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Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

Given that I’ve done a fair bit of study and thinking about human consciousness (from both the scientific and philosophic viewpoint, intentionally excluding most of the popular mystical and metaphysical approaches to the topic), I took note of the report that a research team at George Washington University managed to switch on and off the consciousness of an epilepsy patient by using stimulatory electrode implants aimed at a structure in the brain called the claustrum.

A few years ago, noted consciousness researchers and theorists Francis Crick and Christof Koch posited that the claustrum was the place where the brain more or less weaved all of the various sensory input responses and stored information (such as memories and learned biases, fears and attractions) into a unified brain state representing the overall experience of being conscious. Their most significant empirical verification prior to the recent GWU study involved a certain type of mind-altering plant from Mexico called Salvia divinorum. The psychoactive chemical in the leaves of this plant were found to stick to a certain type of neuron receptor that is found in high concentrations in the claustrum. This distinguished it from other mind-bending hallucinogens like LSD, peyote and psilocybin, and even the basic feel-good stuff like coke and heroin.

According to unscientific reports submitted by “trippers” who used salvia, they experience “altered surroundings, other beings and ego dissolution”, i.e. a severe degradation of normal self-awareness. In other words, when you’re on this Mexican stuff and your claustrum is on the ropes, you’re pretty far gone. Hinting that the claustrum is where our brains assemble the “train of consciousness”, if you will (yes, my railroad buff side is coming thru here). And that salvia can switch this train onto the wrong track, maybe even off the track. And also that, for at least one epilepsy patient, electroshocks to the claustrum will stop the train like a red signal, then let it start up again once the signal turns green (i.e. the electrode is turned off).

Most interesting. But has the “hard problem” of consciousness been solved by this? Can we now say that clastrum = consciousness, mystery solved? Well, I don’t think so. The claustrum may be the place where our trains of self-conscious thought go round and round. But as to why an active claustrum “seems” like anything at all to us, why it “feels” so different from when we drift into dreamless sleep or undergo anesthesia, is still a mystery as far as I am concerned. The difference between experience / consciousness and no-experience / unconsciousness is still immense . . . it’s the difference between a human being writing a poem or a song, and the chips in your laptop or smart phone manipulating electrical signals. Physically, there really isn’t all that much difference . . . in both cases it ultimately boils down to a lot of information being processed, i.e. signals in from the outside, mechanical responses out . . . so why does one have subjective experiences that need to be expressed artistically, and the other just does its job without any hint of “joie de vivre” or existential despair? Of love for all creation, or “I’m out to rule the world”?

But even on a more empirical level, aside from “the ultimate meaning of conscious being”, there are various questions about the relevance of the recent GWU study. First off, this is just the reaction of one person, and not a typical person at that; the experimental subject was suffering from epilepsy, and had part of her hippocampus removed, an important brain structure associated with memory formation and retrieval — if her hippocampus was fully functioning, would her mind have crashed so quickly? Still, if the GWU study results are affirmed in other subjects having more typical brain structures (perhaps using focused trans-cranial magnetic induction?), then a switch affecting consciousness has been discovered.

However, this switch may be turning off more than just consciousness; it appears to be knocking out all higher-level body control (while allowing continuation of breathing, heartbeats, etc.). Recall that a lot of fairly complex body movements take place without conscious self-awareness; e.g., every night I fall asleep facing one way, and wake up facing the other — without any thinking or awareness when I roll over. And anyone who is (happily) married or otherwise regularly shares sleeping quarters with another knows what it is like to be kicked or rolled-into during the night, USUALLY without any conscious / malicious intent on the part of one’s bedmate. From the description that the GWU study provided regarding the subject while under claustrum stimulation, she seemed to have gone totally catatonic.

Actually, the claustrum effect seen in this study doesn’t seem much different from what an injury to the reticular formation in the brain stem will cause, i.e. a basic coma or vegetative state. So it’s hard to say that the claustrum is any closer to the heart of consciousness than the posterior brain stem is.

The more interesting experiment — perhaps one for the future — would be to [attempt to] induce a zombie-like state whereby the subject could still respond to visual / auditory stimulation and could still voluntarily move their muscles and limbs, but was not otherwise experiencing self-aware consciousness. Basically, this would be to induce what is commonly known as sleepwalking. There is some controversy as to exactly what sleepwalking is and how it relates to our consciousness. Most people who have experienced classic garden-variety sleepwalking (there are many variations to the phenomenon, but most reported incidents have common characteristics) don’t remember what they were doing. They only find out later on when fully awake, by what someone else tells them or by suddenly waking up in unexpected circumstances. (Or, in my case, waking up to find that the faucet in the kitchen sink was left running and water was slopping over the edge and flooding the floor — remember, I live alone and I don’t believe in ghosts!)

The basic assumption is that our conscious minds are pretty much blank when we sleepwalk; in most instances, sleepwakers who are suddenly awoken do not remember having a dream. An alternate theory is that we are actually conscious and know who we are and what we are doing during somnambulism; the problem is that the middle-term episodic memory devices temporarily break down. However, a SPECT brain scan of a teenage somnambulist was actually performed. It showed that the frontal and parietal associative cortices, where self-reflective awareness is usually mediated, were mostly asleep and were not communicating much with the thalamus “switchboard”; while the cerebellum and the cingulate cortex above the limbic system in the core-brain were still quite active (also presumably the center of the prefrontal cortex, where short-term working memory happens), allowing emotional motivation and muscle coordination to proceed as though in a normal awakened state.

This seems to support (although it doesn’t confirm) the “zombie” hypothesis of sleepwalking, supporting the notion that nature COULD have made us evolve into smart but ultimately non-conscious machines with plenty of survival functionality (including the ability to see, hear, walk, eat, drive a car, have sex, and even brutally murder someone, if the more extreme sleepwalking reports are to be believed). And that there are brain-situations that can return us to something quite close to that “default” state. Stimulating the claustrum did not appear to cause that particular brain-state. So, wake me up once the neuro-boffins figure that out; the GWU claustrum thing is quite interesting, but I don’t think it amounts to the “sine qua non” of what distinguishes the conscious and unconscious human mind-brain (at least from the perspective of the self-aware consciousness that makes humans what they are, poetry-writers and all).

Oh, you might ask: do other animals have claustrums? Yes they do, even insects. The human claustrum has the most complex structure, however, implying that it does more or connects to more places than for an insect or rodent. A study on rats shows that their claustrums coordinate but do not integrate sensory and muscle motor information; by comparison, cat claustrums have more reciprocal connections with the cortex, which might allow more integration (presumably bringing them and their claustrums closer to “phi”, Tononi’s information cross-integration concept of consciousness). So, don’t worry too much about bug or rat consciousness (another Buddhist mis-conception!) . . . but as to your cat . . .

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:20 pm      

  1. Jim, Most interesting post, but I’m not sure I have much to add except some tangential kinds of comments. I do firmly believe in consciousness existing after death. At the same time I also am sure that on this planet in this time humans need the brain for that very consciousness to express itself. Be that as it may, I have the following tho’ts, which may or may not make sense.

    I find myself wondering if the first part about “switching” consciousness on and off is more a description of how and one person seemed to experience an “on/off switch” in consciousness. This brings me to the problem of people having different perceptions of reality. Maybe what I really mean is a question: Does this whole “claustrum” thing in any way account for how and why it is that people who might be called psychotic actually see reality different from the “rest of us”? I would seriously doubt that. A while back I noted that different people have different perceptions of reality. The reality of most people overlaps with other peoples’ reality to a great extent, while that of other people does not overlap very much at all. Could it be that the “overlap” or “non-overlap” is the result of whether the same neurons are turned on and off in every person? Or is it that different neurons fire at specific times in some people (causing/not causing consciousness) and other neurons fire in other people?

    I also find myself wondering if I missed something, specifically: Did anyone actually *ask* the epileptic patient if he/she actually experienced an “off” of consciousness when the scientists stimulated the particular structure involved? I presume so, but nowhere does it actually say this. And after an experience I had (see below) I find myself wondering if the scientists were simply “measuring” whether or not the consciousness was on or off, not asking the patient about it. I also wonder what the ability to turn off/on the consciousness has to do with aiding epilepsy patients; but I admit to a large “what do I know?” on this subject.

    Then there is the experience I had after a particularly serious surgery. I was put in a “coma” (doctors swore I could not possibly have been conscious of anything going on), except I may have been in a coma as measured by instruments; but I definitely was *not* in a coma as far as my consciousness was concerned. I remember distinctly being 100% aware of everything around me yet being unable to move my body or communicate outwardly in any way. It was as if I could crawl all up and down my entire body but could not move any part of it. Some of this inability was due to the fact that I was full of so many tubes and attached to so many machines that the docs were afraid I might tear them out, so put me in a “coma” – except for the fact that I was *not* in the coma.

    The doctors and I had a serious disagreement on that subject when I was taken “out” of the coma. I described for them all later everything that had gone on for the entire time I was in the “coma”. In fact, I asked the first doctor to whom I could speak if they had designed a new and improved CIA form of torture, one where I was conscious but unable to use my body in any way; consciousness without a body, so to speak, and on this planet. The doctor was astonished that I was able to describe everything during this “coma” period. A mystery to him, I knew. A mystery to me . . . and a huge frustration that the doctors seemed to dismiss what I told them. I find myself wondering about the scientists in the experiment. Did the patient say one thing and the doctors dismiss what he/she reported because their instruments said one thing while the patient said another? Just a question.

    Yes, this was reminiscent of Oliver Sacks’ book “Awake” of several years back. But nobody at that time, if I recall correctly, actually asked the people involved if they were aware while being “locked” inside their bodies or how they felt about being “locked” inside their bodies. The people seemed happy to be “unlocked” from their bodies, but also did not seem to panic or become distressed when they returned to the “unlocked” state. Mysteries galore when it comes to consciousness.

    As to sleepwalking, which you seem to have had experience with: I have a friend whose husband had had electroshock therapy for serious depression. Here I simply *must* stop for what I tend to think about electroshock therapy (a big digression, but I can’t help myself): I must confess I have never understood the use of electroshock for anything at all. Who fixes a TV or smart phone by throwing it on the floor or kicking it? Seems about the same as treating the brain with electroshock. But I digress. My friend told me that her husband went driving in his sleep; she followed him in another car; he finally returned to the place they were living. Later he said he had had a dream of taking clients on a tour, thus the driving. A man up and about, driving his car; yet sound asleep. A mystery, as was your turning the water on in the sink while asleep and walking away.

    I tend to think that there is going to be a very long row to hoe before they can find “consciousness” located in some specific place in the brain, if they ever will. Certain specific aspects of consciousness may be located. But it seems to me that consciousness is a most complicated and involved subject, and to expect it to be located in one specific area is too simple. A complex thing requires complex connections, I would think.

    Furthermore, it occurs to me that if (speculatively) we/I say that every brain is wired just a tad different from the next, it’s going to be a difficult thing to locate consciousness; one would think it would be in a different place in different people.

    It occurs to me that no matter how people may alter consciousness through plants or drugs, no matter how the brain may be stimulated or not stimulated, finding exactly where in the brain consciousness is may be a bigger task than scientists think it may be. Could it be that locating consciousness will become for neuroscientists about the same as the question of whether or not there is a god for other scientists, i.e., allow their sense of hubris to build so that they think they have the answer to the question but may be seriously diverted from the answer toward another direction?

    But, then again, I’m certainly willing to admit: What do I know? MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 7, 2014 @ 10:09 am

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