If we were to think of the height of the Eiffel tower as representing the age of our earth, then the existence of humanity would be nothing more that the skin of paint on the pinnacle knob. This was Mark Twain’s angle on the history of humanity and the opening perspective offered by Professor of Philosophy, Sean Kelly, whose inaugural lecture at this year’s annual International Bioethics Forum on the science of consciousness kick-started a series of talks by a preeminent cast of academic thinkers and speakers. Kelly’s ensuing factual inventory set the tone for others to follow. During their brief history, humans have become a force that has incontrovertibly impacted our planet. Ninety-five percent of that skin of paint of human existence occurred before the advent of agriculture. And during that time humans have shown that they are the only beings with a capacity not only for complex language but also for storing information outside of themselves in the form of books and multimedia. No other species dwells upon historical time like we do.
University of Minnesota ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna, who spoke immediately after Kelly’s ‘opener’, concurred. Complex language, he noted, depends on synesthesia-style relationships between spoken words and a corresponding set of symbols that imbue our daily experiences with meaning. When this phenomenon emerged no one knows for sure although the deepest historical evidence to-date, that of the Blombos Cave in South Africa, suggests that it may have existed as early as 75,000 years ago.
University of Wisconsin cognitive scientist Antoine Lutz later presented his summary of Rene Descartes’ Dualistic theory as part of his much-awaited talk. And his delivery of the historicity of cognitive philosophy was received with rapturous applause by an expecting audience. Descartes considered the pineal gland in the brain to be the center of integration of both the body and the non-material mind. Modern science has of course dismissed Descartes’ vision of this much-trumpeted ‘seat of the soul’ by showing the brain to be a highly distributed system of separate functions and reciprocal connectivities. In fact the ‘global work space’ of the human brain is made of 109 neurons with 10,000 connections.
Current neuroimaging techniques provide an approximate sketch of this work space, which is thought to perform thousands of neurological processes every second. With all of its neuroplasticity, the brain is evidently built to change in response to experiences. Hot off the press in the Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences this week is a paper outlining how the brain acts “like a carpenter digging through a toolbox to pick a group of tools to accomplish the various basic components that comprise a complex task” (1,2) (Although I would add at a rate several orders of magnitude faster than any carpenter could ever hope to reach).
Throughout this year’s forum there was a noticeable disquiet over how best to define consciousness in terminology that could be assimilated into a scientific framework. Historically Immanuel Kant was the first to argue rationally that the human mind puts forward ‘categories of understanding’ that define how we view the cosmos. Over a century later the German philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote of the Axial age- a 400 year period of grand synchronicity when philosophers and sages across the globe pondered over the existence of transcendent meaning and spirituality in our world. Forum speaker Sean Kelly chose to talk about consciousness as the permeable boundary that separates us from our surroundings while British author Peter Russell focused on the inherent self-awareness that characterizes consciousness in humans and, to a much lesser extent, monkeys and dolphins. During the panel discussions some merely posited that consciousness inevitably emerges as an evolutionary phenomenon.
Functional MRI and contemporary biochemistry are telling us a lot about brain function and providing foundations for understanding at least the molecular facets of consciousness. Purdue University Distinguished Chair of Medicinal Chemistry, Robert Nichols, took the forum rostrum in earnest and supplied us with a compendious examination of how the brain thalamus processes our senses and gates information that is then sent to columns of pyramidal cells in the frontal cortex. A region of the brain known as the Locus Coeruleus acts as a ‘novelty detector’ that focuses our attention at any given moment to the events happening around us. We can now map out regions of the brain involved in sensory gating by using a class of compounds called entheogens such as psilocybin that act on serotonin 5HT2A receptors in the frontal cortex. Entheogens also shut down that Raphe region of the brain stem which during our ‘awake’ hours is rapidly firing electrical impulses and selectively releasing serotonin. Entheogens, noted Nichols, break the mental framework and therefore help the brain to temporarily live ‘outside the box’. Some Silicon Valley scientists are rumored to have used similar compounds to achieve new heights of innovative thought.
How have entheogens further aided consciousness research? Johns Hopkins behavioral biologist and Bioethics Forum speaker, Roland Griffiths, has used psilocybin in his own attempts to mimic mystical experiences. In 1962 Harvard psychiatrist, Walter Pahnke, performed his famous ‘Good Friday’ experiment from which he concluded that psilocybin occasioned mystical mimetic experiences. Griffiths revisited Pahnke’s work in an investigation involving 37 test subjects who were in one sense or another involved in religious practices. Interestingly all individuals reported experiencing feelings of awe, peace, and ineffable joy. Seventy percent of these test subjects reported that the ingestion of Psilocybin had given them one of the top five most memorable and positive moments of their lives. Psilocybin treatment leads to a preferential processing of positive emotional expression (e.g., happy faces) and therefore presents a therapeutic avenue for treating clinical depression.
In 1964, Eric Kant became the first to use entheogens to treat depression in advanced-cancer patients. Later Pahnke showed that these same compounds could be used to improve the psychological outlook for the terminally ill. More recently Franz Vollenweider, the serving Director of the Heffter Research Centre for Consciousness Studies in Switzerland, documented some of the altered states of consciousness (ASCs) that subjects have described as part of his own pioneering experiments. Descriptives such as oceanic self boundlessness, oneness and unity with the universe form part of the eleven ASC dimensions that are commonly found in the associated peer-reviewed literature. Vollenweider’s presentation at the forum was perhaps the most data-rich of all showing, amongst other things, how the intensity of ASCs is significantly affected by underlying personality traits.
At a fundamental level consciousness is a phenomenon that is deeply mysterious and to-date has escaped even the most concerted attempts at a simple explanation. According to Peter Russell we are in the throes of a revolution in thought not unlike that which caused the rejection of Ptolomeic epicycles during the Copernican era. The meta-paradigm that exists in science today views the world as one that is fully explainable through recourse to space, time and matter. And yet, notes Russell, this meta-paradigm of materialism through which we are epicycling in no way predicts the advent of conscious beings such as ourselves. Russell later expounded on his own brand of pan-psychism—a doctrine that holds that even the atom is in some lesser degree conscious of itself.
Two weeks before the Bioethics Forum, the New York Times published a piece on the latest in a series of test-cases involving patients who have benefited from the uplifting effects of entheogen treatment. The piece also highlighted the efforts of forum speakers Roland Griffiths and Charles Grob who have helped to bring the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin into the realm of medical respectability. Results such as those presented at the forum will bring grist to the mill in a discipline that has in recent decades borne the brunt of funding caps.
- Sign Language Study Shows Multiple Brain Regions Wired For Language, Science Daily, April 30th, 2010
- Newman, A.J. et al. (2010) Dissociating Neural Subsystems For Grammar By Contrasting Word Order And Inflection. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci, USA 107 7539
- John Tierney (2010) Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again. The New York Times April 11th, See http://www.nytimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/12/science/12psychedelics.html?emc=eta1
Full details of seminars and presenters who attended the 9th Bioethics Forum can be found at: http://www.btci.org/