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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

It’s time to focus on the connection between biology and consciousness | Science & Health - Salon

Ashley Juavinett - insist, "Neuroscientists must be willing to develop imperfect descriptions of how we work."

Photo: pogonici, Shutterstock

If you cut off your thumb, you would (likely) still be conscious. If you cut off a thumb-sized part of your brainstem, however, you would almost certainly be down for the count.

The idea that consciousness is supported by a physical organ — the brain — isn’t radical. Networks of neurons in our brains enable various conscious states, from sleep, to awareness, and everything in between. And yet, you’ll be hard-pressed to find research labs that are trying to understand how the computations in neural circuits support different conscious states and the shifts between them.

This is the case even though a deeper understanding of the neural basis of consciousness has far-reaching ethical implications, from how we treat individuals on life support, to whether a robot could ever truly be conscious. That’s why we need to start treating consciousness as a rigorous scientific discipline.

We in neuroscience don’t avoid doing so out of a lack of interest — many researchers were originally drawn to our field by questions about consciousness, and philosophers have long wondered about the biological correlates of consciousness. Contemporary philosophers such as Patricia Churchland will tell you that consciousness is simply another function enabled by neural circuits. Others, like David Chalmers, contend that consciousness is a fundamental property of neural networks, just like gravity is a fundamental property of matter.

We could take such theories and ask if they hold any water in real neural circuits while observing real behaviors in the same way that neuroscientists investigate circuits in other brain systems, such as for visual processing or value judgements. In fact, philosophers like Chalmers have called for a proper science of consciousness...

Applying innovative tools to an old, complicated problem
The problem is that many neuroscientists are unwilling to apply cutting-edge techniques to questions in the realms of philosophy and psychology. They’ll say, “we already indirectly study consciousness” or “it’s not something we can test experimentally, so it’s not worth it.” Somehow, consciousness is both incredibly mundane and overwhelmingly indefinable.

Source: Salon