Chapter 12: Introduction

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Perhaps the greatest mystery of the human mind is how the brain gives rise to consciousness. A three-pound mass of spongy tissue somehow makes humans conscious of what they see, hear, touch, taste, smell, think, remember, and dream. This same grey matter allows humans to have subjective experiences of love, friendship, and the appreciation of music, art, and literature. In addition to conscious awareness, mystical states of consciousness appear to permit extrasensory communication with other human beings and even allow prophetic glimpses of the future.

The psychologist William James (1842 1910) once wrote that we know what consciousness isas long as no one asks us to define it. Nobel Laureate Gerald M. Edelman, director of the Neurosciences Institute, has commented that what is most daunting about consciousness is that it doesn't seem to be a matter of behaviorit just is. "Multiple and simultaneous in its modes and objects, ineluctably ours," Edelman has said, "it is a process and one that is hard to score. We know what it is in ourselves, but can only judge its existence in others by inductive inference."

While no contemporary scientist would disagree that it is the brain that generates consciousness, there is no consensus regarding which parts of the brain are responsible for conscious experience. By assuming, as many scientists do, that consciousness is generated by neurons with special properties or locations in the brain, they leave unanswered the fundamental question: What is the process by which the brain gives rise to consciousness?

Which raises another question: How does conscious brain activity differ from the brain activity directing all of the unconscious actions that have become as automatic as breathing?

Scientists generally agree about the process involved in the brain responding with thought when, for example, one sees an object. Signals from the retina of the eye travel along nerves as waves of electrically charged ions. When these waves reach the nerve terminus, the signal is transmitted to the next nerve via neurotransmitters. Based on the totality of impulses that it receives from the upstream nerves, the receiving nerve decides whether or not to fire. In this manner, electrical impulses are processed in the brain before being transmitted to the physical body. However, while this movement of ions and chemicals may trace the process of thinking and reacting, it still does not reveal the region of the brain that specializes in consciousness.

Professor Johnjoe McFadden from the School of Biomedical and Life Sciences at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, has remarked that it is consciousness that makes individuals human. Without consciousness, "language, creativity, emotions, spirituality, logical deduction, mental arithmetic, our sense of fairness, truth, ethics, are all inconceivable," McFadden told the May 17, 2002, issue of Science News.

McFadden theorizes that the mystery of consciousness might be solved by considering the conscious mind as an electromagnetic field. Every time a nerve fires, according to McFadden, the electrical activity sends a signal to the brain's electromagnetic (em) field. However, unlike solitary nerve signals, information that reaches the brain's em field is automatically linked together with all the other signals in the brain, and the brain's em field creates the binding process that is characteristic of consciousness.

While the conscious electromagnetic information field remains a theory, McFadden believes that it explains, among other things, why conscious actions feel so different from unconscious ones, "because they plug into the vast pool of information held in the brain's electromagnetic field." And the em field of the brain is more than a repository of information. It can influence human activity by pushing some neurons toward firing and others away from firing. If his theory can be demonstrated to be true, McFadden says, it will reveal "many fascinating implications for the concept of free will, the nature of creativity or spirituality, consciousness in animals, and even the significance of life and death."

This chapter will explore many mysteries of the mind, most of which presently defy scientific elucidation. While science may be able to define the process by which many of these mysteries manifest, the actual region of the brain that gives rise to these enigmas remains as unknown as the secret of human consciousness itself. Perhaps one must look outside of the brain and begin to search for evidence of the human soul to explain dreams and their symbols, the higher levels of awareness that may be achieved in various altered states of consciousness, and the riddle of ESP (extrasensory perception), the mind expressing itself outside of the traditional boundaries of space and time.

Delving Deeper

Anderson, Mark K. "Awareness: Mystery of the Mind." Wired News. [Online],1294,51765,00.html. 15 April 2002.

Chalmers, David J. "The Puzzle of Conscious Experi ence." Scientific American Special Issue: Mysteries of the Mind 7, no. 1 (1997): 3037.

Cosmiverse Staff Writer. "The Conscious Mind May Be Electric." Cosmiverse [Online] 17 May 2002.

Hellmich, Nanci. "When Sleep Is But a Dream." USA Today. [Online] 27 March 2001.

Tart, Charles, ed. Altered States of Consciousness. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1969.

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Chapter 12: Introduction

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Chapter 12: Introduction