How Rachel Maddow's Brain OutBlogged Me

What constitutes consciousness? How do you define a person? These are deep philosophical questions that I cannot answer, but MSNBC political commentator Rachel Maddow took them on - prompted, surprisingly, by one of my recent blogs "Growing a Brain in a Dish."

My earlier blog was more focused on my enthusiasm of the discovery that researchers could grow brain cells on a petri dish that were connected both physically and by electrical and chemical signals. I'll let The Maddow Blog explain, as it is more clear than my earlier post and then goes on to the deeper questions - and so I was "outblogged" and humbled. Indeed Dr. Maddow was the recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship and earned a Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) in politics from Oxford University.


Red connections, blue brain cells, green proteins. Magically delicious!

So they took brain cells from a rat embryo from the part of the brain that deals with memory (well, they were cultured cells, so I guess technically "descended" from a rat embryo). Those cells, rather that grow into functioning brain cells inside a rat's head, did so on a little dish, forming the loop networks they're programmed to join.

The researchers then gave them a jolt, and the cells lit up with a "burst of network activity." Because the cells' natural inhibitory response was disabled, the split second activity lasted 12 seconds. To me that sounds more like a seizure than a memory, but the question of how to characterize it is sort of the point. At what point, definitionally, do signals become memories or thoughts? One of the ways to get to that answer is to build a model like the one in this experiment to study the signal itself. And after last week's segment on the politicization of personhood, what makes this even more amazing to me is not just whether that signal is a memory, but whether a memory requires a "who" to have it.

Even the briefest of searches on cognition and personhood reveals a can of worms that I'm probably better off not opening here, but really, can you imagine breaking down the brain's functions into isolated signal networks and then trying to figure out which and how many of those are necessary to make "you"?

Now the fun part. Consider the thorny relationship between self and your brain. Is consciousness necessary for a self? Scientists have for the first time been able to observe the brain as it slips in and out of consciousness, in 3D {see video below}! Could this be a first step towards bridging science and philosophy with regards to questions of self? What are the implications in bioethics, such as medical decisions about coma victims or abortion rights?

If such questions can be addressed using science, rather than pre-conceived ideas about what is morally "right" or not, we will have come a long way towards understanding ourselves.

This video is the property of the University of Manchester (used with permission.)

Philosopher Andy Clark describes the self/brain relationship well:

I am John's brain. In the flesh, I am just a rather undistinguished looking grey/white mass of cells. My surface is heavily convoluted and I am possessed of a fairly differentiated internal structure. John and I are on rather close and intimate terms; indeed, sometimes it is hard to tell us apart. But at times, John takes this intimacy a little too far. When that happens, he gets very confused about my role and functioning. He imagines that I organize and process information in ways which echo his own perspective on the world. In short, he thinks that his thoughts are, in a rather direct sense, my thoughts. There is some truth to this of course. But things are really rather more complicated than John suspects, as I shall try to show.

In the first place, John is congenitally blind to the bulk of my daily activities. At best, he catches occasional glimpses and distorted shadows of my real work. Generally speaking, these fleeting glimpses portray only the products of my vast subterranean activity, rather than the processes which give rise to them. Such products include the play of mental images or the steps in a logical train of thought or flow of ideas.

Andy Clark, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1995.

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Good point. How about Will Femia's brain by way of Maddow's? What are your thoughts on self and consciousness and the new brain imaging data?

I hestitate to discuss consciousness, because it means different things to different people. Is it self-recognition, sentience, access to memory, response to environmental stimuli, etc.?

Is it all of those sorts of things or does consciousness no longer exist if any one of those components are missing?

Then there is the difference between being asleep or awake, being under the influence of some drug or not, etc. If I'm awake and recieve stimuli that I'm not conscious of, am I conscious? Or not?

The brain imaging is exciting. We need data to do the science, and what a challenge it is.

Technical note - when I first read this article on my iPhone, there was no indication of authorship.

We were recently discussing Brian Pollard, Professor of Anaesthesia at The University of Manchester (UK), who recently told the European Anaesthesiology Congress in Amsterdam that the real-time 3-D images seemed to show that losing consciousness involves a
change in electrical activity deep within the brain, changing the activity
of certain groups of nerve cells (neurons) and hindering communication
between different parts of the brain on the 'Chaopsych' chat board of the University of Vermont.
The the ensuing discuss I commented, "I have always thought that consciousness was accomplished in a way similar to how the mind creates a single vision from the distinct input of two eyes into various parts of the brain. Where would we look for the image we think we 'see' in the brain?
Like a camera, the eyes are the lens, but there is no film or screen on which the image is reflected onto. Instead the brain uses various bits of information to assemble what we call sight.
Couldn't this be the same with consciousness?
If this is the case then there is no one place to look for consciousness. There is only the continuous connection of bits of information in the brain as awareness increases about ones 'selfness'.
To which a fellow colleauge, Gus Koehler added: " Actually, I've posed a single entity to conveniently ask questions. Alas, sometimes the posing forces the answer. Why would consciousness have to be A consciousness? Why couldn't it be more like a field in which events, once they meet certain requirements, appear?In this case, consciousness would be more like a luminosity that permits multiple knowings by revealing them, including the assembly of a self?"

By Theodore A. Hoppe (not verified) on 27 Jun 2011 #permalink