A recent investigation by the University of Boston might revolutionize neurology by proposing a new paradigm that explains human consciousness. Scientists believe consciousness is a mechanism based on planning immediate actions through its inexhaustible memory storage. This approach is groundbreaking because it allows experts to individualize the phenomenon of consciousness to study it, which was practically impossible due to the number of factors that causally affect consciousness with previous paradigms.
The science and other stuff to know
The historical problem of defining consciousness is one of the reasons for this new effort to understand it. Consciousness has been described as a state of mind that emerges as the ability to feel wakefulness, have a sense of identity, and control decisions. Modern medicine focuses on discovering the biological and psychological processes and how they combine to create this phenomenon that narrates all cognitive, emotional, and even physical experiences.
The authors suggest that episodic memory — the set of neural processes that allow us to re-experience a moment in the past — along with other minor processes related to language and cognition, developed consciousness as a fundamental part of “achieving the flexible recombination of information.”
In their own words: “Consciousness ties together the elements of an experience, allowing for the creation of a memory trace that can include multi-sensory detail. Over time, consciousness provides a medium in which these memory traces can be played back, a mechanism key to its successful storage.”
The curious thing about the model proposed by the authors is that many of the actions we carry out daily are, in reality, unconscious since conscious processes take longer than the time used to execute quick actions that require reflexes, such as playing an instrument or playing a video game. In these cases, we would act unconsciously but well planned by our episodic memory system, and we would make it conscious about half a second later.
Budson, one of the authors of the research, stated that “Even our thoughts are generally not under our conscious control” and argues that this could be why it is so difficult for us to contain the uncontrollable urge to eat one more snack or maintain attention in class.
The authors contend that many neurological and psychiatric spectrum mental disorders may be of consciousness. As the mechanism that generates it does not work correctly, the awareness process is not executed properly, and the individual suffers from distortions in the perception of their identity and difficulty interacting with the environment. It is how the new paradigm could explain Alzheimer’s or autism.
A better understanding of this mechanism could provide more accuracy in diagnosing disorders of consciousness and promote new effective treatments. Understanding consciousness could even have profound moral and philosophical implications for our species.
Despite the limitations of the study, the authors conclude, “we are confident that research using the methodologies we have outlined to test their hypotheses will advance studies in cognitive neuropsychology, experimental psychology, and the cognitive neuroscience of consciousness, bringing us closer to understanding the fundamental nature and anatomical basis of consciousness.”