Explaining awareness is one of the most difficult problems in science and philosophy. Recent findings in the field of neuroscience suggest that a solution might be within reach – but when captured, they need to rethink some well-known ideas.
Awareness, I argue in a new article, can be caused by the way in which the brain generates loops of energetic feedback, much like the video feedback that "blooms" when a video camera is focused on its own output.
I saw video feedback for the first time in the late 1980s and was instantly enthusiastic.
Scroll down for video
A professor at Cardiff University says that consciousness could be caused by the way the brain generates "energetic feedbacks" that are more like a video feedback loop.
Someone put the signal from a clunky video camera into a television and pointed the lens at the screen, creating a grainy spiral tunnel.
Then the camera tilted slightly and the tunnel blossomed into a pulsating organic kaleidoscope.
Video feedback is a classic example of complex dynamic behavior. It arises from the way in which the circulating energy in the system interacts chaotically with the electronic components of the hardware.
As an artist and VJ in the 1990s, I often saw this hypnotic effect in galleries and clubs.
But it was a memorable but annoying experience during an LSD-induced journey that made me think.
I hallucinated almost identical images, only intensely saturated with color.
It struck me that there could be a connection between these recurring patterns and the way the mind works.
Fast forward 25 years and I am a university professor who is still trying to understand how the mind works.
Our knowledge of the mind-brain relationship has been enormously advanced since the 1990s, when a new wave of scientific exploration of consciousness began.
However, a generally accepted scientific theory of consciousness remains elusive.
The two leading competitors – Stanislas Dehaene's Global Neuronal Workspace model and Giulio Tononi's Integrated Information Theory – argue that consciousness is based on information processing in the brain, on the neural calculation of ones and zeros or bits.
I doubt this claim for several reasons.
First, there is little consensus among scientists about what information is accurate.
Second, when scientists refer to information, they often actually talk about how energetic activity is organized in physical systems.
Video feedback may be the next available to illustrate deliberate processing in the brain. Freeze frame from a video feedback sequence. Robert Pepperell, 2018
Third, brain imaging methods such as fMRI, PET and EEG do not detect information in the brain, but changes in energy distribution and energy consumption.
I think brains are not mushy digital computers – there is no information in a neuron.
Brains are sensitive organic instruments that transform energy from the world and the body into useful work that enables us to survive.
Brains process energy, no information.
The realization that brains are primarily energy processors is the first step in understanding how they support consciousness. The next is rethinking the energy itself.
We all know each other with energy, but few worry about what it is. Even physicists do not tend to.
They treat it as an abstract value in equations that describe physical processes, and that's enough.
When Aristotle coined the term Energeia, however, he sought to grasp the reality of the lived world, which is why things in nature work the way they do (the word "energy" is rooted in Greek for "work").
This updated concept of energy differs from the abstract concept of energy used in today's physics, although it is related to it.
HOW CAN WE UPLOAD OUR MINERS ON A COMPUTER?
The preservation of brain and memory has been extensively explored by futurists, scientists and science fiction junkies.
Many say that it falls under the category of "transhumanism".
Transhumanism is the belief that the human body can evolve beyond its present form with the help of scientists and technology.
The thought uploading practice has been endorsed by many, including Ray Kurzweil, Google's technical director, who believes that by 2045, we can load our entire brain onto the computer.
Similar technologies have been featured in science-fiction dramas, from Netflix's Altered Carbon to the popular Black Mirror series.
Another prominent futurist, dr. Michio Kaku, believes that virtual reality can be used to keep the personalities and memories of our loved ones alive even after their deaths.
Scientists and futurologists have come up with various theories about how we can preserve the human brain, from uploading our memories to a computer, to Nectome's high-tech embalming process, which has been around for thousands of years
"Imagine you could talk to your loved one after he died … it is possible that his personality was downloaded to the computer as an avatar," he explained.
These ideas were not met without criticism.
McGill University neuroscientist Michael Hendricks told MIT that these technologies were "a joke."
"I hope the future people are appalled that in the 21st century, the richest and most comfortable people in history have spent their money and resources on living forever on the backs of their offspring. I mean, it's a joke, right? They are cartoon villains, "he said.
Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis recently said such technologies are virtually impossible.
"The brain is unpredictable and no engineering can reproduce it," he said.
"You can have all the computer chips in the world and you will not create consciousness."
When we examine what energy actually is, it turns out that it's surprisingly easy: it's kind of a difference. Kinetic energy is a difference due to change or movement, and potential energy is a difference due to position or tension.
Much of the activity and diversity in nature is due to these energetic differences and the associated actions of forces and labor.
I call these updated differences because they actually work and have a real impact on the world, as opposed to abstract differences (like between 1 and 0) that occur in mathematics and information theory. I think that this idea of energy as an updated difference can be the key to explaining consciousness.
The human brain consumes about 20% of the body's total energy budget, although it accounts for only 2% of its mass. The brain is expensive to run. Most of the costs are for neurons that trigger energetic differences in unthinkable complex patterns of synchrony and diversity via tangled neural pathways.
Is the human brain a squishy digital computer or a sensitive organic energy processing tool? Installation image of "I am a brain", 2008. Casting of a human brain made of synthetic resin and metal
What's special about the conscious brain, I suggest that some of these orbits and energy flows are on their own, similar to the camera's signal in video feedback. As a result, a self-referential cascade of updated differences of astronomical complexity flourishes. This is what we experience as consciousness. Video feedback is perhaps the next thing we have to visualize how conscious processing is in the brain.
The assumption that consciousness depends on complex feedbacks of neural energy is supported by neuroscience evidence.
Researchers recently discovered a way to determine exactly how much consciousness someone has.
They fired magnetic pulses through healthy, anesthetized and severely injured brains of humans.
Then they measured the complexity of an EEG signal that monitors the brain's response.
The complexity of the EEG signal predicted the level of consciousness of the person.
And the more complex the signal, the more aware the person was.
The researchers attributed the level of consciousness to the amount of information processing that takes place in each brain.
What was actually measured in this study was the organization of neural energy flow (EEG measures differences in electrical energy). Therefore, the complexity of the energy flow in the brain tells us about the level of consciousness of a person.
Awareness, I argue in a new article, can be caused by the way the brain generates loops of energetic feedback
Also relevant are evidence from anesthesia studies. No one knows exactly how anesthetics destroy consciousness.
Current theories, however, suggest that compounds including propofol affect the ability of the brain to maintain complex feedback loops in certain areas of the brain. Without these feedback loops, the functional integration between different brain regions breaks down and coherence of consciousness collapses.
What these and other neuroscience papers I quote from the paper implies the awareness of a complex organization of the flow of energy in the brain and, in particular, what the biologist Gerald Edelman called "reentry signals." These are recursive feedback loops of neuronal activity that connect distant brain regions into a coherent whole.
Explaining consciousness scientifically or in any form is a known difficult problem. Some have worried that it's so hard that we should not even try. But while we do not deny the difficulty, the task is a little simpler, I suggest, once we realize what the brain is actually doing.
The main function of the brain is to control the complex energy flows that we rely on to thrive and survive. Instead of searching the brain for undiscovered property or "magic sauce" to explain our spiritual life, we may need to re-examine what we already know.