Consciousness is simultaneously a very familiar and a very mysterious part of human existence. Humans have always known that they were conscious, but it is not until now that technology, in the form of scanners, has enabled scientists and doctors to see consciousness in action. New science is revealing that consciousness has a biological basis.
Neuroscientists are now quickly unraveling the physical and neural mechanics of human consciousness. The possibility of finally being able to understand human consciousness is indeed fascinating, however, one wonders whether humans have the capacity to truly understand consciousness or whether the research will answer some questions only to discover that there are other unanswered questions on the subject. However, for the present, neuroscientists are currently addressing eight questions.
- 1 Which brain areas are critical for consciousness?
There are around 90 billion neurons in the brain and there approximately a thousand times more connections between the brain’s neurons.However, consciousness is more than just numerous neurons. For example, the cerebellum contains over half the brain’s neurons and yet it does not seem to have much involvement in consciousness.
Scientists now believe that consciousness is dependent mostly on particular networks of regions inside the cortex, the wrinkly outside surface of the brain, and the thalamus, a structure deep inside the brain, roughly the size of a walnut. Some of the regions determine conscious levels, and others are important in how the brain perceives any given experience. There is still much to be discovered and scientists continue to look at other parts of the brain to discover how they are involved in human consciousness. Currently, scientists are trying to discover what role the brain’s densely connected frontal lobes play in consciousness and how important the information flow between regions is to consciousness.
- 2 What does general anesthesia do to consciousness?
One way of studying something is to investigate what happens in its absence. Doctors can induce general anesthesia by using many substances, but its results are the same a total loss of consciousness. Increasingly there is evidence that the brain does not experience the general “shut down” as was previously believed, but rather a disintegration of the way in which different brain parts work in unison, a type of “cognitive disconnecting”. Scientists are now questioning the degree of similarity to other unconscious states, for example dreamless sleep.
- 3 Who am I?
Who am I? What makes me different to others? What is the self? Any human’s experiences are personal and individual, no other human experiences life, the universe and everything in quite the same way. We have always known that selfhood is a very complex thing. It s factors are an “I” perspective upon the world, the sense of owning one’s own body, actions, thoughts, the perceptions of one’s internal bodily condition, and one’s personal internal narrative about past experiences and imagined future.
Scientists now know that these diverse features are dependent upon different brain processes and that they can manipulate some of them experimentally, it is possible to make someone have an “out of body” experience in the laboratory. Better understanding of the way that the brain constructs the conscious self will help doctors’ ability in understanding those psychiatric disorders, which like schizophrenia involve the disintegration of the self, and in treating them more successfully.
- 4 What determines the intent and will to act?
The discussion over free will has been raging for centuries and will continue to engage philosophers forever. However, human experience of intending and causing actions is universal. Since the 1980s, neuroscientists have been studying this issue by trying to find the neural signatures of intending to do something, or volition in scientific jargon, and the experience of causing an action or agency. There is now a growing agreement among scientists that volition does not explicitly cause action but rather it involves a particular brain network reconciling complicated open decisions between alternative actions.
- 5 What does consciousness do and what are experiences for?
Scientific research has found that much thinking, reasoning, remembering and perception can occur without consciousness. A person can perceive objects, make decisions and perform apparently conscious acts while unconscious, for example when sleepwalking. It is possible that consciousness consolidates information.
- 6 Is consciousness rich and to what degree?
The vast majority of the current evidence on consciousness is dependent upon subjective reports, such as when someone says what s/he can consciously see. Scientists have long debated whether this method has missed something, if the experience that a person is undergoing is happening too fast for him or her to be able to describe that experience. This may form the basis for distinguishing the workings of the brain that control consciousness itself from those which enable us to relate our experience.
- 7 Humans are conscious animals are there others?
Other mammals share, with humans, a great deal of the machinery that is important for consciousness, and it seems safe to assume that they also share consciousness even though they cannot say that they are. However, animal consciousness is likely to be somewhat different to human consciousness; for example, animals are unlikely to have the conscious feeling and knowledge of “I” that humans have. Whether animals, beyond mammals, have consciousness is a much harder proposition, but birds and cephalopods octopus and the like, are very intelligent and have complex brains.
- 8 Are patients in a vegetative state conscious?
There are many patients across the world in a “vegetative state” having suffered massive brain injury. One significant characteristic of a vegetative state suggests that the patient is awake but not aware. Brain imaging and scanning has revealed that certainly some patients are conscious, and such procedures have enabled communication between such patients and their doctors and relatives. Neuroscientists are intent on improving the sensitivity of these methods and using them to guide diagnoses and treatment.
The study of the neuroscience of consciousness is broadening daily and research areas are opening fast. It is important that scientists are able to proceed rapidly on these areas and other important questions without getting sidetracked by the remaining huge mysteries, such as why consciousness is part of the universe? However, that may always be beyond human understanding.
Source: The Guardian
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