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Nobel Forum Sees Consciousness as the Ultimate Challenge

Consciousness represents a final frontier for science to attempt to cross. This hard-to-fathom subject has become the focus of renewed interest in recent years, alongside our growing ability to create sophisticated virtual environments.

The growth of the last two decades is primarily knowledge-driven. But knowledge can be of many different kinds. IT and telecoms have experienced a boom because the newly-created virtual world of the internet proved to be commercially exploitable. Yet in reality the whole new range of products and services with the internet at the forefront is nothing more than an instrumental extension of human consciousness. The issue of the nature of consciousness has therefore gained new relevance as the question arises of how to guide technological development towards responding to our most complex needs and abilities.

Consciousness studies, as the burgeoning field of research in this area has come to be called, cannot be classified in accordance with existing academic divisions. In its very essence it challenges the organisation of the scientific community. In science, it is normally a requirement that the research object be clearly separated from the method. New issues arise when science turns its gaze on itself and allows the brain to be both object and subject in the attempt to explore human consciousness.

In the simple world of mechanics, it is the length of the lever that shifts the stone block. Research on consciousness and the brain is an infinitely more sophisticated form of the pursuit of knowledge. Here the choice of tool is decisive for the final picture we get of how things work. The question is if both of these worlds can be encompassed by the same term “science”.

In consciousness studies it is the research methods, various experimental psychological, physiological and imaging techniques, which determine our understanding of the underlying cerebral processes.

Traditionally, firm knowledge is founded upon scientific reductionism: if you want to understand something in precise detail, you must exclude, at least provisionally, everything else as irrelevant for the aim of establishing just that which you want to know. But research now seeks to understand the context and the whole. The difficulty is that we lack an established epistemology for how the details should be tied in with the whole or in what other way a convincing comprehensive picture can be achieved.

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Consciousness studies is, however, an interdisciplinary innovation on the academic map and demands wide-ranging expertise. It is reassuring that our fragile memory and learning processes can be explained by Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter with reference to neuroscientific mechanisms.

Individual lived experience remains, however, the primary source of the conscious mind’s natural synthesis of the impressions of the surrounding environment. It helps us in the self-critical review of our own difficult decisions to understand with Joseph LeDoux how our emotional circuits are connected to deep and ancient regions of the brain built to enact a limited number of life-saving reactions: freeze, flight or flight.

Or to distinguish, like Michael Gazzaniga, the automatic part of the brain’s mechanisms from consciousness’s interpretative functions.

But, ultimately, it is only Antonio Damasio who has dared to step resolutely out towards the breathtaking frontier, to attempt to understand the higher mental functions and the interaction between cognition and emotion, and to show how consciousness’s physical basis in the brain is reconcilable with the coherent overview the self gives us of reality in our daily social life.

The boldness in Damasio’s approach lies in his transcendence of traditional disciplinary boundaries. He goes the whole way from single neuron to final vision, from the amygdala, an area in the brain where strong emotional memories are stored, to an explanatory model for trust and our navigation of social interactions. Experience-based insights are integrated with both new findings from the imaging of brain processes and clinical evidence from neurological cases.

When external reality plays on our internal cinema screens, Damasio is forced to explain the very constitution of the self. It’s a question of how we meld individual impressions into the unity of time and space. The level of theoretical integration attains once again the level of abstraction that philosophers and theologians have strived for since classical times, only this time the explanatory models are supported by scientific evidence. Ultimately, Damasio comes to the same conclusion as philosophers from the phenomenological school: that the self’s relation to the object is decisive for our perception of reality.

The restructuring of the knowledge society always lags a little behind scientific developments. In all likelihood, necessarily so. The map cannot, after all, be drawn up before the reality is established. The exploration of the human consciousness is our age’s fascinating journey of discovery, which fills in the last major blank spots on the map of knowledge. It is knowledge on a high level of abstraction, but precisely therefore is endowed with vast potential.

The distance separating us from practical applications is diminishing rapidly. But on the other hand, every delay in the establishment of a new epistemology, in adjusting the map in accordance with reality, represents a danger for the society that wishes to maintain itself at the forefront of scientific endeavour.