NeuroscienceWorld Brain Day

Beyond the Brain: Neuroscience, Human Consciousness and Immortality

  • by Arpan Dey

It is easier to believe that the sun would rise in the west than to think of a person today, who is not busy. But can we please, for a moment, consider something else?

How many people, in today’s busy schedule, wonder about the universe, the mind; or in other words, the endless wonders of the sky above and the brain inside their cranium bone? Do we common people wonder why we exist? How can we do what we do? If we give tasks our best efforts? Do we take our existence for granted and only think about working towards better marks in examinations, or higher salaries? No point denying it. I find it hard to believe that people don’t feel uneasy realizing that or even considering that their origins are entirely unknown. But there is so much we do not know. Practically, we might not need to know this knowledge for survival. But, we all desire and seek happiness through different means. And there is a unique happiness in knowing this. Granted, such knowledge would not make us Einstein and would not make us propose an equation like E = mc2, but its effects may be still far-reaching. For, everything is entwined.

Most physical quantities are conserved. There is an overall effect of constancy and conservation in nature. And, yet, the mind cannot be conserved forever. Futile are our efforts to gain power, fame, money and our quest for everlasting glory is nothing short of elusive, so is our quest for immortality – for death is inevitable. Indeed, life is but a thermodynamic disequilibrium. We must die to reach thermal equilibrium. Nothing is permanent. Immortality is a foolish illusion, a fantasy. Instead of directing our efforts to gain immortality, our time would be better employed in other things. Indeed, life defies common sense. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said in ‘Sherlock Holmes: The Red-Headed League’, “For strange effects and extraordinary combinations, we must go to life itself, which is always far more daring than any effort of the imagination”. Life is an accident. The world indeed is ruled by chance.

But does not the Computational Hypothesis of the brain contradict me? Or rather, I contradict it? Well, it is just a hypothesis, which if proved to be true, might give us a chance of “digital immortality” in the future. Though, under present circumstances that is very unlikely. The hypothesis may be true, but it is next to impossible to apply it to build a connectome or a 3D brain model, to upload our consciousness and achieve immortality. According to this hypothesis, our consciousness or sentience is a consequence of the fact that individual neurons or synapses in our brain are themselves individually simple, but together interact in such a way that it gives rise to something much more complex.

According to Professor Giulio Tononi, a system with interacting parts should have a perfect balance between two phenomena, in the right range, for conscious experience:

i) Integration or enough connectivity so that all parts involved can communicate with one another, and

ii) Differentiation or enough complexity to represent very different states.

If this is true, we probably, one day would be able to copy this pattern into a, say, pen-drive of Yottabytes and run the “sentience” as we run programs. And if we could rid ourselves of our biological bodies (that are bound to rot and degenerate over time), we may live forever. But to map, using an electron microscope, all the neurons of a rat’s brain with high precision remains a challenge, leave alone a human brain. (Please note that, here, by immortality, I do not mean “no death”. For instance, Amoeba splits up by binary fission to reproduce, and forms 2 daughter cells. The original Amoeba simply stops existing and is not really immortal.)

In 1848, a railway worker by the name of Phineas Gage, survived an accident where a 3 foot iron rod pierced his brain. However, after that, his personality drastically changed. People then began to understand that it was the brain that controlled behavior. Neurology was born, mind-body dualism was challenged. (Dualism was the then-famous belief that the brain and “soul” were different). In 1861, Dr. Pierre Broca proved that speech deficiency in people who could understand speech, but not speak properly was related to a lesion in the left temporal lobe of the brain (now called Broca’s area), by studying his patients. Similarly, in 1874, Carl Wernicke discovered that the left temporal lobe, now called Wernicke’s area, was affected in patients who could speak but could not understand speech. In 1864, Gustav Fritsch found during open brain surgeries that touching the left brain made the right part of the body twitch and vice-versa. So, it was discovered that the left brain controls the right part of the body and the right brain controls the left part.

In 1930, Dr. Wilder Penfield, during open-brain surgeries of epileptic patients, discovered that touching certain parts of the brain created a response in different body parts. He drew a rough diagram of the motor cortex and which part controls which body part. There are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, roughly the same as the number of neurons in the brain. Before these discoveries, we thought the universe was the greatest mystery. But really, our brain is a greater one. And today, we have unimaginable prospects that in the future we may be able to install information into our memories, just like downloading an app! Well, I always think we can never really understand our minds to the fullest extent, using our minds themselves. (We probably would need aliens to do that for us!).

This is a neuron, billions of which account for the fact that you are currently reading this

Billions of neurons are connected by synapses in our brain. Special chemicals called neurotransmitters dart between the synapses and give rise to your conscious experience. Synaptic connections form and deform – and you form and forget memories; synaptic connections strengthen as you practice an activity – and you master it to carry it out unconsciously; neural activity becomes rhythmic – and you fall asleep. In fact, most of the time, you are unconscious, blissfully ignorant of the fact. If you were fully conscious of what you were doing, you would take a minute to react to a hot stimulus – and of course, that is not desirable.

The four lobes of the human brain

The brain is divided into four lobes. The frontal lobe processes our rational thoughts. It is home to the prefrontal cortex. Damage to it results in loss of ability to plan, contemplate the future etc. The right part of the parietal lobe controls sensory attention, body image, etc.. Its left part controls body locomotion (movements). The temporal lobe controls face recognition, language, emotions etc.., while the occipital lobe deals with the largest sense – vision. However, it is not exactly correct to define a particular function to a particular region of the brain. The brain depends on large-scale coordination and interaction to function. Another common misconception is that the left brain is more rational, while the right brain is more artistic and visual. That, to some extent, is true. However, although the left brain dominates our speech, both the hemispheres of the brain coordinate and work together. If it were not so, as patients who have undergone corpus callosotomy know only too well, both the sides of your body would not cooperate, and life would be bizarre, and difficult. Even your simplest movements and actions are a result of millions of complex interactions taking place in your brain.

Parts of the human brain

The brain can be roughly classified into three layers. The oldest and innermost layer of the brain is the reptilian brain which is present in all animals, very primitive animals too. It controls the basic functions like heart-beat, digestion etc., which are basically involuntary. Cerebellum and brain stem are included in it. The second layer is present in, say, Level B organisms which are a bit more social and live together. These organisms have both the reptilian brain and limbic system, as the former is present in all creatures. The limbic system has four parts: the thalamus (which gathers sensory information like sight, sound (etc.) and transmits it to the respective parts of brain); the hypothalamus (which regulates body temperature, hunger, thirst, pleasure and such things); the hippocampus (where memories are stored – long term memories are produced from short term ones and it also helps in future contemplation); the amygdala (this almond-shaped region governs and controls emotions like fear). The outermost and third layer – the cerebral cortex is found only in us humans, Level C organisms. It is folded but actually has a huge surface area. This “grey matter” is responsible for conscious thinking and intelligence.

For physiological research, there are devices and methods available today that could not have even been part of Phineas Gage’s wildest dream – like EEG or electroencephalogram, where electrodes are placed on the scalp to study neural activity in the brain. We have neuroimaging techniques, too, to measure areas of neural activity like PET or Positron Emission Tomography (where radioactive injections are injected in the body and 3D images of brain’s neural activities are produced), and fMRI or functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (where a magnetic field is passed through the brain).

Yet the study of the complex anatomy of the brain could not reveal, satisfactorily, the fundamental secrets regarding consciousness. Today, neurosurgeons remove half of the brain and yet let their patients lead an almost normal life. Today, researchers are trying to create a list of the neural activation patterns of the human brain, corresponding to different emotions. This might help in developing technologies like mind-reading and telepathy. Researchers have even created thought-driven wheelchairs to help paralyzed patients. Yet, we are nowhere near to create true Artificial Intelligence, or to understand consciousness.

No science today can explain to us, exactly, how the mind works. Emotions, for instance, is a very subtle topic. Emotions are, to some extent, necessary for survival. For instance, if you do not get afraid and move away quickly, from the middle of the road on seeing an approaching vehicle, you are most likely to perish. However, certain emotions, like love, are unnecessary and induce vulnerability. (Of course, reproduction is highly essential for the continuation of the human race – but it means little for the survival of a single human.) Human beings are social creatures. In fact, research suggests that, by virtue of mirror neurons in our brain, our face reflects someone else’s emotions when/if you are trying to comprehend it. Simply put, on meeting a sad person, your face will reflect sadness. This shows that humans are exceedingly dependent on other humans for their survival. Isolation is a curse, to most people. The human brain is also very well-developed in decentralizing or perspective-taking. We are not hard-wired or genetically pre-programmed to suit one particular environment. A newborn human is pitiable, learning everything from the beginning. Other than thirst, hunger and such instincts, we are born live-wired. Animals are not. A newborn polar bear can readily adapt to the cold, on birth. But the disadvantage of being hard-wired is that you cannot adjust the adaptation. Bring the polar bear in hot weather and it will die. Being flexible, we can however, adapt more or less everywhere, from Antarctica to Sahara. However, as researches reveal, a very young human baby is capable of perspective. Let us say you show them two eatables, A and B – and they live A, though you act as though you hate to eat A, and like B instead. If you give them both A and B, they will always offer B to you. They, thus, are capable of thinking from your perspective, and though they like A, they will offer you B.

An interesting fact regarding the human consciousness is that what we observe is heavily influenced by our internal model. The internal model is basically a set of expectations and information that the brain has formed, based on its years of experiences. Whenever you perceive something, the expectation is matched with your sensory data, instead of being perceived by the conscious mind every time. If expectations match reality, all very well. Otherwise, the brain makes revisions to its internal model. Thus, the external world and our sensory perceptions limits our imaginations. When we are asleep, with all our sense organs shut, at times, the internal world flies free – and we have the amazing experience of dreaming. An important point here is that you can only dream of those things of which you have heard/know. Things not registered with your internal model cannot be part of your dreams, or more appropriately, cannot be interpreted as such by you.

The best way to get a rough idea of the human consciousness is to build models. What makes the situation worse is that the human consciousness cannot be modelled by assuming that we seek only those things which are necessary for survival. We go beyond. We do not only seek food and shelter, we chase abstract things. Also, we, of all creatures, can dream so vividly about the distant future.

Consciousness is an emergent process of creating different conclusions from our external sensory data, and also creating different models of our world from our perspective, and creating an illusion of the reality, with a sense of its own existence and the ability to plan, visualise and contemplate the future, based on hereditary instincts, or past experiences, and the urge to work towards basic and abstract goals to survive; survive comfortably; survive comfortably socially, mentally, physically, economically; survive with a promised and certain future .

Even this long definition is insufficient to capture all the strange properties of the human consciousness.

The organizations of the mind’s information-processing components and systems are the cognitive architecture. There are two popular models that try to explain the workings of the mind.

Symbolic Model: According to the symbolic model, the mind works as a digital computer according to a set of rules. The external world is perceived and the input is put in sensory stores. Let us assume that the consciousness is reading some words. Pattern recognition takes place during reading the words. A memory of an event is transferred to long term stores from short term stores by rehearsal, which is again brought back from long-term to short-term stores by retrieval, for behavioral response (like speaking or writing the words).

Symbolic model

Connectionist Model: According to this model, the neurons and their arrangement and operation lies at the root of the mind’s working. Each neuron “computes” to enable intelligent behavior. The neurons are arranged in a complex way, though individually they are simple. There are no localised symbols to be processed. A mental representation is distributed over the network of neurons. There is parallel activity, that is, more than one unit is active at the same time, as opposed to the symbolic model. Here is a connectionist model of word recognition with three layers – of visual features, letters and then words. Excitatory connections, or the arrows increase activation in a unit; the dots (inhibitory connections) decrease it. Information flows upwards, feedback travels downwards. The model is based on the spread of activation through excitations and inhibitions. Although complex, I prefer this model over the symbolic ones. However complex it may seem; it is just lines with dots or arrows to every feature and letters and words to every other feature and letters and words and between them. Note, among the words only “ABLE” starts with “A”, and from “A” there is excitation only to “ABLE”. No given words start with “N”, from where no words receive arrows, only dots, or inhibitions.

Example of a connectionist model

Yet another hierarchical model to explain the workings of the brain says that the brain is like a big company, with our conscious self as the boss, who remains unaware of all the tiny details occurring in different branches of his company. The staff, the neurons, crave the boss’s attention. You can consciously be aware of something only when it reaches the boss. Emotions are emergency-handling workers, operating without the boss’s direct permission. And this triggers action into us, increasing our chances of survival. (Does a fireman call the boss for permission to put off fire if one building of his company catches fire? Similarly, you do not ask yourself for permission to feel afraid, sad, happy etc.).

When we talk of consciousness, a topic that comes up frequently is immortality. I have always been haunted by death. It is hard to accept that the people I see around me might die anytime, and must die one day. Why aren’t we immortal – every child asks. We are reminded of the immortal God. [At this point, it is important to note that the existence of God, as viewed by some people, is questionable. Many people point out that the earth fulfills so many unusual conditions in just the precise range to support life, that it indicates some manipulations. But you could say that if earth was the only planet in the universe. Among so many planets, at least one or two will fulfill those conditions by pure accident. Most planets do not have life (are you listening, anthropic principle supporters?). And it is precisely because we exist on that planet that it is hard not to marvel at the lucky accident. Actually, it is hereditary in us. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors believed that the night came when God became angry and prayed, believing that the next day was a result of their prayers! It is a natural tendency of humans to avoid taking responsibilities of any sort, accepting unknown omnipotence, omnipresence. There is a theory of religion. From the point of view of evolution, we shall evolve to have better chances of survival. But evolving humans also learned to ask questions; they were intelligent. During early times, humans lived in groups, with a leader. The members might not always agree with the leader – but this might cause a clash and that member might be isolated from the group which would harm his/her chances of survival. So, there was a need for a feeling that we should follow someone unquestioningly. These feelings hereditarily show itself in us in our tendency to believe in God and commit what not in the name of religion.] The dream of achieving immortality has been a long-lasting dream of humankind. No matter how hard we strive to achieve our goals, no matter how great a thing we achieve – we all know that we must leave these earthly pleasures behind one day. Life is futile. We are born, we spend some years on this earth worrying, and finally, we die. There has been no change in this inevitable phenomena. Yet, my fundamental philosophy has always been that all possibilities must take place, fundamentally. Is immortality truly impossible, or commonplace in some parallel universe? Does consciousness really depend on the biological body, or can it exist independently elsewhere – provided that the right balance of complexity and connectivity is present? Is it actually possible to map, with high precision, each and every neuron and the neural circuitry of the human brain, rebuild an artificial model of the brain, and stimulate neural impulses using electricity in precisely the right amounts to simulate consciousness? Is it even theoretically possible, even if not viable using present technology? And how can we be sure that after so long a process, consciousness would emerge? The uploaded copy of your consciousness should have all your memories, and believe it is you. But it is not exactly you. Every day you wake up from a night’s sleep, you are a new consciousness with all the memories inherited from your older consciousness. It believes it is you, but not exactly. Setting up the study of the philosophical aspects of consciousness as an exact science is in itself controversial. For all we know, life can be a result of an accident of combination. And each and every person has his/her own experiences, which must be unique from that of any other person – alive or dead. What you are exactly experiencing right now is something that no one has experienced before, and no one ever will. And we have no evidence to support that the neural activities in our brains are not random.

To start with, if immortality refers to existence for an infinite amount of time, then that is not likely to be true. The universe will end one day. Moreover, even though the consciousness might not have to be dependent on a biological body (that is prone to degenerate over time), it must also use something as a support. Thin air cannot represent the connectivity and complexity required to model consciousness. However, we have already been able to extend some of our senses. Damaged eyes can be replaced with artificial eyes. We have cochlear implants for malfunctioning ears. Yet, we have nothing to replace the brain with. If we could, in principle, replace our bodies with a digital, artificial one, and rid ourselves of the inconveniences of respiration, digestion, excretion etc., we could extend our lifespan by a great amount. Yet, even this exoskeleton will not last forever. To address the ultimate question regarding immortality, we must first understand consciousness itself.

What is the relationship between our physical brains and our mental experiences? This has been neuroscience’s greatest mystery. Descartes speculated that an immaterial soul exists separately from the brain. However, this is not supported by science. Our memory, awareness, sentience, thoughts and our sense of existence, can be referred to as our “soul”. But the soul is a consequence of the neural activities in our brain, and cannot exist independently of the brain. It is in itself perplexing to wonder how the brain, made up of non-living parts, gives rise to the mind. It was argued, some decades back, that given the rapid pace of technological growth, we would soon find ourselves involved in intellectual debates with robots. However, true Artificial Intelligence (AI) turned out to be impossible, at least till now. It is one thing to write programs and hard-wire a computer to react in certain ways to certain situations. It is another thing to build a robot that can learn by experience and reason for itself, based on its experiences. And even if the latter is possible to some extent, it is a terribly poor mimicry of the human consciousness. The Chinese room argument demonstrates the difference between producing correct outputs and understanding the inputs. The argument is about a person who is locked in a room full of books that helps to translate Chinese language to a language understandable by the person, and retranslate a reply from that language back to Chinese. If you were to hand in chits of paper with questions asked in Chinese, through the keyhole of the door of the room, the person inside could reply back to you without understanding Chinese. That is what a computer does. A computer has no internal model, and thus, can never argue with you. However, some people argue that, in the above thought experiment, though the person does not understand Chinese, the room, together with the books and the person, does understand Chinese as far as we are concerned.

We have a very long time to wait if we are to achieve true Artificial Intelligence. We need to understand natural intelligence first. And then, there is always the question of whether it is wise to even try to create AI. As Stephen Hawking reckons, a true AI might evolve faster than our biological bodies and “take over”. Though the idea is improbable. After all, it is we who would have created them in the first place, and we are cunning enough a species to keep a backup plan ready should they try to “take over”.

Achieving true immortality is either impossible, even in theory; or beyond our reach. We can never achieve immortality, if “immortality” is to mean existence for an infinite amount of time. We cannot exist for an eternity. But can we extend our lifespan? Can we upload our consciousness in some material device? Can we run a simulation of our consciousness? For instance, can we program a spaceship to reach a distant planet (or to a multiverse, through a wormhole, for that matter) and switch off our consciousness and program it to activate itself once we reach there? It would appear as if we reached there instantly! These subjects are fascinating ingredients for a best-selling sci-fi novel. And what more, no principle of science prevents them. But we need to wait a long time for that – which, I daresay, will not be permitted by my biological body.

However, there is a problem with simulating the consciousness. The simulated brain must be able to modify itself. A thorough knowledge of the pieces and parts will not suffice; we need to make sure, also, that the system is capable of perceiving the passage of time, capable of accounting for new experiences, and capable of modifying itself. As David Eagleman points out in “The Brain: The Story Of You”, “Unless your simulated experiences change the structure of your simulated brain, you would be unable to form new memories and would have no sense of the passage of time. Under those circumstances, would there be any point to immortality?”

Neuroscience will essentially progress in three directions, in the future. First, it would help us to better understand the human brain, which can also help in the study of Artificial Intelligence. Second, it would help us deal with neurological disorders. Third, neuroscience will help create a bridge between the human brain and machines, and one day, perhaps, between one brain and another. Understanding the brain will help us to evolve new ways of learning. Maybe we will be able to download information directly to the brain. It is even possible, today, to video record the thoughts and imaginations of a person. The electromagnetic signals in the brain are recorded when the person is viewing a photo or video. These signals are mapped to visual elements like color, texture, shape, etc.. Once a map has been created, one can recreate any image from the brain signals. When you imagine the same picture, the same regions of your brain are activated. You are asked to imagine a picture of something, and a scan of your brain signals is interpreted by the computer, by matching the signals to the existing database, to recreate the picture. This technology would let blind people see without using their eyes.

But wonder, for a moment, about the pointlessness of it all. We strive to build a connectome, time machines, worm-holes and yet we would most probably die before these works would be completed. For instance, did you know that the earth, spinning alone in deep space, faces a constant risk of being incinerated by gamma rays bursts located in abundance in space? Yes, the progress from hunting-gathering to the Large Hadron Collider is worth appreciating, but still, at this moment, we may have more things in common with our hunter-gatherer ancestors, than with our near-future descendants, who probably would know time travel to be as obvious as flying by airplane is to us.

Bibliography

David Eagleman. “The Brain: The Story of You”. 2015. Canongate Books.

Ronald T. Kellogg. “Fundamentals of Cognitive Psychology”. 2012. SAGE South Asia.

Michio Kaku. “The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind”. 2014. Doubleday.

Figure References

Nutrient flow in the brain is controlled by blood-vessel dilation, reveals network model – physicsworld. https://physicsworld.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/brain-web-511446631-Shutterstock_Phonlamai-Photo.jpg

Brain Clipart clipart – Diagram, Brain, Text, transparent clip art. https://library.kissclipart.com/20180911/giq/kissclipart-motor-neuron-diagram-unlabeled-clipart-neuron-wiri-95afea43233b17ec.png

The Human Brain – Home. https://brinard2013.weebly.com/uploads/2/0/2/7/20270635/9665666_orig.png

The Human Brain Diagram And Functions. https://i.pinimg.com/originals/40/b5/ae/40b5aea3e3a29d22e692acdbb777d425.jpg

Fundamentals of Cognitive Psychology. https://slideplayer.com/slide/5087742/16/images/15/Fundamentals+of+Cognitive+Psychology%2C+2e+by+Ronald+T.jpg

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