“Out of the Body”: Part 2

 

 

“Out of Body”  –  Part 2

  1. Two Unappreciated Memory ‘Miracles’.

I am sadly old enough to remember the prehistoric days before the invention of the laptop computer and Internet. What impressed me most as an early Internet user was the speed with which the Internet software and hardware could search for a single piece of information in the worldwide,mega-encycolpedic mine of worldwide information  on all subjects ‘under’, and ‘above’ the sun. In less than a second, the Google search engine recently churned its way thorough over four and a half billion of websites on the searchable Web to find an article I had written using the key search words “Nigel Thorpe differences between butterflies and moths” in a fraction of a second.

Equally, or perhaps more impression, is the speed and efficiency of human memory searches: I instantly recognize a celebrity walking down Kings Road Chelsea, London; I see a few frames of a movie on satellite television and remember that I have seen the movie before, and what event comes next in the film’s story.

2  The Needle in the Memory Hay Mountain.

As I reviewed in my blog the “Ripple Tanks of the Mind”, an article in Scientific American (2005) reported the experimental results obtained by recording the electrical activity of individual brain neurons in the hypothalamus (the long-term memory centre of the brain) when the subject was shown photographs of different objects. In one experiment, a specific, single neuron responded to seven different photographs of the actor Jennifer Aniston while practically ignoring 80 other photographs of other famous people, animals and buildings.

Diagram 1

In another experiment, a single neuron in the brain of another subject responded to not only different photographs of Halle Berry, but also to her printed name, and the image of her as Catwomen. As the experimenters reported, “the neuron is responding to the abstract concept of Halle Berry rather than any particular visual feature.”  The neuron was able to recognize photographs of the star taken with different hairstyles and from different angles as well as memorializing other personal details such as her name and different film roles.

The team also found that photographs of famous buildings such as the Sydney Opera House and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, triggered the firing of a single neuron.

These amazing ‘one face, one neuron’ experimental findings  lead neurobiologist Jerry Lettvin to formulate his “grandmother cell theory” (1969) which suggest that the brain has a single, specific neuron devoted to recognizing each family member. It is astonishing that this theory is rarely mentioned in discussions as to how conscious is generated in the human brain.

The theory also highlights the amazing fact that, in a fraction of a second, the search engines of the brain can navigate through the labyrinthine maze of the estimated 100 billion neurons in the human brain to find the single neuron which matches the image of a person or object that the eye is seeing.  How many faces have we memorized in our lives, and perhaps even more amazingly, how many complete films we have viewed over the years are stored in our brain that enable us, after seeing just a few frames, to remember a film we have seen before, perhaps a decade or more ago?

Such facts have lead neurobiologist to recognize a “storage capacity problem” because they calculate that even the vast number of neurons in the human brain are insufficient to record all the memories stored during the waking hours of our lives.

A spoonful of sugar might “help the medicine go down”, but it is also amazing that this is the amount of food energy that the human brain needs to generate its consciousness and maintain its stored memory banks for twenty-four hours.

3  The Classic Theories for the Generation of Human Consciousness.

A Tale of Two Non-Integrateable Theories. 

Modern science is facing the daunting challenge of understanding two pairs of non-integrable theories, one in the physical sciences (Quantum mechanics and Relativity), and the other in the biological sciences (Neurophysiology and Psychology/Cognitive Science.

Non-inegrable’ is a very useful, but little used term to described two or more things that cannot be assimilated with each other to form an integrated, single unified whole.  Individually, the quantum theory (the science of the infinitesimally small), and relativity (the theory of gravity and the cosmologically large),  are two of the most tested and verified theories in the history of science.  The big problem is that the two theories cannot meet on common ground.  There is , for example, no quantum theory of gravity – this continues to be the search for the holy grail. The continuing search for the grand unified theory of everything remains the Nobel-Prize-rich field for the new generation of physicist.

A similar disparity exists in neuroscience.  At the micro-level, the electrical activity of the neuron which produces nervous impulses is  now well understood, but how the discharges of individual neurons in neural networks creates consciousness, thoughts, behaviour and the mind’s psychology at the macrolevel remains a mystery.

As I reviewed in my first blog ”The Ripple Tanks of the Mind”, in June 2018 I picked up two science magazines at Heathrow Airport both with bold headlines proclaiming recent breakthroughs in understanding human consciousness. The first was a New Scientist article entitled “What is Consciousness Made of? – How we’re Solving a Mind-Blowing Problem.”    (June 23), and the second proclaiming “What is Consciousness.  Scientists are beginning to unravel a mystery that has long vexed philosophers.” (Scientific American, June 2).

 

At last, I hoped, I would read something worthwhile on the mystery of consciousness. I was soon, however, very disappointed. Both articles focussed entirely on the hunt for the location of consciousness centres in the brain with virtually no discussion on how consciousness in these centres is generated. As the famed Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers noted, “there is a difference between finding the location of a consciousness centre, and understanding the nature of consciousness.”

4  The Scientific Great Unknown.

 

Before looking at what is known about how consciousness is generated in the human brain it is useful to summarize again about what is not known about this process.

a)  Good progress has been made on discovering the location that seems to generate consciousness (the lateral frontal lobes) but virtually nothing is known about how this essential characteristic of human life is generated in these regions.

b) Extremely little is also known about how the general anaesthetics used in the operating theatre trigger unconsciousness in the patient. These chemical agents do not appear to affect the production of action potentials by the neurons.

c) In spite of being used as an important diagnostic tool for over a century, the origins of the brain waves seen in an electroencephalograph (EEG) are unknown.

5  The Three Consciousness-Generating Centres of the Brain.

A recent article in Science Alert (2018) described the results of neurophysiological experiments conducted by team led by Michael Fox at Harvard Medical School which investigated the ‘wiring circuits’ of the brain. The team confirmed, as long proposed, that two vital elements, arousal and awareness and three brain centres are needed to generate consciousness.

The Arousal Centre (pontine tegmentum) is situated in the brain stem. This primitive but vitally important region at the base of the brain controls many vital automatic bodily processes such as sleep cycles and the rate at which we breath and our heart contracts.  The centre acts rather like an on/off switch or ‘thermostat’ that controls the level of our consciousness.  This region was found to be damaged in patients in permanent comma.

 

Diagram 2

The Arousal Centre (pontine tegmentum) is situated in the brain stem. This primitive but vitally important region at the base of the brain controls many vital automatic bodily processes such as sleep cycles and the rate at which we breath and our heart contracts.  The centre acts rather like an on/off switch or ‘thermostat’ that controls the level of our consciousness.  This region was found to be damaged in patients in permanent comma. 

The Harvard’s new discovery is that the arousal centre is connected to two regions in the cerebral cortex which work together and are associated with the second vital component of consciousness – awareness. One of these awareness centres (anterior insula)

was in the left ventral region of the brain while the second, anterior cingulated cortex is located in the medial frontal lobe.

 

Two in the cerebral cortex seem to function as the global workspace where Dr Giulio Tononi proposes at the interaction of unconscious nervous activity originating in different part of the brain interact with each other to generate consciousness. The second popular theory of consciousness (The Integrated Information Theory (IIT)) suggests that is the degree of integration, mathematically defined by the Greek letter phi  that determines the level of consciousness:  the greater the value of phi, the higher the level of consciousness.

Both these modern theories, provide little insight how consciousness is generated in these regions of the brain.  As the authors of the Havard article acknowledge “despite advances in neuroscience, we still don’t really know where consciousness comes from and how it arises.”  It remains a mystery how the mixing of these separate waves of nervous activity in these parts of the brain generates activity.

As reviewed in my other blogs in this series, there is strong and growing evidence that consciousness is a form of electromagnetic energy.

6  A Model of Consciousness Synthesising the Modern Global Work Space and Integrated Information Theories.

 A Computer Analogy.

Load any news website onto your computer screen and you have a useful analogy of how your own brain generates consciousness and an understanding of the images your eye sees on the screen.  The graphic images on such a website originate in many different parts of the world: title headings and menus came perhaps from the States; news items from a range of European providers; and advertisements from graphic designers in Australia.  Your computer software assembles all these separate, disparate images into a single unified screen display. 

Neurophysiologist have discovered that the brain utilizes a similar strategy.  You stop to appreciate a rose blossom in the park: the image passing down the optic nerve to the brain’s optic lobe of the brain is and to many other brain regions; one region will analyze the object’s colour, another region its shape, a third using information from the nose arriving via the olfactory lobe processes the flower’s smell, while a hypothalamus neuron storing memories about flowers recognizes the object as a rose.  All these elements are synthesized in the brain regions responsible for consciousness to give us our final impression of the rose.

The Ripple Tanks of the Mind – A Volcanic Pool on the Flanks of Mount Pinatubo, Western Luzon, the Philippines.


Diagram 3

Many years ago, climbing up the Mount Pinatubo to view the crater from the crater from a safe distance, I stumbled on some dark, bubbling pools which I thought might provide a useful analogy of how our brains synthesize nervous activity originating in different parts of our brain into one single moment of consciousness of awareness which is then frozen as a long-term memory in another part of the brain.

Bubbles of hydrogen-sulphide and carbon dioxide gas constantly bubbled up to the pool’s surface and burst to form a complex patterns of concentric ripples.  These patterns immediately reminded me of the concentric rings seen in the ripple tanks used to investigate the wave properties in physics practical classes.  It was the constant ferment of interacting waves on the surface of the volcanic pool that suggested the title of my is this vivid, multicoloured image that this still in my memory that suggested to me the title of my “The Ripple Tanks of the Mind” blog.

I plan to use this analogy to provide a highly simplified and conjectural model and summary of the two main modern theories mentioned earlier that have been formulated to explain the generation of the consciousness. 

The deep volcanic pool is the mind: its dark, hidden depths represent the unconsciousness while the pool’s surface models the conscious mind.  In the mind model we need to substitute the electromagnetic fields (and possibly electromagnetic waves) created by the rhythmic discharge of individual nerve cells.  During the spike of each discharge the charge on the outside of each neuron changes from its resting negative value to a fleeting positive that quickly reverts back to the negative as the nerve recover and prepares for a second discharge.  It is these electric charges, polarity changes (negative to positive and back to negative again) that generate the pool of electromagnetic fields we are modelling.

Diagram 3 A

The ripples on the surface of the pool resemble the concentric, intersecting waves seen in ripple tanks in a physic practical designed to demonstrate the properties of waves.

 

Diagram 4

The deep volcanic pool is the mind: its dark, hidden depths represent the unconsciousness while the pool’s surface models the conscious mind.

In our mind model we need to substitute the electromagnetic fields (and possibly electromagnetic waves) created by the rhythmic discharge of individual nerve cells for the pool water.  During the spike of each neuron discharge, the charge on the outside of each neuron changes from its resting negative value to a fleeting positive that quickly reverts back to the negative as the neuron recovers and prepares for a second discharge.  It is these electric charges and polarity changes (negative to positive and back to negative again) that generate the pool of electromagnetic fields we are modelling. 

Each bubble of gas that bubbles out of a crack in the rocky floor deep down at the bottom of the pool represents a sensory impression or a stored memory – these are the unconscious processes of the mind – the raw material from which consciousness is synthesized. 

We need to add two other elements to our model.  First a diaphragm-like variable aperture (3) – a horizontal barrier that when open, allow these bubbles to rise to the surface

(left side – A).  When we are awake, the aperture is wide  open and allows multiple bubbles to rise to the surface   generating the vivid consciousness and awareness of our everyday consciousness.   This aperture. shut completely when in a deep sleep or in a coma.  When aperture is slightly open (right side – B), a few random trickles of ‘gas’ rise up to generate dreams at the surface.  At the surface, we image the electromagnetic ‘ripples’ interact with each other (positive and negative inference) into complex patterns which may generate the vivid consciousness and awareness of our everyday.

The last feature to add to our model is a protective roof (5) over the top of the pool to protect the complex pattern produced by the interactions of these sensory and memory ripples. As discussed in my “Ripple Tanks of the Mind” the cerebrospinal fluid in the space between the two membranes (meninges) covering and protecting the brain might act as a Faradaycage – the metallic screening that surrounds the recording equipment in neurophysiology experiments.  As I explained in this blog, without this cage, the animal’s body acts as an aerial picking up electromagnetic waves passing unseen through the lab’s air.

In the final part of “Out of the Body” we must venture further into the mysterious scientific ‘Alice in Wonderland’ of the quantum theory and see how the ripple tanks of electromagnetic fields in the conscious centres global works space might influence one of the most mysterious parts of the cell – the microtubules and perhaps the real sites of consciousness generation.  It this theory is correct, even living organisms that lack a nervous system, such as plants might even experience some level of consciousness.

Biology and physics, once very separate scientific disciplines, are merging together to provide a deeper understanding of biological processes such as photosynthesis, animal migration and consciousness.  This will hopefully be the fascinating climax of our ‘out of the body’ story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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