An ocean of consciousness

How do minds and brains relate to each other? I was talking with Ashley, my niece Zoe’s partner about this, and she said she believed in an ocean of consciousness. (I misheard her the first time, I thought she said a notion of consciousness.)

I was sure I’d heard the phrase before, and I just looked it up: it seems common parlance for universal consciousness.

I’ve tended to believe in consciousness being created by the brain (or perhaps by the body and the brain together, though the brain is itself part of the body, so one might just say by the body). But, like most neuroscientists (computational in my case, but I’ve not heard anything different from clinical or experimental neuroscientists), I’ve not had much clue how the brain might give rise to consciousness. But what has been clear is that consciousness can change if the brain is stimulated, whether electrically or using drugs (or in any other way). I’d tended to think of that as being conclusive evidence for the brain being the seat of consciousness: but that neither speaks for nor against an ocean of consciousness. For the evidence doesn’t distinguish between whether the brain is entirely responsible for consciousness, or whether the brain simply connects the body to the ocean of consciousness. Indeed, the phrase seat of consciousness can be interpreted either way.

I seem to hold two diametrically opposed views.

From my own work as a computational neuroscientist, I know that we create our world from our sensory perceptions, and that our internal world is but a model of the macrocosm out there. And as a scientist, I have spent a lot of time making computational models of parts of the brain (and I’m very aware of the sophisticated models like NEST, or those of the Human Brain Project). However, I am very aware of both (i) what these models can and cannot do, and (ii) just how limited these models are when compared to the extraordinarily complex systems that really do take place in neural tissue. (Here, I’m thinking of the different type of ions, of the zoo of ion channels, the range of neuromodulators, not to mention the different proteins involved in neural excitability: and I haven’t even started on either glial cells or the amazingly complex three dimensional interconnection  between neural calls).

On the one hand, I can believe that somewhere in that complexity there is room for  generation of consciousness, (even though I cannot imagine what it might look like: the scientists within me requires that it be explainable).

On the other hand, each morning, I do some yoga, and I briefly meditate, and that seems to connect me to the world, to ground me within the world. This makes me more inclined towards the ocean view.

Could I then join resolve these different viewpoints by looking in the brain not for generation of consciousness, but for connection to the ocean of consciousness? But what might this look like? Would it be any less of a mystery than seeking to generate consciousness from matter? 

As I read this through, I am struck by the difficulty of talking about this at all. Phrased like “we create our world from our sensory perceptions” require a “we” and an “our” that has perceptions, and  world. I’m also struck by the range of difficulties within the area: the question’s just too big. I once wrote a short paper about the neural construction of perceptual time, and that seemed hard enough on its own, without considering any other issues! Maybe this is all just too hard!

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