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How does the brain generate conscious experiences?

5 March 2024

There are countless theories about our consciousness. Researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience demonstrate that these theories might be more interconnected than we previously thought.

The mystery of our consciousness is perhaps one of the most hotly debated questions in neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy. Numerous theories exist and proponents of these theories have disagreed with each other for decades, sometimes going as far as labeling the other camp as ‘pseudoscience’.

In a new paper in Neuron, a group of researchers involved in the Human Brain Project, including Chris Klink and Pieter Roelfsema of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, strike a much milder tone suggesting that some of the most prominent theories of consciousness may be more compatible than previously thought. The paper explains how different theories of consciousness tend to describe distinct aspects of consciousness, and that differences that are typically perceived as conflicting may in fact be complementary descriptions of a complex neurobiological mechanism.

To illustrate the confusion about consciousness descriptions, imagine a group of children playing football and describing their ball. One child may claim that “the roundness of the ball explains how it can roll”, another that “the white color makes it visible against the green grass”, and a third that “the fact that the ball is inflated with air makes that we can kick it without hurting our feet”. Are any of them wrong? Of course not, but the whiteness of the ball cannot explain why it rolls, nor how it feels when we kick it.

The brain is very complex organ, and the various mechanisms neuroscience tries to understand can be investigated at many scales and levels. Descriptions at the level of the synapse, the connections between the brain cells, are not always easily connected to descriptions at the level of networks that span the entire brain, and the link between structure and function is often not immediately clear. The additional problem in trying to explain consciousness is that the question is not all clearly defined and there are many different definitions of consciousness.

This new paper proposes a way forward by focusing on the neurobiological properties of the different aspects of consciousness without trying to make any strong theoretical or philosophical claims on what exactly consciousness is or is not. Setting aside the question of which theory of consciousness is most correct, the researchers hope that the different theories may each contribute distinct pieces to the great puzzle of consciousness.

Source: Neuron


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