Consciousness Explained?

As neuroscientists continue to build a more accurate and sophisticated model of the human brain, finding the neurological correlate of conscious awareness remains a tough nut to crack. The difficulty stems partly from the fact that consciousness is likely not localized in any one specific brain region.

But as our technology advances and we are able to look at brain function in real time and in greater detail, researchers are starting to zero in on the hardwiring that produces consciousness.

In this context, consciousness is operationally defined as being aware of sensory stimulation, as opposed to just being awake. We are not conscious of everything we see and hear, nor of all of the information processing occurring in our own brains. We are aware of only a small subset of input and processing, which is woven together into a continuous and seamless narrative that we experience.

The New Scientist has a good review of this topic – in which they discuss the work of Bernard Baars who proposed in 1987 the “global workspace theory.” Essentially, he hypothesized that conscious awareness stems from a discrete network of neurons that are widely distributed throughout the cortex. This networks receives input from the various sensory regions of the brain and puts it all together – filtering out any contradictory or unnecessary information to create one unified picture of reality in a continuous stream that we experience.

According to this model sensory input that gets filtered out of the global workplace remains subconscious, as is any processing that occurs in other parts of the brain but is filtered or not presented to the global workplace.

Baars also proposes that the global workspace can explain the dichotomy between the slow serial functioning of the conscious brain and the fast parallel processing of the brain as a whole. He writes in his book on the topic:

The difference is, of course, that most psychologists work with the limited capacity component of the nervous system, which is associated with consciousness and voluntary control, while neuroscientists work with the “wetware” of the nervous system, enormous in size and complexity, and unconscious in its detailed functioning. But what is the meaning of this dichotomy? How does a serial, slow, and relatively awkward level of functioning emerge from a system that is enormous in size, relatively fast-acting, efficient, and parallel? That is the key question.

The global workspace seemed like a reasonable hypothesis from the point of view of explaining existing observations and data, but there wasn’t a way to really test it, and so it remained in science limbo. Until recently, that is, when the new tools of neuroscience enabled neuroscientists to look at brain function to find the potential correlates of the global workspace.

A team of researcher led by Stanislas Dehaene of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, beginning in 2005, looked at a phenomenon known as inattention blindness. (For a fun demonstration of this, take a look at Richard Wiseman’s Color Changing Card Trick.) Basically, inattention (or inattentional) blindness occurs when we fail to notice something which is right in front of us. The information simply does not become part of our stream of consciousness. This seemed like a good opportunity to test the global workspace theory.

In the study they presented subjects with two streams of four letters. In some cases the subjects had to answer a question after the first stream, which distracted them and caused them to miss the second stream of letters.  In other cases they perceived both streams of letters.

In both cases for 270 milliseconds the streams of letters resulted in the same neuronal activity (as measured by a 128 lead EEG). In the case when the subjects perceived the second string this initial activity was followed by a synchronized burst of activity in parts of the brain (frontal and parietal lobes) thought to be part of the global workplace. In cases where the subjects did not consciously perceive the letters there was no such activity – the neurons quieted down after 270 milliseconds.

What this could mean is that the initial 270 milliseconds of activity represents the subconscious processing in the visual and visual association cortex, while the next phase of activity is conscious awareness of that stimulus by the global workspace. This experiment has been replicated with implanted electrodes as well.

So it seems there is about a 300 millisecond delay from perception to conscious awareness, and those stimuli we are consciously aware of result in activation of a distributed network of neurons, while those we are not aware of do not result in such activation. So far so good for the global workspace.

However, just being awake should result from some basic level of activity in any consciousness network. In fact, this is what researchers have found – the default mode network (DMN) is the baseline activity in the network thought to be part of the global workspace.

Steven Laureys (yes, the same Steven Laureys from facilitated communication infamy) hypothesized that if the DMN is part of the brain function that causes consciousness then we would expect the level of activity in the DMN to be greatest among healthy controls and those who are locked in (conscious but paralyzed), decreased in those with minimally conscious state, and decreased further in those in a vegetative state. That is in fact what he found when he studied 14 patients with disorders of consciousness and 14 healthy controls.

This is a fascinating area of research which seems to be progressing nicely. Although the results should be considered preliminary, it is not surprising that researchers are finding that brain activity correlates with levels of consciousness and awareness. The global workspace and the brain regions now associated with it are a good candidate for the neural substrate of consciousness.

The obvious clinical application is an improved ability to diagnose by direct functional brain scanning which unresponsive patients are conscious and which have impaired consciousness, and to what degree. This could also lead to an important criterion for prognosis – who is likely to recover and who will not.

But the basic neuroscience advance is interesting in its own right. Understanding why certain brain processes are conscious and others are not will take us a long way to building a model of overall brain function.

By Steven Novella | TheNess

Find us here

Get news from the CSGLOBE in your inbox each weekday morning

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors/source and do not necessarily reflect the position of CSGLOBE or its staff.

Paid content

The 5 Cartels that Rule America and the World

Americans have been programmed to fight amongst themselves along partisan political lines, always pointing the finger at the other side of the phony left-right...

‘Mad Honey’ and 4 Other Naturally Occurring Psychedelics

Nature is full of drugs. For various reasons, evolutionary forces have led certain plants, fungi, and even animals to develop molecules that interact with...

Rothschild & Rockefeller — Trillionaires of the World

Letter written from London by the Rothschilds to their New York agents introducing their banking method into America: "The few who can understand the system...

What's New Today

Georgia House Votes To Allow Citizens To Abolish Police Departments In The State

The Georgia House backed an effort on Friday to dissolve the Glynn County Police Department and any...

Leaked CDC document contradicts Pence claim that U.S. coronavirus cases ‘have stabilized’

Even as Vice President Mike Pence wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Tuesday that coronavirus...

Five bombshells about Trump from Bolton ‘s book

Excerpts from former national security adviser John Bolton ’s book about his time in the Trump administration...

Don’t Listen to Fox. Here’s What’s Really Going On in Seattle’s Protest Zone.

It seems I live in a city undergoing a “totalitarian takeover” that will lead to “fascist outcomes”...


What Is Agenda 21? Depopulation of 95% of the World By 2030

Most people are unaware that one of the greatest threats to their freedom may be a United Nations program which plans to depopulate 95%...

Complete List of BANKS Owned/Controlled by the Rothschild Family

What’s the significance of having a central bank within a country and why should you concern yourself, your family and colleagues? Central banks are illegally...

France Declares All New Rooftops Must Be Topped With Plants Or Solar Panels

A new law recently passed in France mandates that all new buildings that are built in commercial zones in France must be partially covered in...

The 5 Cartels that Rule America and the World

Americans have been programmed to fight amongst themselves along partisan political lines, always pointing the finger at the other side of the phony left-right...

Top Bush Era CIA Official Just Confirmed the Iraq War Was Based On Lies

Twelve years after George W Bush initiated the illegal invasion of Iraq, ostensibly under the premise of preemptive self-defense, a stark majority — as many as...

10 amazing facts about the Great Pyramid of Giza

The greatest pyramid which has ever been constructed or which is known in the world is also the most mysterious megalithic construction and one...

Breaking the Illusion of Limitation

Illusion of Limitation You were born a small bundle of infinite potential You loved and were loved unconditionally The concept of lack was foreign to you As you...

Billionaire Banker David Rockefeller Dies Aged 101

New World Order kingpin and globalist billionaire tyrant David Rockefeller has been confirmed dead. Rockefeller was the last surviving grandson of John D. Rockefeller, the...

UK Government Set to Support Monsanto in EU Court

UK Government Set to Support Monsanto The UK Government has confirmed that it will support Monsanto in a European court case brought by European civil...

Russia to unveil super-high frequency cannon able to take out all kinds of drones & missiles

Russia to kill drones, missiles with 10km-range super-high frequency cannon Russia’s Rostec Corporation is to unveil a super-high frequency weapon capable of taking down all...

Slovenia Declares Water A Human Right By Amending Constitution

In 2013, Nestle’s then-CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe drew the ire of many when he declared that water is not a human right, but a market...