Scientists are searching for your soul | wibnet.nl
First, the doctors asked her to open and close one of her hands. Then they asked her to rest her hand. Maria Mazurkiewicz did not move – but the electrodes on her head showed that she was listening to the doctors.
The electrodes picked up electrical impulses from the brain, showing that the patient not only responded to what the doctors said, but also heard the difference between the requests.
So she was well aware of her surroundings – and the doctors got a unique insight into her consciousness.
Maria Mazurkevich’s story may help solve one of science’s greatest mysteries.
For thousands of years, the brilliant minds of the world have been trying to understand what consciousness is and where it lies. Some call it the soul, many say it is a separate entity that can even leave the body.
Like other mental properties, consciousness probably resides in the brain—but unlike, say, our ability to recognize faces or formulate a sentence, consciousness is frustratingly elusive and impossible to locate in the jumble of neurons.
But a pioneering international project aims to change that.
Easy problems are hard
It is difficult to say what consciousness is. But the important feature of this is how we feel about the experience we have in the world. Psychologists and neurologists call these feelings cholia.
When we look at a ripe tomato, the brain registers light with a wavelength of 660 nanometers, which is red by definition. However, we do not experience red as a wavelength, but rather red as an indefinable sense of “red”.
And when the volatile chemicals from tomatoes hit the sensory cells in our nose, we smell not methyl salicylate and benzaldehyde, but rather a pleasant tomato scent.
Koala is about the experience of color, sound, smell, taste, and tickle, but it also means falling in love or being sad, or realizing that you are reading this article right now.
Understanding how competencies arise and are interpreted in the brain is what scientists call the “hard problem of consciousness.” and, perhaps, is not solvable only by means of the natural sciences, but extends far into the abstract reasoning of psychology and philosophy.
In contrast to the more philosophical “hard problem”, the “easy problems of consciousness” are more concrete. The point here is not to understand how our experience of consciousness arises, but to identify the complex circuits in the brain that give rise to our consciousness.
These problems are easy only in the sense that they are more tangible than the hard problem and can be dealt with using classical scientific methods. It is almost impossible to beat in all other respects.
Fortunately, this challenge does not deter scientists. In one of the most ambitious scientific projects ever, researchers around the world want to search every cell in the brain to find the seat of consciousness.
The soul hides in turmoil
The Human Brain Project is a collaboration of at least 500 scientists from 16 countries. The project aims, among other things, to map the 86 billion neurons in our brain and investigate how communication between neurons determines our thoughts and behaviour.
The Human Brain Project has already made a number of important discoveries. In 2022, two researchers on the project, Dane Morten Kringelbach and Italian Gustavo Deco, studied brain scans of more than 1,000 people to find out how information and energy flow through neurons from one part of the brain to another.
Researchers Discover That consciousness is the result of a disorder in the brain. This disorder occurs when the information and energy flowing from the brain is chaotic in both time and space, allowing information to be transmitted more efficiently.
This phenomenon can be compared to soup, where the ingredients mix faster if you whisk in all directions in a chaotic manner than by gently tipping the spoon into the pan.
So the flow of information and energy is more chaotic when people are fully conscious, not in an unconscious state like deep sleep and coma.
It was also found that people who are fully conscious have more information flow over long distances than people in a coma. Conversely, comatose subjects had a greater flow of information over short distances in the brain.
In sleeping subjects, the exchange of information over short and long distances was low.
This discovery is a breakthrough, but what exactly it will mean for our understanding of consciousness remains unclear. Its importance won’t become clear until we get a more complete picture of the brain.
Water indicates the main roads
The map of all neurons was still a dream until now. But with the latest advanced technology, the Human Brain Project wants to make this dream come true.
One such technology, 3D-PLI, was developed by German physicist Markus Akser. This technique involves slicing the brains of dead people into slices and then taking pictures of each slice. The computer combines the images into a 3D model of the brain and all its cells.
New techniques can also be used to map the brains of neighborhoods in unprecedented detail. For example, with a special type of MRI scan, scientists can track the movements of water molecules along nerve bundles.
The scanning method shows the extent and breadth of the nerve pathways. The thick bundles of nerves between the two centers of the brain indicate that many signals are being exchanged – so they are the main pathways of the brain.
Thanks to this level of detail, it’s becoming more accurate to determine how the maze of electrical impulses in the brain gives rise to certain thoughts or emotions — and to our consciousness.
Doctors turn unconscious
In addition to new technologies, the exploration of our consciousness is also based on unusual stories, such as that of Maria Mazurkiewicz. She seemed to be in a coma, but she seemed conscious.
If Human Brain Project researchers can examine the brains of people like them, we could gain more insight into how disorders in the brain cause consciousness—or how specific bundles of nerves create that special feeling we get when we experience the world.
This knowledge, in turn, can help us understand the “soft” mechanistic problems of consciousness. And if we understand this, we are also better able to solve the more philosophical difficult problem.
The research will also have important practical applications. This would allow doctors to better identify comatose patients — or even reactivate the consciousness of people in a comatose state.
At least for Maria Mazurkiewicz, the story ended well.
A week later, her body began tracking the brain’s electrical signals so that she could straighten her hand when the doctors told her to. And after a year she fully recovered. She is now working as a pharmacist’s assistant.
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