MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Zeroing in on Consciousness



This Sunday’s New York Times carried a fascinating article by Alex Halberstadt (“Zoo Animals and Their Discontents”) reporting on recent scientific thinking about the distance between humans and other species:

A profusion of recent studies has shown animals to be far closer to us than we previously believed — it turns out that common shore crabs feel and remember pain, zebra finches experience REM sleep, fruit-fly brothers cooperate, dolphins and elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, chimpanzees assist one another without expecting favors in return and dogs really do feel elation in their owners’ presence.

Meanwhile, as for humans, Helen Thomson at New Scientist reports on the apparent discovery by researchers at George Washington University of a way to turn consciousness “on or off” by means of electrical stimulation of the region deep within the brain known as the claustrum:

When the team zapped the area with high frequency electrical impulses, the woman [epilepsy patient] lost consciousness. She stopped reading and stared blankly into space, she didn’t respond to auditory or visual commands and her breathing slowed. As soon as the stimulation stopped, she immediately regained consciousness with no memory of the event. The same thing happened every time the area was stimulated during two days of experiments.

Thomson reports that Mohamad Koubeissi, who published the study, “thinks that the results do indeed suggest that the claustrum plays a vital role in triggering conscious experience. ‘I would liken it to a car,’ he says. ‘A car on the road has many parts that facilitate its movement –- the gas, the transmission, the engine –- but there’s only one spot where you turn the key and it all switches on and works together. So while consciousness is a complicated process created via many structures and networks — we may have found the key.'”

Shortly before he died in 2004, Francis Crick, according to Thomson, had been pursuing his idea “that suggested our consciousness needs something akin to an orchestra conductor to bind all of our different external and internal perceptions together.” And with his colleague Christof Koch, Crick actually posited the claustrum as the area in charge of this operation. (René Descartes famously claimed that the pineal gland was the locus for the interaction of the immaterial mind with the physical body — and hence the “seat of the soul.”)

“Ultimately, if we know how consciousness is created and which parts of the brain are involved then we can understand who has it and who doesn’t,” Koch told Thomson.

Filed under: science


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