Consciousness: How does the brain make the mind?
In his new book, The Consciousness Instinct, Michael Gazzaniga does a deep dive into the process of consciousness.
When you wake up in the morning, it’s likely you remember who you were when you turned off the lights the previous evening. Sleep being a brief respite, you’re ready to continue being you again. In fact, you have been you seamlessly since the day you were born. There’s much you’ve forgotten and much you misremember, even though you won’t believe you’ve remembered it wrong. Otherwise, consciousness has been humming along on a smooth trajectory the entire time, right?
If only consciousness worked that way. Then again, if it did, it wouldn’t be who we are. Part of the problem resides in agreeing on a definition. As neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga writes in his new book, The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind, quoting the linguist Noam Chomsky, consciousness is a “word worn smooth by a million tongues.”
To keep it simple, Gazzaniga writes that consciousness “is the word we use to describe the subjective feeling of a number of instincts and/or memories playing out in time in an organism.” Whatever captures our attention at that moment is what exists in our consciousness. The rest of everything else, from the innumerable autonomic processes keeping our body in homeostasis to the innumerable processes keeping the planet in homeostasis, remains hidden.
Despite the fact that some might be upset upon learning that consciousness—the very quality we believe lifts us above the rest of the animal kingdom—is an instinct, Gazzaniga is undeterred in his assumption. Being an instinct takes nothing away from the mystery of existence; if anything, it deepens our appreciation for just how embedded this phenomenon is in the fabric of life. As he recently told me:
By calling it an instinct, I'm saying whatever it is we're talking about, it comes with us.
A feature, not a bug, and not unique. In the book he notes that this instinct predates the first organisms, borrowing from William James. An instinct is, first and foremost, felt. Feelings eventually give rise to cognition; in this sense, cognition is the way we translate sensations. The fundamental requirements of life—sustenance; reproduction—were initially acquired through sensations of feeling. Only later did more advanced forms of life add complexity to the process we now term consciousness. Even today, emotions, the term we assign for different feelings, must be considered the “foundational component of consciousness.”
Gazzaniga has long known about our brain’s fragmented nature. In 1964 he began working on split-brain research, helping to initiate research on functional lateralization in the brain. When the corpus callosum is severed, each hemisphere has its own perceptual and conceptual systems, effectively creating two brains in one person. Gazzaniga’s work changed the field of neuroscience. No longer could consciousness be thought of as a seamless experience generated by one system or network.
Professor Michael Gazzaniga, Director of Program in Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College. Dr. Michael Gazzangia is a veteran neuroscientist and a fledgling bioethicist as a member of President George W. Bush's Council on bioethics. (Photo by Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images)
Despite the fact that it feels like we have an uninterrupted consciousness (save the third of our life we spend asleep), this phenomenon is actually produced by “thousands of relatively independent processing units.” In other words, modules. Gazzaniga writes that everything we subjectively experience is the result of a brain organized into modules of functionally interconnected regions. There is no localizable consciousness center.
With this book, he attempts to once again push the field forward. To explain modularity Gazzaniga explores physics and architecture, using the Boeing 777 as an example. Comprised of 150,000 subsystem modules networked by 1,000 computers, each engineer does not need to know how the entire system operates to understand the role they play. Without one subsystem the plane does not function as intended—think neurological damage to one system. Damage too many and the machine fails. Yet the layering of numerous systems creates the intended effect, just as it does in human consciousness.
Not to abuse the machine metaphor, however. As Gazzaniga writes:
Brains aren’t like machines; machines are like brains with something missing.
Which brings us to one of the most fascinating and debated aspects of neuroscience: the idea of a soul being the catalyst for consciousness, or at least a separate layer uninvolved in the body’s physical structure. Extending the architecture motif, Gazzaniga notes that at the most fundamental level, architecture, and in this analogy, consciousness, is “design within the bounds of constraints.”
How exactly the brain makes the mind—along with its necessary partners, the body and environment—might always remain hidden given the complexity of layering involved. That does not imply that consciousness is possible without the layered architecture existent in the body. In our conversation, he summed up three main theories of mind:
There’s no loose bolts in there. There’s no magic. But there are basically three ideas in human history about the relationship of brain and body. One is that the brain generates the mind. That’s the full story. Another one is the brain generates the mind, but there’s an added commodity called the spirit or soul that survives death. Then there’s a third one, which is dualism. And those three ideas are still with us.
Just as the “ghost in the machine” is an illusion created by the many layers of consciousness, so is the notion of a smoothly flowing consciousness. Rather, Gazzaniga writes that consciousness is more like a series of “cognitive bubbles linked with subcortical ‘feeling’ bubbles, stitched together by our brain in time.” This notion is born out in memory research. We don’t recall past experiences perfectly. Rather, everything that has happened since will alter the event we’re recalling.
As Gazzaniga writes, our feelings about past moments are not actually the feelings we had during the event. We’re experiencing our current feelings, mapping them back through time in a remix of our former self. We might remember a date we had a decade ago differently on Tuesday than on Monday depending upon our current mood, so fragile is this system.
And yet, as Gazzaniga describes the brain as a whole, “fragile yet robust.” While we might never know exactly how the brain makes the mind, we won’t find the secret in one system alone. Existence is too complex for that, no matter how much we prefer simple explanations. That doesn’t make the complexity any less fascinating.
What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.
- Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
- Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
- Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity
- Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
- And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
- If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist
Chicagoland is Obamaland
Image: The Pudding
Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.
Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).
The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.
The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.
How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."
‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'
Image: The Pudding
Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.
That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.
Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.
The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.
The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".
Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.
Royals and (other) mortals
Image: The Pudding
There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.
Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.
But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.
Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).
Freaks and angels
The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.
It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.
Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.
As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...
Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.
- A popular means of transportation from the 1920s to the 1980s, hitchhiking has since fallen in disrepute.
- However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
- In some countries and areas, you'll be off the street in no time. In other places, it's much harder to thumb your way from A to B.
Technology may soon grant us immortality, in a sense. Here's how.
- Through the Connectome Project we may soon be able to map the pathways of the entire human brain, including memories, and create computer programs that evoke the person the digitization is stemmed from.
- We age because errors build up in our cells — mitochondria to be exact.
- With CRISPR technology we may soon be able to edit out errors that build up as we age, and extend the human lifespan.
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