According to the theory, all it takes to solve the puzzle of consciousness is to change our assumptions about it. When we realize that consciousness is a physical, relativistic phenomenon, the mysteries of consciousness naturally unravel.
How does 3 pounds of brain tissue create thoughts, feelings, mental images and detailed inner worlds?
The brain’s ability to create consciousness has puzzled people for thousands of years. The mystery of consciousness is that each of us has subjectivity, the ability to perceive, feel and think. When we are awake, we don’t “live in the dark” compared to being in a state of anesthesia or dreamless deep sleep – we experience the world and ourselves. However, how the brain creates conscious experiences and which area of the brain is responsible for this remains a mystery.
“It’s a rather mysterious problem, because our conscious experience doesn’t seem to come from the brain, and it doesn’t actually come from any physical process,” says Dr Nir Lahav, a physicist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Strange as it may sound , but the conscious experience in our brains cannot be discovered or reduced to some kind of neural activity.
“Think of it this way,” says University of Memphis philosopher Zakaria Neemeh, Ph.D., “that when I’m happy, my brain creates a unique and complex pattern of neural activity. This neural pattern is completely related to my conscious sense of well-being, But that’s not how I actually feel. It’s just a neural pattern that represents my happiness. That’s why a scientist looking at my brain and seeing this pattern should ask me how I feel, because the pattern isn’t the feeling itself, it’s just It’s a manifestation of it.” Because of this, we cannot attribute our conscious experience of perceiving, feeling, and thinking to any brain activity. We can only find correlations with these experiences.
After more than 100 years of neuroscience, we have very strong evidence that the brain is responsible for creating our capacity for consciousness. So how is it possible that these conscious experiences cannot be found anywhere in the brain (or body) and cannot be reduced to any neural complex activity?
This mystery is called the conundrum of consciousness. This is such a difficult question that only philosophers discussed it until a few decades ago. Even today, despite the tremendous progress we have made in understanding the neuroscientific underpinnings of consciousness, there is still no satisfactory theory explaining what consciousness is and how to solve this puzzle.
in the magazine Frontiers in Psychology, Dr. Lahav and Dr. Neemeh recently published a new physical theory that claims to solve the puzzle of consciousness in a purely physical way. According to the researchers, when we change our assumptions about consciousness and assume that it is a relativistic phenomenon, the mystery of consciousness naturally disappears. In the paper, the authors develop a conceptual and mathematical framework for understanding consciousness from a relativistic perspective. According to Dr. Rahav, lead author of the paper, “consciousness should be studied using the same mathematical tools that physicists use for other known relativistic phenomena.”
To understand how relativity solves this conundrum, consider another relativistic phenomenon, constant velocity. First, let’s choose two observers, Alice and Bob. Bob is on the train moving at a constant speed and Alice is watching him from the platform. “What is Bob’s speed?” There is no absolute physical answer to the question. The answer depends on the observer’s frame of reference. From Bob’s frame of reference, he will measure that he is stationary while Alice is moving backwards with the rest of the world. But from Alice’s frame of reference, Bob is moving and she is stationary. They have opposite measurements, but they are both correct, just from a different frame of reference.
We find the same thing in the case of consciousness, because according to theory, consciousness is a relativistic phenomenon. Alice and Bob are now in different cognitive frames of reference. Bob will measure whether he has a conscious experience, but Alice just has brain activity without any sign of actual conscious experience. Alice, on the other hand, will measure that she is conscious, while Bob just has neural activity and is unaware of his conscious experience.
As is the case with speed, although they have opposite measurements, they are both correct but from different cognitive frames of reference. As a result, we have no problem measuring different properties from different frames of reference due to the relativistic point of view. We cannot find actual conscious experience when measuring brain activity because we are measuring from the wrong cognitive frame of reference.
According to the new theory, the brain does not create our conscious experience, at least not through computation. We experience consciously because of the process of physical measurement. In short, different physical measurements in different reference frames exhibit different physical properties in those reference frames, even though these reference frames measure the same phenomenon.
For example, suppose Bob measures Alice’s brain in the lab when she is happy. Although they observed different properties, they were actually measuring the same phenomenon from different angles. Because of how they were measured, different properties were manifested in their cognitive frame of reference.
In order for Bob to observe brain activity in the lab, he needs to use measurements from his sense organs, such as his eyes. This sensory measurement shows the substrates that cause brain activity — neurons. Thus, in his cognitive framework, Alice has only neural activity representing her consciousness, but no indication of her actual conscious experience per se.
However, in order for Alice to measure her own neural activity as happiness, she used a different type of measurement. Instead of using her sense organs, she measures her neural representations directly through the interactions between one part of the brain and others. She measures her neural representations in relation to other neural representations.
This is a completely different measurement than what our sensory system does, and as such, this direct measurement exhibits different physical properties. We call this an attribute-conscious experience. As a result, from her cognitive frame of reference, Alice measured her neural activity as a conscious experience.
Using mathematical tools that describe relativistic phenomena in physics, the theory shows that if the dynamics of Bob’s neural activity can be changed to be similar to those of Alice’s, then both will be in the same cognitive frame of reference and will Have the exact same conscious experience as another.
Now, Dr. Lahav and Dr. Neemeh want to continue examining the precise minimum measurements any cognitive system needs in order to create consciousness. The impact of this theory is enormous. It can be used to determine which animals were the first to be conscious during evolution, which patients with disorders of consciousness were conscious, when fetuses or infants became conscious, and which artificial intelligence systems today are to a lesser degree (if any) consciousness.
Reference: “A Relativistic Theory of Consciousness” by Nir Lahav and Zachariah A. Neemeh, May 12, 2022, Available Frontiers in Psychology.