The inner world of man has interested philosophers since ancient times. Plato thought the soul to be the organ of experience, Aristotle studied it in De Anima, and Descartes proclaimed “I think, therefore I am” in the 1600s – a realisation that has been distorted ever since. For a long time, philosophy was the authority on mental matters.

Up until the 1850s the human mind was conceived to be something beyond scientific observation. The idea of a Cartesian soul was first shaken by the phrenologists in the early 1800s, who believed that the human mind was a biological phenomenon to be studied by scientific methods instead of mere metaphysics and philosophy. The first theory of consciousness was the work of physicist Gustav Fechner in 1860. He managed to make a connection with the subjective experience and physical measurements.

But then the rise of behaviourism in the 1920s attacked the study of consciousness and introspectionism. Its founder John B. Watson stated that both consciousness and soul were beyond all scientific measurement, and they remained mere metaphysical speculations. This was then the wave psychology chose to ride on. In addition, along came Freud with his emphasis on the subconscious, and the conscious mind was swept under the rug.

Until the 1980s consciousness remained somewhat taboo in psychology, but finally the cognitive neuroscience emerging in the 1990s brought the study of consciousness back on the scientific map. Suddenly, and a little unexpectedly, the modern science of consciousness was born.

Human consciousness is the final frontier of science. We have been to space and studied the DNA inside our own bodies, but the workings of the mind are still almost inexplicable to us. What mysteries still lie undiscovered in the amazing circuitry of our brain? And what does all of this have to do with zombies and bats?

Science of the subjective

Antti Revonsuo, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Skövde, Sweden, and Professor of Psychology at the University of Turku, defines consciousness in his recent book Consciousness - The study of subjectivity as:

“The inner stream of subjective experience, which is directly present for us and continuously revealing itself to us. The science of consciousness studies the reality of our conscious life – our psychological lives as streams of subjective experiences.”

Although having its roots deep in philosophy and history, the study of consciousness is a relatively new field. Psychology, behavioural science, cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience all verge on consciousness in their approach, but the inner subjective life of men has been a subject that’s too hot to handle.

This may be because consciousness is a difficult matter for scientific research because of its subjective nature. As no one feels, sees or hears just the way you do, no one will ever have the same experience you do; thus there is no way to measure the experience objectively. This is what makes the scientific study of consciousness difficult.

Even if we scan your brain activity with the latest brain scanning technology, we will at best only see patterns of neural or metabolic activity in the brain; through objective measurements we will not see anything even remotely resembling your experiences. The experiences exist only for a single person, you, from your first-person perspective in your subjective psychological reality.

Modern philosophy is familiar with the problematique and has a name for it. David Chalmers called it “The Hard Problem.” He made the distinction between the easy problems (reporting mental states and their neural correlates), and the hard one (what does any of that have to do with the phenomenal experience).

“In trying to explain consciousness itself, this independent element, the standpoint from which the explanation is offered and in terms of which it is understood, contains the very thing we want to explain. Nor can we remove it since the standpoint of consciousness is an essential part of any offered explanation. Naturalising consciousness is akin to a camera trying to take a picture of itself; the best it can capture are reflections,” writes William Seager in his book, Theories of Consciousness.

The mind-body problem

So, the reason for science not wanting to touch the concept of consciousness could be that the arising problems are extremely difficult. The questions of ‘what is consciousness?’ and ‘where is it located?’ have baffled philosophers for centuries and continue to do so even today. In the study of consciousness, it is called the mind-body problem.

What is the human mind, and how does it relate to the physical body? Is it something independent and different, or just part of the same organic matter? Is there some mystical spiritual matter or soul-stuff, or is it nothing more than the electrical impulses of the brain? There is of course no definitive answer, but two opposing approaches.

The dualistic theories state that there are two types of substance in existence: One of them physical, and the other mental. The non-physical substance is often depicted as some kind of ghostly soul-stuff that is beyond all physical measurements and observations. Monistic theories, on the other hand, say that the universe consists of one sort of substance only. The theories disagree, however, whether the substance is completely physical, mental or something different altogether.

In the modern science of consciousness there are two primary methods of collecting data: the study of neurological patients who have suffered a brain lesion that affects some part of consciousness, and laboratory measurements of natural brain activity in normal subjects to record the conscious phenomena. The research shows that certain areas of the brain are concerned with certain aspects of the conscious mind.

So, in light of the empirical studies we can be fairly certain that consciousness exists in – or at least is generated by – the living human brain. As to how this happens, we don’t know. We don’t know how any physical system could ever produce or give rise to any subjective, qualitative experiences. Any attempt at an explanation of the connection between the physical and the phenomenal realms falls headlong into a bottomless chasm: the unbridgeable Explanatory Gap. We don’t know how the brain could produce the consciousness.

“I am optimistic about the prospects for science one day to be able to explain how consciousness emerges from brain activity, just as it is possible now to explain how life emerges from nonliving physical matter,” Revonsuo says. Science acknowledges the difficulty of the hard problem and the expansive width of the explanatory gap, but Revonsuo remains optimistic. “All major scientific breakthroughs are unimaginable before their time has come.”

Matter of fact

When scientists switch off their MRIs, the philosophers begin sharpening their pencils and their minds. “It looks like the current paradigm in cognitive neuroscience will be unable to solve the mystery of consciousness. Philosophy will remain in a key role as long as empirical science has nothing to offer on the hard problem,” says philosopher Paavo Pylkkänen, Lecturer in Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Helsinki.

The brain scanning approach of reducing human consciousness to a complicated, materialistic machine isn’t enough to explain human experience, but there might be a philosophical answer on the horizon. Modern physics, quantum mechanics and relativity in essence have revolutionised our concept of matter.

“One of the most interesting speculations in recent quantum theory is physicist David Bohm’s idea that something like information might be influencing the movement of elementary particles, along with the more familiar mechanical forces. That suggests that matter is not mechanical at the more fundamental levels,” says Pylkkänen. We are seeing the essence of matter in a new light. This gives hope of a new understanding of the universe, as well as the makings of consciousness.

“Given that conscious experience is connected with information, and that information might play a fundamental role in physics, opens up one way of understanding the place of consciousness in nature. A certain kind of information might be the missing link between objective matter and subjective consciousness. This sort of idea has been explored by David Chalmers, William Seager and myself, among others,” explains Pylkkänen.

Night of the living braindead

Everyone has heard of zombies, right? How does the term relate to the study of consciousness, unless it refers to a scientist fatigued with his work and becoming one of the living dead? The definition of zombie in philosophy is: A being that is externally indistinguishable from a normal human being but has no phenomenal consciousness whatsoever. A zombie is a nonconscious being, a creature or mechanism that has no stream of subjective life.

The idea of zombies began as a philosophical test: Could we imagine a being without consciousness that does however behave and look exactly as if it were conscious? To understand consciousness, we need the opposite, the non-conscious zombie to reflect it against.

Zombies are systems that process information physically identically to us, but without the conscious experience. “The idea that a physical replicant of a human would not be necessarily conscious suggests that consciousness could be something other than mere physics,” Pylkkänen points out.

There have also been found zombie systems in the brain. After brain injury, the connection between conscious and unconscious information may be lost. This leads to the curious situation where a patient denies (conscious) perception of the stimulus but still reacts to, or manipulates, the stimuli as if something inside him – a zombie system – perceives the stimulus accurately.

What is it like to be a bat?

In 1974, philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous article What is it like to be a bat? posed the question that has baffled scientists ever since: “What is life like for a bat as a subjective, conscious being?” Nagel first pointed out that none of the popular theories of his time were able to answer the question. And, despite the fact that we may one day be able to describe bat behaviour, anatomy, physiology and neuroscience, we would still not know what it is like to be a bat. Nagel suggested three thought experiments.

First, we could try and imitate the bat way of life. However, that would only result in knowing what it is like for a human to try being a bat. Second, we could look for shared experiences with men and bats. There would be few. Hunger, thirst and cold, for sure, but the whole subjective experience of being a bat would still be uncovered. Third, and this was but a science fiction fantasy for Nagel, we could be gradually transformed into a bat and then back into a human.

This sounds promising, but let’s not be deceived. If a mad scientist could transform himself into a bat, he would then have no way of communicating to his fellow researchers what it is like. Nor would he even remember that he should be doing research. And when he would be transformed back into a human, he would not remember his experience or be able to share it in words, no more than any of us can describe what it was like to be a baby. Nagel concludes that science will probably never know what it is like to be a bat.

The truth about magic

Our understanding of how the mind works opens doors to such miracles as magic. It seems that the magician vanishes objects into thin air, but in fact he uses inattentional blindness and change blindness to reach the same effect. We see the act but it does not register in our consciousness as the spotlight of our attention is directed elsewhere. We are in fact blind to stimuli outside the centre of our consciousness, and are not aware of what we have seen.

Rather more mysterious phenomena, however, are the out-of-body experiences (OBEs) some people claim to have had. An OBE is an experience where a person’s point of view changes to a visual perspective or a seemingly spatial location outside the same person’s physical body. The subject may see its body from the outside, but having a ghostly body form you may know as the “astral body.”

People typically interpret OBEs as evidence that something purely mental – a spirit or a soul – actually does leave the body during the experience.

There is, however, no solid evidence that anyone has ever been outside of their physical body, but there is converging evidence that shows certain cortical areas to be crucial for OBEs. People who have brain damage in those areas have reported OBEs, and the direct stimulation of that part of the brain can induce OBE-like experiences in controlled experiments.

Thus, one perfectly natural neuroscientific explanation for OBEs, supported by all the evidence, is the temporary failure to bind the body image and the visuospatial representation of the world coherently together in the temporoparietal cortex.

The true magic in our world doesn’t necessarily lie in the hands of the magicians. The consciousness itself is a wondrous mystery. We are yet unable to explain the system that allows us the colours and the variety of our subjective experience and brings us in touch with the miracles surrounding us every single moment.

“If people were to understand how wonderful and inexplicable it is that consciousness actually exists, maybe there would be no need to look for mysticism in the paranormal,” says Revonsuo.

The really difficult problem

We remain confused in the complex web of our brain, the universe with which it interacts and the limitations of objective scientific methodology. But knowing that we know nothing is knowing something.

Human consciousness, perhaps alone in the whole universe, owns the ability to not only feel its own existence (phenomenal consciousness) but also to think about it and understand it (reflective consciousness): to know its place and its sinister fate in the universe (self-awareness). The human subject’s inner life is but a tiny, brief spark of feeble phenomenal light in a vast, black, nonconscious cosmos.

This may sound bleak, but for us as conscious beings there is one more question left. What should we do with our consciousness? The answer might not be as gloomy. Understanding the mind brings us closer to understanding our own humanity, and opens a door for new ways to better our subjective well-being. On any theoretic basis, it would make sense to aim at a pleasurable, meaningful and a happy inner subjective life. As Revonsuo puts it, “We should enjoy being alive.”

That’s all nice and dandy, but what if our subjective experience happens to be less than happy? Are we stuck with the brain we were born with, or can our consciousness evolve? Is there anything we can do about it?

“We can change or refine our own consciousness so that certain higher, positive states of consciousness become stronger and easier to achieve,” assures Revonsuo. There is great potential in the human mind, but with great power comes great responsibility, as they say. Are we going to use our immense brainpower for good or for evil? Revonsuo, a man of science, believes that the potential in human consciousness could be harnessed for the betterment of mankind.

“We have an ability to understand the way other conscious beings feel, and put ourselves in their position. If we were to value that ability to feel empathy as highly as we today value intelligence, language, mathematics, economic growth etc, it could mean a change for the progress of man.”

So maybe, even scientifically, the Buddhists were on to something.

The italicised excerpts are from Antti Revonsuo’s new book, Consciousness - The Science of Subjectivity, published by Hove and London, UK: Psychology Press in 2010.

Paavo Pylkkänen explains his view of consciousness, information and quantum theory in his 2007 book Mind, Matter and the Implicate Order (New York and Berlin: Springer).

Niina Mero