planck. He said, “he could not have completed his research on quantum mechanics without postulating consciousness”. The proponents of Panpsychism have similar views on consciousness, but they use the word ‘mind’ for consciousness. According to theory of Panpsychism, “the mind is fundamental nature of the world which exists throughout the universe’.

The concept of consciousness was first given by Rishis (Indian ancient scholar) and is extensively discussed in Vedas. In Sanskrit it is known as Brahman (ब्रह्म) which is all pervading, infinite, eternal truth, and bliss which does not change and is the cause of origin of universe. In Vedas, Brahman is discussed with concept of Atman (आत्मा). When translated in English Brahman is translated as Universal Consciousness and Atman is translated as consciousness. According to Advait Vedanta, Brahman and Atman are not two (Advait) but one and same. They differ in quantity only; while Brahman is infinite, Atman is finite. When Lord Krishna says in Bhagvad Geeta to Arjun, “Atman is eternal and indestructible……” it is a big hint to modern scientists that “consciousness is a form of energy, which is fuelling (giving life, prana) every living being.

PROGRESS OF RESEARCH ON CONSCIOUSNESS

It is really a matter of concern and amazing that after three decades of research (and about 100 research papers being published every year), there is still no universally accepted definition of consciousness. Scientists offer an unscientific sort of description of consciousness instead of defining it. There is a general agreement that “Consciousness is a quality or a state of being aware of an external object (surrounding) and something within oneself (mental phenomena) such as thoughts, feeling, emotion, sensation and subjective experience.”

It is not because of proper understanding of consciousness but because of properly and scientific designing of experiments, that consciousness research has proven to be actual and functioning discipline and reproducible and meaningful results are being obtained. Despite such results, research on consciousness is still at surface level only. Some of the objectives of current consciousness research are as follows:

          1) To understand inner working of brain to find a possible treatment

of mental illness and psychological disorder,

          2) To develop the model of mind in respect to mind-body problems, and

          3) To understand origin of consciousness.

PROBLEMS IN CONSCIOUSNESS RESEARCH

Before discussing the problems in consciousness research, it is required to discuss briefly what research is being conducted and how. There are mainly two types of researches being conducted; (i) finding the NCC, neural correlates of consciousness and (ii) measuring the level of conscious-ness i.e. to what level a person is conscious. The framework for research on NCC was devised by Krick and Koch, the founders of consciousness research. Neural correlate of consciousness is defined by Krick as the minimal neuronal activity jointly sufficient for any specific conscious experience. In plain language, NCC is physical footprints of conscious experience. NCC can be elucidated with some more detail like this; Any subjective experience such as tasting a dish, listening to a piece of music or fantasizing, gives rise to a physical activity (in terms of electro – chemical changes) in brain, called neural activity. Consciousness comes into picture only because a person can have subjective experience when he is conscious, i.e. conscious-ness is must for subjective experience to take place. The subjective experience takes place in mind, but corresponding (co-related) neural activity takes place in the brain. Theoretically, there is one-to-one relationship between a subjective experience and neural activities which can be measured by brain imaging tools. In a single neuron, the neural activity can be thought of as a pattern of changing electrical and chemical parameters in amplitude and time. In fact, a single subjective experience activates a group of large number of neurons, so a neural correlate is integration of electro-chemical changes of all neurons in the group. Since there are activation thresholds and phase shift involved, the entire mathematical job of integration is extremely tedious and demands very complex computer computation which itself is very challenging. The estimate of neural activities calculated in this way necessarily and regularly correlates with specific subjective experience. In this approach of research there are many problems and challenges:

(i)       It is not evident from this procedure, where the consciousness, the physical entity, is involved. If a person is listening to high pitch-sound, the auditary signal produced in kochlea is of high frequency and so the time variation in neural correlate will be fast which is a physical phenomenon and nothing to do with consciousness. If a person is unconscious, there will be no subjective experience and hence no neural correlate. That means the consciousness functions like a switch or a gate and what we are getting is a neural correlate of subjective experience and not of consciousness. To study the effect of consciousness, it will be necessary to vary the amplitude of consciousness and study the effect of variation on neural correlates. But a person is either completely conscious (fully awake) or completely unconscious (deep sleep). This will require to vary the consciousness level from outside to perform an experiment. Alas ! the nature has not provided any knob on head to vary the level of consciousness.

(ii)     In order to establish a relationship between subjective experience and neural correlate, it is necessary to know subjective experience accurately which is a challenging task. How truly the subject is reporting the experience cannot be ascertained. Thus, the approach for finding NCC is not truly empirical and hence not fully scientific in nature in the sense that the conclusions cannot be drawn with same accuracy as in the case of research in the field of pure sciences.

Another empirical research on consciousness was initiated by G. Tononi. He pioneered a technique, called Zap – Zip, to probe whether a person is conscious or not. In this experiment a sheathed coil is placed in contact with scalp and a pulse of magnetic field is sent into brain by passing a pulse of high current in the coil, a process which they called Zapping. The response of neurons in the brain was recorded by an array of EEG sensors. The pulse of magnetic field perturbs the normal value of tiny currents of neurons and EEG records a perturbed response from neurons. Analysis of output from EEG revealed a mess of damping oscillations from a bulk of neuron. There was no regular or completely random pattern to draw any conclusion. The data of EEG was compressed using an algorithm generally used to zip a file in computer or mobile. The compression of EEG data yielded an estimate of complexity in the mess of oscillations, which is called “Perturbational Complexity Index”. The index provides a very crude approximation of consciousness but reasonable enough to confirm the behavioural evidence of consciousness.

Since brain is highly interconnected and extremely complex structure, the data obtained from any experiment is expected to be complex. G. Tononi made use of this complexity to develop integrated information theory (IIT) to quantify consciousness. Tononi postulate that consciousness has intrinsic causal power associated with complex mechanism such as brain. As an example, he quotes “in cerebellum, the mechanism lacks integration and complexity, so it is not conscious”. IIT theory derives a parameter which quantifies consciousness, from complexity of underlying interconnected structure of brain. The IIT theory is yet to be verified experimentally.

In addition to IIT theory, the ‘Talk of the Town’ in scientific community engaged in consciousness research is “Hard problem of consciousness” formulated by David Chalmers, a mathematician turned philosopher. On the issue of understanding consciousness, he formulated the “Hard problem on consciousness” in contrast to the “Easy problem of consciousness”. The easy problem is to explain how mind has ability to discriminate, integrate information, reports mental state, and performs different functions. The requirement is to specify a mechanism that can perform a function of mind. Although most of the easy problems are yet to be solved but there are less challenges. The hard problem of consciousness is related with the experience or Qualia – a term used by philosophers for subjective experience. The hard problem of consciousness is about explaining why and how we have subjective experience while interacting with the environment. Why people have phobia, and why phobia are so powerful. We know very well that some events are innocuous, still we do not dare to face them. Subjective experiences have power, they feel like something pushing us back. According to Chalmers, Hard problem will persist even when all easy problems are solved, and it may take another 100 years to solve the hard problem of consciousness. I strongly disagree with him. In fact, the philosophers are there to pose the problems. It is a scientist who solves the problem. In my view philosophers are like politicians who create problem and linger on it to take benefit from it. If all problems in nature are solved what will philosophers do, so they create and pose problems for survival.

Biggest problem in consciousness research stems from ambiguous nature of consciousness. As I pointed out earlier, we must confirm whether we are studying Consciousness – a hypothesized physical entity or Conscious-ness – an abstract noun derived from adjective, ‘Conscious’. This point is supported by writings of Dr. Krick, in which he describs consciousness as ‘conscious awareness of subjective experience’. This description of consciousness does not appear to suggest that consciousness is a physical entity. At another place Dr. Krick mentions that there are specific neurons in brain which are responsible for consciousness and he refers to it as awareness neurons. This notion of consciousness itself limits the functional significance of consciousness because it would imply that the role of consciousness to generate awareness and subjective experience.

Neuroscientists and philosophers both accept the problems and challenges in consciousness research and express their helplessness in resolving them. As Anil Seth, Prof. of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience, rightly says, “It looks like scientists and philosophers might have made consciousness far more mysterious than it needs to be”. In my view, when there is too much research on a topic than reasonable, with no output it becomes mysterious. He adds further that instead of finding neural correlates of consciousness, one must try to find explanatory correlate which actually accounts for subjective experience. According to Morton Overgaard, “One major obstacle for consciousness research is lacking consensus of how to optimally measure consciousness empirically” and to identify neural correlate of consciousness which is not possible unless we can measure consciousness. A scientific tradition and procedure demand that it is necessary to define a parameter before measuring it. Thus, it is yet to be established that consciousness is a physical entity. It is a big paradox that extensive research is being done for last three decades on an entity which is not yet identified as a physical identity.

We should also not overlook the views on consciousness expressed by Max Planck, father of Quantum Physics. He was such a big brain that present scientific development owes to him. He quotes, “I regard consciousness as fundamental; I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind the consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness”. Not only Planck, many renowned scientists and philosophers also treat consciousness as fundamental. The idea of Panpsychism is nearly same as idea of Max Planck on consciousness. Greatest philosophers of all time like Plato, Spinoza, Leibniz, William James, and Bertrand Russell have advocated the idea of Panpsychism. It is a matter of great surprise that present research on consciousness is based on the idea that consciousness has emerged from matter (neurons) – an idea opposite to idea of greatest minds of all times.

When I personally look at the whole scenario of consciousness research, I am reminded of an analogy which I heard in very young age of about 14. I used to accompany my father to Satsang for discourse by Sant Kirpal Singh (Maharaj Ji), a saint from Radha Soami Lineage. In one of the discourses, Maharaj Ji described how people are searching for God and to explain that He used to tell a story according to which five dwarf and blind persons are asked to investigate the shape of an elephant; one person has approach for the trunk, second person has approach for huge ears, third person can access the middle portion of body, fourth person can only investigate the tail and fifth one can touch the foot. After the search is over, they are asked to describe the shape of elephant. Each person could describe their part only, nobody could describe the shape of elephant as a whole. Likewise, the mind is equivalent to an elephant and to completely understand the mind, all aspects of mind are required to be studied because study of different aspects may may reveal different aspects of consciousness. These aspects in short are mental events, mental function, mental properties, consciousness, and relationship of mind with body. In the layman’s language, mind has to be studied to understand human behaviour, mood swings, emotions, motivation, and cognitive activities – thought forming, root cause of stress, depression, anxiety, mental disorders, mental illness, origin of conscious awareness, problem solving capability and everything that human being is capable of doing. This also includes various mental states of meditation such as bare concentration, state of pure consciousness (zero thought), state of Samadhi (zero-breathing) and Kundalini activation and propagation (non-diaphragmic breathing). The research on consciousness to study Qualia or subjective experience is only equivalent to investigating the tail of elephant only.

It is my intuition, that a solution to mind – body problem to explain the above-mentioned functions and properties of mind might be possible through Advait Vedanta. The intuition is not out of a prejudice, but it is based on my study of Advait Vedanta. I have not only studied Advait Vedanta extensively but I have found from my experiences on meditation of more than 20 years that concept of consciousness and description of mind is true experientially. There is a need to advance the ancient work on consciousness by Indian Rishis with help of modern scientific developments.

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Note : Please keep on visiting this site for receiving gifts of knowledge. If you are interested in science of spirituality, the forthcoming posts in the blog will be of interest to you.

(1) Consciousness and Advait Vedanta

(2) Understanding Spirituality Scientifically

(3) Yog, Yoga and meditation – in light of Advait Vedanta

(4) Gyan Dhyaan Duality

(5) Journey of an Atheist to spiritual world

(6) An introduction to Adhyaatmic Psychology

(7) My experiences with Adhyaatmic Meditation

(8) Advait Vedanta and Adhyaatmic Psychology

(9) Negative feedback and stability of Universe

(10) Spiritual Vocabulary

(11) Consciousness and Mind-Body problem

 

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