Monday, June 16, 2008

What is Consciousness

The Problem of Consciousness

Conventional explanations portray consciousness as an emergent property of classical computer-like activities in the brain's neural networks. The prevailing views among scientists in this camp are that 1) patterns of neural network activities correlate with mental states, 2) synchronous network oscillations in thalamus and cerebral cortex temporally bind information, and 3) consciousness emerges as a novel property of computational complexity among neurons.

However, these approaches appear to fall short in fully explaining certain enigmatic features of consciousness, such as:

  • The nature of subjective experience, or 'qualia'- our 'inner life' (Chalmers' "hard problem");
  • Binding of spatially distributed brain activities into unitary objects in vision, and a coherent sense of self, or 'oneness';
  • Transition from pre-conscious processes to consciousness itself;
  • Non-computability, or the notion that consciousness involves a factor which is neither random, nor algorithmic, and that consciousness cannot be simulated (Penrose, 1989, 1994, 1997);
  • Free will; and,
  • Subjective time flow.
Brain imaging technologies demonstrate anatomical location of activities which appear to correlate with consciousness, but which may not be directly responsible for consciousness.

 PET scan image of brain showing visual and auditory recognition (from S Petersen, Neuroimaging Laboratory, Washington University, St. Louis. Also see J.A. Hobson "Consciousness," Scientific American Library, 1999, p. 65).

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