Friday, January 24, 2014

Watching the River Flow

Watching the River Flow

(from: How do we know? A few things we've learned from science. Available at )


Kenny A. Chaffin

All Rights Reserved © 2013 Kenny A. Chaffin

Oh, this ol' river keeps on rollin', though,
no matter what gets in the way and which
  way the wind does blow,
and as long as it does I'll just sit here
and watch the river flow.
                                               – Bob Dylan

            What is it to be conscious? As you read this are you aware that you are reading? Can you feel your toes? Are you aware of your heart beating, your breath? Do you notice these things singly, individually, sequentially or as part of a mosaic of awareness?
            Where do you think ‘you’ are? In your brain? In your chest? Or maybe just behind your eyes. Close them. Are you still there? Are you still in the same place or have ‘you’ shifted? When you touch something with your fingers, feel the texture where are ‘you?’ Is it ‘you’ feeling the texture or ‘you’ knowing that you are touching/feeling the texture under your fingers? Or is it both? Are you the water, the river or are you just sitting there contentedly watchin’ the river flow?
            As you might know already, philosophers have had a field day with this topic since at least the time of Descartes and his famous ‘I think therefore I am’ bifurcated the mind and brain; certainly not just with those words but just as certainly as the church bifurcated body and soul. We’ve struggled ever since to return to a rational view of the mind and consciousness. Why?
            Mostly it’s from our anthropomorphic centrism which continues to rear its head from Copernicus to Hubble, Freud to Jung, and Newton to Schrodinger. We all want to feel and be special. We want our place to be special, our thoughts to be special. Oh sure we are each unique, each with our own quirks, crooked smile and mannerisms, but this is a deeper sort of ‘special.’ We each feel as if we will go on forever as a unique individual -- even when sleeping and we perchance to dream we still are ‘ourselves.’ This comparison of the mind and the soul is not one of happenstance but one of erudite reasoning. Many want to equate the mind with the soul and often do so in passing and without thinking too deeply about it; they want their essence to live forever. It can in a manner of speaking, but certainly not in any corporeal or incorporeal manner. The only way at present for a mind to live forever is by recording in writing, in audio or video as much of that unique mind and perspective on reality as possible. There may be other ways in the future, but as it currently stands literature and recordings are the only way to live forever (and that is only for as long as those recordings endure). Compared to the age of the cosmos, human lives are nothing but a tiny flash of light, a dust mote flaring up in a flame, nothing to be concerned with, yet we each in our own minds want to think we are important, we are special, we are the center of the universe. This was the driver in those early days of self-examination of the human mind.
            Descartes though self-examination in 1637 (influenced certainly by his own devout Catholicism and the religious beliefs of the day) concluded that the self was something separate from the body, separate from the mind and summed it up with "Cogito ergo sum" – I think, therefore I am. This and the idea of the religious soul created the philosophy of dualism. Separation of mind and body, mind and brain. Essentially all his philosophical work focused on this conclusion which says the only thing that can be shown is that ‘thought exists’ – therefore self exists, therefore soul exists. What I find fascinating with this is the question of who it is this is being ‘shown’ to. All else other than thought (other people, all sensation, the world around us, the universe itself) could be deception. In other words he retreats into himself and declares pure thought and consciousness along with subjective, deductive reasoning to be the only true thing. This position while undoubtedly philosophical seems clearly a result of his religious beliefs and his anthropomorphic centrism. Certainly a similar path of thought led to belief in gods and religion centuries earlier with the result being the world’s religions based around this core of an everlasting self. Amazingly there are a plethora of philosophers even today who continue to pursue this path. David Chalmers is one. He seems to have picked up the baton and is leading the charge restating Descartes position as what he calls the ‘hard’ problem. Basically his claim is that subjective experience can never be examined or explained by science. He and others of the same mind-set follow this subjective internal reasoning belief in an attempt to separate mind and brain. To essentially take the same dualistic stance as Descartes to claim that consciousness and the mind are something separate from the brain. They believe and have stated that neurologists will never be able to measure or demonstrate consciousness as a function of the brain. This all seems a smokescreen and ruse to me to protect their academic turf or some such thing. I find it hard to believe that anyone could make such a claim and expect it to be seen as science.  
Daniel Dennett a philosopher himself finds it hard to believe as well and continues to fight against these non-scientific claims. There is no scientific evidence to support dualistic mind/brain in any manner yet they continue to make the claim that science will never explain consciousness. Let’s first look at a few facts.
Our brains are approximately 1200 cc in volume and contain over 80-100 billion neurons, each connected to thousands of other neurons forming a massively parallel multiprocessing organ. Now certainly we do not at the present time have the ability to measure all neuronal firings or neurotransmitter and inhibitor concentrations of the brain in real time. Nor could we even attempt to do so without destroying the brain itself. Yet if we were capable of that level of monitoring then almost certainly we’d be able to explain the workings of not only consciousness, but of memory, dreams and other cognitive processes as well.
            Dennett in his book “Consciousness Explained” and in numerous papers, articles and interviews since its publication, details this controversy from his position of evolutionary materialism. Consciousness exists; it exists throughout the animal kingdom at various levels and has developed as a natural survival mechanism. It is nothing special. We can’t yet specify exactly the neuronal or brain functions that describe it, but that is no reason to invoke mysticism (dualism). As with any science there are things we do not yet know and science is perfectly willing to accept that unknown while it continues to search and investigate in hopes of learning more. Unlike religion and philosophy, science does not make up unsupportable answers for question it cannot address.
            All living things have some form of awareness, they must in order to live and survive. They must be able to distinguish between self and surroundings. Now this rudimentary self-awareness may not be in the same conscious manner of awareness as it is in creatures with dedicated nervous systems but the result is the same. Even single celled animals are capable of identifying food sources/particles, surrounding that food with pseudopods and absorbing it to provide fuel to grow and reproduce. Plants turn their leaves to the sun and sink their roots into nutrient rich soil. The cells in any complex organism are constantly communicating with each other via protein and enzyme messages released and absorbed across their cell boundaries. In short they are aware of what is themselves and what is their environment and they make the most of it. As we move ‘up’ the tree of life the capabilities, awareness and abilities increase dramatically. Common to them all though is that they share this core awareness of self and environment up to and including human consciousness.
            If we look across the depth and breadth of living things we see that beyond simple awareness there are a plethora of refinements and enhancements that spring from environmental awareness due to evolution. These adaptations create a full spectrum of awareness and consciousness from virus awareness of environment to human self-consciousness.
            Consciousness on the surface seems quite simple. When you are awake and aware as opposed to asleep or sedated or in some other altered state you are conscious. And while that is a perfectly usable definition if we dig a bit deeper things start to get more complicated. Brain wave monitors (electroencephalographs EEGs) have identified a variety of common brain states based on the frequency, location and duration of neuronal firings in the human (and other animal) brains. These are very large-scale indicators of major brain activity. They tell us nothing about the details of thought, memory or sensation. They were however the first indicators of brain states such as consciousness, awareness, relaxation, active thinking and problem solving. Early studies identified brain characteristics like alpha waves, theta waves, delta waves which each fall into a defined bands of frequencies and were found to correspond to various brain states like alertness, sleeping, focused problem solving, fear and others. Ongoing work in monitoring, imaging using CT-Scans and fMRI among others and studying brain activity has continued to bring us more detail about the specifics of brain and neural processing. The biggest issue is the extreme complexity of the brain. The human brain consists of lobes and sections to which certain activities and abilities are associated. It is as though there are multiple brains built one upon the other. In comparing the brain anatomy from various creatures, including humans it is evident that there are ‘older’ and ‘younger’ sections of the brain. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Our ‘reptilian brain,’ the cerebellum is the oldest and physically the lowest part of the brain just off the brain stem which itself is even older from an evolutionary perspective. The cerebellum in turn is covered by the cerebrum and the neo-cortex. The ‘older’ parts of the brain are responsible for the more basal functions of life such as breathing, heartbeat, maintaining body temperature and metabolism. These are mostly all handled with little to no awareness by our consciousness yet are far from isolated.

If your breathing is stopped it is the cerebellum that initiates the disaster signals that trigger action in all areas of the brain and you are suddenly and fully aware and conscious of your need for air. Slightly more subtle can be the flight-or-fight response to a perceived danger. You might see a saber-toothed tiger lurking in the bushes ahead, your cerebellum immediately and without your direction begins preparing your body for survival. Your heartbeat increases, you senses become ever more alert, your muscles prepare to run or defend yourself. As you become aware of the situation you may over-ride any immediate action by freezing and thinking, or you may not, you may just run in terror. All of these things have aspects of both consciousness and unconsciousness about them. Normally we are not aware of our breathing or heartbeat but we can focus our attention on them and control them to some extent.
            Clearly memory, a separate mental function, plays into consciousness as well, such as ‘what did that last saber-tooth tiger I escaped from do?’ Or while you are thinking about that last encounter the tiger may already be upon you. Survival has to do with many things, many decisions both by evolution and by intelligent awareness.
While it would seem that most researchers agree that consciousness is that alert, aware, focused state of mind that is monitoring and reacting to real-time (or sometimes memory) events, there are a number of medical and research studies that might put this into question. Two of the more well-known ones are split brain and blindsight studies.
            Sometimes in order to stop seizures it is necessary to separate the two halves of the brain surgically. The seizures are like electrical storms in the brain which can rage out of control sending multitudes of signals in random patterns throughout the brain. Sometimes by severing the connections between the brain halves the storm can be stopped in its tracks and allow for a reasonably normal life for the patient. This is done surgically by severing the corpus callosum which connects the two halves of the brain. Where this becomes interesting to consciousness is when tests are done in the laboratory which separate the left and right halves of the sensory input to the brain. Since each half of the brain is responsible for the opposite half of the body it becomes very interesting to test awareness of sensory inputs and what the patient is conscious of in their regard.
            For example, a divider might be placed between the patient’s eyes and images displayed on a computer screen to one eye or the other or both.  This classic study which won the Nobel Prize was done by Roger Sperry in the 1950s. Images show to the right eye/side could be named properly. Images shown to the left side could be drawn by the left hand, but not named. Similar results were found with touching/holding objects like a key or a block. The subject could name the object if placed in his/her right hand, but could not name the object if placed in their left hand. Yet when asked for find the object with their right hand among a group of objects they could unfailingly find it, even though unaware of it and unable to name it. So what does this say about consciousness?
Sperry concluded that there seemed to be two separate streams of consciousness – one in each hemisphere of the brain. It seems from these studies and others that followed that consciousness is linked to language processing at least as far as being able to communicate and be aware of that consciousness. By the same token there is clearly an awareness of sensory input that can be used non-verbally and apparently without awareness by the subject to answer questions (e.g. selecting the correct object with the opposite hand). From this it would seem that our normal consciousness, our self-awareness is only that awareness that is processed by the language-understanding part of our brains in the left hemisphere.
            Blindsight studies are similar and are typically done with subjects that have had one half of the visual context (i.e. one side of the brain) damaged or destroyed through, disease, stroke, etc. Results are similar in that subjects appear to be able to respond to visual stimuli from the blind eye or eyes without any consciousness awareness of sensory input or cognitive processing. In a study with a monkey as cited in the reference section, the monkey’s visual cortex was completely removed. And certainly she could no longer see but still displayed ‘sighted’ behaviors such as protecting her eyes from threats/injury and was at times able to respond to visual stimuli and even navigate through her environment avoiding obstacles. Studies with human subjects have shown similar results. Identifying objects (though not consciously) and navigating in such a way as to avoid obstacles. 
            So what happens to consciousness when you sleep? Clearly by experience and by brain-wave monitoring you are not conscious, yet there are dreams that you often remember upon awaking (clearly identified as dreams, as opposed to memories of real events or experiences). Normal sleep is a very different experience than being under general anesthesia wherein time seems to simply stop, leaving a blank nothingness whereas with sleep it seems one is still aware of passing time.
            What of other altered states of consciousness? Falling-down drunk or high as a kite? Seems they are somewhat similar to sleeping or possibly being anesthetized. When the awake/aware/consciousness is impaired we are not fully conscious. So is it then consciousness that is ‘us?’  Is myself only my consciousness or something more, or different? And what does neurology say?
            We do not yet have any significant results from the Human Brain Mapping project which was initiated this year (2013) by President Obama, there is a similar initiative taking place in Europe and there is much anticipation that the results will be on the same order of magnitude as those of the Human Genome project. Still there is and has been significant research into brains, human and animal alike and not by p-zombies either, by actual scientists such as Stanislas Dehaene and Lionel Naccache who in their paper “Towards a cognitive neuroscience of consciousness: basic evidence and a workspace framework” lay out the basis of understanding consciousness from a neuroscience perspective in a clear and straight-forward manner (see the reference section for a link to the paper). They say,

“…the problem of the cognitive neuroscience of consciousness does not seem to pose any greater conceptual difficulty than identifying the cognitive and cerebral architectures for, say, motor action (identifying what categories of neural and/or information-processing states are systematically associated with moving a limb).”

As to the obstacles:

One major hurdle in realizing this program, however, is that we are still in the grip of a residual dualism∫ (Searle, 1998, p. 1939). Many scientists and philosophers still adhere to an essentialist view of consciousness, according to which conscious states are ineffable experiences of a distinct nature that may never be amenable to a physical explanation. Such a view, which amounts to a Cartesian dualism of substance, has led some to search for the bases of consciousness in a different form of physics (Penrose, 1990.”

            While they lay out a framework for studying consciousness from a scientific perspective, much work has already taken palace and continues. Increasingly detailed scans of the brain (generally while doing specific tasks) with CAT scans, MRI and fMRI scans are filling in gaps in our understanding. FMRI scans in particular allow scientists to see which areas of the brain are most active based on blood flow. Unfortunately the resolution of fMRI scans is only 2-3 mm which is huge compared to individual neurons which are only 4 to 100 micrometers (.004 - .1 mm). Other scanning techniques such as PET scans can detect individual radioisotopes and thus specific neurotransmitters at synapses but require use of radioisotopes and looking at very specific areas. These techniques are further advancing our understanding of how the brain operates and will certainly contribute to the understanding of consciousness
            We are almost daily getting closer to the holy grail of being able to duplicate the brain’s functionality and capacity (e.g. the number of neurons, their functionality and interconnections). Many neuroscientists and computer scientists think we may be capable of this feat by mid-century 2050 or so. Does that mean we would be able to duplicate or transfer a human brain into a computer? Not very likely. There is still much we are learning about the brain, how neurons work and the vast complex interconnected multiprocessing biology of the brain.
            Much work is taking place in the computer and artificial intelligence area. These are not always and not often consciousness type work, but there is much work in implementing neural network type systems which are modeled after the way the brain is wired. They simulate neurons, synapses and massive connectivity.
            Other areas where computers are informing the investigation of consciousness are in natural language understand system (sometimes neural networks as well). One recent example is the Watson system from IBM which defeated the all-time Jeopardy! champions. It is a massive system capable of understanding the often ambiguous questions and formulating answers (in the form of a question) from its mass storage (which includes a large part of the internet – Wikipedia, dictionaries, and encyclopedias stored locally as part of the Watson system).
            Recent attempts at duplicating the brain or sections of it are making progress as well. The Blue Brain project at the Brain and Mind Institute in Lausanne, Switzerland is attempting to create a synthetic mammalian brain down to the molecular level. As of July 2011 they have created a cellular mesocircuit of 100 neocortical columns with a million cells in total. The plan is to duplicate a rat brain rat brain by next year 2014 with 100 mesocircuits totaling a hundred million cells. They expect to create the equivalent of a human brain by 2023 which would be 1000 times the size and capacity of the rat brain.
             Some interesting work is being done by Alice Parker, a USC electrical engineering professor with carbon nanotubes. She and her team have been able to create a transistor from these carbon nanotubes which behaves like the synapse where two neurons meet. This could have significant implications for future brain simulations. Duplicating the synapse between neurons which operate by electro-chemical interaction and enhancement and inhibition by neurotransmitters is a significant hurdle to be overcome in duplicating the functionality of a brain
            So what then of consciousness? What do we take from this examination? Perhaps it is that consciousness is a small part of what we, as well as all other animals are. An important part certainly, a part we would all dearly love to live on forever despite everything we know indicating otherwise. Still if nothing else we can live on in the memory of others, possibly in the things we leave behind, our writing, our images, and our thoughts in some manner or another. If we have children our genes will be passed on as they were passed to us from our parents. Life is a continuous sequence with each of us a single link in its chain. Our thoughts too, informed by family, friends and all we experience both internally and externally become part of our mind and are accessible to our consciousness. Parts of that we can pass on for some fleeting time through our work, through those who have known us and through the things we leave behind. We each are only a tiny eddy, a tiny ripple in the river of life which flows on with or without us, we each take our existence from that river and return to it and on it flows whichever way the wind does blow. As for me, I’ll just sit here contentedly and watch that river flow.



Brain Waves:

Split Brain Studies:


The Hard Problem of Consciousness:

AI, computer brain simulations, etc:

The Blue Brain Project:

Towards a cognitive neuroscience of consciousness: basic evidence and a workspace framework:



Brain Drawing Image:
About the Author

Kenny A. Chaffin writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and has published poems and fiction in Vision Magazine, The Bay Review, Caney River Reader, WritersHood, Star*Line, MiPo, Melange and Ad Astra and has published nonfiction in The Writer, The Electron, Writers Journal and Today’s Family. He grew up in southern Oklahoma and now lives in Denver, CO where he works hard to make enough of a living to support two cats, numerous wild birds and a bevy of squirrels. His poetry collections No Longer Dressed in Black, The Poet of Utah Park, The Joy of Science, A Fleeting Existence, a collection of science essays How do we Know, and a memoir of growing up on an Oklahoma farm - Growing Up Stories are all available at He may be contacted through his website at

He may be contacted through his website at