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How the Brain Becomes Conscious

From primitive shamans to religious prophets to modern neuroscientists, there is no shortage of ideas on what the human mind is.

A new theory on the nature of conscious mind has just been published neuroscientist in the current issue of Advances in Cognitive Psychology (accessible on the Web, by W. R. Klemm, a neuroscientist at Texas A&M University. He regards conscious mind as an Avatar, acts on behalf of the embodied brain. The Avatar is not imaginary or ethereal but rather has a clear physical existence in the form of unique impulse patterns in distributed brain circuits.

Klemm suggests that everything we sense or think about when conscious is done in the context of this sense of self. “I see, I hear, I think.” Thus, conscious mind is not some mysterious “Ghost in the Machine.” The impulse patterns are themselves very real and subject to biological forces. They are also subject to what many people would call mentalistic forces, given that those mentalistic forces are actually mediated by impulse patterns.

“It all begins in the womb,” says Klemm. He believes that the sense of self is a sixth sense that is actually created by the other senses. All six senses begin early with unconscious development in the womb as a result of embryonic cell division, migration, and differentiation of neurons. The sculpting of early circuitry is influenced by self-referential stimuli from the developing fetus and from mother-specific signals from the womb that inform those circuits they have a body they can influence. At some point, a year or more after birth, enough neurons appear and circuitry differentiates enough to enable babies to have episodes of conscious awareness of self and non-self.

He says “the brain implicitly learns to become consciously aware of self and non-self. Such learning requires a species to have enough neuronal circuitry to create the “carrying capacity” required for impulse-pattern representation of ordinary stimuli, a sense of self, and mental interactions with environment, and consciousness.”

Klemm‟s idea is that “When active in wakefulness or dream states, the combinatorial impulse patterns that represent conscious self act as an agent of the brain, metaphorically as an Avatar. Conscious mind thus IS the integrated set of all these codes, deployed „on line‟ as impulse firing when a person is awake or stored in the chemistry of contact points among neurons when we are asleep, anesthetized, or otherwise unconscious.”

The key to consciousness lies in the outer mantel of the brain, the cortex. Here, virtual columns of neurons are stacked vertically toward the surface, clustered as if they were a three dimension honeycomb. Each “cortical column” has the same circuitry of neurons and is extensively connected to many other columns, both adjacent and far away.

Klemm says that “the key to understanding consciousness is to see how activity in those columns change as the brain moves through various stages of being consciously alert and sleeping.”

“When the brain‟s mind is deployed,” says Klemm, “ it is represented by the over-all pattern of impulses in these circuits. So that is what we need to look at.” This lies at the heart of his many suggested ways scientists can test the hypothesis that “mind” arises from combinatorially coded impulse patterns. In the past, many scientists have recorded impulses in the cortex, but usually one neuron at a time. Or if multiple neurons were recorded, they were never in the same cortical column.” Now, with new recording technologies it may be possible to see what is going in all or many of the neurons within the same column as the brain goes through state changes.” Klemm‟s idea is that a conscious sense of self is not represented by the sum of many neurons but by the combinatorial code within the set of neurons within each column.

Moreover, the combinatorial codes in various columns coordinate and synchronize more robustly during consciousness, especially when the brain is working hard. The timing relations operate at multiple frequencies. Klemm urges more studies of these timing relations as they change during mental states, especially the phase shifts between and among frequencies as well as the timing shifts of activity at various parts of the cortical surface. In his earlier study monitoring brain waves, remarkable phase shifts switched on as the experimental subjects viewed ambiguous figures. When looking at a drawing of the vase/face illusion for example, cortical frequencies shifted whenever the perception changed from vase to face or vice versa. Klemm wishes more scientists would use ambiguous figure stimuli because they have the advantage of being detected simultaneously in both subconscious and conscious mind, switching from one to the other, presumably with predictable changes in the timing of combinatorial codes of cortical columns.

Klemm relates these ideas to two recent papers of his, one dealing with free will and the other with why humans have dream sleep. In his mind, he has a unified concept of mind as something very tangible, carried as impulse pattern representations of a sense of self. His recent book, Atoms of Mind (Springer), provides the science background and links the various facets of mind in ways that are testable. At 77, his own career is nearing its end, but he thinks others will make great progress pursuing these ideas.

Contact: W. R. Klemm Phone: (979) 845-4201 E-mail: [email protected]

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