I became a neuroscientist because I wanted to know what consciousness is. As a child, I began to wonder why this world existed, and why we existed, and how it was that we could even contemplate these questions.
In college, I joined a lab studying the neural basis of learning and memory. Then, in graduate school, I dug deeply into the function of neurons at a cellular and molecular level. After earning my PhD, I moved to Britain to continue my post-doctoral research. Running my own lab was rewarding, and my team made awesome discoveries, developing new treatment options for patients with brain tumors and epilepsy. But I had gotten very far from my intellectual roots.
When the Brexit referendum passed, it became apparent that immigrants no longer had rights in the United Kingdom. The rule of law was for British people, not for foreigners. My husband, a British citizen, was unsympathetic. Our marriage fell apart as everything I had worked for did too. My grant funding was seized by my department. My budgets, equipment, and lab space were redistributed to my colleagues, and I was told I would no longer be sponsored for a visa. My staff all quit or went on leave; my PhD students were assigned new supervisors – men with a lot of power at the university. I was sexually assaulted during a meeting, after I begged to keep my residency and my career. The university offered me a settlement, but I refused, saying I would rather be poor and free to speak my mind than agree to the gag clauses written into the contract. I left Britain and returned home to the United States.
I moved to Colorado, for the sunshine and the mountains and the classic rock radio stations. I wasn’t sure what to do with my life anymore, so I just started writing. For forty days, I wrote about my life. When I was finished, I felt better – like the burden of those experiences had lifted off my shoulders.
Something else happened when I finished the book. Reading over my words, I realized there was a golden path hidden in the weeds of my memory. The conversations I had recounted in the book – particularly with my ex-husband, who is also a neuroscientist – held a common theme. Simply put, I realized that I believed in consciousness – that our thoughts are real and they actually influence our behavior. We are not automatons, but capable of free will and therefore responsible for our actions too.
To most people, this may not sound like such a bold statement. But to neuroscientists, this concept is anathema. Neuroscientists tend to believe that all answers to the questions of consciousness and mental states are in the brain itself. There is no such thing as immaterial thought. The prior belief that our world is comprised of already-defined substances prevents any strict materialist philosopher or scientist from considering the possibility that thought could really exist at all.
Seventeen years after I first joined a neuroscience lab, studying the brain in all its amazing detail, I realized there was something more, something we were missing. What is thought itself?
After completing my memoir, The Pomegranate, I went back to my roots, reading or re-reading all the books on consciousness that had first kindled my interest in this fundamental question of neuroscience. One of the best-known books on the subject is Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett. Thinking back, I remembered when I first came across this book, a few years after it was published in 1991. Then, as a naïve young teenager, I thought it might give me all the answers I sought. But clocking in at nearly 1000 pages, it gave me nothing. Dennett’s argument was essentially that consciousness did not exist at all, or it was nothing more than an illusion sustained by neural activity.
I sighed and closed the book, as frustrated as the first time I had read it. Had Dennett never experienced the pleasure of seeing a double rainbow, or hearing the opening notes to a Miles Davis album? Did he not have the faculty of perception, or did he simply just not believe that such a fantastic phenomenon required any further explanation? My ex-husband had always held the same opinion, that consciousness is merely brain activity, nothing more. How annoyingly obtuse!
The philosopher David Chalmers has taken a different view. Usefully, he has articulated the challenges of describing consciousness. He stated, in one particularly foundational paper: “The easy problems of consciousness are those that seem directly susceptible to the standard methods of cognitive science, whereby a phenomenon is explained in terms of computational or neural mechanisms. The hard problems are those that seem to resist those methods…. The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect…. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought.” In short, experience is something different from the neural activity that encodes it.
The philosopher John Searle has added to this point, suggesting that perhaps consciousness is simply a function of the brain, the way digestion is a function of the gut. This metaphor provides a very useful starting point for considering the problem as any other in biology.
The fact is, thought is something categorically different from neural activity, and it does deserve explanation. But we just cannot describe the physical mechanisms of consciousness right now. We have no scientific theory to account for it. Consciousness is something that happens in our world, and we simply do not know yet how to explain it.
Like Chalmers, like Searle, I am laying down the gauntlet for materialist philosophers and my colleagues in neuroscience. Thought is something fundamentally different from neural activity, and we need to acknowledge that in order to think clearly about what consciousness is.