The Mind Puzzle

Neuroscientist Daniel Bor explains how the science of consciousness could impact how we process ethical questions.

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Consciousness is a necessary condition for experiencing emotions, solving problems, and plain old survival. Until the last two decades, however, the inner workings of the mind were largely a topic of study for philosophers, not scientists. In The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning, neuroscientist Daniel Bor presents cutting-edge research and personal anecdotes to explain how and why consciousness works. The research fellow at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom recently spoke to U.S. News about his field and what implications it may have for society. Excerpts:

What is consciousness?

I try to argue in the book that consciousness is the product of an attentional war at a neural level. And that attention allows us to consciously focus on a small subset of the world that's most important to us at the time. It isn't so concerned with automatic habits, which we're barely conscious of, but instead with novel or complex problems. And what makes human consciousness unique is our ravenous appetite for these innovative lessons and the breathtaking extent of the hierarchies of knowledge we can build out of this process. In terms of the brain, consciousness is generated primarily by our most densely connected brain regions and it's related to the fastest brain waves that the brain can generate.

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Why do we have it?

I believe that consciousness serves a clear evolutionary purpose. Whenever an animal is in a situation where its instincts or its normal habits can't solve a dangerous situation—it could be starving or there's some novel predator—it then needs to find a tangential solution. And that's where consciousness comes in, drawing together different bits of information in order to see the greater pattern in the world and maybe find some new solution, some way of optimizing the process. In humans, we have this all the time. We are constantly learning, constantly trying to optimize.

How do you measure it?

In the brain scanner, different levels [of consciousness] correspond to different forms of activity in the brain or different ways that the brain regions connect to each other.

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How was consciousness approached historically?

It's mainly been debated within philosophy. René Descartes was one of the pioneers in this area about 400 years ago, and he rather categorically stated that the conscious mind is quite distinct from our physical bodies. And that was very influential. It made scientists squeamish for many years, perhaps even centuries, to even start to look at this issue. Even in the early 20th century, psychologists who were trying to develop a rigorous science steered away from anything to do with the mind, particularly consciousness. But over the last two decades, particularly because of Francis Crick, codiscoverer of DNA, who got sort of interested in consciousness science in the last two decades of his life, many neuroscientists and psychologists have been studying it very closely. In the last decade there has been much more progress, particularly relating to brain scanning studies.

What are the social implications?

I talk in the book about some of the implications when we look at consciousness in those beings who can't tell us that they're conscious by language. If someone says, "I saw this," then we have a gold standard that they were conscious of that event. But what if some being doesn't have the capacity for language? That includes fetuses, all other species of animals, patients in a vegetative state—a large range of beings. And if we can find some way of scientifically gauging their conscious levels, that can impact lots of ethical questions.

For example?

Abortion, right to life, animal rights.

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What about mental illness?

If you look at it from a consciousness point of view, you can potentially gain more understanding and find new avenues for treatments.