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Where & What is Consciousness

Christof Koch wants to find where consciousness lies inside what he calls our "zombie" self: the part of our brain that works automatically, so that our lungs breathe, our heart beats, our eyes blink, and we walk and talk. And he wants to know the purpose of consciousness, since we can obviously exist perfectly well, as zombies, without it.

In an extraordinary article, Margaret Wertheim quotes him in LA Weekly as saying, "When you walk, you don?t think, 'lift leg, move leg forward, put leg down.' You just walk! If you had to consciously think through that stuff, you?d never get anywhere?You drive to work on autopilot, move your eyes, brush your teeth, tie your shoelaces, talk, and all the other myriad chores that constitute daily life."

He's working on this with Francis Crick, who helped discover DNA. Crick is now 84, but there are still two problems he wants to solve before he dies: "the borderline between the living and the nonliving," and the nature of consciousness. Koch says, "You can't solve the problems of mind just by thinking about them. You have to go out and do experiments and see what is actually going on."

Consciousness could be described as the double arrow, where you are not only doing or perceiving something, you also know you are seeing or doing it. At a higher level, you're even thinking about the ramifications of what you?re seeing or doing (or have seen and done in the past). There are 30 billion neurons in the human brain, and most of them are not involved in the feeling of conscious awareness. Koch and Crick want to isolate the few neurons that do produce a feeling of consciousness. Koch says, "At any moment, some neuronal processes in your head correlate with consciousness, while others do not?what is the difference between them??I know of no logical reason why you couldn't [just] be a zombie."

Koch proved to Wertheim that we're not aware of a lot of what we see by showing her a computer image, then showing her the same image with something missing. In most cases, she couldn't figure out what had been deleted. He proved that we don't always see what's really there by showing her a computer screen filled with yellow dots, which began to blink on and off?except they weren't really doing that, except inside Wertheim's brain.

Koch doesn't know if other primates or mammals, such as dogs, could also be conscious. Maybe even a worm is conscious. Humans are the most consciousness, because we appear to be the only animals that can anticipate death. Despite this, we are like other animals, in that many of our actions are hard-wired in the brain, or instinctive. But in humans, Koch says, "Evolution has chosen a different path, synthesizing a much more powerful and flexible system" called "consciousness." He and Crick think we have it because it allows us to deal more rapidly with unexpected events and to plan for the future. If necessary, we can override our instinctive programming.

They think consciousness is linked to short term memory, because if we were entirely on automatic pilot, we wouldn't need short term memory at all. They're starting out by studying mouse consciousness and want to find out if a particular gene can turn consciousness in mice on and off. Could they create a zombie mouse, without consciousness?

MRI scanners and PET scans can look at the brain while it's functioning. Brain surgery patients, such as epileptics who are having implants put into their brains, can also help by answering questions while their brains are exposed. Koch's assistant Leila Reddy has been working with these patients. While they're awaiting surgery, she shows them pictures and measures which parts of the brain light up.

She's found that 15% of the brain responds only to faces or animals, which makes sense because "for most of human history, animals would have been either predators or lunch." Researcher Gabriel Kreiman discovered that these brain areas can be incredibly specific. In one patient, he found a neuron that fired only when the patient was shown pictures Curly, of the Three Stooges. In another patient, he found a neuron that responded only to images of Bill Clinton. Reddy says, "We don't know how it would have reacted to Monica Lewinsky." This shows that our consciousness is trained, or at least influenced, by our surroundings.

Consciousness is what makes us feel like ourselves. But exactly what causes it?and where it's located in the brain?is still a mystery.

There are secrets of the mind that are accessible only to a few special people.

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