From part to whole in consciousness research

The Feeling of Life Itself
Forfatter: Christof Koch
Forlag: MIT Press (USA)
THE BRAIN / The Feeling of Life Itself addresses the deepest goals of neuroscience – the understanding of consciousness.


In short, neuroscience is the study of the relationship between brain function and human behavior. Neuroscience affects such diverse fields as psychology, medicine, economics, pedagogy and anthropology to name a few. This tradition has been on the sails at least since the turn of the millennium, and one could say that it has taken over the leadership jersey from molecular genetics in the race for the most attention, money, influence and reputation in the natural sciences world.

Today, the interest in neuroscience is mainly instrumental. One asks: How can we use this knowledge? Yet it is a philosophical, non-instrumental question that lies at the heart of tradition.

Since the establishment of the 1960 century, the stated and deepest goal of neuroscience has been to understand or explain consciousness from a natural science, that is, molecular biological, reductionist point of view. A "scientific" understanding of consciousness is, so to speak, the sacred grail of neuroscience.


The brain

Christof Koch's book The Feeling of Life Itself just deals with the deepest goals of neuroscience and treats it just as you would expect it from one of the field's key players: The book's initial philosophical explanations of how to discuss consciousness, and what to put into the concept of consciousness, are accomplished with a striking scarcity and lack of will to precision. The subsequent account of the research that will shed light on the starting point question is, however, detailed in detail. Koch is originally a physicist, but since the late 1980s has concentrated on the study of artificial intelligence and mapping of brain activity. He currently heads the research institute The Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, USA.

Koch continues here an inheritance sin that has clung to the field since Nobel laureate and DNA discoverer Francis Crick, who has been Koch's central mentor, seriously grasped the theme at the beginning of the 1960s. The eccentric British biologist and science critic Rupert Sheldrake describes in the introduction to the book The Science Delusion (2012) how, in the early 1960s, as a student at the University of Cambridge, he was approached by one of Crick's prostitutes who attempted to hijack specially gifted students. The students were offered the opportunity to join a group led by Crick, who would work to lay the foundation for "a natural, molecular-biological solution" to "the last big unanswered question in science", namely the question of how consciousness arises. Sheldrake politely declined.

Illuminate and explain

Although neuroscientists' philosophical treatment of consciousness as a phenomenon can often appear to be deficient, this does not mean that neuroscience is impotent as a provider of premises for the philosophical discussion. It is beyond any doubt that consciousness – as we know it mainly in man – is linked to the nervous system and the brain. Gradually, it turns out that neuroscience is able to elucidate – and to some extent explain – aspects of consciousness. For example, visual stimuli must be presented over a certain period of time, around 50 milliseconds, for the person to be conscious of the presentation.

If an image is presented in less than 50 milliseconds, neuroscience tools can determine that the image is recorded somewhere in the brain without the person being presented with the image being informed. One can then gradually increase the exposure time until the subject manages to make it aware, and monitor the changes that occur in the activation of different areas of the brain as the registration goes from unconscious to conscious. Here you get a pacifier, and to a certain extent it expresses a kind of consciousness fingerprint in the brain. Koch spends quite a bit of space in the book reviewing such fingerprints.

Information Theory

The core of the book is an account of a theory of consciousness put forward by Italian-American psychiatrist Giulio Tononi. According to Tononi, consciousness has to do with a particular kind of integration of processes in different areas of the brain that can in principle be measured and quantitatively determined. The theory, called Integrated Information Theory (IIT), is not easy to understand in detail, but in short it is about how many different parts of the brain affect each other at the same time. IIT has a target for this, called phi, which can be estimated based on radiological monitoring of brain activation. It has been found that phi corresponds well to various states in which individuals are either awake or unconscious, furthermore, it is seen that phi is low in parts of the brain that you know can be removed without loss of consciousness, such as the cerebellum and frontal lobes.

An in-depth discussion of how the results of the ongoing neuroscientific research on consciousness influence the philosophical discussion should certainly be welcomed. Unfortunately, leading players in the field, such as Koch, do not seem to have the capacity to do so. Giulio Tononi is, by the way, an exception to this trend. Such an in-depth discussion also breaks the boundaries of this book review.

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