In his book Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, Christof Koch asserts many scientific and philosophical notions of consciousness. It is difficult to summarize the entirety of his work since he covers so much ground from Descartes to The Matrix. Yet the core of Koch’s view of consciousness roots itself in an empirically sound version separate of religion. One of his main arguments is that humans are not special in their ability to perceive consciousness. He insists that animals experience consciousness too, but to a lesser degree than humans. Obviously there is not another known animal which possesses the higher level reasoning or cognitive abilities that we do, but this does not stop Koch from reminding readers several times that the traditional Judeo-Christian framework for human exceptionalism is misguided. In his view, it depends on what physical capabilities the animal has. Fundamentally, the animal’s ability to perceive consciousness still roots itself, at least in a correlative sense, with the brain and its electrical impulses. This might be Koch’s strongest viewpoint.
Koch believes that there is a high correlation between the connectivity of the brain and consciousness. He also thinks that electrical impulses are an excellent indicator of the level of consciousness that an individual is experiencing. In a study he describes, researchers built a metal contraption to fit over the head of humans in order to create a magnetic field using a technique called trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). The machine would briefly create the magnetic effect with only a slight discomfort to the patient’s head. Researchers would collect data on the brain’s electrical activity using an EEG while the subject was being stimulated by the magnetic field. The researchers’ theory was that there would not be as much electrical connectivity between neurons when in decreased states of consciousness. To test this they first examined subjects while they were in non-REM sleep. This phase of the sleep cycle is particularly dull for the mind as there are no dreams and therefore consciousness is incredibly limited. As expected, the connectivity of the brain was significantly decreased during this phase of sleep. There was a large local response to the magnetic stimulation, but spreading that signal proved difficult for the human brain during non-REM sleep cycles.
The researchers took their experiment one step further and decided to test their machine on hospital patients in a vegetative state, much like Terry Schiavo. For patients in a completely vegetative state, there was no such reaction to any stimulation indicating a complete lack of consciousness. Researchers also tested those in a minimal conscious state (MCS) where these people could move their eyes or do small things indicating a slight elevation in consciousness from those in a vegetative state. The MCS patients actually responded to the TMS in many of the same ways fully conscious individuals do and in some cases later returned to full consciousness. This experiment displays a large correlation between the connectivity of the brain and consciousness. Yet, as Koch notes, this hardly begins to explain how we get from localized clumps of cells sending electrical impulses to the consciousness we experience every day. Unfortunately, he does little to provide an explanation for the massive leap, but he outlines several philosophical and scientific views which attempt to unpack the idea more carefully to help the reader sort through their own understanding of consciousness. I was particularly drawn to the idea of animal consciousness and how it makes sense that animals, as a result of a lack of prefrontal cortex, always experience the present. This book inspired new thought as to when consciousness begins and where the line is drawn.