Emblems of Awareness: Brain Signatures Lead Scientists to the Seat of Consciousness

By Sanders, Laura | Science News, February 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Emblems of Awareness: Brain Signatures Lead Scientists to the Seat of Consciousness


Sanders, Laura, Science News


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Humankind's sharpest minds have figured out some of nature's deepest secrets. Why the sun shines. How humans evolved from single-celled life. Why an apple falls to the ground. Humans have conceived and built giant telescopes that glimpse galaxies billions of light-years away and microscopes that illuminate the contours of a single atom. Yet the peculiar quality that enabled such flashes of scientific insight and grand achievements remains a mystery: consciousness.

Though in some ways deeply familiar, consciousness is at the same time foreign to those in its possession. Deciphering the cryptic machinations of the brain--and how they create a mind--poses one of the last great challenges facing the scientific world.

For a long time, the very question was considered to be in poor taste, acceptable for philosophical musing but outside the bounds of real science. Whispers of the C-word were met with scorn in polite scientific society.

Toward the end of the last century, though, sentiment shifted as some respectable scientists began saying the C-word out loud. Initially these discussions were tantalizing but hazy: Like kids parroting a dirty word without knowing what it means, scientists speculated on what consciousness is without any real data. After a while, though, researchers developed ways to turn their instruments inward to study the very thing that was doing the studying.

Today consciousness research has become a passion for many scientists, and not just for the thrill of saying a naughty word. A flood of data is sweeping brain scientists far beyond their intuitions, for the first time enabling meaningful evidence-based discussions about the nature of consciousness.

"You're not condemned to walk around in this epistemological fog where it's all just sort of philosophy and speculation," says neuroscientist Christof Koch of Caltech and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. "It used to be the case, but now we can attack this question experimentally, using the tools of good old science to try to come to grips with it."

Knowledge emerging from all of this work has ushered researchers into a rich cycle of progress. New experimental results have guided theoretical concepts of consciousness, which themselves churn out predictions that can be tested with more refined experiments. Ultimately, these new insights could answer questions such as whether animals, or the Internet, or the next-generation iPhone could ever possess consciousness.

Though a detailed definition remains elusive, in simplest terms, consciousness is what you lose when you fall into a deep sleep at night and what you gain when you wake up in the morning. A brain that is fully awake and constructing experiences is said to be fully conscious. By comparing such brains with others that are in altered states of awareness, researchers are identifying some of the key ingredients that a conscious brain requires.

In the hunt for these ingredients, "we decided to go for big changes in consciousness," says Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and others are studying brains that are deeply asleep, under anesthesia or even in comas, searching for dimmer switches that dial global levels of consciousness up or down.

Scrutinizing brain changes that correspond to such levels has led some scientists to a central hub deep in the brain. Called the thalamus, this structure is responsible for constantly sending and receiving a torrent of neural missives. Other clues to consciousness come from a particular kind of electrical signal that the brain produces when it becomes aware of something in the outside world. But rather than one kind of signature, or one strategic brain structure, consciousness depends on many regions and signals working in concert. The key maybe in the exquisitely complicated ebb and flow of the brain's trillions of connections. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Emblems of Awareness: Brain Signatures Lead Scientists to the Seat of Consciousness
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.