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WHEW!

Posted Dec 18 2009 2:08pm
Indeed, it's been FOREVER since I have found the time to post here in the blogging world. People have probably thought I had dropped off of the face of the planet, but rest assured I have not :) I have, however, been unbelievably busy with school for myself, school for my girls, therapies for my 'lil man, and just busy with life in general. It's the holidays, I think that kind of says it all. 


However, my need for knowledge didn't stop even if I had to utilize my schoolwork to make it happen. In my Rise of Modern Science class we were assigned a 2000 word opinion paper, that had to be in regards to a topic of scientific nature. Let me just say, that unless it is neuroscience or psychology I'm not loving the topic of science. However, I was ecstatic to write this paper since I immediately had a topic. Since it was to be an opinion paper, it had to be a topic of controversy. I love neuroscience, plus I love arguing controversies within neuroscience...my 'lil miracle man just gave me my topic!


So here it is, my paper in all it's glory. Pray for an A and enjoy...


Abstract

            The study of consciousness within the branch of neuroscience is a topic avoided by most researchers, viewed as a matter of philosophical relevance rather than that of importance within the field of neuroscience. However, an understanding of the functioning of the conscious and its existence without a clear cerebral cortex for this function to lie within as primarily thought, gives an added enlightenment to solving the many mysteries of the brain and that of its adaptability capabilities and functioning skills under extreme conditions. In the pages that follow, I will briefly explore the scientific branch of neuroscience and discuss my own understanding of the existence of consciousness essentially “without a brain.”

 The Neuroscience of Consciousness

To begin an opinion paper surrounding the topic of consciousness within the field of neuroscience, perhaps I should discuss what this scientific discipline includes. I will touch a bit on the field of neuroscience, its history, and what subject matter are issues examined within this field of science. Since the brain is the heart of neuroscience, the topic of the brain is what I will primarily stick to in discussing this scientific discipline. Then on to the topic of consciousness, what it is and where it exists within our bodies. Lastly, although this entire paper will be dotted with many opinionated points on this heartfelt subject, I will further discuss my belief that a conscious state can indeed exist without observable existence of a large majority of the brain whether through devastation through traumatic brain injuries or non-existence due to congenital disorders, primarily hydranencephaly.
   Neuroscience is the study of the central nervous system-which includes the brain, the spinal cord, and the networks of sensory nerve cells, better known as neurons. It was not until most recent decades that neuroscience was even a recognized discipline within the scientific community (Society, 2009). With the development of and technological advances in imaging, such as the Magnet Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine, scientists have been able to explore the inner workings of the brain, beyond the belief that it is simply just a mysterious black box within our skulls. Up until this point in the 20th century, they knew nothing beyond the fact that the brain was like a computer. Researchers found that they could input information and it would return the favor by responding with information out (Smith, 2003-2009). It is now a broad field, integrating variations in chemistry, biology, and physics with studies of structure, physiology, and behavior, to include human emotional and cognitive behaviors as well (Society, 2009). The study of consciousness specifically, continues to be one of great controversy within the field of neuroscience. Generally left to experts in the fields of psychology or physiology, exploring the topic of consciousness adds to the long list of mysteries surrounding the brain and its functioning capabilities, not to mention the exact definition of what consciousness even includes or whether it is even contained solely within our brain alone.
So, what is the definition of consciousness? The answer to this question greatly varies depending on from what source you seek the answer. Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary states that consciousness is “the totality in psychology of sensations, perceptions, ideas, attitudes, and feelings of which an individual or group is aware at any given time span.” Note that even the definition of consciousness from a medical dictionary, keeps the basis within the realm of psychology and not in broader terms to envelope other scientific disciplines.
Another concept in the definition of consciousness comes from the idea that consciousness is nothing short of a biological phenomenon, and is a part of our biological histories along with digestion, growth, mitosis, and meiosis. This biological phenomenon is viewed a subjective state of awareness that begins when one awakes to start the day from a dreamless sleep and continues throughout the day until one goes to sleep at night or falls in to a coma, dies, or otherwise becomes ‘unconscious’. While being a matter of ‘subjectivity’, consciousness also is private to each individual person. Each person feels a varied state of pains, tickle sensations, itches, thoughts, and feelings and this could explain why it is difficult to determine the exact definition of consciousness (Searle, 1992). The definition is seemingly different to different people, and the realm of consciousness is one of great mystery within itself.
Regardless of what defines consciousness, it exists within our minds and within our brain. That alone would be a great misconception, one of many in the mysterious field of neurosciences, especially those involving consciousness. Contrary to popular theory, that consciousness comes from, or is even identical to, electrical and chemical processes, which unfold within the brain, others believe that it arises elsewhere. The other theory to consider is that consciousness comes from a more subtle, yet to be discovered brain process, or perhaps even a mind-like material that is quite distinct from the brain itself--some would say a soul (World, 2007).
Studies are undergoing, and although researchers in support of any theory in existence regarding the defining of consciousness have failed to provide any clear-cut final answers, too much real-life evidence has effectively proven to me that consciousness exists elsewhere than within the brain alone. I have a nearly 18 month old little boy who could prove to the world that he is indeed conscious and aware of all aspects of the world in which he lives in, without a large portion of his brain. All studies and my personal opinion aside, however, can the neurosciences successfully explain consciousness?
One thing that is agreed upon by each inquisitive researcher is that consciousness is about first-person experiences and the subjective qualities of those experiences. Science is clearly about third-person experiences and the objective qualities of those experiences and it is important that those objective qualities are also observable by others. Perhaps scientists have been looking to the wrong place, within the brain, for the answers to our consciousness when in actuality it exists elsewhere. Science wants a materialistic destination for the consciousness to reside within, however perhaps there is no such specific destination for it to exist. Thomas Knierim notes a great quote regarding this materialistic assumption: “To think that consciousness resides within the brain is akin to thinking the images on a TV screen reside within the television itself.” The brain functions under examination, in fact, could even base themselves around our consciousness and not the other way around (Knierim, 2009). Many studies do indeed suggest that conscious contents immobilize various observable areas within the brain, rather than the brain performing functions to initiate a conscious response (Baars & Seth, n.d.).
Most neuroscientists have given up searching for this neural correlate of the consciousness within the brain, since their have been no connections within brain research that shows a destination for thoughts, beliefs, and conscious experience (Knierim, 2009). This would explain the vast array of contradictory information in regards to the topic of consciousness within the neurosciences. There has been no pinpointed location for the consciousness to reside. There are, however, three common theories agreed upon by most in their pursuit to explain consciousness.
The first is simply that the subject is just much too complex to be explainable, that the brain cells and neural network are the mind and consciousness, the end. That sounds like a means for giving up. Secondly, another theory states that the exact correlates from within the brain itself have yet to be discovered within the immense amounts of mysterious folds. Lastly, the third theory states that the mind, brain, and consciousness are interdependent processes that will eventually be explainable as a whole filling in the ‘explanatory gap’ that exists on the subject of consciousness (Explanatory, 2009). Consciousness is indeed a part of something much larger than just an entity of its own rite, it is not just a light bulb within the brain that functions as simply the conscious.
   Although most people, researchers, and other professionals in the medical field included, would argue that consciousness simply cannot exist without a brain, this belief has been clinically shown to be untrue. To many living typical lives, consciousness is life, or at the very least determines quality of life. A long-term loss of consciousness is typically established by less observable activity within the brain, lack of response or intentional actions, failure to communicate independently. Most believe that life is unsustainable without a brain, no aspect of life conscious or subconsciously can exist without the control center of the body.
There are instances in which the brain proves otherwise, consciousness exists and a great quality of life is achieved all while missing all of or having a large majority of the functioning parts of the brain nonexistent. The cerebral cortex makes up two-thirds of the mass, and is the most highly developed part of the human brain, responsible for thinking, perceiving, producing, and understanding language. Most of the actual processing of information takes place within the cerebral cortex, which is also divided in to lobes with specific functions. There are areas involved in hearing, vision, touch, movement, smell, thinking, and reasoning. Anatomically, without the cerebral cortex, you cannot have any determinable intelligence or personality, cannot interpret sensory impulses, cannot possess active motor functioning, experience touch sensations, nor be capable of planning or organization (Bailey, n.d.). Without these skills, how can you possess consciousness? Consciousness, or existence, just simply is not possible without the cerebral cortex, without the powerhouse of your brain and your body.
Now I will delve in to the even bigger mystery, bigger than the idea of consciousness alone, one that I experience daily and still have yet to meet many professionals who believe it. Neuroscientists have gained enough research ground to, if not effectively define at the very least, establish that the consciousness exists in part with the functioning of the brain and workings of the mind. Whether consciousness exists within the brain itself is undetermined, but it cannot exist without the brains functioning. Life cannot exist without the brain, right. Experiences create life, and consciousness is simply defined as the “medium” of these experiences (Merker, 2006).
Wrong, so very wrong. Consciousness and life may be one in the same, however they can exist without the cerebral cortex to have control. Consider a stroke patient who has experienced irreversible damage to their brain. Does that mean that they no longer can exist, that they no longer experience a level of consciousness or awareness, that they no longer can sustain a high quality of life? For a time after initial trauma to the brain, functions are slower and may need extra time to reestablish proper working order. The body may never be functioning at the same level as prior to injury, however the brain is miraculous in ways unimaginable to most.
In another instance, consider a child who suffers a stroke in-utero and experiences devastating damage to their brain during the most critical times of the developmental process. In some very serious cases, the brain is so severely damaged that the body actually reabsorbs the cerebral cortex and other functioning aspects of the brain, replacing it with sacs simply filled with nothing more than cerebrospinal fluid. The child is left with primarily only a brain stem, which is responsible for the unconscious and uncontrollable aspects of life such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. This condition is called hydranencephaly, and although there are varying severities, this condition proves that the brain and its set of predetermined functions are reprogrammable. Consciousness, wakefulness, awareness, personality, motor functions, and just existence in general can all exist miraculously within a less than whole brain. In noted cases, when professionally examined after stabilization has taken place, and in the setting of the home environment upon which these medically fragile children reside, proof of being not only awake, but of the kind of responsiveness to their surroundings that qualifies as a state of consciousness by the criteria of ordinary neurological examination is often exhibited (Merker, 2006). Again, my very own son, for instance, lives in a constant alert state of consciousness contrary to belief otherwise.
The term used for this reprogramming of functions within the brain, which makes the above possible and gives the ability to reestablish such “normal” functioning as well as consciousness and awareness, is termed neuroplasticity. Fortunately, our brains are unbelievably adaptive even in times of dire circumstances. This special characteristic of the brain, allows for the estimated 100 billion nerve cells that reside in a human brain, to lay down new paths of communication, thereby aiding the processes of learning, memory, consciousness, and adaptation through experience. Since neuroplasticity is not exclusive to any one part of the brain, it ultimately proves that the functions “typically” found exhibited within one area can rewire themselves for functioning in another. Plasticity is the “saving grace” of an injured brain, providing new life and better chance of a conscious existence when both seem impossible to achieve (Introduction, n.d.).
In cases of an injured brain, without the neuroplasticity phenomenon, these lost functions could forever be gone or disabled processes never achieved. It allows for compensation for the irreparably damaged or dysfunctional neural pathways by strengthening or rerouting our remaining ones. This process occurs in more than one way, depending upon the need determined within the body, however, there are four major patterns of plasticity that are affective in different situations. In the first pattern, healthy cells can surround the damaged areas by creating a bigger surface area for the injured brain to acquire changes in function through “functional map expansion.” Another pattern, “compensatory masquerade,” allows for reorganization of the neural pathways to achieve greater functionality from the healthy connections. Yet another neuroplasticity process, “homologous region adoption,” allows for one entire healthy area of the brain to take over functions lost by the damaged area. Lastly, in “cross-model reassignment,” one type of sensory input will overtake the other and replace it all together. Regardless of the patterns used, neuroplasticity can begin to be taken of great advantage in the field of neurosciences, including the currently uncharted territories of human behavior and consciousness (Introduction, n.d.).
Whether there is any set course of defining consciousness, I believe it safe to agree that consciousness cannot reside in a predetermined area within the brains highest functioning cerebral cortex. It would be of great benefit for the field of neurosciences to continue their pursuits in examining the topic of consciousness, and confront some of the contradictory evidence supplied by unfinished pursuits for answers. The importance is not simply to create a more clear-cut definition, but also to better understand the correlations between brain activities and consciousness, to gain a better grasp in the understanding of the brain and its functions as a whole and not simply from a psychological or physiological perspective.

 References

Baars, Bernard, & Seth, Anil (n.d.). Theories and Models of Consciousness in Neuroscience.            Retrieved December 14, 2009, from the Sussex University PDF file found at the

            following Web site: www.cogs.susx.ac.uk.

Bailey, Regina, Biology Guide (n.d.). Cerebral Cortex. Retrieved December 16, 2009, from the           About.com: Biology Web site: http://biology.about.com/od/anatomy/a/aa032505a.htm.

consciousness. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary. Retrieved December 16, 2009,           from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/consciousness.

Explanatory Gap (2009). ‘Explanatory Gap’ of Brain, Mind, and Consciousness and Human           Consciousness. Retrieved December 16, 2009, from the Explanatory Gap Web site:      http://explanatorygap.com/exgap1.aspx.

Introduction to Neuroplasticity (n.d.) What is Neuroplasticity, Anyway? Retrieved December 16,       2009, from the MemoryZine: Your Source for Memory Health & Fitness Web site:       http://www.memoryzine.com/neuroplasticity.htm.

Knierim, Thomas (2009). Conscious Mind: Fundamental Nonlocal Consciousness. Retrieved           December 16, 2009, from The Big View Web site:      http://www.thebigview.com/mind/nonlocal.html.

Merker, Bjorn (2006). Consciousness Without a Cerebral Cortex: A Challenge for Neuroscience   and Medicine. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved July 13, 2008, via email from Mr.          Merker. Published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.  

Searle, John (1992). The Problem of Consciousness. Retrieved December 15, 2009, from the            University of Southampton Website: http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/Papers/Py104/searle.prob.html.

Smith, S.E. (2003-2009) for the Conjecture Corporation. What is Neuroscience? Retrieved    December 15, 2009, from the Wise Geek Web site: http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-     neuroscience.htm.

Society for Neuroscience (2009). What is Neuroscience? Retrieved December 15, 2009, from the      Society for Neuroscience Web site:            http://www.sfn.org/index.cfm?pagename=whatIsNeuroscience.

World Science (2007). What is consciousness? Study Aims to Settle Debate. Retrieved December    16, 2009, from the World Science Web site: http://www.world-     science.net/exclusives/070520_consciousness.htm.


So, hopefully you survived that :) Really, although the reading I do is full of heaps and heaps of technical jargon, I have kept my dictionary handy enough times that I can pretty well translate it in to more readable material. Perhaps one day I'll be a neuroscientist myself and solve all these mysteries of the brain...or at the very least prove to these medical "professionals" that the things they were taught in medical school is a bunch of bologna, at least on the topic of the brain and it's conditions and prognosis anyways!
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