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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I see red, it’s the most religious experience. Seeing red just results from photons of a certain frequency hitting the retina of my eye, which cascades electrical and biochemical pulses through my brain, in the same way a PC runs. But nothing happening in my eye or brain actually is the red colour I experience, nor are the photons or pulses. This is seemingly outside this world. Some say my brain is just fooling me, but I don’t accept that as I actually experience the red. But then, how can something out of this world be in our world? Andrew Kaye, 52, London.
What’s going on in your head right now? Presumably you’re having a visual experience of these words in front of you. Maybe you can hear the sound of traffic in the distance or a baby crying in the flat next door. Perhaps you’re feeling a bit tired and distracted, struggling to focus on the words on the page. Or maybe you’re feeling elated at the prospect of an enlightening read. Take a moment to attend to what it’s like to be you right now. This is what’s going on inside your head.
Or is it? There’s another, quite different story. According to neuroscience, the contents of your head are comprised of 86 billion neurons, each one linked to 10,000 others, yielding trillions of connections.
A neuron communicates with its neighbour by converting an electrical signal into a chemical signal (a neurotransmitter), which then passes across the gap in between the neurons (a synapse) to bind to a receptor in the neighbouring neuron, before being converted back into an electrical signal. From these basic building blocks, huge networks of electro-chemical communication are built up.
This article is part of Life’s Big Questions The Conversation’s new series, co-published with BBC Future, seeks to answer our readers’ nagging questions about life, love, death and the universe. We work with professional researchers who have dedicated their lives to uncovering new perspectives on the questions that shape our lives.
These two stories of what’s going on inside your head seem very different. How can they both be true at the same time? How do we reconcile what we know about ourselves from the inside with what science tells us about our body and brain from the outside? This is what philosophers have traditionally called the mind-body problem. And there are solutions to it that don’t require you to accept that there are separate worlds.
Ghost in the machine?
Probably the most popular solution to the mind-body problem historically is dualism: the belief that the human mind is non-physical, outside of the physical workings of the body and the brain. According to this view, your feelings and experiences aren’t strictly speaking in your head at all – rather they exist inside an immaterial soul, distinct from, although closely connected to, your brain.
The relationship between you and your body, according to dualism, is a little bit like the relationship between a drone pilot and his drone. You control your body, and receive information from its sensors, but you and your body are not the same thing.
Dualism allows for the possibility of life after death: we know the body and the brain decay, but perhaps the soul lives on when the body dies, just as a drone pilot lives on if his drone is shot down. It is also perhaps the most natural way for human beings to think about the body-mind relationship. The psychologist Paul Bloom has argued that dualism is hardwired into us, and that from a very early age infants start to distinguish “mental things” from “physical things”. Reflecting this, most cultures and religions throughout history seem to have adopted some kind of dualism.
The trouble is that dualism does not fit well with the findings of modern science. Although dualists think the mind and the brain are distinct, they believe there is an intimate causal relationship between the two. If the soul makes a decision to raise an arm, this somehow manages to influence the brain and thereby set off a causal chain which will result in the arm going up.
Rene Descartes, the most famous dualist in history, hypothesised that the soul communicated with the brain through the pineal gland, a small, pea-shaped gland located near the centre of the brain. But modern neuroscience has cast doubt on the idea that there is a single, special location in the brain where the mind interacts with the brain.
Perhaps a dualist could maintain that the soul operates at several places in the brain. Still, you’d think we’d be able to observe these incoming signals arriving in the brain from the immaterial soul, just as we can observe in a drone where the radio signals sent by the pilot arrive. Unfortunately, this is not what we find. Rather, scientific investigation seems to show that everything that happens in a brain has a physical cause within the brain itself.
Imagine we found what we thought was a drone, but upon subsequent examination we discovered that everything the drone did was caused by processes within it. We would conclude that this was not being controlled by some external “puppeteer” but by the physical processes within it. In other words, we would have discovered not a drone but a robot. Many philosophers and scientists are inclined to draw the same conclusions about the human brain.
Am I my brain?
Among contemporary scientists and philosophers, the most popular solution to the mind-body problem is probably materialism. Materialists aspire to explain feelings and experiences in terms of the chemistry of the brain. It is broadly agreed that nobody has the slightest clue as yet how to do it, but many are confident that we one day will.
This confidence probably arises from the sense that materialism is the scientifically kosher option. The success of science in the past 500 years is after all mind-blowing. This gives people confidence that we just need to plug away with our standard methods of investigating the brain, and one day we’ll solve the riddle.
Galileo was the first person to demand that science should be mathematical. But Galileo understood quite well that human experience cannot be captured in these terms. That’s because human experience involves qualities – the redness of a red experience, the euphoria of love – and these kinds of qualities cannot be captured in the purely quantitative language of mathematics.
Galileo got around this problem by adopting a form of dualism, according to which the qualities of consciousness existed only in the incorporeal “animation” of the body, rather than in the basic matter that is the proper focus of physical science. Only once Galileo had located consciousness outside of the realm of science, was mathematical science possible.
In other words, our current scientific approach is premised on Galileo’s separation of the quantitative physical world from the qualitative reality of consciousness. If we now want to bring consciousness into our scientific story, we need to bring these two domains back together.
Is consciousness fundamental?
Materialists try to reduce consciousness to matter. We have explored some problems with that approach. What about doing it the other way around – can matter be reduced to consciousness? This brings us to the third option: idealism. Idealists believe that consciousness is all that exists at the fundamental level of reality. Historically, many forms of idealism held that the physical world is some kind of illusion, or a construction generated from our own minds.
Idealism is not without its problems either. Materialists put matter at the basis of everything, and then have a challenge understanding where consciousness comes from. Idealists put consciousness at the basis of everything, but then have a challenge explaining where matter comes from.
But a new – or rather rediscovered – way of building matter from consciousness has recently been garnering a great deal of attention among scientists and philosophers. The approach starts from the observation that physical science is confined to telling us about the behaviour of matter and what it does. Physics, for example, is basically just a mathematical tool for telling us how particles and fields interact. It tells us what matter does, not what it is.
If physics doesn’t tell us what fields and particles are, then this opens up the possibility that they might be forms of consciousness. This approach, known as panpsychism, allows us to hold that both physical matter and consciousness are fundamental. This is because, according to panpsychism, particles and fields simply are forms of consciousness.
At the level of basic physics, we find very simple forms of consciousness. Perhaps quarks, fundamental particles that help make up the atomic nucleus, have some degree of consciousness. These very simple forms of consciousness could then combine to form very complex forms of consciousness, including the consciousness enjoyed by humans and other animals.
So, according to panpsychism, your experience of red and the corresponding brain process don’t take place in separate worlds. Whereas Galileo separated out the qualitative reality of a red experience from the quantitative brain process, panpsychism offers us a way of bringing them together in a single, unified worldview. There is only one world, and it’s made of consciousness. Matter is what consciousness does.
Panpsychism is quite a radical rethink of our picture of the universe. But it does seem to achieve what other solutions cannot. It offers us a way to combine what we know about ourselves from the inside and what science tells us about our bodies and the brains from the outside, a way of understanding matter and consciousness as two sides of the same coin.
Can panpsychism be tested? In a sense it can, because all of the other options fail to account for important data. Dualism fails to account for the data of neuroscience. And materialism fails to account for the reality of consciousness itself. As Sherlock Holmes famously said: “Once we have ruled out the impossible, what remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Given the deep problems that plague both dualism and materialism, panpsychism looks to me to be the best solution to the mind-body problem.
Even if we can solve the mind-body problem, this can never dispel the wonder of human consciousness. On such matters, the philosopher is no match for the poet.