- The state of being aware and aware of one’s surroundings.
“She failed to regain consciousness and died two days later.”
- The awareness or perception of something by a person.
“Her acute consciousness of Mike’s presence.”
- The fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world.
“consciousness emerges from the operations of the brain.”‘
~ The Oxford Dictionaries
The Unsolved Mystery of Brain Science
For all that’s been uncovered by scientists about the human brain, they’re still at a loss about the underlying mechanisms of consciousness. While it’s generally accepted that consciousness is the byproduct of an intricate connectedness of some kind between different parts of the brain, scientists haven’t quite been able to “put their finger on” it.
Guess that’s all part of trying to understand one of the most complex structures in the universe. Like all breakthrough brain discoveries, a comprehensive explanation of consciousness/unconsciousness may take a while.
However, a team of researchers from the George Washington University in Washington D.C. may have just taken the all-important first step.
The Consciousness ‘Switch’
When your brain transitions from a conscious to an unconscious state, a kind of ‘switch,’ or sudden action, occurs within its circuitry.
“Lights out” is a phrase often used by commentators when a boxer or MMA fighter is knocked unconscious. Whether this somewhat crude phrase has any roots in actual neuroscience is unknown, it’s a rather accurate description.
Indeed, there is a ‘switch’ to that ‘light.’
Researchers Explain How to Turn On Your ‘Consciousness Switch’
The team of Francis Crick and Christoff Koch, both of whom helped to decrypt the structure of DNA, hypothesized that a brain region called the claustrum may be the at the heart of consciousness.
The average neuroscientist likely sneered upon first hearing the proposition that the claustrum, a relatively obscure brain region, was responsible for consciousness.
Here’s how Joel Frohlich in the Psychology Today piece titled “What the Heck Is a Claustrum?” explains this reaction:
“The hypothesis that one brain region might occupy a privileged position as the central gatekeeper of consciousness is sure to spark debate in a (Neuroscience) community that is often skeptical of almost any theory of consciousness in the first place.”
Frohlich continues: “…oddly enough, no one can definitely say what the claustrum does or how it’s important.”
What is the Claustrum?
The claustrum is a super thin sheet of neurons tucked deep inside of the human (and mammalian) brain; underneath the insular lobe. This tiny blanket of neurons can only be accessed if all other parts of the cortex (outer layers) of the brain are pulled aside.
We, humans, have two claustra, one within each hemisphere of the brain. Unlike the frontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and cerebral cortex, you’ve likely never heard of the claustrum.
That makes two of us.
To give you an idea of just how little is known of the claustrum, consider that no brain surgeon could tell you what happens if this tiny neuronal layer is damaged or removed. They can’t say because they never knowingly interact with it.
An unidentified woman, who was sadly diagnosed with a rare epileptic seizure condition, was seeking relief – of any kind – from her situation.
While scientists were stimulating different brain areas to find the epicenter of her condition, they suddenly triggered an unconscious state. They determined that electrical stimulation of the left claustrum and anterior-dorsal insula caused the woman to become unresponsive.
To ensure this wasn’t a one-off, researchers repeated stimulation of the same area. The woman once again lost consciousness.
The next step was the make certain they were not merely interrupting motor control and speech. To make sure, they asked the woman to repeat a particular word prior to stimulation. After registering the necessary feedback, the team effectively ruled out the possibility of control and speech interference.
How does this happen?
Lead author of the study, Mohamad Koubeissi, explains how activation of this relatively unknown piece of neural circuitry triggered the unconscious state:
“I liken (the brain) to a car. It has many part parts that facilitate its movement – the gas, the transmission, the engine – but there’s only one spot where you turn the key and it all switches on … we may have found the key.”
Similar to all scientific findings, the results must be replicated and observed by independent parties. Further, the woman in the study was not a typical patient in that she exhibited highly irregular brain activity.
The woman was also missing a part of the hippocampus, described as “the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system (ANS).” Although this outlier isn’t thought to have influenced the study’s results, every potential explanation must be taken into account before going forward.
Koch himself downplayed the findings a bit: “This study is incredibly intriguing, but it is one brick in a large edifice of consciousness that we’re trying to build.”
The results, however, are very promising. Should effects of the study be deemed valid, it may just revolutionize many areas within neuroscience; specifically, the treatment of severe and life-altering conditions, including rare forms of epilepsy.