Consciousness From A Neuroscientific Perspective

Consciousness from a neuroscientific perspective

Consciousness has always been a controversial, difficult topic to research. For much of the twentieth century, people rejected systematic research into consciousness, both psychologically and scientifically. An important reason was that behavioral perspectives at the time required evidence for everything. Therefore, they rejected any “mentalistic” terminology. But after some advances in cognitive psychology, there was a new need to investigate conscious and unconscious processes.

Consciousness is a construct that is not so easy to define. While most of us know what it is, there aren’t many definitions that can really describe how complex it is.

If we wanted to define it in a simplified way, we would describe it as the mental capacity to ‘actively’ know what is happening around you and within yourself. Consciousness is what gives you the knowledge to know you are and you exist for everything that happens around you.

When you dig deep into the human mind, you realize that there are many unconscious processes going on there. For example, no one tells their heart to beat. No one instructs his tongue on how to move when he talks. We simply think we’re doing these things and they happen.

But how unconscious or conscious are these processes exactly? What characterizes these processes? What is the neurophysiological basis of consciousness?

All kinds of connections in a man's consciousness

Characteristics of conscious and unconscious processes

The first thing a scientist who wants to study consciousness will ask is how to measure it. The problem here is that we are talking about something that we cannot possibly observe directly.

Therefore, we have to measure it indirectly. The easiest way to do this is usually to have someone talk about it. There is one rule that almost always works: if they can talk about it, then they are aware of it.

At some point, researchers also realized that you can also send multiple stimuli to the subjects in your study. Often they will mention some of these stimuli in their report, but will completely omit others. In addition, researchers also saw that even if subjects are not aware of a particular stimulus, this stimulus can still affect their behavior.

An example of this are priming techniques. These are basically techniques where you show someone a word and that unconsciously makes it easier or more difficult for them to recognize a related word at a later time.

Different levels of consciousness

When it comes to cognitive processes, you will also encounter different levels of consciousness:

  • Subliminal Processes: When the stimulus is weak or disappears quickly. It never reaches your conscious mind. But that stimulus can still affect your behavior, or lead to a different kind of process. We should also mention that not all experts agree that these kinds of processes exist.
  • Pre-conscious processes: when the stimuli are strong enough to pass into your conscious mind. But in this case, they still don’t because you’re not paying attention, so they go unnoticed. An example of this is inattentive blindness. It means being blind to very salient stimuli because your attention is elsewhere. This is an interesting video showing how these processes work.
  • Conscious Processes: When the stimulus is strong enough to pass into your conscious mind, and you pay attention to it, it will actually pass into your conscious mind. In this case, you will receive the information and can actively respond to it.

We should also add that these categories are just different levels of the same concept; they are not separate from each other. That means any process can be somewhere between undetected and fully conscious at any given time.

Consciousness is like a complicated maze

The neurophysiological basis of consciousness

One of the big questions in the study of consciousness concerns its relationship with biological and neurophysiological processes. Researchers have presented plenty of models of how our conscious processes work. But there are still many questions in the air. However, research has been able to identify some of the structures that may play a role in this. As well as why consciousness exists exactly.

The easiest way to study the brain structures related to consciousness is to use neuroimaging tools. In this way you can compare conscious and unconscious processes. The results usually tell us that there is some kind of extra neural activation involved in conscious processes.

What exactly does this mean?

So when you switch tasks, the activated areas also change. This makes it seem as if consciousness is not centered around specific structures. It could just be something that our whole brain does. According to these studies, it seems that the parts of our brain that are usually activated are our parietal and frontal lobes. But you should still take that information with a grain of salt.

Let’s go back to that eternal question: why do we have consciousness? While there is no simple answer to this question, it seems that the most widely accepted theory is the one that states that consciousness acts like a small short circuit. In other words, it’s like a checking process. This process evaluates our behavior and causes ‘short circuits’ in processes that show errors.

This theoretical system would only take action with large processes as a way to save energy and be more efficient. That would also explain why there are different levels of consciousness.

Consciousness is a fascinating, mysterious process that scientists, philosophers and neuroscientists have been trying to explain for a long time. The more research we do, the more we learn about it. But there is still much more to learn. 

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