Using Neuroscience to Measure Consciousness

A recent Op-Ed in NewScientist Magazine demonstrates the controversy and struggle faced by all who are trying to understand the implications of recent advancements in neuroscience and its claim to be measuring the source of consciousness.

At this moment, there are two philosophical paradigms vying for dominance. They’ve both around since antiquity and have traded places over and over as the accepted working theory of the time. The first is material realism. The basic tenet is that matter is primary. As that concerns thought energy, it means that the brain is primary and thought is an epiphenomena of the brain. In other words, without a physical processing center, there is no thought.

The other philosophy has gone by many names and is in the process of being renamed again, but the basic tenant is that consciousness is the basis of all. Now, with material realism, quantum physics has shown that energy is as primal as matter, but the focus is still pretty much on matter. With consciousness as the basis of all, both matter and energy are epiphenomenon of it.

These are the two philosophies primarily behind the controversy of advancements in neuroscience being equated with honing  our ability to measure the manifestation of consciousness.

With material realism, the idea is that thought arises from the rapid and parallel processing occurring in the brain that eventually forms a cohesive, coherent thought.

Using the consciousness philosophy as the dominant theory, brain activity is seen as measuring the shadow of thought energy. That energy intersects the physical realm through a physical processing center. Some use the analogy of a radio broadcast to illuminate this idea. The broadcast signal is always present, but unless a receiver is on and tuned to that station, or frequency, it cannot receive the information.

One of the issues that drives the controversy between the two philosophies is the either/or Hellenistic way of thinking that has permeated all of Western culture since the rise of the ancient Greek civilization. With this view, there can only be one way that thought energy occurs. Another issue that fuels the fire is the pop-culture preference for simple answers.

Is it possible that we can reach a compromise and state that thought is a dynamic process that arises in the brain from two sources? Can we both receive and create thought energy simultaneously? That paradigm is easy to accept if you are inclined to view an entity as a function of mind, body, and spirit. It’s not so easy to accept if you are tasked with developing practical applications that pinpoint certain areas of the brain. Advancements in this area are bringing great hope to quadriplegics and amputees with the creation of mind-to-machine interfaces that help them manipulate physical objects and reconnect with the world by some form of interaction.

But, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about these promising experiments. I’ve read articles in e-zines that cater to intuitives espousing them as mind-over-matter. No such thing is happening. That would require some form of telepathy. At all times the subject is hard-wired to the physical thing that it is influencing. Even if no wires are involved, it’s like the difference in a corded phone and a blue tooth on a cell phone. It’s still considered a direct-connect system, not through-the-ether telepathy.

I’ve also read articles that this is some breakthrough in thought because the person using the device has to think differently. No more so than someone who has suffered a stroke has to think differently to learn to walk or talk again. They are simply re-wiring their brain around damaged areas to make new connections that control motor skills.

The only new things we have here are the ability to pinpoint certain areas of the brain with great precision and a better understanding of the true plasticity of the brain. With the rise of dementia, that’s getting a lot of attention these days.

A clear understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of these opinions will help us to better understand them so we won’t confuse the map for the territory. In other words, it will help us get past the novelty of the model and see it for what it promises to become, as well as its limitations.