Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What is consciousness?

I'm going to talk for a moment about the binding effect:

Think about how we perceive: you see a bird flying. This gives information to your brain through the eyes. Your eyes transmit that information through the retina, through the optic nerve to the occipital lobe and, eventually, to the frontal lobe.

Now... think about this for a moment: have you ever had the experience of seeing something and not being able to comprehend it for a moment? A part of you understands that you've seen it, but doesn't understand that you have seen anything at the same time. This happens when you see something that just doesn't fit your world, like a clown walking down the street or your grade school teacher in the grocery store. There's a moment of confusion there, and that's that delay between sight and consciousness.

But there's more to it in this. You see that bird and you have a name to connect to it. The name may simply be "bird!" (as opposed to "American Robin," "glossy ibis" or "black-crowned night heron"). So you have this word, and that word comes from your temporal lobe, communicated to the frontal lobe.

But, again, there's more... that bird is in motion. Another part of your brain, the parietal lobe, investigates the pattern of motion that the bird traverses. This, too, is communicated to your frontal lobe.

Your frontal lobe has basic roles here-- if you speak that it's a bird, your frontal lobe (which contains the motor strip) aids in that vocalization.

But it's got a much more important role-- that of central organizer.

What the frontal lobe does here is take -all- this information from all the other parts of your brain and organize it in a fashion which, from our point of view, seems absolutely integrated and instantaneous-- it's smooth enough and fast enough that, for most of us, we're not even -conscious- that it happens.

And yet, transparent process is a fundamental part of our consciousness. We couldn't serve as integrated human beings if we were incapable of processing information quickly and easily, even if the process isn't perfect.

But... we still are not entirely clear as to what consciousness is? What does it mean if the nature of our being can be fundamentally altered by an injury to the frontal lobe? What does it say about our identity? Are we simply machines that can be turned off or reprogrammed, or are we something more elaborate and complicated than that?

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