Science Channel - InSCIder

26 Sep

Where Is Your Mind?

Brain in HandOkay, I set myself up here...it's tempting to respond, "in the gutter," to that question. But seriously. Did you ever wonder where your consciousness — the awareness of your environment, and the thoughts that spring from it — actually resides? Does the essence of your personality and intellect float through your skull, lonely as a cloud that floats over vales and hills, to steal an image from William Wordsworth (and Bulwinkle J. Moose)? Or is your gestalt actually generated by a bunch of different activities going on in various specific locations in your brain?

It's a question that humans probably have pondered since  Neolithic shamans drilled holes in people's skulls, presumably to cure mental illnesses. According to Stanley Finger's fascinating history textbook Origins of Neuroscience, The ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle wondered whether thinking took place in our heads at all. He instead leaned toward the heart as the location of our minds, because in autopsies it seemed comparatively warm to the touch. The Roman physician Galen, who studied the brains of dead gladiators, had a hybrid theory in which our "vital spirits" were pumped from the heart via the carotid arteries into the base of the brain, where they were miraculously transformed into "animal spirits" that made us who we are.

Ancient Brain DiagramIn the Fourth and Fifth Centuries AD, Byzantine religious clerics and scholars came up with the notion that various emotions and types of thinking resided in specific parts of the brain. You've probably seen antique jigsaw puzzle-like diagrams of the human head like this one, showing where your various thoughts and feelings supposedly occur. In 1861, French neurosurgeon Paul Broca made a persuasive argument for such localization of brain functions by showing that lesions in a certain region of the brain, which became known as Broca's area, could render patients unable to speak.

The idea that the different qualities and activities that make up our minds exist in specific spots — sort of like the parts of a car engine — was accepted doctrine in Neuroscience, and it remains an appealing one to us. I think that's partly because it allows us to infer that our flaws and foibles might somehow be easily fixed, if we could tinker with the carburetor or replace a few frayed wires. In recent decades, though, the advent of imaging technologies, which allow Neuroscientists to living brains and study their activity in real time, has led some experts to zero in on three specific regions — the insular cortex, the anterior cingulated cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex — as the specific locations where consciousness takes place.

Or not. Other researchers also have come up with increasing evidence that the brain's neurons may function like a virtual supercomputer — that is, a massive, far-flung network of computers that join forces to perform some calculation, with each of them doing a tiny piece of the work, and storing a portion of an idea.

This view of consciousness as having a parallel distributed architecture is bolstered by a newly published study from PLOS ONE, the online scientific journal, in which researchers describe the case of patient R, who lost substantial chunks of the previously-mentioned regions associated with consciousness, due to a viral infection. Patient R should have turned into a zombie, as one of the study's authors explains in this New Scientist story on the research. Instead, the patient's self-awareness, including basic self-recognition and his ability to place himself in the bigger picture of reality, "remained fundamentally intact," according to the study. "Our findings are compatible with the hypothesis that [self-awareness] is likely to emerge from more distributed interactions among brain networks including those in the brainstem, thalamus, and posteromedial cortices," the researchers concluded.

If it turns out that our consciousness actually is massively parallel rather than localized, it may possibly increase the prospects for replicating human consciousness in a network of machines. According to this recent British newspaper article, a consortium of European researchers is trying to build a simulated brain, which they hope to have up and running by 2024.

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