The Brain-Wide Web – The One Neuron, One Computer Theory.
For the fifty years since computer technology had an explosive impact on our everyday lives, the brain has often been described as a human computer.
Advances in neurophysiology have now shown that this analogy is totally inaccurate for two main reasons; first, it seems that each neuron is a separate computer, not like our familiar human digital computer working in the ‘black and white’ of two values (0 or 1), but an analogy quantum computer that processes ‘shades’ of computing values between the minimum and maximum of a range. Secondly, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is the interactions of neurons in neuronal networks, rather than individual neurons, which are responsible for generating consciousness. The whole brain is clearly greater than the sum of its neural parts. The brain is now best viewed as a web-like network of around 100 billion computers. In a very real sense, consciousness, thinking and memory recall involve us surfing the most complex internet on the planet.
Today’s blog explores some of the unique structural features and computational abilities of the human brain.
What is Consciousness?
Consciousness is a natural phenomenon which is surprisingly difficult to define. The International Dictionary of Psychology states that “consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it.” Aristotle argued nearly two thousand, five hundred years ago that “to be conscious that we are perceiving or thinking is to be conscious of our own existence.” In a similar vein, René Descartes argued “Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am”.
The working definition used in these blogs and articles assumes that a life form is conscious if:
* It is aware of its individual existence as a separate entity from its environment.
* The organism perceives, processes this sensory information (thinking) and responses to changes in its environment using memory and logic to plan immediate and future action.
The Wine Wager – A Bar in Bremen, Germany, 1998.
Twenty years ago, neurophysiologist Christof Koch and philosopher David Chalmers set up a wager with a case of fine wine as the prize while relaxing in a bar after attending the Second Conference on the Science of Consciousness. The bet was that within 25 years to the day, a signature of consciousness (the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC)) would be discovered in the brain. Koch believed the neurons responsible for consciousness would found to have distinct cell structure, pattern of electrical firing, or genes for specific neurotransmitter chemicals. Koch did, however, coin the term ‘the hard problem’ to describe the difficulty of understanding consciousness in comparison with researching other more amenable mental phenomena.
Chalmers took the negative view that consciousness was a fundamental natural phenomenon whose real nature might never be discovered. Albert Einstein was of a similar opinion believing that ‘no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.’ These ideas in their extreme form lead to the philosophy panpsychism – the view that consciousness, the mind and soul, are universal and primordial feature of all natural objects. Koch, and Francis Crick of DNA fame and the co-sponsor of the conference, disagreed and firmly believed that a scientific explanation for consciousness would eventually be discovered. As Koch observed, time will tell. There are still five years to run on the bet. It will be interesting to see if it is the neuroscientist Koch, or the philosopher Chalmers who wins the crate of fine wine!
Magazine Articles, June 2018.
Twenty years on, I read articles in the Scientific American and New Scientist that describes the famous consciousness wager and reviews the progress made in this field of neurophysiology. The headlines of the magazines’ cover pages boldly proclaimed:
“What is Consciousness Made of? – How we’re Solving a Mind-Blowing Problem.” (New Scientist, June 23).
“What is Consciousness. Scientists are beginning to unravel a mystery that has long vexed philosophers.” (Scientific American, June 2)
At last, I hoped, I would read something worthwhile on the mystery of consciousness. I was soon, however, very disappointed. Both articles concentrated on the wine wager and focussed entirely on the hunt for the location of consciousness neurons in the brain – only the ‘where’ of consciousness. There was not a single reference to ‘what’ consciousness is made of or ‘solving the mystery of consciousness.’ As Chalmers himself noted, there is a difference between finding the location of a consciousness centre, and understanding the nature of consciousness.
In spite of Koch’s assertion that “much progress has been made in solving the mystery of consciousness” in the twenty years since the Bremen Conference, the sparse neurophysiological discoveries in brain science to date suggest that:
- The consciousness centre (the ‘hot spots’ –neural correlates of consciousness (NCC)) are situated at the lateral, rear end of the fore brain (the cerebral hemispheres).
2. As noted earlier, consciousness appears to be related to the nervous activity of a network of neurons rather than the firing of individual neurons.
Neurophysiologists sadly seem to have made little, if any progress on what consciousness is, and how it is generated.
The Cell that Never Forgets a Face
Familiarity with our consciousness seems to breed not contempt but a blasé acceptance of our amazing memory and consciousness. Many are the examples of the brain’s memory capacity, but few are the superlative adjectives needed to describe the brain’s amazing IT capabilities. We have all watched a film clip for a few seconds and then remembered that we have seen that film before and predict what will happen next in the story. That implies that somewhere in our brains, we store almost a frame-by-frame memory bank of the entire length of films that we have seen, at least over recent years – terabytes of information.
Even more amazing is the recent research on face recognition. We look at a high school photograph we have never seen before of our former class mates and within seconds identify the faces of many of our former friends. Recent research reveals that a single neuron stores the information about one face and fires letting us remember the friend’s name. The same neuron fires when we read or hear the name of that friend or remember any of their unique characteristics.
If we focus on another face, a different single neuron fires.
Having studied the detailed structure (the ultrastructure) of nerve cells under the electron microscope, I cannot understand how the membrane compartmentalized structure of the neuron with its relatively large protein molecules that act as gates that open and close, and molecular pumps which allow charged particles to move from one part of the cytoplasm to the other can store such a wealth of data. This is surely one of the greatest mysteries of neurophysiology.
Besides the miracle of storage, there is the quite amazing brain’s microsecond IT ability that allows it to search for, and find a particular face-memory neuron – a needle in the 16 billion ‘hay stack’ of nerve cells in the forebrain.
To understand the few theories that have been advanced to explain human consciousness, it is necessary to briefly review a few critical, and often overlooked, details of the human brain.
The Human Body as an Antenna.
One of my biggest surprises while conduction experiments in the lab came many years ago in 1964 when, as an undergraduate student, I was completing an assessed neurophysiology experiment on the Hering-Breuer reflex and attempting to record the nerve impulses that travel up the vagus nerve to the medulla oblongata in the brain stem to inhibit further inspiration when the lungs are fully inflated. Instead of the expected crackle from the recording electrodes, the sonorous tones of the BBC’s former horse racing, Sir Peter O’Sullevan, commentating on the closing stages of the Derby boomed from the loudspeakers. Forgetting the experiment, my fellow students gathered around the dissecting table as the famous horse, Royal Sovereign, pulled away from the rest of the field to win the race by a neck. The body of the anaesthetised animal was acting as a very efficient aerial: rotating the dissecting table around through 360 degrees altered the volume of the received signal to rise to a maximum and causing it to fall to zero. I remembered as a boy I found that touching the aerial of my simple home-made crystal radio set, or the V-shaped internal aerial of out black and white television, boosted the signal in a similar way. As one standard text book puts it “the human body is a perfectly designed aerial.” The saline solutions and tissues of our bodies are certainly very efficient at receiving the inaudible cacophony of radio waves from the transmitters of many countries.
Next week’s blog explores the possibility that as well as being an areal, the human body might possibly act as a transmitter. The aerial hidden in mobile and i-phones certainly acts as both a receiver and transmitter collecting information from and later transferring data out to microwave towers. Many people who believe they are about to die report their entire life story flashing before their eyes in seconds. Is it fanciful to suggest that these flashes might this be life data being uploaded somewhere outside the human body to ensure personal memories survive the death of the physical body?
Horse race over, it was time for the practical class to transfer into the radio silence of the Faraday Cage at the back of the lab.
Where Have all the Birds Gone?
Visitors to our physiology lab often asked what kind of experimental birds were kept in our metal cage. We explained that this cage-like contraption was named a Faraday Cage after the British Scientist Michael Faraday who studied electromagnetism and electrochemisty in the nineteenth century. The function of the apparatus is not to keep birds in a cage, but to keep external unwanted radio waves out. Once inside the cage, I could record nerve impulses without any inference from the unseen radio waves that fill any room because the metal grid of the cage prevented external signals reaching the sensitive recording equipment. Light waves, with their shorter wavelengths can move in and out of the cage but to the longer radio waves, the criss-cross metal grid of the cage’s wall is an impenetrable barrier. The door of a microwave oven works in a similar way allowing you to look inside at the food being warmed, but preventing the longer wavelength microwaves from escaping from the oven to reach, and damage your eyes.
The Brain’s Internal Seas.
If the human body acts as an aerial and receives electromagnetic radiation such as radio waves, why is that we can walk under power cables and other sources of powerful electromagnetic radiation without detecting the radiation they emit? This is because, amazingly our brains ‘sit’ inside a natural radio wave-impenetrable cage formed by the salty plasma of the blood and the intercellular fluids that bathe our tissues. Focussing in on the part of the cerebral hemisphere which are thought to be responsible for consciousness, we see that internally this nervous tissue is in contact with the plasma-like cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that fills the lateral ventricles of the brain.
The outer surface of the grey matter lies beneath another CSF-filled area – the subarachnoid space in the brain membranes (the meninges). Surrounded by this CSF-Faraday cage, the electrical fields of the brain are protected from the interference of external radio waves. As discussed in a later in this blog this electrical insulation might be of crucial importance in the generation of consciousness. The barrier cannot however, protect the brain tissue from the ‘zap’ of extremely high electromagnetic radiation given for research or diagnostic purposes – the pulse of external radiation can cause the subject to lose consciousness temporarily.
Grey versus White Brain Tissue.
The saying ‘short of grey matter’ was often applied to someone who seemed to be of low intelligence. Amazingly, neuroscience has backed this idea since scientists have for the first time linked the amount of grey matter in the brain with the ability to do well in intelligence tests.
Without the insulation provided by a fatty, myelin sheath, the electrical activity and possibly the emission of electromagnetic radiation of one ‘naked’ neuron in the grey matter can interfere with the electrical activity of neighbouring neurons. Next week’s blog will outline the field and electromagnetic theories of consciousness which depend on both the Faraday Cage effects of cerebrospinal fluid and ‘pooling’ of brain waves of the neighbouring neurons in the grey matter. An analogy will be drawn again with the intersecting circular waves caused by the falling waves on the bioluminescent sea water I observed in Scotland. In contrast, the ‘clothed’ neuron axons of the white matter, which relay instructions from the brain to the body and sensory stimuli from the body to the brain, are electrically insulated from each other.
Brainwaves and Electromagnetic Radiation.
The electroencephalograph (EEG) is a familiar piece of research lab and hospital equipment that records the electrical activity by receiving the microvolts of electrical signals that leak out of the brain’s liquid ‘Faraday Cage’. Like radio waves, brain waves are waves of energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation that travel at the speed of light.
The electrical signals created by single neurons can be up to around 80 millivolts. Considering the amount of material—other brain tissue, your skull, skin and hair—between your brain and the electrodes, the signals received by the recording electrodes on the scalp have diminished to around 5 microvolts (one millivolt equals a thousand microvolts). The diagram below shows the four main types of brain waves. Recently, a fifth type of brain waves, the gamma waves, has been discovered which seems to be associated with the higher states of consciousness such as those generated by deep meditation. Gamma waves also seem to be associated with the generation of consciousness.
Do these EEG traces record consciousness directly? The probably answer is no – they are more likely to present electrical activity which generates consciousness. An analogy might be the electrical fields that surround a router are not the Internet signal that the device routes for your mobile or laptop computer. Brain waves are recorded from brain regions such as the cerebellum that are not involved in the generation of consciousness.
The human body has many unexpected (hidden) parallels with electrical equipment. The blogs in the coming weeks will include simulations will illustrate the important physical principle that accelerating and decelerating charge particles emit electromagnetic radiation. The oscillation of electrons in the transmitter tower of a radio station creates electromagnetic waves that are incepted by the aerial of your radio set. The received waves cause the electrons in the aerial to mimic the original electron ‘dance’ in the transmitter. These electrical fluctuations are then flow through the circuitry of the radio and cause the diaphragm of the loudspeaker to oscillate in and out creating the sound we hear as speech or music. Our simulations will demonstrate how the movement of negative and positively charged particles into and out of the neuron produce the electromagnetic waves received by the EEG electrodes. The paranormal phenomena reviewed in the future blogs on this website suggest the electromagnetic radiation transmitted by our brains might indeed function as a mechanism of data transfer.
Hopefully, next week’s blog and articles will put all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle reviewed this week to suggest using computer simulations how consciousness might be generated .
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