I last wrote about an episode of Horizon in February. For the benefit of a wide audience, Horzion is at a basic level, but although the majority of episodes teach me very little, occasionally the topic is something new or, if not, it’s interesting enough that I watch it anyway. Last week’s episode was a combination of a new and (to me) very interesting subject matter, so I decided to watch it. It was called “The Secret You“.
The episode was about consciousness, and was presented by Marcus du Sautoy, an Oxford mathematics professor who has written some books that I’ve really liked (such as Finding Moonshine and The Music of the Primes). I follow Marcus on Twitter1 so I was aware of the program; he had tweeted from the various locations he visited during filming about what was going on.
The aim of the program is to answer the question: “What is consciousness?” It’s a question I often have and still do ask myself: “What am I? What is me?” Or, as Marcus likes to put it2, “What makes me me?” You’ve probably asked yourself the same question many times; if you have then you won’t be too surprised to discover that the program is unable to properly answer the question.
That does not mean that the journey to finding that non-answer was a waste of time, however. Marcus starts off his quest by asking who is conscious or – what he considers to be an equivalent attribute3 – self-aware. You and I certainly are – I’m sure that one has to be conscious to read – but we have not existed for ever, so there must have been a time before we were conscious. Were we born self-aware (but with our memory’s record button not yet pressed), or is it something that develops? To find out, you perform a ‘mirror test’: put a dot on the child’s face, have the child look at his face, and if he then tries to peel off the sticker one can conclude that he is self-aware; he realises that the person in the mirror is himself4. By testing kids of various ages, it becomes clear that humans only become self-aware at a certain point in their infancy5. What I found much more fascinating was that as well as humans, chimpanzees and another species of the great apes can pass this test. Wow.
I remember having the epiphany of self-awareness one day whilst walking down the stairs. It must have been long after I became self-aware, as I was thinking in words6, but it was the first time that I had consciously realised that I was conscious. “I am me,” I thought to myself7. “I am an individual person just like everyone else, but unique. No one else will ever be me, and I will never be any one else. This is my body, and this is my mind.” It was so liberating — but also scary((With self-awareness comes awareness of death.)).
Well, OK, if you only become self-aware at age (let’s say) 2, where is your consciousness before this? Are you a person before this? Should abortion be allowed right up until the second year?8 In Horizon, Marcus made an equivalence between consciousness and what people call the ‘soul’. This thinking took up the bulk of the program: we know who is conscious, but what is a consciousness, and where is it in the body? Is consciousness part of the body, of the body; or is it a separate ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’?
Most of the interesting questions have been posed, and what remains is for Marcus to have his brain scanned many times in *fun experiments!* What does he find? Consciousness is of the brain, but it does not reside in one particular part of the brain. Disable the body – for example with anaesthetics – and consciousness disappears along with it: therefore is clearly a product of the brain and does not exist outside of it. But people with damaged parts of the brain can still retain consciousness; to simplify things, 4 people could each have lost a different quarter of their brain, yet they would all still be capable of a full consciousness.
It’s strange. In my opinion, one neuroscientist had a particularly good analogy. Consciousness is like wetness. The brain is made up of about 100 billion neurons, and a volume of water could be made up of 100 billion H20 molecules. A handful of neurons at a time aren’t going to do much, and a handful of H20 molecules are just atoms floating around. But if you get a large collection of these molecules, a property of water arises: wetness. Likewise, get enough neurons working together, such as in a human brain, and a different property arises: consciousness.
So consciousness is just the result of the interaction of neurons in the brain, right? Well, certainly to a point: when you fall asleep, different areas of the brain stop ‘talking to each other’, and consciousness disappears, suggesting that it does arise in this way. But, somehow, that doesn’t seem like the whole story. You, me, us all – we’re humans, we’re conscious, and it’s such a wonderful thing. I, me. It allows us to love and to feel wonder and to experience all those other emotions, and to be aware of them. Surely something this wonderful, this thing which allows the universe to observe itself, must be more than just the result of a huge collection of neurons? Yet, there’s no evidence that there is.
If consciousness is a result of brain activity, then it raises another, somewhat more troubling question: do we have free will? For the final part of the program, Marcus participated in an experiment. He was in an MRI scanner and had to choose whether to press the button to his left and the button to his right. The punchline was that the operator of the scanner, by looking at Marcus’ brain scans, could tell which button he would press up to 6 seconds before Marcus actually pressed the button9. This would suggest that Marcus is not really in control; that the unconscious brain makes the decisions for him; that he doesn’t have free will. Maybe that’s true – if consciousness is just a product of connections in the brain, then the unconscious brain is the real decision maker, and all we experience is an illusion of control. If the unconscious brain is where the decisions are made, then upon what does it base its decisions? As a physical object, one would suppose that the brain can not act of its own accord – a ball does not roll until pushed, a bulb does not shine until in a circuit – so one would think that the brain can only make a decision when something external to it causes it to. That’s certainly all a computer can do. Where, in this setting of the real world where things don’t happen for no reason, is there room for a consciousness to set its own agenda? I don’t know.
I’m finding it hard to convey what I really mean, but perhaps you’ll understand if I ask you this question: where do your ideas come from? Either they’re all physical responses of the brain caused by something in the real world prompting them, or your thinking is separated from the world somehow and you can think independently of anything real. I think that Dualism is something to do with this.
I find it difficult to form on a conclusion on this subject. Yes, consciousness exists, and not as an independent soul (no life after death, sorry). If it is so closely bound to the physical brain, however, then are we just at the mercy of a dumb brain responding mechanically to the universe like a machine?
I have much more to think on this topic, and much to write about in the future. It’s a topic that we should all ponder at some point in our lives. I’m very interested to hear what anyone else thinks. It’s fascinating.
- He posts links to his articles sometimes, so it can be useful following him. ↩
- I’m paraphrasing here. I watched the program a week ago and the specifics elude me at the moment. I just hope that I remember the gist correctly. ↩
- I agree with him here. ↩
- You must be self-aware to recognise yourself. ↩
- Somewhere around about 2 years, I don’t remember exactly. ↩
- So maybe I was about 4? Young anyway. ↩
- Something like this, anyway. ↩
- No, I’m not being serious. ↩
- And hence up to 6 seconds before Marcus was conscious of his decision, as he was told to press the button as soon as he made a choice. ↩