Consciousness as seen by science

There is something strange when you think about it a little bit. You all know that you are reading the words that are now passing before your eyes, but if I ask you to describe what is going on in your head, and how all this is possible, then almost all of you will have a different meaning and interpretation. So much so that there is a lively debate between researchers in neuroscience and among members of the disciplines interested in it, whether they are philosophers, cognitive specialists, AI researchers and even physicists.

It must be said clearly, the challenge is huge. Neuroscience wants nothing less than to determine which areas of the brain are responsible for this condition and how these areas communicate with each other to give this end, a ephemeral consequence of our brain’s subjective experience. Not many philosophers believe this is possible, because the deep question is whether the brain, on its own, can understand how it works.

What is consciousness?

As the French philosopher André Comte Sponville said, “The conscience is one of the most difficult words to define.” So I present to you the simplest and most general definitions: consciousness is the ability to perceive one’s own existence and the existence of the world around one. Of course I will leave aside the so-called “moral” pronoun here.

As evidenced by the reaction of our readers to an article recently published on the website of newsHowever, scientific proof of the mechanisms of consciousness is seen as “reductive” by many philosophers, religious people, and advocates of spirituality. Humanity has been thinking about it for so long that the scientific approach, which appears to reduce the human condition to a clever mix of biochemical, electrical, and structural processes, is often seen as a bad player that disrupts the consensus that already exists. Until now scientific method We can learn a lot about this topic.

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What areas of the brain are involved?

It was really in the 1990s that neuroscience’s exploration of consciousness began with the arrival of new brain-imaging tools – including fMRI – that make it possible to isolate the areas of the brain that are active when we perform a task. So the researchers used the images to compare brain activity when we are conscious versus unconscious states such as coma, sleep, and the first moments of wakefulness. After 30 years of research, the only observation we’ve made is that consciousness is not generated in one area of ​​the body. brain.

As is often the case in research, two “schools” were formed. First, there are those who assume that the majority of the areas required for acquiring consciousness are located in the front of the brain, in the frontal region. And on the other hand, those who assume that all this takes place in areas in the back of the brain, that is, the occipital lobes and the parietal lobes.

However, over the years, research has tended more and more to show that all of these areas are important in all the mechanisms leading to consciousness. The main areas involved in consciousness are said to be those in the motor cortex, functional memory, and language in the front of the brain, as well as the attention, hearing, and vision areas in the back.

In addition, we are now discovering other regions older than our brain in the limbic system that are involved in this condition. The thalamus, for example, located in the center of the brain can play a coordinating role for brain activity in all of these areas. But the real question is how do they connect to generate awareness.

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The three theories of neuroscience

To answer this important question, it seems that scientific research revolves around it Three theories of awareness.

There is first of all the “global workspace theory” which posits that consciousness is a temporary event, experienced in a subjective way, for our working memory, the one we use for example to memorize a phone number. Those who defend it use the metaphor of the brain as a theatrical spectacle. Consciousness will be the projector that moves through the brain to illuminate the areas useful for our survival at each moment.

La deuxième théorie — celle de l’“intégration de l’information” — propose à l’inverse que la conscience émerge par une intégration constante entre toutes les différentes régions impliquées, quelle que soit la tâche complisson que nous acent: , for example. It has been much criticized in this field, and yet it has clinical utility, as it makes it possible to build mathematical models that link brain activity in different regions to a certain degree of consciousness, for example a rather deep coma.

The latter – which I must admit is very complex – suggests a contribution” Quantum mechanics In the same expression of consciousness. Quantum mechanics is the branch of physics that explains that at the atomic level, reality is very different from ours, and that matter behaves like a wave and a particle. This “quantum” reality will act on structures found in all brain cells, microtubules, which are specifically used to transport substances from one place to another in neurons. Researchers believe that microtubules adopt quantum behavior because of the way they are organized, and that it is this phenomenon that leads to consciousness. have Discover This path is by analyzing, among other things, how certain anesthetic agents, which have quantum properties different from our cells, such as xenon, cause us to temporarily leave the realm of consciousness.

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What is the benefit of understanding consciousness?

From a medical point of view, a better understanding of consciousness would be an essential component of treating many diseases, including stroke, PTSD, schizophrenia, and even phobias. Several teams are working with scientific research findings on awareness to apply this knowledge to effective treatments. We are only at the beginning of these applications of awareness mechanisms in the treatment of diseases, but it is an innovative and promising field.

We are in an era of multidisciplinary and collaboration. To successfully integrate scientific discoveries and great epistemological and philosophical theories at the same time, sharing, discussion, and incorporation of knowledge will surely be more useful in our understanding of conscience than sterile controversies. In any case, neuroscience shows that the mechanisms at work are far from being “reductive,” but they are very complex.

Thirty years of exploration by neuroscience is incomparable to thousands of years of reflection to define and understand consciousness. Let’s give the feud a chance… In any case, there is no rush to unravel this mystery that has persisted since humans became aware of themselves.

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