"--a word game that provides no insight."

The Mystery of Consciousness
Friday, Jan. 19, 2007
By Steven Pinker


CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BRAIN CAN BE TRACKED NOT JUST IN SPACE but also in time. Neuroscientists have long known that consciousness depends on certain frequencies of oscillation in the electroencephalograph (EEG). These brain waves consist of loops of activation between the cortex (the wrinkled surface of the brain) and the thalamus (the cluster of hubs at the center that serve as input-output relay stations). Large, slow, regular waves signal a coma, anesthesia or a dreamless sleep; smaller, faster, spikier ones correspond to being awake and alert. These waves are not like the useless hum from a noisy appliance but may allow consciousness to do its job in the brain. They may bind the activity in far-flung regions (one for color, another for shape, a third for motion) into a coherent conscious experience, a bit like radio transmitters and receivers tuned to the same frequency. Sure enough, when two patterns compete for awareness in a binocular-rivalry display, the neurons representing the eye that is "winning" the competition oscillate in synchrony, while the ones representing the eye that is suppressed fall out of synch.

So neuroscientists are well on the way to identifying the neural correlates of consciousness, a part of the Easy Problem. But what about explaining how these events actually cause consciousness in the sense of inner experience--the Hard Problem?


TO APPRECIATE THE HARDNESS OF THE HARD PROBLEM, CONSIDER how you could ever know whether you see colors the same way that I do. Sure, you and I both call grass green, but perhaps you see grass as having the color that I would describe, if I were in your shoes, as purple. Or ponder whether there could be a true zombie--a being who acts just like you or me but in whom there is no self actually feeling anything. This was the crux of a Star Trek plot in which officials wanted to reverse-engineer Lieut. Commander Data, and a furious debate erupted as to whether this was merely dismantling a machine or snuffing out a sentient life.


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No one knows what to do with the Hard Problem. Some people may see it as an opening to sneak the soul back in, but this just relabels the mystery of "consciousness" as the mystery of "the soul"--a word game that provides no insight.

Many philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, deny that the Hard Problem exists at all. Speculating about zombies and inverted colors is a waste of time, they say, because nothing could ever settle the issue one way or another. Anything you could do to understand consciousness--like finding out what wavelengths make people see green or how similar they say it is to blue, or what emotions they associate with it--boils down to information processing in the brain and thus gets sucked back into the Easy Problem, leaving nothing else to explain. Most people react to this argument with incredulity because it seems to deny the ultimate undeniable fact: our own experience.
Whilst I know that "mind over matter" or relaxed concentration are Directives I can consciously give my mind, whether or not they're followed out depends on my brain's habitual responses (ie, what wave I am on.) Dennett was the first scientist I'd heard posit that there is a silliness inherent in our framing of the Hard Problem, and I immediately fell in love with his work.

The Hard Problems are just hard because we don't think in the ways they work. They become Easy after lots of experimenting and the inevitable Good Luck accompanying ever larger accumulations of Data. When the risks of "guessing" are diminished by knowledge and experience, our intuitions have more leads to help us get at solid evidence.

Before the advent of MRI technologies, all we had were rough guesses about electrical patterns and now we have corresponding pictures of brain activities building a database to show what folks, and less communicative critters, are actually thinking when we measure their thoughts.

Just knowing that my thoughts exist in physiological places makes me much more hopeful about my "chances" of changing some long-term habits of thinking.

Even though it's still two steps forward and one step back for me, progress is wonderful!

And of course it doesn't mean I'm gonna leave all my sillinesses behind . . .

C'mon Cavs!!!


A tip o' my hat to Kenneth and, as is so often the case, Carol for the link.


  1. His example of not seeing the same green as another person could very easily be set up to test. I look at a color and select the swatch that matches. If the majority of us pick the same swatch, then, we see the same color.

    I was always interested in the scientific report about the scientists who were monitoring molecular movement and recording it on a computer. They noticed that the movement increased every time a human was looking through the microscope and gazing at the molecule. Interesting, eh?

    So, thoughts have energy.

  2. Ain't it cool? :) Is why I used to think ghosts were somewhat possible. Residual -ahem- energy from folks done gone. Meh... Nice hypothesis. Unsupported theory.

    Thoughts are energy sustained and fed by neurons and senses and blood, oh man! {-;

    The color bit always gets me too. I think it's a silly game which doesn't amount to anything but ego; and its multiple physical locations in the brain. But folks want a big Mystery with no hope of solving it.

    Yep. Folks say, ya gotta have Faith.



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