Neuroscientist attempts to explain consciousness in an elevator ride

published on July 17, 2020

There's a lot of hard problems in science but only one of them is called the hard problem and that's consciousness How does the big pink squishy thing inside my noggin interpret my entire experience of life? To find that out I have trapped a neuroscientist in an elevator so I'm gonna go get her to explain We better go she's been in there a while Hello! So one of my favorite things is that I just get to come in and ask a

Bunch of really difficult questions and somebody else has to answer them and I hear that what I'm asking today is actually sometimes called the hard problem Yeah it's a really hard problem this one People have been trying to work this problem out for thousands of years Yeah Great well, you have an elevator ride to try and explain it to me I'll do my best Okay ready? What is consciousness? Well from a neurobiological perspective

Consciousness is our kind of brains' awareness, being aware of our inner self , our inner world and the world around us Okay that sounds pretty simple What makes it hard? Well we don't exactly know how the brain creates that experience It doesn't really seem to exist in any specific part of the brain Instead it's something to do with different regions and different networks in the brain having conversations and sending messages back and forward One

Really nice analogy is to think about it as being like a theater So we have a stage with a spotlight and (I'll get the next one) Sorry! Whatever is on the stage in the light is what's in our conscious awareness What we kind of noticing at that point of time and then you've got what's in the wings and what's backstage and the orchestra pit and all that's kind of going on So we might even have thoughts happening backstage we're not aware of So backstage is subconsciousness? That's one

Way to think about it but you know when you have an aha moment or an insight? That maybe when a thought that's been backstage kind of comes into our conscious awareness Okay yep What's unconsciousness then? Yeah that is a really good question and it's really hard from a neuroscience perspective to measure that because Oh we're at the top We're halfway through Yeah seems totally easy It's fine We all experience being unconscious everyday when we like in

Deep sleep or when someone's had a general anesthetic or if you know someone's in a coma I think it's important to define consciousness and understand unconsciousness because that is going to inform end-of-life decision making Is this stuff going on in their subconscious that we just can't measure? So is it possible for us to create consciousness through like AI or anything like that? If that fits a lot of the definitions of consciousness Oh my

Gosh! Oh my god! What happened? Did? I was very conscious of that experience That sensation Mmm? Hi Hello? We're stuck in the elevator It's not moving Please come back

I'd like to see our faces when that happened I think I think it's working again Okay let's try Oh yep it's moving I think We're good It's not going really fast like it did Okay – consciousnessTell me Where were we? So what's happening in the brain when you're conscious versus unconscious? What does that actually look like? Well we can use fMRI or brain imaging to get a look at what neural signatures look

Like In someone who's unconscious signals are coming into the brain but they're not moving around They're decoupled The conversations are sort of stopped So what does that mean? So there's still messages being transmitted but then they're not going anywhere else? The different parts of the brain aren't in communication with each other and that's why we think it's that communication, those networks talking, that's where consciousness is somehow emerging Is

There a difference between unconscious in say a medically induced coma versuses sleep? That's a really good question If someone's in deep deep deep sleep we don't see the same neural signatures that we do in someone who is anesthetized but someone who is anesthetized does have a similar neural signature to someone who is perhaps in a vegetative state or a coma Are humans the only things that are conscious because I would instinctively say "no" but Probably

Not because we think that our neurobiology creates consciousness but whether or not other animals like my dog for example has the ability to reflect on his own thoughts? One of the problems with consciousness is we rely on people being able to explain their experience of it to us and dogs don't have language to be able to do that And everyone experiences stuff differently? I guess that's why it is such a hard problem because it comes back so much to our own

Personal experiences and sense of who we are We now have the shared experience of getting stuck in this elevator for a short time together Yeah with that whole drop and that sudden stop and that whole life death thing That was scary and unexpected Thank you so much Can you open the door? When I walked out of the lift on that one it seemed pretty simple and on

Further reflection I think that's because humans all have a pretty innate idea of what consciousness is We all experience it? But if you were to think about someone in a vegetative state, in a coma, that you know doesn't seem to have much brain activity you would not necessarily feel a whole lot of moral qualms about giving them a quiet end to life You would often I guess think of it as being quite kind But is that right if we can't measure it?

If we can't measure if someone's conscious we just know that they're unresponsive and they don't have a lot of brain activity and we choose to end their life, is that the right thing to do? Could they still be conscious and we just don't know it? So I think consciousness is a really big tricky one A lot trickier than I thought it was when we started and I think we're gonna need a taller building for this one

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