Monday, 6 June 2011

Consciousness vs electrical signals in the brain

Journalists often give an exaggerated view of the significance of some brain research. They show an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan with parts of the brain lit up, corresponding to certain neurons firing, when the subject is having certain thoughts. This pattern of brain activity they imply is the cause of conscious thought.

Does this make sense? Not to the neuroscientist Raymond Tallis, who wrote Aping Mankind: Neuromania , Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen). He claims this to be philosophically untenable and has also written an article, called Neurotrash, in the May issue of Prospect. I’ve not read the book but may well do so. 

Moreover, there are numerous questions even about the degree of this correlation between neural and reported conscious events. E.g.  the correlations often do not happen and there are often no neural pathways between some of the firing neurons.

But even leaving aside these objections, the assertion of a causative effect of neural activity on consciousness certainly makes no sense to me.  It is like saying that the handwritten symbols on a piece of paper cause the message they convey to you - a story, say. The story only makes sense when your brain has decoded them and merged them with a mass of coded experience and knowledge. More important, the writing is only there because the author has created a story and written it down. The handwritten symbols are meaningless in isolation from the author and the reader. They do not cause the author to create a story, and without a reader they have no value.

The nerve firing patterns produced in the brain do not wilfully cause the experience or creation of consciousness any more than the words on a page cause the experience or creation of a novel.

What then is going on in the mind or soul or whatever strange arena consciousness takes place in?  Here is one possibility (I’m sure it is not original and that other explanations exist).

 Just as the written symbols are part of a greater process of creative thinking, coding and reading, so the neural events are part of a greater process within us. Maybe one aspect of our being  - the soul perhaps - creates unconscious ‘thoughts’ and these are turned into neural patterns which can be decoded by another aspect of our selves (the mind?) into conscious thoughts. So the MRI scan is simply intercepting one stage in a mental/mystic experience.

Understanding ourselves is a prerequisite for bringing peace to the nations. Pretending that we are machines seems to me a denial of reality and a depressingly mechanistic, reductionist view of a living being.

Author, 2077 AD