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How Does The Brain Make Conscious Decisions?
2006 01 25

By Johnjoe McFadden |

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Most scientists now embrace monism, that the stuff of mind is the same as the stuff of the brain, matter. Many, particularly in the artificial intelligence field, take the view that consciousness is just an inevitable product of complex computation, as the evolutionary biologist T. H. Huxley put it, like the ‘steam whistle, which accompanies the work of a locomotive but without influence upon its machinery.’

In the steam whistle view, consciousness just pops out of the complex interconnected computations performed by the network of neurons within our brain. But why should it?

The Internet now links up millions of computers in a gigantic superbrain that will soon rival our own organic version in computational capability. But does anyone seriously believe that, like HAL, driven by its digital consciousness, the Internet may soon turn on us its creators? The plain fact is that nothing rendered in silicon remotely resembles a conscious mind.

Another problem with the steam whistle is that it goes against the grain of everything we have learnt since Darwin about how complex biological systems evolved. Every bit of our body and our mind is here today because it provides some function – some advantage to us - that been captured, and improved upon by natural selection over millennia. Bodies don’t have steam whistles, but if they did, they would have a role to play in the survival of the creature that blew them. Consciousness is a product of evolution and, as such, it has a role to play in our survival. What is that role?

Consciousness Endows us with Free Will
The most obvious answer may be the right one - we are aware because we then have the power to change our actions. Consciousness endows us with free will. There are many operations that our brain performs automatically, without conscious control – simple tasks like walking, to incredibly complex tasks like playing a musical instrument from a written score. But it is hard to remove the impression that under some circumstances, our conscious brain takes over, to influence and will these actions.

Consider driving along a familiar road. You may be listening to the radio, thinking about some problem at work, but your brain is busy performing all the complex computations necessary to control your limb movements and maintain your car on the busy road, unconsciously. You spot a hazard sign ‘Roadworks – Major Congestion Ahead!’ and immediately your conscious mind takes control, to slow the car and perhaps try to find an alternative route home. What is it that is taking control in these situations?

What we need to look for is something that is a product of the brain’s activity, but which also has the power to influence that activity. Surprisingly, we have known for years that such an entity exists within our brain. The neurons in our brain transmit electrical signals along and between nerve fibres. It is always assumed that the electrons and neurotransmitters moving down these nerves are the movers and shakers of neuronal computation.

The Consciousness Electromagnetic Information Field
However, all electrical circuits - and that’s basically all neurones are – generate an associated energy field, known as an electromagnetic field or em field. This field contains precisely the same information as the circuitry that generated it. However, unlike neuronal information, which is localised in single or groups of neurons, the brain’s em field will bind the neuronal information into a single integrated whole.

This consciousness electromagnetic information field (cemi field) theory may sound far-fetched, but it rests on just three propositions. The first is that the brain generates its own em field, a fact that is well known and utilised in brain scanning techniques such as EEG.

The second is that the brain’s em field is indeed the seat of consciousness. This is far harder to prove but there is plenty of evidence that is at least consistent with this hypothesis. Em fields are waves that tend to cancel out when the peaks and troughs from many unsynchronised waves combine. But if neurones fire together, then the peaks and troughs of their em fields will reinforce each other to generate a large disturbance to the overall em field.

In recent years neuroscientists in many laboratories across the world have become interested in the phenomenon of neuronal synchrony. Experiments from Paris’ Laboratoire de Neurosciences demonstrated synchronous firing in distinct regions of the brain when a subject’s attention is aroused by a pattern that resembled a face.

When the subject saw only lines then his neurones fired randomly but when the subject realised he was looking at a face, his neurones snapped into step to fire synchronously. In this, and in many similar experiments, neurone firing alone does not correlate with awareness – but the em field disturbance generated by synchronous firing, does. The simplest explanation is that the brain’s em field is conscious awareness - the cemi field.

The last cemi field proposition is that the brain’s (conscious) em field can itself influence neuronal firing. Like the first proposition, this is easy to prove and is indeed inevitable. Radio sets and TV’s are designed to be sensitive to the electromagnetic fields of radio waves; but in fact all electrical phenomena are sensitive to the surrounding em field.

Our Brain - Transmitter & Receiver?
Neurones are fired by specific structures, known as voltage-gated ion channels that respond to the external em field. Mostly they are gated in such a way that only massive changes to the brain’s em field are likely to influence neurone firing. However, in a busy brain there will be many neurones teetering on the brink of firing and these undecided neurones may be exquisitely sensitive to the em field. The cemi field – our consciousness - will come into play when the brain is poised to make delicate decisions.

That concept of information encoded as an electromagnetic field is actually a very familiar one. We routinely encode complex images and sounds in em fields that we transmit to our TV and radio sets. What I am proposing is that our brain is both the transmitter and the receiver of its own electromagnetic signals in a feedback loop that generates the conscious em field as a kind of informational sink.

This informational transfer, through the cem field, may provide distinct advantages over neuronal computing, in rapidly integrating and processing information distributed in different parts of the brain. It may also provide an additional level of computation that is wave-mechanical, rather than digital; one that drives our free will. This is the advantage that consciousness provides: the capacity to make decisions.

Read more about: Johnjoe McFadden

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