The Puzzle Of Conscious Experience Page-5

The Puzzle Of Conscious Experience

We are at last plumbing one of the most profound mysteries of existence. but knowledge of the brain alone may not get to the bottom of it

jective experience seems to emerge from a physical process. But we have no idea how or why this is. Given the flurry of recent work on consciousness in neuroscience and psy￾chology, one might think this mystery is starting to be cleared up. On closer ex￾amination, however, it turns out that al￾most all the current work addresses only the easy problems of consciousness. The confidence of the reductionist view comes from the progress on the easy problems, but none of this makes any difference where the hard problem is concerned. Consider the hypothesis put forward by neurobiologists Francis Crick of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego and Christof Koch of the Califor￾nia Institute of Technology. They suggest that consciousness may arise from cer￾tain oscillations in the cerebral cortex, which become synchronized as neurons fire 40 times per second. Crick and Koch believe the phenomenon might explain how different attributes of a single per￾ceived object (its color and shape, for ex￾ample), which are processed in different parts of the brain, are merged into a co￾herent whole. In this theory, two pieces of information become bound together precisely when they are represented by synchronized neural firings. The hypothesis could conceivably elucidate one of the easy problems about how information is integrated in the brain. But why should synchronized os￾cillations give rise to a visual experience, no matter how much integration is tak￾ing place? This question involves the hard problem, about which the theory has nothing to offer. Indeed, Crick and Koch are agnostic about whether the hard problem can be solved by science at all [see box below]. The same kind of critique could be applied to almost all the recent work on consciousness. In his 1991 book Con￾sciousness Explained, philosopher Dan￾iel C. Dennett laid out a sophisticated theory of how numerous independent processes in the brain combine to pro￾We believe that at the moment the best approach to the problem of explaining consciousness is to concentrate on finding what is known as the neural correlates of consciousness—the processes in the brain that are most directly responsible for consciousness. By locating the neurons in the cerebral cortex that correlate best with consciousness, and figuring out how they link to neurons elsewhere in the brain, we may come across key insights into what David J. Chalmers calls the hard problem: a full accounting of the manner in which subjective experience arises from these cerebral processes. We commend Chalmers for boldly recognizing and focusing on the hard problem at this early stage, although we are not as enthusiastic about some of his thought experiments. As we see it, the hard problem can be broken down into several questions: Why do we experience anything at all? What leads to a particular conscious experience (such as the blueness of blue)? Why are some aspects of subjective experience impossible to convey to other people (in other words, why are they private)? We believe we have an answer to the last problem and a suggestion about the first two, revolving around a phenomenon known as explicit neuronal representation. What does “explicit” mean in this context? Perhaps the best way to define it is with an example. In response to the image of a face, say, ganglion cells fire all over the retina, much like the pixels on a television screen, to generate an implicit representation of the face. At the same time, they can also respond to a great many other features in the image, such as shadows, lines, uneven lighting and so on. In contrast, some neurons high in the hierarchy of the visual cortex respond mainly to the face or even to the face viewed at a particular angle. Such neurons help the brain represent the face in an explicit manner. Their loss, resulting from a stroke or some other brain injury, leads to prosopagnosia, an individual’s inability to recognize familiar faces consciously—even his or her own, although the person can still identify a face as a face. Similarly, damage to other parts of the visual cortex can cause someone to lose the ability to experience color, while still seeing in shades of black and white, even though there is no defect in the color receptors in the eye. At each stage, visual information is reencoded, typically in a semihierarchical manner. Retinal ganglion cells respond to a spot of light. Neurons in the primary visual cortex are most adept at responding to lines or edges; neurons higher up might prefer a moving contour. Still higher are those that respond to faces and other familiar objects. On top are those that project to pre-motor and motor structures in the brain, where they fire the neurons that initiate such actions as speaking or avoiding an oncoming automobile. Chalmers believes, as we do, that the subjective aspects of an experience must relate closely to the firing of the neurons corresponding to those aspects (the neural correlates). He describes a well-known thought experiment, constructed around a hypothetical neuroscientist, Mary, who specializes in color perception but has never seen a color. We believe the reason Mary does not know what it is like to see a color, however, is that she has never had an explicit neural representation of a color in her brain, only of the words and ideas associated with colors. In order to describe a subjective visual experience, the information has to be transmitted to the motor output stage of the brain, where it becomes available for verbalization or other actions. This transmission always involves reencoding the information, so that the explicit infor￾mation expressed by the motor neurons is related, but not identical, to the explicit WHY NEUROSCIENCE MAY BE ABLE TO EXPLAIN CONSCIOUSNESS By Francis Crick and Christof Koch 94 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN THE HIDDEN MIND COPYRIGHT 2002 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, INC.