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« Change, Death and Pop Culture | Main | Free Reads -- Sullivan on Oakeshott »

November 20, 2002

Free Reads—The Source of Consciousness


In the Los Angeles Times of November 17, there is an interesting article on brain research—apparently my topic for the month—titled “Stalking the Rational Mind.” It describes how Francis Crick (who won the Nobel Prize for deciphering the structure of DNA 40 years ago) and his band of merry men at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies are pursuing the physical basis of consciousness. (In the invariable habit of scientists, they’ve given this physical mechanism its very own buzz word: the "neural correlate.")

Raider of the Neural Correlate: Francis Crick

One of the things that surprised me about the story is how literally Crick and his number one colleague, Caltech professor Christof Koch, take the idea that the neural correlate is a specific, identifiable mechanism:

At one point, Crick and Koch speculated that the neural correlate of consciousness might be related to the synchronous firing of groups of neurons at about 40 hertz (40 times a second)…But Crick and Koch have more recently backed off some of their broader claims for that theory. Still, they are inclined to believe that the neural correlate is a discrete process in the brain, whether of neurons acting individually or in groups. "Francis and I believe [it] is probably something very specific," Koch says. "The biological model is very specific--so many things in biology are little machines."

You can read the whole story, here. I have no idea if Crick and Koch have a clue as to the nature of consciousness, but I must say the whole thing is quite fascinating. Could you recommend any accounts of current day brain research for the general reader?



posted by Friedrich at November 20, 2002



A few years ago I read Francis Crick's book, The Astonishing Hypothesis. If you want to know more about Crick's ideas, it might be a good place to start. I would not say that it is a mind blowing work of science, but it has some interesting ideas. Much better, in my opinion, is A Vision of the Brain by Semir Zeki.

Posted by: Derk on November 20, 2002 6:00 AM

One more thing. If you can get your hands on Spring 1998 edition of DAEDALUS, Semir Zeki has an essay called Art and the Brain. THAT is mind blowing and, if I am not mistaken, he has developed the idea at length in a book with a similar title. Also, there are a number of excellent brain-related essays in the same issue.

Posted by: Derk on November 20, 2002 6:05 AM

"Raider of the Neural Correlate-" wonderful word combination! That's gonna make my day.

Posted by: laurel on November 20, 2002 8:25 AM has essays by people like Marvin Minsky, Steven Pinker, George Lakoff, Marc Hauser, and Ernst Mayr, many of which concern the nature of consciousness and the state of neurological and computational research into consciousness.

Antonio Damasio's two books Descartes' Error and The Feeling of What Happens are excellent.

Posted by: Michael Snider on November 20, 2002 11:10 AM

Thanks so much for your suggestions. Now I've got to hustle up the books and do some reading.

Posted by: Friedrich Von Blowhard on November 20, 2002 12:46 PM

I second (very strongly) Michael's recommendation of Damasio's books. Excellent reading!

Philosophy in the Flesh, by Lakoff and Johnson is good too, although more concerned with a higher level than the "neural correlate," which to me sounds rather flaky and too "monistic," a characteristic of practically all crackpottery.

Posted by: Dave Trowbridge on November 20, 2002 2:08 PM

the deepest workings of our minds is a field that is incomprehensible to humanity. Years of study, and the most we can hope to trickle out to tease the hungry questions of our race is inside theorys and speculation.

i argue, however, that we are at all like machines. at one point i have felt that way.....for it does seem at its face value that humanity is little more than a complex computer or even robot. But, more inner searching has opened my mind to the fact that our bodies are far leaps and bounds above technology. Our frail forms at whole controlled by our brains.....conducting millions UPON millions of active functions at once. And this....the brain guided by a force that is beyond us. To say we are as foolish.

To show this, let us say we are. and our minds are pre-programmed to take on the functions that we do throughout our lives. In such case, when stung by a hornet we would always feel a similar pain. Perhaps in time...we would become numb to the feeling, but the pain WOULD exist...simply ignored by our minds which have adapted to it from numerous encounters. But with conscious control......a man newly stung his first time can command his body to ignore that pain. This signifies that another force commands even the commanding power in our bodies. For it IS the brain which deters the signals coming from the wound...thus creating the pain to warn you of outside dangers. The brain itself MUST warn you, this is its job. But then....what are YOU? If you are not the makeup of cells and blood.....if you are not the cerebral churnings of electrons moving at the speed of light....what ARE we?

We simply are. Our consciousness is an entity that exists outside the body, sperate from it. Otherwise...we would not need feel pain. The brain could control the situation using the signal just as easily. The pain is for our conscious that WE command the body to remove itself from the situation. This can be proven as sleep we do not feel slight things...such as sound or touch. If you touch a man sleeping lightly....he does not 'feel' it as you would awake. Yet his body will move.....twist and roll to take it away from the stimulus. 'You' have not commanded it to do so......the brain has. So with certainty I can say the brain does not need the senses.....the signals alone offer it all the information it needs. The actual sensations....are assisting forces our bodies CREATE for our conscious self.

To this end......I can say very little. Why it is nessecary for the conscious self to recieve such is beyond me. If the brain alone is capable of controlling the body and protecting it, why use feelings to verify what the mind OBVIOUSLY already understands. is because we are not machines......WE are far greater than simple machines could be. The body may perhaps be akin to them.....but our conscious self is not. It is self invisible whisp of energy that commands itself. Perhaps.....our bodies are little more than anchors, automatons that allow the consciousness to experience this physical existance. Perhaps.....but perhaps not. either way I AM certain that they are not one in the same. Were could not exist or function without the other. It is quite evident that to a decent level.....our bodies CAN function without us. It acts a great many times without OUR consent or command. I would dare to say that our consciousness could equally survive and function without it.

Afterlife and belief are things man has questioned since its birth. At its core.....this thought has been little more than an excuse for things we could not understand. But my stand on it all is that it is both true and untrue. There is no 'afterlife', but instead perhaps a true life. One where we forsake the tethers of mortality.....cast aside the anchors of flesh and discover what it is we ARE. Rather than base it on the makeup of things we dont truly even control.

Posted by: collapse on March 15, 2003 1:46 AM

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