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Mind Games

 

Bill Pheasant

  

The 17th century scientist and philosopher Ren Descartes saved science from religious domination by coming up with the theory of dualismdividing the body from the mindbut it meant that scientists spent the next two centuries ignoring consciousness. Over the past 20 years there has been a turnaround, as crusading researchers and thinkers focus on what many see as the last big thingthe mind. How does the sludgy mass between your ears decide what time to get up, what career to pursue, or whether to ponder a cow-shaped cloud?

Philosophers had the better of the debate in the past century, trying to determine what objective truths could be stated about the mind, and behaviourist psychologists threw the concept out altogether. But the scientists are back, delving into neuron processes to determine what turns each persons grey matter into an experience of self.

Neuroscientists, such as Oxford University professor Susan Greenfield, have pushed deeper into the layers of activity between neurons, proposing that our level of awareness comes from networks of neurons echoing around the links between 100 billion matching cells like insects caught in a 3-D spider web: the bigger the buzz, the higher the awareness.

The professor of neurology at the University of Iowa, Antonio Damasio, is examining the evolutionary basis for emotions. Ole Paulsen at Oxfords neuroscience department is looking at the formation of memory. The universitys Lawrence Weiskrantz implanted a silicon chip in the brain of a paraplegic and got nerve cells to attach directly to it, allowing the person to move a computer cursor using pure thought power. And pharmaceutical companies are pumping out pills such as Prozac that change the brains moods. It is in physics, however, that the most intriguing theorems are being developed. At the University of Arizona, an anaesthesiology and psychology professor, Stuart Hameroff, has taken the propositions of Oxford university mathematician Roger Penrose further, developing the Penrose/Hameroff Orchestrated Object Reduction (Orch OR) theory of quantum consciousness. In a nutshell, the theory suggests that inside each nerve cell, spindle-like microtubules (very tiny ropes of protein) exhibit quantum mechanical propertiesdual wave/particle characteristicsholding two positions or configurations at the same time. These microtubules are able to dance in unison with thousands of others in a coherent network. Finally, the hybrid states collapse from their uncertainty of quantum entanglement into a singular, classical position, in the process forming conscious thought. Unlike the neuroscientific school, advocates of quantum consciousness hope it will provide the magic ingredient beyond chemical processes into the how and why of thinking. While dismissed out of hand in many quarters, the notions have escalated debate and direct research in attempts to prove (and deny) such propositions.

The eminent physicist Paul Davies, who has written 25 books including The Mind of God and is now at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at Sydneys Macquarie University, says consciousness remains deeply mysterious. Davies says a way to map the debate about the brain, the mind and consciousness is to see it through the work of the ex-Adelaide mathematician David Chalmers, now professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona, who talks of easy and hard problems.

The so-called easy problem is finding out which bits of the brain correspond to particular mental statesfeelings, sensations, thoughts, and other reactions. That is something we could, in principle, complete, Davies says. We could imagine a big map of the brain and an understanding at the electrochemical level of what is going on.

Some thinkers, including the Boston-based professor of philosophy at Tufts University, Daniel Dennett, have argued that the brain processes inputs like a Darwinian computer, by selectively sorting perceived information, and that a separate consciousness outside the matrix of events and sensations of life is an idle construct. Subtract them, and nothing is left beyond a weird conviction [in some people] that there is some ineffable residue of qualitative content bereft of all powers to move us, delight us, annoy us, remind us of anything, Dennett says.

Is a persons experience of life more than the sum total of sensory perceptions? Davies says it is here that the so-called hard problem emerges: how can one describe in terms of neurons and synapses the blueness of blue or the wetness of water? Nobody really agrees on this, and there is debate whether this is in fact a scientific problem, Davies says. Is it forever beyond the realm of science to make a contribution to it?

Rodney Brooks would say so. Brooks is professor of computer sciences at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and head of its 250-strong artificial intelligence lab. One of his projects is a humanoid robot that sees, hears and feels. Our robots have emotions, they respond emotionally, Brooks says. They understand emotional responses in the same sense that a child will react to an emotional response from an adult, such as anger, encouragement or getting attention.

The robots emulate human responses via a replica visual cortex, motor skill learning and language processing. But consciousness? Any manifestation of consciousness is an emergent property of simpler mechanisms in our robots, but we are not saying they are conscious, he says. Brooks book Flesh and Machines rejects the quantum approach precisely because it is looking for magic.

Greenfields The Private Life of the Brain explains the early view of the brain: that most animals share brain characteristics, including a primitive brain stem surrounded by a limbic system. This system, including the amygdala and cingulate cortex, cushions basic responses. When it is damaged, people express inappropriate emotions. For example, Kluver-Bucy syndrome patients exhibit high sexual drive towards anything nearby, including inanimate objects.

The cortex wraps the limbic system and is designated as the home of cognitive processes, while the personality resides in the prefrontal cortex. This gave birth to the lobotomy for dealing with the unruly mentally ill, and to the view that the brain could be compartmentalised and a region for consciousness located.

At the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, one of the DNA pioneers, Francis Crick, belongs to an informal network known as the La Jolla Group on Human Origins. It is not a typical conferenceno papers are publishedbut rather a cross-disciplinary forum interested in the basis of human life. A meeting last month included a founding member, Derek Denton, whose work on primary consciousness has stirred the evolutionary biology debate. Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelmans widely accepted view is that consciousness arose through animals external perception of food and danger, an ability to form a mental scene and then an intention to act.

Denton, the founding director of the Howard Florey Institute in Melbourne, has proposed that original or vegetative emotions are derived internally, and has been using brain imaging of patients to find the locationsdeep in the midbrainfor the source of such urges as thirst, hunger, or deprivation of air.

On the pharmacological side, neuroscientist Candace Pert has identified a peptide, the natural brain opiate enkephalin, which appears to be involved in orchestrating emotions and health. It is clear there has been a lot of progress on the so-called easy problem at the grey-matter synapse and neuron level.

Greenfield, a neuro-pharmacologist, has moved from labelling brain regions and prefers to describe the walnut-shaped brain, with its cauliflower-appendage of cerebellum, as operating more like New York City. The brains 100 billion neurons could be divided into boroughs, districts and blocks. A room in a building on a block is like a neuron, which communicates with other rooms in the city via messengerstransmitters that are received by receptor chemicalsand inside each room are desk-bound synapses and ion channel cupboards, with pumps for movement of electrical impulses which deliver the required end responses.

The brains ability to self-repairfor example, after a mild strokeindicates it has plasticity way beyond the earlier categorisations. Far from being on the genetic determinist side of the nature/nurture debate, Greenfield considers the mind as the seething morass of cell circuitry that has been configured by personal experiences and is constantly being updated as we live out each moment. Emotions, Greenfield argues, are the building blocks of consciousness, which emerges as a series of waves of neuron networks that rise and fall according to the degree of awareness or stimulation.

One thing is clear: the brain doesnt work like a digital computer. It is swirling patterns of electrical activity. It has to do with patterns and complexity, says Paul Davies. Certainly there is a huge global effort to find the bit where it happens, the NCCthe neural correlate of consciousness. Davies says mapping ways in which neural processes correlate to conscious outcomes is a reasonable approach. But you are still stuck with the problem of what is it about a particular complex electrical pattern that has thoughts or sensations attached to it, let alone specific ones, like love or a sense of greenness. What distinguishes those from the swirling electrical patterns in the Victorian electricity grid, which presumably doesnt have thoughts and sensations attached to it? That is what a physicist would like to know. So it still seems to me, as a physicist, deeply mysterious, the problem of consciousness.

Alongside the Journal of Consciousness Studies, as a forum for debate between disciplines, stand the Tucson dialogues. On Monday, the fifth conference, titled Towards a Science of Consciousness, will fill the Music Hall in the Arizona desert city with 1,000 scientists showcasing the latest experimental and theoretical explanations for human experience.

Davies has attended several Tucson conferences and is impressed by the level of expertise that is being brought to bear on the subject. His former Adelaide colleague, Chalmers, is associate director of the Center for Consciousness Studies, which runs the Tucson events. He told The AFR Weekend that this year there would be discussion about whether first-person methods of observation could be developed and be as acceptable as traditional third-person observer analysis of brain behaviour.

Another track is sensory substitution: whether a device for a blind person employing sound or taste can permit some level of seeing. These people report that they can see, they have perceptions of depth and so on, but the $64,000 question is whether they are having the same sort of consciousness that we have when we see, or whether it is something completely different, Chalmers says.

On quantum consciousness (Chalmers critics call him a panpsychist), he says there will be a session on a model for visual consciousness with Hameroff and neurobiologist Nancy Woolf. Woolf is associate adjunct professor of psychology at UCLA and was introduced to the work of Penrose and Hameroff by Greenfield. Her work is in the neurotransmitter area of acetylcholine regulators, and the actions of MAP2 (microtubule associated protein), but she is attracted to the quantum model for its elegance and because it recognises time as a variable enabling conscious memory to include past and future events. Perception is intertwined with memory and anticipation of the future, Woolf says.

Hameroffs notions echo the work of Austrian physicist Fritjof Capra, whose Tao of Physics in the 1970s compared Heisenbergs uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics (you cant know both the speed and position of an atomic particle; the act of observing it will change either) with the cyclic and balancing postulates of Eastern mysticism. Hameroff says he has read Capras writings. I think there are tremendous similarities between quantum physics and spirituality. I think its just the deeper reality, he says.

The BBC asked him for comment when producing a series on out-of-body and near-death experiences. Hameroff says: What I told them was, if consciousness is really a process in fundamental space-time geometry, then when the metabolic drive pumping the coherence of the microtubules in the brain fails, the information is not destroyed. You would think it would dissipate, but maybe somehow it remains entangled and hangs together for a while, and then if the brain is revived, it returnswhich raises possibilities for afterlife.

In spite of a horde of critics, Hameroff is undeterred. Time is on our side. The classical approaches are going nowhere; they are flailing in terms of explaining consciousness, he says. It is all more of the same hand waving, emergence arguments, more ultra-reductionismthis part of the brain is important, that part is notwith no attempt to deal with the enigmatic issues. Nobody has a clue about the hard problem except to say that it emerges like a rabbit out of a hat we have testable predictions and the classical people dont.

And where, for Chalmers, is the progress on the hard question? I think its an awfully big question. We are making progress piece by piece. I dont think the hard problem is going to be solved anytime soon, he concedes. But one of the things we are learning is that you can make progress toward a science of consciousness without solving that problem. Basically, it is a science of correlations. We get deeper and deeper systematic links between the brain and consciousness. Because there is still this underlying mystery: why is this link, this consciousness, there in the first place? At some point, someone is going to want to say something pretty deep about that. But for now at least, science is moving forward.

Hameroff says mainstream scientific attitudes may well turn around with the development of quantum information technology: quantum computers, quantum cryptography, quantum teleportation. As these things become more and more real, I think it would be more inevitable for people to say, Well, maybe our brains are like quantum computers, he says.

Davies characteristic caution about such speculation is evident: I dont think its been proved that something funny couldnt happen. I remain open-minded but sceptical. But he says consciousness could be worth a bucketload in the race to create a machine that can truly reason. This will be a trillion-dollar business when it finally succeeds, Davies says of the global teams vying for first place. If you could figure out that the brain is doing this [behaving in a quantum fashion], you would be on to a winner. We are going to know all about it if someone succeeds in demonstrating it.

The Australian Government has thrown funding in the ring for those studying this field, giving $30 million to the Special Research Centre for Quantum Computer Technology, which brings together teams from the University of NSW, the University of Queensland and the University of Melbourne.

Davies concludes that if Penrose and Hameroff are right, and there are microtubules in the brain that allow quantum coherence to be maintained through many cycles of information processing in a hot environment (the brain), then that is exactly what the quantum computing people would need to make a functioning quantum computer, and that would be a revolution as great as the invention of the computer in the first place. So that is where the money would lie in this if that is what you are after.

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Further reading: The Private Life of the Brain, by Susan Greenfield (Penguin).

 

Australian Financial Review, Perspective, Apr 6

 

 

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