How can one explain scientifically what consciousness is?

Jaseem Pasha, MD
Sunday, May 1, 2022

Consciousness, spanning various disciplines like neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, and more, remains a subject of profound inquiry and debate. Its elusive nature has rendered a universally accepted definition or comprehensive understanding of a goal not yet realized. Nevertheless, several scientific explanations and theories have been proposed to demystify it.

One such approach is the search for Neural Correlates of Consciousness (NCC). Neuroscientists are on a quest to pinpoint the exact networks or patterns of brain activity that parallel conscious experience. By unearthing the specific locations and timings of conscious episodes in the brain, the hope is to shed more light on the nature of consciousness.

Similarly, the Global Workspace Theory, as introduced by Bernard Baars, offers an illuminating analogy. It likens consciousness to a “spotlight” that disseminates information to diverse brain areas. Whatever falls under this “spotlight,” or the global workspace, signifies what we’re consciously aware of at any particular moment.

On the other hand, the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) by Giulio Tononi takes a more quantitative approach. It proposes that a system’s consciousness is proportional to its degree of differentiation, where every part processes information independently, and its level of integration, where the system works as a cohesive unit. Within this framework, consciousness gets a numerical representation through the Φ (phi) value.

Despite the various logical theories, there are also more contentious ones, such as the Quantum Theories of Consciousness. These suggest that quantum processes in the brain give rise to consciousness. However, many in the scientific realm view these skeptically, deeming them not entirely mainstream.

Another perspective sees consciousness as an emergent property, like how temperature results from individual particle motion. From this viewpoint, consciousness emerges when the matter is configured in specific manners, yet the exact workings are still mystifying.

Taking a different tack, Higher-Order Theories articulate that consciousness materializes when the brain processes information and contemplates that processing. Meanwhile, from the evolutionary lens, consciousness might have emerged as a tool for survival. The ability to be aware of oneself and the environment, coupled with reflection on the past and future planning, could have endowed early humans with distinct survival and reproductive edges.

It’s important to note that defining and studying consciousness is challenging due to its subjective nature. While we can measure brain activity and other objective indicators, the experience of consciousness is deeply personal and challenging to quantify.

Another challenge is the “hard problem of consciousness” posed by philosopher David Chalmers. This problem pertains to why and how we have qualitative, subjective experiences. While we might identify which brain processes correlate with conscious experiences (the “easy problem”), explaining why these processes produce conscious experience in the first place is far more challenging.

In conclusion, while numerous theories and scientific studies focus on understanding consciousness, a comprehensive and universally accepted explanation remains elusive. It’s a vibrant study area, and as tools and techniques become more sophisticated, our understanding may evolve further.

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