I was at a neuroscience retreat a few months ago when I and some elder neuroscientists were talking about ways of quantifying and measuring perceptions and cognitive functions. I mentioned that I felt that this was a big problem in the study of consciousness, and one of the professors there replied, “Consciousness? That’s a dirty word. Neuroscientists should never talk about consciousness.”
To me, such a notion seemed positively absurd. But I also knew it to be a fairly common sentiment in the field. It is rare to find a well-respected and prominent neuroscientist devoting their time to the study of consciousness openly and directly. Christof Koch is a notable exception, but even he gets a majority of his peer-reviewed publications through his work on visual attention. This absence is noticeable on a large scale by looking at the distribution of abstracts for this year’s Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference. Of the 17,253 (woah) poster and talk abstracts, only 44 of them are tagged with the keyword “consciousness.”
I understand the aversion to this topic. For one, it has a bit of a stigma for being too far on the philosophical end of the spectrum. Real scientists don’t bother with such semantic nonsense. But I would argue that all science once belonged to the realm of philosophy. Ancient Greeks philosophers described love and strife as the forces behind the attraction and repulsion of objects, but luckily that didn’t stop the pursuit of more accurate and analytical explanations. But if science is failing to provide the data, philosophy and myth are the only paths left. And with a topic like consciousness, which is such an equally integral and mysterious part of human experience, you can be sure that people will explore whatever path is available. And so it will remain a hot topic of philosophical debate until factual evidence can cool it down.
There is another, perhaps stronger, motive for avoiding the study of consciousness: it’s hard. It’s just incredibly difficult. It is a challenge to even decide how to approach it. There is nothing close to a uniformly-accepted definition for consciousness (I haven’t even attempted one here. That will be a topic for another post). Nor are there clear ways of testing and quantifying many of the current definitions available. And the usual approach of neuroscientists—discovering or creating an animal model—isn’t entirely feasible given the nature of this subject. But none of this constitutes a valid excuse for not studying consciousness. Part of the scientific process involves defining your terms and deciding what are reasonable questions to be asked about them. And we haven’t been halted by such difficulties in the past. Remember those SfN abstracts? Well 285 of them are devoted to the equally ill-defined and un-model-able disorder of schizophrenia. And that only affects 1% of the population. So rather than to say that we can’t study consciousness because we don’t even know what it is, I would say we need to study consciousness in order to find out what it is.
Finally, the notion of scientific “dirty words” or off-limits topics for neuroscientists goes against our whole mantra. I feel that in order to be in this field, you have to believe that everything that is seen, felt, remembered, experienced, etc is all a product of neural activity, and can be explained as such once we understand it. To say that such a key aspect of thought is not even approachable for scientific study is to acknowledge a crippling weakness in our field that I don’t think is there. Furthermore, if not us, then who? What field is better suited to tackle this problem? Plenty have tried, including theology, mathematics, and physics. And from that we’ve gotten cyclical (and thus meaningless) answers such as ‘God is the source of consciousness and consciousness proves the existence of God.’ Or the nonsense that has come from trying to apply what is known about quantum mechanics to explain the workings of the brain (When the only tool you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail). Just because neuroscience might shy away from the issue due to the lack of a solid foundation doesn’t mean everyone will. Rather than have the void filled by others, I think it is best that neuroscience claim its role as the rightful owner of this very tricky problem and work on solving it.
Luckily, there are some people out there who agree. The Mind Science Foundation (MSF) keeps this impressive database of people working in the field of consciousness research. It includes a fair amount of philosophers, writers, and other not-technically-scientists. But that’s because the goal of the MSF is to bring together all people who support the notion of a biological basis of consciousness and a scientific approach to the study of it. In this way, we can make the study of consciousness an interdisciplinary pursuit that is fueled primarily by neuroscientific findings. This pursuit doesn’t have to hide or ignore the above-mentioned difficulties inherent in the task. There just needs to be honesty about the current limitations and an effort to work around or remove them. And if this effort succeeds, then I look forward to the day when that terrible c-word can proudly become a part of every neuroscientist’s vocabulary.