Does consciousness really exist?
brain research : The riddle of consciousness - solved soon?
Human consciousness is perhaps the last great unsolved mystery of our existence. We may never find out what makes it special. So that feeling of self-awareness, of inner freedom, of life in the first person. Perhaps natural science is fundamentally denied access to this sphere of the personal. Maybe she will never be able to explain where this sense of self comes from.
At least that is the skeptical position taken by the Australian philosopher David Chalmers. Others, like his American colleague Daniel Dennett, are less pessimistic. Dennett considers consciousness to be an "illusion". The human brain created it to have a "user-friendly interface". From his point of view, our consciousness is a delusion, somewhat comparable to an optical illusion - or the screen surface of a PC or iPad. “If you really want to know what's going on, you have to go behind the scenes,” says Dennett. He is convinced that new methods of brain research will shed light on the darkness.
One who is trying to do this is neuroscientist Michael Graziano of Princeton University. Like Dennett, he has a decidedly sober view of consciousness. There is nothing mysterious about it for him. And it borders on provocation when he tears up the currently favored explanations for consciousness in the air, because in their naivety they resembled medieval naivety, as he writes in an article for the magazine "The Atlantic".
There is the oscillation theory, for example. It says that nerve cells in the brain, which vibrate in unison, create consciousness in this way. Feels kind of good and right, but doesn't explain anything, says Graziano. According to another theory, consciousness arises when information scattered in the brain is linked to form a “whole”. Sounds convincing too, but it remains in the dark how the "integrated information" - as the theory is called - could lead to consciousness.
Information creates awareness - somehow
Finally, there is the idea that consciousness is a fundamental property of information. The more information flows into one another, the richer the conscious experience. This assumption has the consequence that the whole universe has consciousness, because it is full of information. This leaves the phenomenon of consciousness unfathomable.
These theories are also misleading because they rely too much on intuition. You stay trapped in consciousness instead of going beyond it. Because this is actually a caricature, says Graziano. It is an imprecise and distorted picture of reality constructed by the brain. But what reality?
The scientist sees a bio-computer in the brain. It processes information that is passed on to it from the outside world or other brain regions. The brain attributes this process to itself. The result is awareness.
Looking in the mirror: the brain is watching itself
Graziano calls his assumption the "Attention Scheme Theory" of consciousness. An example: a person, let's call them Bill, looks at a hot mug of coffee in front of him. He devotes his joyful attention to it. He is being watched by another person, Abel. Abel registers that Bill is concentrating on his coffee and will possibly sip it right away.
This process - someone reading the thoughts and intentions of another living being - marks an important step in evolution. A form of consciousness is ascribed to another being. Graziano now transfers this process to the introspection of the brain. It looks at itself as it thinks and thus creates self-awareness.
A great strength of the theory is that it tries to explain consciousness as an evolutionary process. It did not fall from the sky, but developed gradually and is believed to be present in other animals as well. Against this background, how awareness feels to us is of secondary importance. The scent of hot coffee is also quite magical - even if it is only based on olfactory nerves in the nose that are stimulated.
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