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Monday, September 26, 2005

Conundrum of human consciousness

Neuroscientist Christof Koch thinks that maybe consciousness will be explained in our lifetimes:

These are heady times for neuroscientists. Our growing ability to monitor the brain's activity at the cellular level with unprecedented precision and breadth, and precisely manipulate these networks opens the stunning possibility that the quest to understand the oldest of all epistemological problems will come to an end in our lifetime.

If you read the article, "The Inchoate Science of Consciousness" (September 12, 2005) carefully, it doesn't look as though they are getting very far, despite the hype.

For example, Koch writes, regarding an animal experiment,

Strikingly, the reintroduction of one specie of molecule into a single brain region rescued certain complex exploratory and social behaviors. While the β2 knockout animals move rapidly through a novel terrain with little exploration, animals in which nicotinic transmission has been restored in the VTA show more adaptive behavior that, if observed in humans, would be associated with planning and consciousness.

Well, sure, but we associate human behaviour with planning and consciousness because we know that humans plan and are conscious. We know that mice plan to some extent, though it is not clear whether they are conscious in the sense that humans are. And no one doubts that certain chemicals and brain regions are associated with consciousness, such that interference with them can cause its loss.

The real problem, it seems to me, is that there is only so far one can get with studying something like consciousness for the purpose of explaining it away as random actions within the brain. My guess is that one learns a lot of interesting, even useful stuff about mice, and then confronts once again, the huge gap between mouse consciousness and human consciousness.

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