The other night my brother called me up, as he often does multiple times a week, with a new topic of discussion: consciousness. He, like thousands of others, was listening to a podcast discussion on the subject and wanted to know more about our current biological explanation for the so-called ‘substance of life’.
Before we go on, you should know that my brother is, to say the least, the walking embodiment of an existential crisis. Every little thing he talks about, from the “statistical dynamics of traffic” to the fundamental secrets underlying our very being, is an absolute production. He gives the word pedantic a new meaning that words simply cannot describe; having a fireside chat with him must be experienced first-hand to appreciate the magnitude of thought that can be put into the most mundane of things. Just to be clear, I’m in no way speaking ill of my elder sibling, because when it comes to being a physical manifestation of “thinking too much”, I’m the Cal Jr. to his Ricky Bobby shake and bake baby. Or should you bake then shake? It really depends on the perspective of what you’re cooking.
The answer I gave to him in regards to explanations of consciousness was a simple ‘no’. Trying to use our understanding of neuroscience to explain consciousness would be like trying to make a Ferrari out of a pinewood derby set and some cheap red paint. We just simply don’t have the tools, and it’s quite possible that we never will.
The word consciousness comes from the Latin roots con (with) and scious (awareness) to make the translation quite literally “with awareness.” So, on the simplest level, you could say that consciousness is a place of storage for information that becomes capable of sensing the information associated with its own existence; i.e. I can look at my hand and realize it is my own. Perhaps at this basic level we could describe consciousness as the sensory systems feeding information about our environment (including knowledge of our own body) into our brain where it is stored.
But quite frankly, that answer is vague, unsatisfying, and we all know the conscious experience is so much more than that. The human experience is just that: an experience. It is not simply an awareness that my hand(s) typing on my computer in front of me belong to the vessel of my existence, but rather a seamless integration of sensory information streams and motor outputs with the present state of the brain into a unified experience.
While our best evidence suggests that simultaneous activity located in various parts throughout the brain generate the parts of what we experience as consciousness, we are still completely and utterly unaware as to how this is synthesized into one stream and how subjective experience arises from such a stream. Some have put forth theories, but few have gained much traction.
For example, Francis Crick proposed that a uniquely widespread division of the brain called the claustrum could be the source of our mystery unifier due to its connections to many different regions. This anatomical localization of consciousness is good in theory, however, there is little experimental evidence to firmly support it.
Many neuroscientists, including myself, would argue that consciousness cannot be localized to a single structure. In fact, perhaps most activities that the brain carries out, while perhaps strongly associated with one area or the other, cannot simply be mapped onto one part of the brain. This is illustrated in a theory recently articulated by György Buzsáki in his book The Brain from Inside Out that says sensory information alone is not enough to produce experience and subsequently consciousness.
Buzsáki, along with many others, argues that action, both present and previous, is what gives meaning to the sensory information we receive. In fact, he would even claim that we don’t receive information from sensory inputs, but rather create it in the brain.
For example, look at the picture above before moving on. What do you see? Some of you may see simply certain aspects of the photo like a dirt path, a remote beach, a ruin of some sort, and a rather beautiful cloud. Some of you may recognize this as being Tulum, a city in Mexico, from pictures. Some of you may have even visited this site and remember your trip there. My mom, my brother, and I will remember the day this was taken and how we got rained out 20 minutes later waiting for dad to pick us up.
While we were all shown the same picture, everyone gets different information from it: whether it just be recognizing objects, recognizing the place, or remembering a particular experience, perhaps even the very moments surrounding the time that this exact picture was taken. Thus, sensory inputs are not meaningful information until the brain makes them so.
Personally, I ascribe myself more to Buzsáki’s theory. The more I learn about neuroscience, the more I see that the “mundane”, like a pedantic phone conversation with your brother, is just a veil slyly disguising the key, most core components of our existence as irrelevant simply because of how often they occur in our lives. We take for granted the things most foundational to the conscious human experience because we fail to see how miraculous they actually are.
Too often we neuroscientists focus on things like executive control during memory tasks, sensory substitution, or complex visual processing in attempts to study cognition, all of which are important, but far removed from the little things in life that aren’t just received through sensory inputs, but rather things that we experience through action: making your bed on most mornings, cooking food that’s edible, navigating your way around a planet, dancing in the mirror while you brush your teeth, sending a BLUE text message, watching a movie with your significant other, reading a book by the pool, going to the bathroom (hopefully) at an appropriate time, ordering an aperol spritz promptly at 5, eating some dank food, having an epic battle with the office printer, staring deeper into space than the Hubble telescope during meetings, walking down the street at a socially acceptable pace, not clapping as soon as your airplane lands, ordering a pizza without pineapple on it, choosing a solid gif to throw in the group chat, and answering a phone call from your brother so you can talk about stupid shit all evening.
Mundane, perhaps. Impossible to fully understand, probably. Outright marvelous, absolutely.