Unraveling the Mystery of Consciousness: What is It and Where Does It Live?

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The computer is often used as a metaphor for the human brain. And there are certainly many parallels to be found there. Both encode, store, and process information, for example.

     There is something about being alive and aware that intuitively seems sacred and meaningful. Yet, the question of exactly what consciousness is and where it lives has bedeviled scholars and religious thinkers for centuries.

-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark

However, this metaphor fails us when we consider the conscious mind housed within our brains that can look out onto an ocean, hear the birds singing, and smell the salt in the air.

There is something about being alive and aware that intuitively seems sacred and meaningful. Yet, the question of exactly what consciousness is and where it lives has bedeviled scholars and religious thinkers for centuries.

One theory of consciousness, referred to as panpsychism, has recently re-emerged as a topic of serious discussion and debate among prominent philosophers, neuroscientists, and physicists. Conceived of in different forms by a number of philosophers, including Thales and Plato, panpsychism theorizes that consciousness is not just restricted to brains, but in essence lives everywhere.

So does that mean that my toaster oven is conscious? Probably not, or at least not according to more modern interpretations of panpsychism. Most popular among these contemporary models is Integrated Information Theory or IIT, championed by psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Dr. Giulio Tononi, at the University of Wisconsin.

According to this theory, consciousness involves two fundamental properties: (a) It must involve a system that collects and uses information and is capable of making a large number of discriminations—between hot and hold, black and white, happy and sad, heavy and light, and so on. (b) This system must also function as an integrated whole. In other words, it has to work as a single system, not as a collection of independent parts that have no awareness of one another.

Though IIT allows for the possibility of non-biological forms of consciousness, my toaster oven most definitely does not make the cut. It only discriminates between a few possible states (e.g., on/off), and the limited information that it does detect is not at all integrated. Each toasting session is independent of the other, and there is no transfer or processing of information that occurs as the toaster moves from frozen waffles to garlic toast.

Proving a theory like IIT is likely to be extremely challenging, if not impossible. However, it does provide valid explanations for brain phenomena that would otherwise seem to make little sense.

For instance, neuroscientists have observed that the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain closely associated with conscious thought, is made up of far fewer neurons than other parts of the brain, like the cerebellum, which seems to have little effect on consciousness.

ITT explains this apparent paradox by noting that the cells of the cerebral cortex are far more integrated (forming a vast network of connections between neurons), compared to the cerebellum, which is made up of patches of brain material that operate relatively independently of one another. 

READ RELATED ARTICLE: 5 Ways to Harness the Flexibility of Your Mind

IIT also helps clarify why the computer so often fails as a metaphor for the human brain. As Dr. Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, put it in a recent Scientific American article, “To my computer, all information is equally meaningless, just a vast, random tapestry of 0s and 1s. Yet I derive meaning from (this information) because my memories are heavily cross-linked. And the more interconnected, the more meaningful they become.”

This week, we expand upon this idea in a series of articles that explore the concept of consciousness and how it relates to the meaning we make of life experiences.

We start by taking a look at dream states and their significance in our lives, integrating current knowledge about dreams into practical advice for understanding them.

We also explore the concept of mindfulness—consciously and non-judgmentally observing moment-by-moment experiences—and provide a quiz so you can find out how mindful you are in daily life.

On Thursday, we examine consciousness under extreme conditions of sensory deprivation and discuss its implications for everyday life.

And to cap off the week, we discuss altered states of consciousness, their significance, and emerging evidence of their role in providing comfort to patients with serious and terminal illness.

So, come back everyday this week for more on consciousness and let us know where you think your conscious mind is by posting a Comment below. 


Further Reading:





Mudrik, L., Faivre, N., & Koch, C. (2014). Information integration without awareness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18, 488-496.

Tononi, G. (2005). Consciousness, information integration, and the brain. Progress in Brain Research, 150, 109-126.

Tononi, G. (2008). Consciousness as integrated information: A provisional manifesto. The Biological Bulletin, 215, 216-242.

Tononi, G. (2011). The integrated information theory of consciousness: An updated account. Archives Italiennes de Biologie, 150, 56-90.


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