Thought Experiments — When the Brain Thinks about the Brain

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Last week I was fortunate to get a chance to interview David Eagleman as part of our Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders lecture series. He is a personal hero of mine, and I was delighted to be able to talk with him about his research, the companies he has launched based on his insights, and his thoughts on the role of science fiction in pushing the frontiers of science.

My first encounter with David’s work was in 2011 when I read an article about him in the New Yorker. It focused on his research about how time is mapped in the brain. This led me to read his first book, Sum, which is an exploration of what happens when we die. It is a work of science fiction designed to give us new ways of thinking not about death, but about how we live our lives. Many of the short stories are so powerful that I frequently find myself repeating them to others.

More recently, David has been focusing on understanding how we interpret the world around us though our senses. He describes the brain as a “general computational device” that can be programmed to respond to a wide range of inputs, including chemicals that stimulate our nose leading to the sense of smell, light stimulation of our eyes that leads to our sense of sight, and sounds that stimulate our ears leading to our sense of hearing.

He has been doing fascinating experiments where he uses sensory stimuli — such as sound waves — to stimulate another sensory system — such as touch. For example, David designed and built a vest with small vibrating nodes that react to sound, and is using this tactile stimulation on the torso to replace auditory inputs in those who have lost their hearing. It literally maps sounds from the environment onto your body in the same way that sound would be mapped onto the cochlea of your inner ear.

People who wear the vest for a relatively short period of time start to “hear” with this new sense. Essentially, our brain quickly learns to interpret the new sensory input and uses it to create an auditory map of the world. A friend of mine wore it for a couple of hours. When it ran out of batteries at the end of the evening, he said that he felt as though he had lost a valuable new sensory input!

To me, the most profound thing that David discusses is how differently each sense “feels” to us: Sounds are experienced very differently than sight, which are experienced quite differently from touch, which are experienced differently from taste. How true! I’ve never thought about this before… We take it for granted that our visual world feels so different from our auditory world.

With that insight, my mind took a leap! What if consciousness is just another sense?

What if consciousness is really our brain feeling itself? Just as our sense of proprioception allows us to feel our body’s position in space, perhaps consciousness allows us to feel our brain’s state of being. If this is true, there doesn’t need to be a particular spot in the brain for this activity, in the same way that there isn’t one spot in the brain that holds one thought. And, this sense certainly feels different from other senses.

Perhaps consciousness is a sense that integrates and reflects our overall brain activity. That’s why we feel happy, tired, hungry, thirsty, annoyed, elated, and stressed… Our brain is essentially interpreting the collective neural activity — which is directly influenced by all the other senses — and we read it as a state of being, and a state of being alive. When I googled this idea (consciousness as a sense) I found that this is not a new idea, but has been postulated before.

If consciousness is a sense, then some people can have a more acute sense than others, and it can be damaged. Just as one can have poor hearing, poor vision, and a poor sense of smell, one can have a poor sense of self. And, you can potentially repair and/or augment the sense of consciousness. What is the equivalent to eye glasses for consciousness? Is it mediation, drugs, and/or relationships with others?

And, just like other senses, we like to experiment with different ways to stimulate our consciousness… Alcohol, drugs, and stories in all forms stimulate our consciousness in the same way that food stimulates our taste buds and music stimulates our ears. And, they are all interconnected in the same way that music stimulates our ears and our emotions, and a piece of art stimulate our vision and our thoughts.

After studying neuroscience for many years, this is the first time that consciousness seems to make “sense”… I’m still grappling with this idea, and welcome feedback and input.

I guess this is what happens when the brain thinks about the brain.

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Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Stanford. Author, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, inGenius, Creativity Rules http://www.tinaseelig.com/

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Tina Seelig

Tina Seelig

Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Stanford. Author, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, inGenius, Creativity Rules http://www.tinaseelig.com/

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