A new theory in physics aims to solve the mystery of consciousness

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Summary: Consciousness cannot simply be reduced to neural activity, the researchers say. A novel study reports that the dynamics of consciousness can be understood using a newly developed conceptual and mathematical framework.

Font: Bar Ilan University

How does 1.4kg of brain tissue create thoughts, feelings, mental images and an inner world?

The brain’s ability to create consciousness has baffled some for millennia. The mystery of consciousness lies in the fact that each of us has subjectivity, something that is like feeling, feeling and thinking.

Unlike being under anesthesia or in deep dreamless sleep, while awake we do not “live in the dark”: we experience the world and ourselves. But how the brain creates conscious experience and which area of ​​the brain is responsible for it remains a mystery.

According to Dr. Nir Lahav, a physicist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, “This is quite a mystery since it seems that our conscious experience cannot arise from the brain and, in fact, cannot arise from any physical process.”

Oddly enough, conscious experience in our brain cannot be found or reduced to some neural activity.

“Think of it this way,” says Dr. Zakaria Neemeh, a philosopher at the University of Memphis, “when I feel happy, my brain creates a distinctive pattern of complex neural activity. This neural pattern will perfectly correlate with my conscious feeling of happiness, but it is not my actual feeling. It’s just a neural pattern that represents my happiness. That’s why a scientist looking at my brain and seeing this pattern should ask me what I’m feeling, because the pattern isn’t the feeling itself, just a representation of it.”

As a result, we cannot reduce the conscious experience of what we perceive, feel, and think to any brain activity. We can only find correlations with these experiences.

After more than 100 years of neuroscience we have very good evidence that the brain is responsible for creating our conscious abilities. So how could it be that these conscious experiences cannot be found anywhere in the brain (or body) and cannot be reduced to any activity of the neural complex?

This mystery is known as the difficult problem of consciousness. It is such a difficult problem that until a couple of decades ago only philosophers discussed it and even today, although we have come a long way in our understanding of the neuroscientific basis of consciousness, there is still no adequate theory that explains what consciousness is and how . to solve this difficult problem.

Dr. Lahav and Dr. Neemeh recently published a new physical theory in the journal Frontiers in Psychology which aims to solve the hard problem of consciousness in a purely physical way.

According to the authors, when we change our assumption about consciousness and assume that it is a relativistic phenomenon, the mystery of consciousness naturally dissolves. In the article, the researchers developed a conceptual and mathematical framework for understanding consciousness from a relativistic point of view.

According to Dr. Lahav, the paper’s lead author, “Consciousness should be investigated with the same mathematical tools that physicists use for other known relativistic phenomena.”

To understand how relativity solves the hard problem, think about a different relativistic phenomenon, constant speed. Let’s choose two observers, Alice and Bob, where Bob is on a train moving with constant speed and Alice watches him from the platform. There is no absolute physical answer to the question of what Bob’s speed is.

The answer depends on the observer’s frame of reference.

From Bob’s frame of reference, you will measure that he is stationary and Alice, with the rest of the world, is moving backwards. But from Alice’s frame, Bob is the one moving and she is stationary.

Although they have opposite measurements, they are both correct, just from different frames of reference.

Since, according to the theory, consciousness is a relativistic phenomenon, we find the same situation in the case of consciousness.

Now Alice and Bob are in different cognitive frames of reference. Bob will measure that he has conscious experience, but Alice only has brain activity with no sign of actual conscious experience, while Alice will measure that she is the one with consciousness and Bob only has neural activity with no clue to his conscious experience.

As in the case of speed, although they have opposite measurements, both are correct, but from different cognitive frames of reference.

As a result, due to the relativistic point of view, there is no problem with the fact that we measure different properties from different reference frames.

The fact that we cannot find actual conscious experience while measuring brain activity is because we are measuring from the wrong cognitive frame of reference.

According to the new theory, the brain does not create our conscious experience, at least not through calculations. The reason we have conscious experience is because of the physical measurement process.

In short, different physical measurements in different reference frames manifest different physical properties in these reference frames, even though these frames measure the same phenomenon.

For example, suppose Bob measures Alice’s brain in the lab while she is feeling happy. Although they observe different properties, they actually measure the same phenomenon from different points of view. Due to their different types of measurements, different types of properties have manifested in their cognitive frames of reference.

For Bob to observe brain activity in the lab, he needs to use measurements of his sensory organs like his eyes. This type of sensory measurement manifests the substrate that causes brain activity: neurons.

This shows the outline of a head.
After more than 100 years of neuroscience we have very good evidence that the brain is responsible for creating our conscious abilities. The image is in the public domain

Consequently, in her cognitive framework, Alice only has neural activity that represents her consciousness, but no sign of her own actual conscious experience. But for Alice to measure her own neural activity as happiness, she uses different types of measures. She doesn’t use sensory organs, she measures the neural representations of her directly by the interaction between one part of her brain with other parts. She measures neural representations of her by her relationships to other neural representations.

This is a completely different measurement than what our sensory system does, and as a result, this type of direct measurement manifests a different type of physical property. We call this property conscious experience.

As a result, from her cognitive frame of reference, Alice measures her neural activity as conscious experience.

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Using the mathematical tools that describe relativistic phenomena in physics, the theory shows that if the dynamics of Bob’s neural activity could be changed to be like the dynamics of Alice’s neural activity, then they would both be in the same cognitive frame of reference. and they would have the exact same conscious experience as each other.

Now the authors want to continue examining the exact minimum measures that any cognitive system needs to create consciousness.

The implications of such a theory are enormous. It can be applied to determine which animal was the first animal in the evolutionary process to have consciousness, when a fetus or infant begins to be conscious, which patients with disorders of consciousness are conscious, and which AI systems are already low grade (if any) of consciousness.

About this research news on consciousness and physics

Author: elana berlander
Font: Bar Ilan University
Contact: Elana Oberlander – Bar-Ilan University
Image: The image is in the public domain.

original research: Open access.
A relativistic theory of consciousness” by Nir Lahav et al. Frontiers in Psychology


A relativistic theory of consciousness

In recent decades, the scientific study of consciousness has significantly increased our understanding of this elusive phenomenon. However, despite the critical development in our understanding of the functional side of consciousness, we are still lacking a fundamental theory about its phenomenal aspect.

There is an “explanatory gap” between our scientific understanding of functional consciousness and its “subjective” phenomenal aspects, referred to as the “hard problem” of consciousness. The phenomenal aspect of consciousness is the first-person answer to the “what is it like” question, and has so far proven recalcitrant to direct scientific investigation.

Naturalistic dualists argue that it is composed of a primitive, private, non-reductive element of reality that is independent of the functional and physical aspects of consciousness. Illusionists, on the other hand, argue that it is simply a cognitive illusion, and that everything that exists is ultimately physical properties, not phenomenal.

We argue that both the dualistic and illusionistic positions are flawed because they tacitly assume that consciousness is an absolute property that is independent of the observer.

We develop a conceptual and mathematical argument for a relativistic theory of consciousness in which a system does or does not have phenomenal consciousness. relative to some observers.

Phenomenal consciousness is neither private nor delusional, just relativistic. In the frame of reference of the cognitive system it will be observable (first person perspective) and in another frame of reference it will not be (third person perspective). Both of these cognitive frames of reference are correct, as in the case of one observer claiming to be at rest while another claims the observer has a constant speed.

Since consciousness is a relativistic phenomenon, neither observer position can be privileged, since both describe the same underlying reality. Based on the relativistic phenomena of physics, we develop a mathematical formalization for consciousness that bridges the explanatory gap and solves the hard problem.

Since the first-person cognitive framework also offers legitimate insights into consciousness, we conclude by arguing that philosophers can usefully contribute to the science of consciousness by collaborating with neuroscientists to explore the neural basis of phenomenal structures.

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