How Close Are We to Understanding Consciousness in the Brain?

No one really knows, to be honest. Scientists are making remarkable discoveries about the brain, and with brain imaging techniques, they’re often able to find correlations between particular brain activities and certain mental experiences. Some intrepid scientists are now trying to map the neural circuitry of the brain, but the task is far more audacious than the Human Genome Project a decade ago. The complexity of the brain is staggering. The human brain has close to a hundred billion neurons and trillions of synapses, so it will take years even to map small portions of the brain.

But if we do manage to map the brain’s neural circuits some day—to find the neural correlates of consciousness—it’s still not clear that we’ll have a causal explanation for consciousness. The big mystery, of course, is how the physical stuff inside the brain can produce mental experiences, which have no material substance at all. In other words, why does a particular configuration of neural connections give me the dream I had last night, or the sudden spark of inspiration for the short story I’m writing? That’s a conceptual gap that no one knows how to bridge at the moment.

Steve Paulson is the executive producer of the nationally syndicated public radio show “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” which has just started airing a series on the science of consciousness.

Category: Q&A


2 Responses

  1. Peter Kinnon says:

    There is really now no mystery about consciousness whatsoever.

    The mystical notions that have arisen in the past ( and often still do!) are purely illusory, an inevitable result of approaching the question by introspection. This, of course, was the only option available to earlier philosophers and many still have trouble escaping from that trap with its inevitable recursive loops.

    Today, although the details of nervous system function of ourselves or other animals is very far from complete, we have sufficient information to have a rough idea of the gross workings of these systems.

    From evolutionary considerations we can also now see how the essentially navigational function we like to call “consciousness”, “self-awareness” “sense of agency” and so forth is bound to arise.

    Furthermore, from another discipline, we now have an excellent understanding of functionally analogous computational systems.

    With these new tools at our disposal we can now view the phenomenon in a truly objective way. And then the hocus-pocus surrounding this issue vanishes!

    This topic is part of the broad evolutionary model very informal outlined in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” (free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website)

  2. D J Wray says:

    In regard to the first comment, there are plenty of consciousness problems yet to be solved by science including qualia, the mind-body problem, self-awareness, language-related mental illnesses, complex language, meaning, problem-solving, subconscious processes, the self, creativity, love, intuition, introspection, inspiration, subjective experience, the emergence and evolution of consciousness, human consciousness vs other animal consciousness, skill, judgement, empathy, anxiety, learning, memory, the hard problem of consciousness, the explanatory gap, free will vs determinism, the observation problem and the list goes on. Science is reasonably familiar with the functioning of the nervous system and other biological processes but they haven’t made a significant contribution to an understanding of consciousness. There can’t be any “functionally analogous computational systems” until the functionality is understood.

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