Overview: Consciousness cannot simply be reduced to neural activity alone, researchers say. A new study reports that the dynamics of consciousness can be understood through a newly developed conceptual and mathematical framework.
Source: Bar-Ilan University
How does 1.4 kg of brain tissue create thoughts, feelings, mental images and an inner world?
The brain’s ability to create consciousness has baffled some for millennia. The mystery of consciousness lies in the fact that each of us has subjectivity, something akin to feeling, feeling and thinking.
Unlike under anesthesia or in a dreamless deep sleep, while awake, we don’t “live in the dark” – we experience the world and ourselves. But how the brain creates the conscious experience and which part of the brain is responsible for it remains a mystery.
According to Dr. Nir Lahav, a physicist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, said: “This is quite a mystery, because it seems that our conscious experience cannot arise from the brain, and in fact cannot arise from any physical process.”
Strange as it may sound, the conscious experience in our brains cannot be found or reduced to some neural activity.
“Think about it this way,” says Dr. Zakaria Neemeh, a philosopher at the University of Memphis, “When I feel happiness, my brain will create a signature pattern of complex neural activity. This neural pattern will correlate perfectly with my conscious feeling of happiness, but it is not my actual feeling. It’s just a neural pattern that represents my happiness, so a scientist who looks at my brain and sees this pattern should ask me what I’m feeling, because the pattern is not the feeling itself, but a representation of it.”
As a result, we cannot reduce the conscious experience of what we feel, feel and think to any brain activity. We can only find correlations with these experiences.
After more than 100 years of neuroscience, we have very good evidence that the brain is responsible for creating our conscious faculties. So how is it possible that these conscious experiences are nowhere to be found in the brain (or in the body) and cannot be traced to any neural complex activity?
This mystery is known as the difficult problem of consciousness. It is such a difficult problem that until a few decades ago only philosophers talked about it and even today, although we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the neuroscientific basis of consciousness, there is still no adequate theory explaining what consciousness is and how to solve this difficult problem.
dr. Lahav and Dr. Neemeh recently published a new physics theory in the journal Limits in Psychology who claims to solve the difficult problem of consciousness in a purely physical way.
According to the authors, when we change our assumption about consciousness and assume that it is a relativistic phenomenon, the mystery of consciousness dissolves on its own. In the paper, the researchers developed a conceptual and mathematical framework to understand consciousness from a relativistic point of view.
According to Dr. Lahav, the paper’s lead author, “must examine consciousness with the same mathematical tools that physicists use for other known relativistic phenomena.”
To understand how relativity solves the difficult problem, you need to think about another relativistic phenomenon, constant velocity. Let’s choose two observers, Alice and Bob, where Bob sits in a train traveling at a constant speed and Alice watches him from the platform. there is no absolute physical answer to the question of Bob’s speed.
The answer depends on the observer’s frame of reference.
From Bob’s frame of reference, he will measure that he is standing still and that Alice, with the rest of the world, is moving backwards. But from Alice’s frame, Bob is the one who moves and she stands still.
Although they have opposite dimensions, they are both correct, just from different frames of reference.
Since consciousness according to the theory is a relativistic phenomenon, we find the same situation in consciousness.
Now Alice and Bob are in different cognitive frames of reference. Bob will measure that he has conscious experience but Alice only has brain activity without any sign of the actual conscious experience while Alice will measure that she is the one who has consciousness and Bob has only neural activity without any idea of the conscious experience.
As in the case of speed, although they have opposite measurements, they are both correct, but from different cognitive frames of reference.
As a result, from the relativistic point of view, there is no problem with us measuring different properties from different frames of reference.
The fact that we cannot find the actual conscious experience while measuring brain activity is because we are measuring from the wrong cognitive frame of reference.
According to the new theory, the brain doesn’t create our conscious experience, at least not through calculations. The reason we have conscious experience is because of the process of physical measurement.
In a nutshell, different physical measurements in different frames of reference exhibit different physical properties in these frames of reference, even though these frames measure the same phenomenon.
For example, suppose Bob measures Alice’s brain in the lab while she is feeling happiness. Although they observe different properties, they are actually measuring the same phenomenon from different points of view. Due to their different types of measurements, different types of traits are manifested in their cognitive frames of reference.
In order for Bob to observe brain activity in the lab, he must use measurements from his senses, such as his eyes. These kinds of sensory readings manifest the substrate that triggers brain activity – the neurons.
Consequently, in his cognitive frame Alice has only neural activity representing her consciousness, but no sign of her actual conscious experience itself. But in order for Alice to measure her own neural activity as happiness, she uses different kinds of measurements. She doesn’t use any senses, she measures her neural representations directly through interaction between one part of her brain and other parts. She measures her neural representations based on their relationships with other neural representations.
This is a very different measurement from what our sensory system does and as a result, this kind of direct measurement exhibits a different kind of physical property. We call this quality conscious experience.
As a result, Alice measures her neural activity as conscious experience from her cognitive frame of reference.
Using the mathematical tools that describe relativistic phenomena in physics, the theory shows that if the dynamics of Bob’s neural activity could be changed to the same dynamics as Alice’s neural activity, both would be in the same cognitive frame of reference and the exact the same conscious experience as the other.
Now the authors want to continue exploring the exact minimum measurements a cognitive system needs to create consciousness.
The implications of such a theory are enormous. It can be applied to determine which animal was the first animal in the evolutionary process to have consciousness, when a fetus or baby begins to become conscious, which patients with consciousness disorders are conscious, and which AI systems are already low grade (if any) of consciousness.
About this awareness and physics research news
Author: Elana Oberlander
Source: Bar-Ilan University
Contact: Elana Oberlander – Bar-Ilan University
Image: The image is in the public domain
Original research: Open access.
“A Relativistic Theory of Consciousness” by Nir Lahav et al. Limits in Psychology
A Relativistic Theory of Consciousness
In recent decades, the scientific study of consciousness has greatly expanded our understanding of this elusive phenomenon. But despite a critical development in our understanding of the functional side of consciousness, we still lack a fundamental theory about its phenomenal aspect.
There is an “explanatory gap” between our scientific understanding of functional consciousness and its “subjective”, phenomenal aspects, called the “hard problem” of consciousness. The phenomenal aspect of consciousness is the first person answer to the question “how it is” and so far it has proved unruly to lead scientific research.
Naturalistic dualists argue that it is composed of a primitive, private, non-reductive element of reality that is independent of the functional and physical aspects of consciousness. Illusionists, on the other hand, argue that it is just a cognitive illusion, and that everything that exists is ultimately physical, non-phenomenal properties.
We argue that both the dualistic and the illusionistic positions are flawed because they tacitly assume that consciousness is an absolute property that does not depend on the perceiver.
We develop a conceptual and mathematical argument for a relativistic theory of consciousness in which a system may or may not have phenomenal consciousness with respect to an observer.
Phenomenal consciousness is not private or delusional, only relativistic. In the frame of reference of the cognitive system it will be observable (first-person perspective) and not in another frame of reference (third-person perspective). These two cognitive frames of reference are both correct, as in the case of an observer claiming to be at rest while another claiming that the observer has a constant velocity.
Since consciousness is a relativistic phenomenon, neither observer can be privileged, as they both describe the same underlying reality. Based on relativistic phenomena in physics, we developed a mathematical formalization for consciousness that bridges the explanatory gap and solves the difficult problem.
Since the first-person cognitive frame of reference also provides legitimate observations about consciousness, we conclude arguing that philosophers can make useful contributions to the science of consciousness by collaborating with neuroscientists to investigate the neural basis of phenomenal structures.