Consciousness was for a long time the charged third rail of biology: touch it and … well, maybe you didn’t die, but you were unlikely to get a grant, or tenure. Of course, it helped if you were a Nobel laureate, such as Francis Crick, lauded for his work on DNA, or Gerald Edelman, for his work on antibodies. Yet even their attempts to pin down the electrical-chemical-anatomical (or whatever) substrate of consciousness seemed, until recently, likely to go the way of Albert Einstein’s doomed search for a unified theory of everything. However, the situation has changed dramatically in recent years. Inquiry into the neurobiology of consciousness has become one of the hottest, best-funded, and most media-friendly of research enterprises, along with genomics, stem cells and a few other newly favoured sub-disciplines.

For centuries, it was perfectly acceptable for philosophers to ponder consciousness because, after all, no one actually expected them to come up with anything real. Thus, René Descartes’s renowned statement ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (I think therefore I am) becomes, in the words of the early 20th-century American satirist Ambrose Bierce, Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum — I think that I think, therefore I think that I am (which was, according to Bierce, about as close to truth as philosophy was likely to get). Now we have micro-electrodes recording from individual neurons, computer modelling of neural nets, functional MRIs, and an array of even newer 21st-century techniques, all hot on the trail of how consciousness emerges from ‘mere’ matter. Cartesian dualism is on the run, as well it should be.

Admittedly, there are some exceptions to this scientific turn of events, proving that imbecility runs deep in humans, especially in the curious world of the consciousness-credulous. Take the persistence of beliefs that rocks or whole planets are conscious, or the remarkable popularity a decade ago of the charlatan film What the Bleep Do We Know? (2004) with its faux-scientific assertion that consciousness is an active force by which we can affect the world.

Read more at Aeon Magazine.

2 Comments

  • Brain Molecule Marketing says:

    Have to say our brain research study suggests consciousness and all subjective experience is epiphenomenal and trivial.

    If it was important other species would have had it long ago.

    Plus, let’s be honest we are really just talking about self-talk and what people say.  No biggie

  • Randall Wilson, Psy.D. says:

    Anyone interested in this topic might find it worthwhile to introduce themselves to Relational Frame Theory (RFT), which is a behavioral account of human language and cognition, and explains the subject of “thinking” in terms of functional behavior and interaction with the environment (not in terms of mentalistic, “thing-like” structures that are impossible to prove/disprove, or in a reductionistic manner as seen in the search for consciousness by studying neurological structures).  There’s pretty strong evidence within the RFT research literature to support the idea that the experience of consciousness arises from an extensive history of relational responding with regard to perspective taking.  Without going into too much detail, repeated trials of learning, as a child, to relate and respond to features of our environment in terms of me AND you, here AND there, now AND then, creates the experience of consciouness as a perspective.  This helps explain why the experience of consciousness develops and is not present in infancy, and also how consciousness developed alongside language and cognition.

    You can read more about RFT and it’s applications in behavioral science at the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science’s website: http://www.contextualpsychology.org

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