Consciousness: The Black Hole of Neuroscience

"Consciousness of course is one of the largest questions of brain structure and function. And we approach it now perhaps differently than we have in the past with our new tools. But I’m not convinced that we understand it any better," says Joy Hirsch.


Consciousness: The Black Hole of Neuroscience

 What's the Big Idea?

“By the word ‘thought’ (‘pensée’) I understand all that of which we are conscious as operating in us.” –Renee Descartes

The simplest description of a black hole is a region of space-time from which no light is reflected and nothing escapes. The simplest description of consciousness is a mind that absorbs many things and attends to a few of them. Neither of these concepts can be captured quantitatively. Together they suggest the appealing possibility that endlessness surrounds us and infinity is within.

But our inability to grasp the immaterial means we’re stuck making inferences, free-associating, if we want any insight into the unknown. Which is why we talk obscurely and metaphorically about "pinning down" perception and “hunting for dark matter” (possibly a sort of primordial black hole). The existence of black holes was first hypothesized a decade after Einstein laid the theoretical groundwork for them in the theory of relativity, and the phrase "black hole" was not coined until 1968.

Likewise, consciousness is still such an elusive concept that, in spite of the recent invention of functional imaging - which has allowed scientists to visualize the different areas of the brain - we may not understand it any better now than we ever have before. “We approach [consciousness] now perhaps differently than we have in the past with our new tools," says neuroscientist Joy Hirsch.

"The questions [we ask] have become a little bit more sophisticated and we’ve become more sophisticated in how we ask the question," she adds - but we're still far from being able to explain how the regions of the brain interact to produce thought, dreams, and self-awareness. “In terms of understanding, the awareness that comes from binding remote activities of the brain together, still remains what philosophers call, ‘The hard problem.'"

What's the Significance?

 Discovering how mechanistic processes work - the firing of neurons or the earth revolving around the sun, for example - is considered by some to be an "easy" problem because it involves observation, the description of an event from a third person point of view. "Hard" problems, on the other hand, involve first person experience. They're the questions that persist even after physical processes have been mapped and explained.

It's tempting to see them as universal to humanity, but whether and how they've been framed has varied historically. Historians of philosophy have observed there was no ancient Greek word that corresponds to “consciousness," while the modern Western perspective on consciousness seems to have been developed during the Reformation era - the age of “I think, therefore I am,” and “To be or not to be.” (Hamlet was written around 1600, and Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method was published in 1637.)

So there's no reason to assume that consciousness is eternally inexplicable. However, it may never be explained through neurobiology, says David Chalmers, the philosopher who originally made the distinction. "In so many other fields physical explanation has been successful… but there seems to be this big gap in the case of consciousness," he says. "It’s just very hard to see how [neurological] interactions are going to give you subjective experience."

 Hirsch sees it more practically. Though functional imaging has not explained where perception comes from, it has important applications for unconscious patients. “The boundaries have been broken a little bit, clinically," she says. "As we study patients with disorders of consciousness, we can probe their levels of awareness in ways that other traditional ways of asking them to respond."

It's no different than any other aspect of the brain that we cannot presently explain, she says:

For example, we don’t understand how the brain creates colors. That’s a perception that is very private - I don’t know that your perception of blue is like my perception of blue, for example. Smells are another one. I don’t know that your perception of the smell of an orange is like mine. These are the hard problems of neuroscience and philosophy that we haven’t made a great deal of progress on.

What do you think? Is the distinction between "hard problems" and "soft problems" useful, or reductive? Does the brain create consciousness? Will we ever empirically understand where it comes from or how it works?

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
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