Consciousness is one of the most misused and confused terminologies of the modern times.
It’s one thing for psychologists, another for doctors, AI developers and scientists, and yet another for spiritual teachers.
For one group consciousness is something mystical, something existing on a another dimension, for others it’s the aware part of our psyche, the one in front of a much larger part we call subconsciousness, and for a third group consciousness is a biological produce by our physical processes and neural activity.
This ‘confusion’ is because none of them fully understands what they are talking about. As far as they know, they might be talking about 3 separate aspects of one larger element. But that’s ok, nobody completely understands consciousness, and even if we understand it, we’ll do that through a human perspective.
Classical neurology defines consciousness as the ongoing process of arousal and awareness. Its origin however, has been much harder to pinpoint. Now, researchers at Harvard Medical School, along with colleagues at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, have discovered the neural network from which consciousness derives.
For a long time scientists theorized that the source of consciousness is at the beginning of our spinal cord. This part controls breathing, heart function, and the sleep-wake cycle. However, where awareness comes has been a mystery. Previous speculations say it resides in the cortex, the newest parts of the brain, and its outermost layer.
For the first time, neuroscientists have found a connection between these two regions, and according to Michael D. Fox, MD, PhD, a researcher on this study, they say that this neural network is most likely the source from where consciousness derives.
To conduct the study, Fox and colleagues recruited 36 patients with brainstem lesions. 12 of these were in a coma and the remaining 24 conscious.
Those subjects who were unconscious showed damage to a small area of the brainstem known as the “rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum”. “When it is damaged, almost every patient became comatose,” Fox said. Only one of the 24 conscious patients did not see damage to this area of the brainstem.
Due to this, researchers established that the tiny region plays a vital role in consciousness.
Next, the neuroscientists turned to a map of the human connectome to investigate the connections between regions. They found two areas in the cortex connected to this part of the brainstem. That led them to believe these three regions make up a neural network from which, consciousness derives.
In a follow-up segment, researchers examined the brains of 45 patients in a coma or vegetative state with an fMRI. They found in all the patients that these three regions were out of commission.
These regions certainly have a big impact on our consciousness and awareness, they might be even the closest scientists ever got to the source of consciousness. But what if we are looking at consciousness all wrong?
We know that there is a tiny amount of consciousness in things that have no neurons or connectomes at all. So why are we looking to find the source inside our brain?
What if we are looking to find the source of the fire in the smoke the fire creates?
What if consciousness is an element of a much larger picture, and we look too close to see it?
This research, of course, is an incredible find. But it focuses only on one aspect of what we call consciousness. And to find the real source of consciousness, I think we need to combine all the aspects, psychology, science, spirituality.