How 'science of consciousness' explains our desire for knowledge

September 11, 2012 by Jacqui Bealing
The Ravenous Brain.

(Medical Xpress)—A University of Sussex neuroscientist has come up with a radical new approach in the pursuit of our understanding of consciousness.

In his new book The Ravenous Brain, Dr Daniel Bor, a research fellow at the University's Sackler Centre for Science, examines how consciousness has been explained in the past – and how his new theory of it being an "accelerated knowledge-gathering tool"  could illuminate the mystery that has puzzled philosophers and scientists for centuries.

"Our consciousness is the essence of who we perceive ourselves to be,'" he says. "It is the citadel for our senses, the melting pot of thoughts, the welcoming home for every emotion that pricks or placates us. For us, consciousness simply is the currency of life."

What sets humans apart in the animal kingdom is our ravenous appetite for knowledge, even when all our biological needs are met. But it's not just random information.  Bor's new theory postulates that we are looking for structures and patterns, something he calls "chunking", in which we combine primitive pieces of information we have previously gathered and create something meaningful out of them.  

Many of these activities, such as and sudoku, don't  seem to serve an obvious biological purpose. But Bor argues that it is this puzzle-solving that generates innovation and can lead an animal out of danger, thus saving species from extinction. "In this way, evolution and conscious thought mirror one another," he says.

However, the advantages of human consciousness also carry the risk of mental fragility. In candid and lucid prose, Dr Bor writes about the consequences of his father's stroke and his wife's struggles with a form of bi-polar disorder.

He goes on to challenge about mental illness, describing conditions such as attention-deficit disorder, schizophrenia and autism as "disorders of consciousness". For example, he observes that disrupted sleep, which can quickly cause disorientation and poor memory function, is likely to be a cause rather than a symptom of some conditions. Methods of treatment for these sufferers could focus more on therapies that tackle underlying sleep abnormalities as well as enhancing states of consciousness.

He concludes with the advice that, although chunking can be enormously advantageous for us, it is also beneficial to practise meditation and to temporarily reject some of the strategies and habits we have developed over the years. "Without the myriad mental obstacles of those chunks invading our thoughts, we can reacquaint ourselves with how beautiful much of the world really is, and how very easy it is to find intense pleasure and joy within it,' he says.

Explore further: In epileptic seizures, researchers see the neurology of consciousness

Related Stories

In epileptic seizures, researchers see the neurology of consciousness

August 15, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Yale researchers studying epileptic seizures have shed new light on the neurological origins of consciousness.

The seat of meta-consciousness in the brain

July 27, 2012
Studies of lucid dreamers visualize which centers of the brain become active when we become aware of ourselves.

Patients in a minimally conscious state remain capable of dreaming during their sleep

August 16, 2011
The question of sleep in patients with seriously altered states of consciousness has rarely been studied. Do ‘vegetative' patients (now also called patients in a state of unresponsive wakefulness) or minimally conscious ...

Can new diagnostic approaches help assess brain function in unconscious, brain-injured patients?

May 9, 2012
Disorders of consciousness such as coma or a vegetative state caused by severe brain injury are poorly understood and their diagnosis has relied mainly on patient responses and measures of brain activity. However, new functional ...

Recommended for you

Study reveals breakthrough in decoding brain function

September 25, 2017
If there's a final frontier in understanding the human body, it's definitely not the pinky. It's the brain.

Overturning widely held ideas: Visual attention drawn to meaning, not what stands out

September 25, 2017
Our visual attention is drawn to parts of a scene that have meaning, rather than to those that are salient or "stick out," according to new research from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. ...

The rat race is over: New livestock model for stroke could speed discovery

September 25, 2017
It is well-known in the medical field that the pig brain shares certain physiological and anatomical similarities with the human brain. So similar are the two that researchers at the University of Georgia's Regenerative Bioscience ...

Touching helps build the sexual brain

September 21, 2017
Hormones or sexual experience? Which of these is crucial for the onset of puberty? It seems that when rats are touched on their genitals, their brain changes and puberty accelerates. In a new study publishing September 21 ...

Gene immunotherapy protects against multiple sclerosis in mice

September 21, 2017
A potent and long-lasting gene immunotherapy approach prevents and reverses symptoms of multiple sclerosis in mice, according to a study published September 21st in the journal Molecular Therapy. Multiple sclerosis is an ...

Neuron types in brain are defined by gene activity shaping their communication patterns

September 21, 2017
In a major step forward in research, scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) today publish in Cell a discovery about the molecular-genetic basis of neuronal cell types. Neurons are the basic building blocks that ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

mrtea
5 / 5 (2) Sep 11, 2012
"Our consciousness is the essence of who we perceive ourselves to be,'" he says. "It is the citadel for our senses, the melting pot of thoughts, the welcoming home for every emotion that pricks or placates us. For us, consciousness simply is the currency of life."

Is this guy a poet or a scientist? What he really means to say is, "I have no idea what consciousness is, but I'm going to try to sound impressive". I'm always amazed at the sloppy language used whenever I read about "scientific studies" like this. Consciousness is a multi-layered expression of our imagination, reason, language, emotion and senses. They are all giving input to our thoughts all the time, even when we dream - except for reason, which seems to need lots of rest. Reason enables us to have free will - maybe that takes a lot of energy. Who knows?
taka
3.2 / 5 (5) Sep 11, 2012
Consciousness is nothing else then just running a model of our surroundings AND body. It is nothing especial, all animals had it and even some robots had it. The only difference is quantitative.
PeterKinnon
3 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2012
taka writes:

"Consciousness is nothing else then just running a model of our surroundings AND body. It is nothing especial, all animals had it and even some robots had it. The only difference is quantitative."

You are one of the very few who appreciate what, in the light of modern science, should now be rather obvious. A point which for some time now, in my writings, I have been at pains to underline.

it is it incredible that some of those who claim to be representatives of science still wallow in antiquated notions of "The mystery of consciousness" when it is certainly a mystery no more.

We have at our disposal today conceptual tools that provide a full empirical understanding of the general nature of consciousness.

Firstly, and most importantly, from our understanding of biological evolution by natural selection it becomes quite clear that the provision of a navigational feature that involves some degree of self awareness

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.