Is it time to give up on consciousness as ‘the ghost in the machine’?

ImagesRouges/Shutterstock

Peter Halligan, Cardiff University and David A Oakley, UCL

As individuals, we feel that we know what consciousness is because we experience it daily. It’s that intimate sense of personal awareness we carry around with us, and the accompanying feeling of ownership and control over our thoughts, emotions and memories.

But science has not yet reached a consensus on the nature of consciousness – which has important implications for our belief in free will and our approach to the study of the human mind.

Beliefs about consciousness can be roughly divided into two camps. There are those who believe consciousness is like a ghost in the machinery of our brains, meriting special attention and study in its own right. And there are those, like us, who challenge this, pointing out that what we call consciousness is just another output generated backstage by our efficient neural machinery.

Over the past 30 years, neuroscientific research has been gradually moving away from the first camp. Using research from cognitive neuropsychology and hypnosis, our recent paper argues in favour of the latter position, even though this seems to undermine the compelling sense of authorship we have over our consciousness.

And we argue this isn’t simply a topic of mere academic interest. Giving up on the ghost of consciousness to focus scientific endeavour on the machinery of our brains could be an essential step we need to take to better understand the human mind.

Is consciousness special?

Our experience of consciousness places us firmly in the driver’s seat, with a sense that we’re in control of our psychological world. But seen from an objective perspective, it’s not at all clear that this is how consciousness functions, and there’s still much debate about the fundamental nature of consciousness itself.

One reason for this is that many of us, including scientists, have adopted a dualist position on the nature of consciousness. Dualism is a philosophical view that draws a distinction between the mind and the body. Even though consciousness is generated by the brain – a part of the body – dualism claims that the mind is distinct from our physical features, and that consciousness cannot be understood through the study of the physical brain alone. MIT’s Alex Byrne explains the philosophical underpinnings of the dualist position.

It’s easy to see why we believe this to be the case. While every other process in the human body ticks and pulses away without our oversight, there is something uniquely transcendental about our experience of consciousness. It’s no surprise that we’ve treated consciousness as something special, distinct from the automatic systems that keep us breathing and digesting.

But a growing body of evidence from the field of cognitive neuroscience – which studies the biological processes underpinning cognition – challenges this view. Such studies draw attention to the fact that many psychological functions are generated and carried out entirely outside of our subjective awareness, by a range of fast, efficient non-conscious brain systems.


Read more: What if consciousness is just a product of our non-conscious brain?


Consider, for example, how effortlessly we regain consciousness each morning after losing it the night before, or how, with no deliberate effort, we instantly recognise and understand shapes, colours, patterns and faces we encounter.

Consider that we don’t actually experience how our perceptions are created, how our thoughts and sentences are produced, how we recall our memories or how we control our muscles to walk and our tongues to talk. Simply put, we don’t generate or control our thoughts, feelings or actions – we just seem to become aware of them.

Becoming aware

The way we simply become aware of thoughts, feelings and the world around us suggests that our consciousness is generated and controlled backstage, by brain systems that we remain unaware of.

Our recent paper argues that consciousness involves no separate independent psychological process distinct from the brain itself, just as there’s no additional function to digestion that exists separately from the physical workings of the gut.

An artist's impression of neurons in the brain
The neural machinery of the brain may be all we need to study in order to understand the human mind. MattLphotography/Shutterstock

While it’s clear that both the experience and content of consciousness are real, we argue that, from a science explanation, they are epiphenomenal: secondary phenomena based on the machinations of the physical brain itself. In other words, our subjective experience of consciousness is real, but the functions of control and ownership we attribute to that experience are not.

Future study of the brain

Our position is neither obvious nor intuitive. But we contend that continuing to place consciousness in the driver’s seat, above and beyond the physical workings of the brain, and attributing cognitive functions to it, risks confusion and delaying a better understanding of human psychology and behaviour.

To better align psychology with the rest of the natural sciences, and to be consistent with how we understand and study processes like digestion and respiration, we favour a perspective change. We should redirect our efforts to studying the non-conscious brain, and not the functions previously attributed to consciousness.

This doesn’t of course exclude psychological investigation into the nature, origins and distribution of the belief in consciousness. But it does mean refocusing academic efforts on what happens beneath our awareness – where we argue the real neuro-psychological processes take place.

Our proposal feels personally and emotionally unsatisfying, but we believe it provides a future framework for the investigation of the human mind – one that looks at the brain’s physical machinery rather than the ghost that we’ve traditionally called consciousness.

Peter Halligan, Hon Professor of Neuropsychology, Cardiff University and David A Oakley, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thought of the day 02-07-2016

p10104_thumbWe continue to emotionally and intellectually evolve as we grow older. For some this means embracing the child within and for others it may bring them to a point where they learn how to let go of the pain from their past. The problem with being a self-aware beings is we have a lot of luggage to carry with us through our life if we don’t learn to let go and to forgive. That luggage or baggage only wears you down it hurts only the one who is carrying it. To accept your life and all the things you have experienced during your lifetime is the first step in moving on. Yes you have been done wrong been hurt and more than likely you have wronged or hurt others along the path of life as well. Take it as it is accept both what you have done and that which has been done to you learn to let it go for what is the past is no longer a concern.

Being bitter mistrusting and full of anger fear and pain is no way for anyone to live. Being in such a negative way only blocks your ability to be love be happy and to live your life with integrity. Forgive those whom have done you wrong and yourself for the wrongs you’ve done as well. Remember only the lessons not the hate pain or remorse they bring. Today is a new day each day is yet another chance to live life to the fullest. Choose to live in the here and now not in the shadow of yesterday.

 

“It is just as important to forgive yourself as it is to forgive others.”

Raymond Barbier

Thought of the day 02-07-2016 was originally published on RJB Network Blogs

Thought of the day 1-18-2016

DSCF0012The journey of life has many ups and downs the longer you are on the path the harder the downs seem to be. Seems as we grow older we focus more of the negatives in life than the blessings and positives. Maybe this is due to the misperception that the good  or better times are less often than the bad ones. This may be due to the way our brains tend to store the traumatic events vs its method of storing the rest of the experiences we have. It also could be due to a negative mindset some of us carry with us in later years. Regardless of the reasons behind the misbelief that there is less enjoyable times in our life as we age they are just as present and available as they were when we were younger.

Some science supports the idea that as we age the part of our brain that is stimulated by things such as physical pleasure and rewarding activities is less active or responsive than it is during earlier stages of life. What i wonder is if it is the same when it comes to the unpleasant and unfavorable experiences we have and the brain. More or less what once made our hearts sing and made us feel more alive when we were young may just be a slight and short lived bursts of the same or maybe no kind of reaction at all. But then one must question is it really the brain that is cutting of the high or is it the fact we don’t participate or engage in the things as much as we grow older so the body adapts to the changed lifestyle. I guess i will leave those questions to the people whom are more qualified to answer them.

All I know is that i shall do my best to enjoy my life as long as i can life is a blessing and is short so carpe diem.

Ray Barbier

 

Thought of the day 1-18-2016 was originally published on RJB Network Blogs

Just some random thoughts that came to mind on this Tuesday the 23rd of April 2013

IMG_1283So, This is the life you have chosen. Where you are and what your doing along with how your feeling is the result of all your choices in life both good and bad. You made your bed, guess now you have to lay in it. Wait, what? um… Not right… You can always make choices now to change the course of your life and the bed you made can always be remade again. Some consequences you may have to face but then you can always move on afterwards and make a better life for yourself by making your choices more wisely. You are the master of your own life and destiny, you can always make a choice to change your life. Though sometimes it’s a hard and painstaking task to take on, but it isn’t an impossible one.

First choice anyone has to make when trying to change their life is to not be a victim or defeatist., instead be an optimist who will not allow themselves to be a victim of chance or circumstance. Unfortunately there is no magic bullet or instant fix when it comes to improving ones self and life,  it’s all hard work. I look at it like this, anything worth having or anything worth seeking is well worth any effort that it takes in order to obtain them. Choose to be and to transform into the person you want to be and make sure that what you choose to become is something you can both respect and live with.

Just some random thoughts that came to mind on this Tuesday the 23rd of April 2013

Ray Barbier

how am I going to contribute to this world today?

DSC_0338 I ask myself each morning, Who am I and what am I here for? Each morning the answer either eludes me or the answer I come up with is so vague and transient that it really isn’t a true answer. The best I can figure out is that I am here to live, to learn, to love and share that which I have been blessed to have. So now I do not ask myself those questions anymore, I ask instead how am I going to contribute to this world today? am I going to make a positive effort or will I be a non productive part of this world today? The choice is mine, how I react and how I contribute to the world around me is my choice and can not be made by anyone but me.

 How are you going to contribute to our world we live in and are you going to be a positive, neutral or negative force within the day of life?

Ray Barbier

One can dream can’t they?

HPIM0318Sometimes I just sit here and think about the evil things men have done in the name of God, for love, lust, greed and power. Then there is those that enjoy doing horrible things for pleasure, so much evil that is out there in the great big world. Then when I think there is no hope for us I remember all the great things people have done, the communities pulling together after a disaster, the people who dedicate their life to helping those in need of food, medicine and just a friend to care. Though the bad things we see seem to be more prominent in the world it isn’t so, they are the main things reported on in the media and recorded in history. Seems tragedy is a ratings booster and is good at grabbing someone’s interest more so than the good things that go on.

Unfortunately there are people who do horrible things, this has been a fact of life since the beginning of civilization if not humanity itself. But just the same there are many good people out there that do such wonderful and good things. The balance between the two tips back and forth through time rarely letting one stay prominent for too long. Hopefully one day humanity will mature and become a society that is prominently peaceful and compassionate.

One can dream can’t they? Well peace be with you

Ray Barbier

more than our selves

p10061Love and its healing that’s found within its unconditional and nurturing embrace is what we all seek. To be accepted as is and without any condition by another whom we accept in the same way. To Embrace and be embraced with only the other person as our concern. To be selfless and affectionate with the other person as our motive to share love. To find one whom matters more than our selves, to see the kind of love God has given us to share with one another. To see the manifestation of love in the eyes of a child and the wonder within that child’s heart.

The innocence we had lost  can be seen in the eyes of the children and our future is within them as well. Children are the seeds of love we have planted and are the saplings we are supposed to nurture. Look to them for the love we have forgotten through the years of exposure to the worlds cold and selfish ways. Only if we could see the world through the eyes we had as children we could see the simple truth that love is the answer as well as the question.

Love and its healing that’s found within its unconditional and nurturing embrace is what we all have within our hearts.

Ray Barbier

Guilt and anger are both heavy weights to bear

DSC_0337Be good to your friends, family and those around you, for you do not know when your time to go will come or theirs. Constantly remind yourself how important your friends and family are so you do not take them for granted. Be kind to others and do it sincerely so when your time comes to go you will be remembered as the great person you are and not for your mistakes. Forgive yourself, and others for guilt and anger are both heavy weights to bear through life. Besides the fact our time on earth is short if not brief, the negative emotions we harbor shortens or lifetime by eating away at the body. Plenty of medical research has been done on the effects of emotions on the human body both positive and negative. Besides what we eat, what we think, say and do can change our physical and our mental health as well.  Plus being more of a positive force in the world tends to bring happiness to all involved and that in itself is a reward worth seeking.

We can either be a part of the problem, an unproductive part of society or a part of the solution when it comes to life and its problems. The choice is ours alone which path we follow and how we interact with others on our journey trough life.

Ray Barbier

Even in cyberspace friendships, love and family can be found and created

English: Entry point of Active Worlds Français...

Memories of friends both still living and those who moved on to a better place, The lost friends to time and to mortality. To them all I send my thankfulness for having them within my life for the short period they were. I pray for those still living to be happy and at peace with themselves and life. To those who have passed on I pray for their love ones and those they left behind to find the peace they need and for them to be able to cope with their loss.

So many I have known from real life and on the internet in such communities as Active worlds and others have died and did so at such a young age. So many feel pain and hurt from the loss of those wonderful people. Even in cyberspace friendships, love and family can be found and created. God bless those who are still here to feel the loss.

Ray Barbier

Given the scale of life in the cosmos…

DALAI LAMA

Given the scale of life in the cosmos, one human life is no more than a tiny blip. Each one of us is a just visitor to this planet, a guest, who will only stay for a limited time. What greater folly could there be than to spend this short time alone, unhappy or in conflict with our companions? Far better, surely, to use our short time here in living a meaningful life, enriched by our sense of connection with others and being of service to them.

Dalai Lama