Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Science of Consciousness

Last week, I attended the conference "Toward a Science of Consciousness" at my home institute, Dayalbagh Educational Institute [conference brochure].  While I don't work in the field of consciousness, I've always had a fascination for the workings of the human brain and mind, so I really enjoyed the talks!

A number of renowned personalities gave talks: Stuart Hameroff, Deepak Chopra, James J. Barrell, to name just a few.  A complete list of the speakers, abstracts and talks can be found here.

Stuart Hameroff is an amazing, engaging speaker. He lucidly explains complex ideas, has a fun sense of humour, and his enthusiasm is palpable. The talk he gave was on the Penrose-Hameroff Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR) theory of consciousness, a theory he and Roger Penrose came up with together. Though he's an anesthesiologist, he became interested in consciousness because his job essentially entails taking consciousness away on a daily basis.

What consciousness actually is remains scientifically unknown.  It's generally, superficially, taken to be awareness or perception, but when we get down to scientific details, we run into a lot of unanswered questions. Can consciousness be downloaded into a computer, the way it's shown in movies like The Matrix and Avatar? Can consciousness exist outside of the body?  What exactly is consciousness made up of? How do things that don't require external stimulation, like daydreaming, meditation, and creativity, work? And tons more.

There are conflicting views of thought: western philosophy says that consciousness emerged from biological evolution, whereas eastern philosophy says that it has always been in the universe.  Hameroff thinks it's a combination of both.  He spoke of the paramecium, a unicelluar organism that appears to think and act on its own, pointing to some level of consciousness.

A number of experiments and studies have been directed towards cracking consciousness.  One such study speaks of a sort of "readiness potential" we all seem to have.  Apparently, the decisions we make take place in our subconscious minds before we actually become aware of them. An experiment described in the magazine Nature, consisted of participants looking at random letters on a screen. They were told to press a button whenever they felt the urge to. It was found that "the conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds." The experimenters linked this phenomena to free will, and deduced that perhaps free will is an illusion. (I don't agree with that thought; the decisions are still made in our own subconscious minds, irrespective of whether we're aware of them or not.)

Work done by Anirban Bandyopadhyay in Japan addresses the molecular side of consciousness: moletronics and intelligence, or "molecular machines".  Bandyopadhyay, who was also at the conference, is up to immensely interesting work involving the actual circuitry of the brain.  I suggest you take some time out to peruse his website, which has tons of information as well as links to general news articles that discuss his team's work.

A ton of the papers at the conference addressed the effects of meditation on the human body and mind.  There's a protein in our saliva linked to immunity that seems to be more prominent in meditators, positive physical changes are observed in our brains' neuronal connections after meditation, small changes in personality traits according to Jung's personality theory can be observed after a regime of yoga and meditation (eg. extroversion seems to tend to introversion)... the list goes on and on.

An old lab-mate and I ran some preliminary experiments on the effect of meditation on the vocal output of singers, and presented a poster at this conference as well. However, ours was just a pilot study: we wanted to see whether meditation affected how far singers deviated from a reference note.  We measured the errors (|sung note frequency - actual note frequency|) before and after meditative sessions for 20 participants, and found that the errors after meditation were less than the errors prior to the meditative sessions.  It was pretty cool to observe!  I'd be interested in gathering a larger number of participants, spanning a whole bunch of philosophical and religious backgrounds.

The field of consciousness is absolutely fascinating, and researchers across the world are becoming more and more conscious (ha!) about it.  I can't wait to see what they come up with.

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