Consciousness is very deep and a very important aspect of life. It is very mystical and opens us a whole new area in understanding the complexity of the human mind. This fascinating new area in neuroscience is answering questions as it terms out to be connected to biology and not just a vague concept. These are as follows:
What are the critical brain regions for consciousness?
There are approximately 90 billion neurons that make up the human brain, with thousands more connections between them. This is not the complete picture as a high number of neurons does not correspond to consciousness.
Current thinking is that consciousness is primarily linked to the specific network of regions in the cortex (all the folded parts) and secondly the thalamus (a walnut-shaped structure deep inside). This can determine types of consciousness; being awake, dreamless sleep or the involvement in each experience.
This also leads to new areas of research such as the brain’s densely connected frontal lobes, and questions about how valuable the information that travels between different regions of the brain really is.
What are the mechanisms of general anaesthesia?
There are many methods to induce general anaesthesia, including substances such as propofol – which can cause severe reactions in some people. The current evidence is that anaesthesia alters how different parts of the brain interact with each other (as mentioned in question 1). This creates an effect where the brains parts get interfered with – starting what is described as a “cognitive unbinding” process.
The goal is to understand how general anaesthesia is compared to unconsciousness-like dreamless sleep in the brain.
What is self?
This is a very fundamental concept – what it means to be us. The ‘I’ behind the eye. Our thoughts, words, actions, perspective, psychology, past, present, and future to name a few subjective aspects. These are all changed by the processes inside the brain. Which is a very scary idea that chemicals change and can modify our inner workings.
An out of body spiritual experience can be replicated by various experimental factors. The aim is to understand this ‘I’ idea to be able to combat psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia. Which is a very exciting prospect for the future breaking down the meaning of self.
What determines experiences of volition and ‘will’?
Another interesting concept that verges into philosophy is this idea of “free will” or freedoms and their existence. This idea has been the topic of discussion since the 1980s. After looking for neural signatures of volition (the intention of action) and agency (experience of causing action).
The new school of thought is that volition does not exist and very clear actions involve the entire brain. This acts as a complete complex map of networks that conducts open decisions between different parts of the brain-an undivided system.
What is the function of consciousness? What are experiences for?
A large variety of cognitive functions, environmental perception, decision making and even voluntary actions can be carried out without consciousness.
The key distinction is that consciousness can integrate information. This means from our life experiences a large amount of possibilities are removed. This changes the levels of functions that can be carried out with consciousness.
How rich is consciousness?
A big issue is that consciousness is almost subjective. Especially because, as previously mentioned, once you experience something then there is also a “self” bias. The current research reflects this limitation. The evidence leads to separating the effects on the brain of consciousness and our self-involvement. Emphasis is made to explore the interplay between these factors to deepen our understanding.
Are other animals conscious?
This is a very deep question that is very profound. Mammals have a lot of similar brain functions to a human, they carry out functions, and this helps us ask this very logical question.
An animal’s consciousness is very different to a human as they don’t have the same concept of self as humans. However, there are distinctions in this level such as in birds and cephalopods, like an octopus, which are very smart with a high capacity of learning.
Are vegetative patients conscious?
In the US alone 15,000 patients are in a ‘vegetative state’, from a huge brain injury. In this state the patient’s behaviour shows that these patients are awake but not aware. From brain imaging, at least some of these patients are conscious, and even engaged in communication with their families and doctors. The next step is to diagnose and treat these patients.
These are just a few questions in current research in the neuroscience of consciousness. This field will start to shed some new light on areas within the vast areas of still unknown fundamental questions.