Working on a patient suffering from epilepsy, neuroscientists claim to have discovered a specific part of the human brain that turns consciousness on or off like an electrical on-off switch.
- Scientists have been probing individual regions of the brain for over a century, exploring their function by zapping them with electricity and temporarily putting them out of action. Despite this, they have never been able to turn off consciousness — until now.
Although only tested in one person, the discovery suggests that a single area — the claustrum — might be integral to combining disparate brain activity into a seamless package of thoughts, sensations and emotions.It takes us a step closer to answering a problem that has confounded scientists and philosophers for millennia — namely how our conscious awareness arises.
Many theories abound but most agree that consciousness has to involve the integration of activity from several brain networks, allowing us to perceive our surroundings as one single unifying experience rather than isolated sensory perceptions.
One proponent of this idea was Francis Crick, a pioneering neuroscientist who earlier in his career had identified the structure of DNA. Just days before he died in July 2004, Crick was working on a paper that suggested our consciousness needs something akin to an orchestra conductor to bind all of our different external and internal perceptions together.
With his colleague Christof Koch, at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, he hypothesised that this conductor would need to rapidly integrate information across distinct regions of the brain and bind together information arriving at different times. For example, information about the smell and colour of a rose, its name, and a memory of its relevance, can be bound into one conscious experience of being handed a rose on Valentine’s day.
The pair suggested that the claustrum — a thin, sheet-like structure that lies hidden deep inside the brain — is perfectly suited to this job.
It now looks as if Crick and Koch were on to something. In a study published last week, Mohamad Koubeissi at the George Washington University in Washington DC and his colleagues describe how they managed to switch a woman’s consciousness off and on by stimulating her claustrum. The woman has epilepsy so the team were using deep brain electrodes to record signals from different brain regions to work out where her seizures originate. One electrode was positioned next to the claustrum, an area that had never been stimulated before.
When the team zapped the area with high frequency electrical impulses, the woman lost consciousness. She stopped reading and stared blankly into space, she didn’t respond to auditory or visual commands and her breathing slowed. As soon as the stimulation stopped, she immediately regained consciousness with no memory of the event. The same thing happened every time the area was stimulated during two days of experiments. (Quoted from Helen Thomson: “Consciousness on-off switch discovered deep in brain,” NewScientist, [Issue 2976] 02 July 2014)
I doubt if the neuroscientists have really discovered an on-off switch for consciousness, itself, inside the brain. However, it may be possible that there is a particular switch in the brain which can disengage “everyday human awareness” or temporarily suspend the functional cognitive, intellect aspect of the brain, as what apparently happens during meditation when we successfully disengage from our everyday normal awareness. That may have been what the neuroscientists discovered, assuming that their discovery is verifiable and confirmed.
If the discovery, as I conceive it to be, proves to be true, what a boon that would be for the possibilities of a spiritual awakening on a mass global scale. Entering and attaining the meditative state of mind can be accomplished by simply stimulating the brain’s claustrum, sparing individuals the years of practice and discipline normally required of a meditator. The entire process of releasing everyday human awareness would have been drastically cut short and accomplished instantly.
One vital aspect of mystical practice will still be necessary to learn and master, though, in my opinion: The substantive content of contemplation rooted in the Truth teaching or in the principles of mysticism, by which Self-realization or God-realization is enabled finally. You shall know the truth… and the truth shall set you free. In this regard, there will still be an indispensable need to learn and apply the spiritual principles of mystical oneness in one’s spiritual practice and, more importantly, in one’s own life.
You can read the original article with its reference citations at New Scientist.
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