As neuroscientists ra-ce to connect every aspect of human experience to the firing of neurons in the brain, the battle between science and religion is heating up. The past decade has seen a rising tide of interest in consciousness—as an intellectual challenge with rapid progress in the neuroscience of perception, memory and action, with advances in artificial intelligence and dissatisfaction with ‘dualistic’ separation of mind and body.

While Einstein’s theory of relativity (E=mc2) is now basic, known as an ‘effective field theory’ the consciousness debate goes on unchanged. There are copious philosophical outpourings designed to overpower the impressionable people, which contributes not a little, to the ever increasing entropy of this world.

It all began in the seventh century when René Descartes, a French philosopher believed that all thought is conscious. He used the word “conscientiae”, in a way that does not seem to fit this traditional meaning. 

We all have an idea of consciousness, opposite to sleep, coma or death. But it is deeper than these manifestations. For centuries there have been many philosophical interpretations of consciousness by various philosophers who argued with each other. Nor has medical science been able to define it though consciousness can be measured and assessed. Understanding consciousness will lead to an understanding of the existence or not of the soul and God.

Loosely defined, “Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness”- (Schneider 2007). It can be defined as awareness or wakefulness ie the ability to experience “feeling”. Though it may refer to a variety of phenomenon, consciousness refuses to be defined.

The failure to produce a workable definition of consciousness raises formidable philosophical questions, such as that awareness is not a synonym for consciousness.

As a doctor, it is easier for me to start with the meaning of consciousness in medicine ie anaesthesiology. Doctors can only assess if someone is conscious or unconscious, and if unconscious, the degree of unconsciousness. However, in a deeply comatose patient or one in a ‘vegetative state’ it is a matter of concern in deciding how conscious the person is.

In the Sunday Telegraph of January 9 2011 an article appeared about Ariel Sharon (82 yrs), the hero of Yom Kippur War, who has been in vegetative state for the past 5 years after he collapsed on January 4 2006 with a massive stroke. He has been nourished through a feeding tube. His medical team recently told an Israeli newspaper that his brain is the size of a grapefruit, but apart from the part of the brain that keeps his body functioning and his vital organs intact, there is nothing, just fluid. Everyday he is propped up for a few hours in bed with his eyes open. A television is switched on in front and music played when lying in bed. There is no way of knowing whether he sees the television or hears the music ie whether he is conscious or not.

Consciousness in psychology and philosophy typically means something beyond what it means for anaesthesiology. However, within the philosophy of mind there is no consensus. Leibniz, a German philosopher of the Renaissance era, made great contributions in Western thought. According to him and some others (I wrote previously in the Vedanta philosophy), there is the concept of monism and dualism in Western thinking as well.

In monism, there is no distinction between the mental and physical realms; everything is fundamentally the same. It is commonly held that everything is physical, to endorse “materialism”. In dualism, the view is that human beings are made up two components: physical bodies and non-physical minds. Materialism is the theory of choice for many scientists.

It is not understood whether consciousness is present in non-humans and if so how it can be measured; or at what point of fetal development consciousness begins; and whether computers can achieve a conscious state. Some argue that language and consciousness are not innate to humans, a characteristic of human nature, but rather the result of cultural evolution, beginning with something similar to the culture of chimpanzees, that goes back before Darwin to Rousseau’s ‘second Discourse’. (Rousseau, a Swiss-French philosopher wrote: nature established equality among men; men established inequality).

Though humans express their conscious states using language, language can not be solely attributed to consciousness as there are speechless humans such as infants, aphasics, to whom consciousness is attributed despite language not yet acquired or lost.

The notion of consciousness as passive awareness can be contrasted with the notion of the active construction of mental representations (Maturana and Varela). Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins sums up interactive view of experience: “In a way, what sense organs do is assist our brains to construct a useful model and it is this model that we move around in. It is a kind of virtual reality simulation of the world.”

Philosophical approaches to consciousness are of two kinds: (1) phenomenal consciousness (experience). David Chalmers in 1996, deals with the issue of “how to explain a state of phenomenal consciousness in terms of its neurological basis”; and (2) access consciousness—a phenomenon where-by information in our minds is accessible for verbal report, reasoning and control of behaviour.

Events that occur in the mind or brain that are not within phenomenal or access consciousness is known as subconscious events.

In evolutionary biology (evolutionary psychology) consciousness is an adaptation as a trait that increases fitness to survive. Sir John Eccles in his paper “Evolution of consciousness”, argues that anatomical and physical properties of the mammalian cerebral cortex gave rise to consciousness, Konrad Lorenz in his “Search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge” sees the root of consciousness in the process of self-exploration of an organism that sees itself acting and learns a lifetime.

Modern scientific investigations into consciousness are based on case studies of conscious states and deficits caused by lesions, stroke, injury, or surgery that disrupt the normal functioning of human senses and cognition. These studies suggest that the mind is a complex structure with localised functions that are bound together with a unitary awareness.

In the 1990’s the scientific study of consciousness became very popular in Western countries. An international project known as The Human Consciousness Project (HCP) was launched by a consortium of multidisciplinary scientists and physicians in September 2008 at a symposium held at the United Nations. The HCP will conduct the wor-ld’s first large scale scientific study of what happens when we die and the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death.

Although traditionally the subject is considered a matter of philosophical debate in the past, the advancement of modern science, particularly the science of resuscitation has now enabled an objective, scientific approach to seek answers to these questions. These will bear widespread implications for all humanity.

Marked improvements in resuscitation techni-ques since the mid 1950’s, have led to higher survival rates for patients experiencing cardiac arrest (sudden stoppage of heart). Today most scientists have adopted a traditionally monist (monism) view of the mind-brain problem, arguing that human mind, consciousness, and self are no more than by-products of electrochemical activity within the brain, despite the lack of evidence as to how the brain will lead to the development of mind and consciousness.

It is now realised that death is not a specific moment, but a well-defined process. After a cardiac arrest there is a period of time, which may last from a few seconds up to an hour in which emergency me-dical efforts may succeed in restarting the heart and reversing the dying process. The experiences of many people during the period of cardiac arrest provide a unique window of understanding into what people are likely to experience during the dying process.

Researchers have found that 10-20 per cent of individuals who undergo cardiac arrest report, lucid, well structured thought processes, reasoning, me-mories, and sometimes detailed record of their cardiac arrest—a high level of consciousness. What is medically puzzling is that during cardiac arrest there is no measurable brain activity.

The studies appear to suggest that human mind and consciousness may in fact function at a time when the clinical criteria of death are fully present and the brain has ceased functioning.

When my eldest brother was dying and thought unconscious, as I had to leave Imphal to come back to London, with a heavy heart, I said goodbye and he answered back to my surprise. I said “Tada (brother) I have to go and he said “phare phare” (okay, okay).

The HCP not only studies the relationship between mind and brain but may alter our social understanding of death and the dying process and the mystery of consciousness.
The writer is based in the UK