Why it matters that human consciousness may be just a simple on-off switch in the brain


The claustrum (highlighted in yellow) may be the on/off switch for human consciousness. (Mohamad Koubeissi/George Washington University)

It turns out that the human brain may not be as mysterious as it has always seemed to be. Researchers at George Washington University, led by Mohamad Koubeissi, may have found a way to turn human consciousness on and off by targeting a specific region of the brain with electrical currents. For brain researchers, unlocking the mystery of human consciousness has always been viewed as one of the keys for eventually building an artificial brain, and so this could be a big win for the future of brain research.

What the researchers did was deliver a serious of high frequency electrical impulses to the claustrum region of the brain in a woman suffering from epilepsy. Before the electric shocks, the woman was capable of writing and talking. During the electric shocks, the woman faded out of consciousness, and started staring blankly into space, incapable of even the most basic sensory functions. Even her breathing slowed. As soon as the electrical shocks stopped, the woman immediately regained her sensory skills with no memory of the event. The researchers claim that this test case is evidence of being able to turn consciousness on and off.

Granted, there’s a lot still to be done. That George Washington test, for example, has only been successfully performed on one person. And that woman had already had part of her hippocampus removed, so at least one researcher says the whole experiment must be interpreted carefully. There have been plenty of scientific experiments that have been “one and done,” so it remains to be seen whether these results can be replicated again.

But it seems that we are getting closer and closer to the day when we unlock the mysteries of human consciousness. While centuries of human development have led to a popular view of consciousness as something deeply existential — akin to a gift from the gods — modern researchers have a much more pedestrian view of consciousness – it’s simply the ability to process a number of sensory tasks at the same time and put all the perceptions from different regions of the brain together as part of one unifying experience.

Koubeissi from the George Washington research team even has an easy-to-understand analogy for it: human consciousness is similar to the ignition key for a car. A car is marvelously complex piece of machinery capable of performing at high speeds. And, yet, without a key to turn the car on and off, it’s basically just a really expensive heap of metal, as Koubeissi suggests:

A car on the road has many parts that facilitate its movement – the gas, the transmission, the engine – but there’s only one spot where you turn the key and it all switches on and works together. So while consciousness is a complicated process created via many structures and networks – we may have found the key.

And if you don’t like that analogy – here’s another one: Francis Crick (yes, that Francis Crick) once compared consciousness to an orchestra director capable of binding together all the perceptions in our brain into one unifying experience. The brain, in short, requires a director to make beautiful music.

If we can locate the source of human consciousness in the lab, it seems to be only a matter of time when we can create computers and machines that also contain a form of consciousness. Machines would process the sensory perceptions around them in parallel, and leave it up to this artificial consciousness to make sense of it all. At which point, it might become impossible to differentiate between human consciousness and artificial consciousness.

In science fiction terms, the machines would be “alive.” Once we know what part of the brain is responsible for consciousness — the claustrum — we would theoretically be able to reverse-engineer it in the digital realm: maybe not in exact structure, but at least in function. Since the claustrum is located deep in the brain, researchers have until now mostly ignored it.

That’s the exciting part of the new human brain initiatives that have been unveiled over the past two years, such as the $100 million BRAIN initiative of the Obama Administration. We are progressing to the point where creating an artificial brain doesn’t seem so impossible after all. A roadmap of the brain – including all the regions once impenetrable to researchers – will guide us to a new understanding of the human brain, transforming once-mystical notions like emotions and consciousness into a set of algorithmic instructions so easy to follow even a bot could do them.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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