Saturday, January 7, 2012

Interesting article on tracking consciousness

I bumped into an article about the possibility that anesthesia can tell us something about how the brain constructs consciousness. How does it come about? What feeds into it? And what the heck is it? The article has many interesting insights. Here's one:
"[T]he patterns that anesthesiologists see do support another theory: that consciousness emerges from the integration of information across large networks in the brain."
For years I've believed that consciousness is literally the result of focusing attention on several things at once. The brain kind of pops up a Keith or an Annie or a Carmine when we do this. It seems these personalities are "real", at least while our attention is focused on something. But when our attention isn't focused on something: poof. You know how you disappear at times, especially when you're driving? Like you don't exist for a few minutes? Lack of focused attention = no person.

I think we are simply notions that our brains create through this process of focusing attention on several items simultaneously. And as our brains record the memories of this illusory person that they create, the personality -- the consciousness -- seems to become more and more real. After a lifetime of such memories, we don't doubt our own reality. But this "reality" is merely a persistent delusion -- a useful, rewarding and fun delusion, mind you. This takes nothing away from who we are. But we are still illusions.

Back to the article. Here's an excerpt that explains the order in which things occur as a person emerges from the "induced coma" of anesthesia:
Typically, the most basic brain functions come back first—breathing returns, and then, as the areas of the brain stem controlling salivation and tear ducts revive, patients' mouths fill with saliva and their eyes water. They swallow and cough as areas controlling sensation to the throat become active. Finally their eyes move, and then they respond to the outside world. Later the grogginess will lift and complex brain functions will resume.
I find that fascinating and it sounds just right. I've seen people do this. Now I feel I understand the process better.

If you like discussions about the brain and consciousness, click the link up top. It's going to be a jarring and historic moment when we learn how our brains make us happen. Right now, it's a mystery. I find this so interesting: that we don't even know what consciousness is.