Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Graphing Consciousness?

The emerging science of consciousness studies has profound implications for the study of magical and mystical experiences. The tool that we would need to measure states of consciousness in an empirical manner hinges upon being able to define what consciousness is in the first place, and a new study from UCLA suggests a possible methodology for constructing such a device by modeling information flow across multiple brain regions.

Lead study author Martin Monti, an assistant professor of psychology and neurosurgery at UCLA, and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how the flow of information in the brains of 12 healthy volunteers changed as they lost consciousness under anesthesia with propofol. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 31 and were evenly divided between men and women.

The psychologists analyzed the “network properties” of the subjects’ brains using a branch of mathematics known as graph theory, which is often used to study air-traffic patterns, information on the Internet and social groups, among other topics. “It turns out that when we lose consciousness, the communication among areas of the brain becomes extremely inefficient, as if suddenly each area of the brain became very distant from every other, making it difficult for information to travel from one place to another,” Monti said.

The finding shows that consciousness does not “live” in a particular place in our brain but rather “arises from the mode in which billions of neurons communicate with one another,” he said.

The connectivity matrix above from the study show results for waking (W), sedation (S), loss of consciousness (LOC), and recovery (R). The two axes of the graphs represent particular brain regions. The correlation strength represents the degree of communication and thus the level of information flow both between and within those regions.

Subjectively, enlightened or awakened states of consciousness seem to possess the property of coherence, a combination of consistency and self-reference. If this study is accurate, it implies that this subjective feeling could be a direct result of heightened information flow between multiple areas. If the relationship between the two is strong enough, it might even mean that the level of overall information flow in the brain could act as a stand-in for the "level" of consciousness itself - and that would really be something.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble


Nerd said...

This is great and everything, and it would be interesting to map the flow of energy between meridians and scalp points, but it's been well known since the publication of the Yellow Emperor's Classic that the mind is located in the heart.

The conscious mind anyway, vis a vis the corporeal soul. The "unconscious" mind is housed in the liver, vis a vis the aetheric soul.

The brain is merely an object in consciousness like a table or chair, and does not have special ontological status. After all, it's well known that consciousness occurs outside of the body, in which case a "brain" isn't even needed.

Scott Stenwick said...

It seems to me that the consequences of brain injuries conflict with that model. If the mind and brain are unrelated to each other, how is it that brain injuries can produce cognitive deficits? What about a person being kept alive by an artificial heart? It appears to be possible to remove the heart from the body and replace it with a machine, after which the patient still exhibits outward signs of consciousness.

As an esotericist I don't believe that the brain and mind are one in the same. Nonetheless, there seem to be strong correlations between the brain and the activity of the conscious mind. As I see it a measuring device based on this graphing concept would not be measuring consciousness directly, but rather strongly correlated information flow between regions. My hope would be that such indirect measurements could suffice in terms of relating states of consciousness to the outcomes of magical rituals, at least up to a point.

Nerd said...

These are excellent points Scott, however I would point to such phenomena as heart blood deficiency, heart fire excess, phlegm misting the mind and phlegm blocking the orifice of the heart as clear evidence supporting my own position.

Then there is also the divinely revealed text of the Yellow Emperor's Classic, of course.

I am skeptical of the whole "emergence" theory in Cog Sci, that "the mind" emerges from "increasing complexity" of the brain structure. Not that I agree with the second law of thermodynamics, of course.

It's clear that anti-entropic phenomena are commonplace, particularly in living organisms.

Scott Stenwick said...

It seems to me that a number of conditions that are addressed from a Qigong perspective do involve the entire nervous system throughout the body, not just the brain. And, in effect, the reality is that the whole CNS is one system that the brain is part of.

I agree that the "emergence" model is probably not the whole picture. In fact, I contend that the best model to represent the relationship between the mind and CNS is a reciprocal one - that is, changes to the mind propagate through to the CNS and vice-versa. Call it the "as above, so below" model - or Hermeticism. It addresses both the effects of cognitive deficits on consciousness and our demonstrable ability to pick and choose our actions.

If that's the correct model it means that this methodology should still work to determine a subject's state of consciousness. You're n effect reading the "shadow" of the mind based on what propagates into the brain, but as long as that shadow is an accurate representation it should yield usable data.