Imagine

…for a moment that you have been selected to participate in a groundbreaking experiment.

Neurobiologists have discovered a single neuron in the reticular activating system (RAS) which appears to be responsible for consciousness. In a rat model, when they hit this little cell with a pulse from an electrode, the rat stops and stares blankly. It will carry out reflexive acts, and even complex learned responses to stimulus. But when the electrode is hot, the questing nose and shifting eyes are still.

You will be the first human subject to undergo stimulation of the single consciousness neuron in the RAS. Well, at least one of the first human subjects, because I will undergo the procedure with you.

In the lab, we each have a tiny hole drilled in our skulls and a micro-wire inserted into the target neuron in our brains. Then, under video-EEG monitoring, I flip the switch that turns on your electrode.

Your EEG changes, but nothing seems to happen to you. You continue to chat with me and when I inquire as to the your status, you assure me that you are quite conscious.

But then I switch the current off.

You look surprised, and ask me, “How long was I out?”

I don’t know what to make of your behavior. Were you out? Was someone else in? Does the magic neuron just make you forget yourself for a bit?

There is only one way to find out. I tell you to flip the switch on my electrode.

I come to in the middle of a conversation, and report to you that I must have been unconscious while my electrode was hot. Your report of my behavior mirrors my report of yours: no change until the power goes off, and then the surprised “wake up”.

I still have no answer regarding anyone’s consciousness during the time when the RAS neuron is activated, nor will I get one. I may be able to make some guesses, if I gather loads of video-EEG data, or see what happens when I try to teach you something while the neuron is being stimulated. That behavioral information, in the brainwaves and in speech, may typically correlate with the presence or absence of a conscious state (in our experience).

The correlates can tell me nothing of the actual presence or absence of conscious experience, however. Consciousness occurs within a subject and won’t be found in the intersubjective. That state of affairs does not make consciousness particularly hard or mysterious – we all know all about it every day. It does require a subject to have it though, and it is always consciousness ‘of’. It is just ours and ours alone.

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2 thoughts on “Imagine

  1. I’m sure you’ve heard the case of Henry Molaison (aka patient HM), who, in order to treat severe seizures, had his hippocampi removed. It helped with the seizures, but he became unable to make new long term memories. Every day he woke up thinking he was waking up from the surgery with no memory of what had happened in the meantime. He could only remember new things for a few minutes before they disappeared.

    Was Molaison conscious? It sounds like he was aware of his immediate self and surroundings. And he retained many memories of his life before the surgery, so he had access to much of his autobiographical self before the surgery. He seems to have lived in a perpetual state similar to what you describe, to the extent that he was severely disabled and never left the hospital again.

    • keithnoback says:

      Very familiar with that case.
      We live in reflective conscious most of the time, more than we realize.
      I think that’s why some people do maintain that reflective consciousness is all there is to consciousness.

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