Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Consciousness: The Mind Messing With the Mind

A paper in The British Medical Journal in December reported that cognitive behavioral therapy — a means of coaxing people into changing the way they think — is as effective as Prozac or Zoloft in treating major depression.

In ways no one understands, talk therapy reaches down into the biological plumbing and affects the flow of neurotransmitters in the brain. Other studies have found similar results for “mindfulness” — Buddhist-inspired meditation in which one’s thoughts are allowed to drift gently through the head like clouds reflected in still mountain water.

Findings like these have become so commonplace that it’s easy to forget their strange implications.

Depression can be treated in two radically different ways: by altering the brain with chemicals, or by altering the mind by talking to a therapist. But we still can’t explain how mind arises from matter or how, in turn, mind acts on the brain.

This longstanding conundrum — the mind-body problem — was succinctly described by the philosopher David Chalmers at a recent symposium at The New York Academy of Sciences. “The scientific and philosophical consensus is that there is no nonphysical soul or ego, or at least no evidence for that,” he said.

Descartes’s notion of dualism — mind and body as separate things — has long receded from science. The challenge now is to explain how the inner world of consciousness arises from the flesh of the brain.

Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, suggested to the audience that consciousness is a kind of con game the brain plays with itself. The brain is a computer that evolved to simulate the outside world. Among its internal models is a simulation of itself — a crude approximation of its own neurological processes.

The result is an illusion. Instead of neurons and synapses, we sense a ghostly presence — a self — inside the head. But it’s all just data processing.

“The machine mistakenly thinks it has magic inside it,” Dr. Graziano said. And it calls the magic consciousness.

It’s not the existence of this inner voice he finds mysterious. “The phenomenon to explain,” he said, “is why the brain, as a machine, insists it has this property that is nonphysical.”

The discussion, broadcast online, reminded me of Tom Stoppard’s newest play, “The Hard Problem,” in which a troubled young psychology researcher named Hilary suffers a severe case of the very affliction Dr. Graziano described. Surely there is more to the brain than biology, she insists to her boyfriend, a hard-core materialist named Spike. There must be “mind stuff that doesn’t show up in a scan.”

Mr. Stoppard borrowed his title from a paper by Dr. Chalmers. The “easy problem” is explaining, at least in principle, how thinking, memory, attention and so forth are just neurological computing. But for the hard problem — why all of these processes feel like something — “there is nothing like a consensus theory or even a consensus guess,” Dr. Chalmers said at the symposium.

Or, as Hilary puts it in the play, “Every theory proposed for the problem of consciousness has the same degree of demonstrability as divine intervention.” There is a gap in the explanation where suddenly a miracle seems to occur.

by George Johnson, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Chris Silas Neal