The Department of Psychology
CONSCIOUSNESS - A PERSPECTIVE
Dr. Fleur YanoRecently I learned that my late father, Charles K.A. Wang, had been a founding member of the Psi Chi chapter at the University of Chicago in 1927. This fact led to a request that I write an article for The Looking Glass. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to make this contribution in my father's memory.
Eugene Wigner, the recently deceased eminent physicist, once observed that progress in science was the serendipitous result of the clear delineation between the observer and the observed. At the quantum level, this is not an obviously expected result since the act of measurement in general disturbs the system.
Turning to the workings of the human mind, it seems a priori that such a separation is "unthinkable." Nevertheless, in recent years some physicists have been drawn irresistibly to the dreaded "C" word, consciousness. They have joined psychologists, along with neurophysiologists, microbiologists, biochemists, mathematicians, and computer scientists to first work on the more accessible topics such as artificial intelligence and neural networks. The greater leap has been to confront the physical mechanisms and hierarchies in the brain itself which control conscious and unconscious thought.
One approach has been taken by Francis Crick, the physicist and biochemist who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for discovering DNA structure. Crick tried to use visual awareness as a hook to apply the standard scientific method of theory and experiment to study the "C" word. He concludes in his recent book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, that the study of consciousness can be approached experimentally and scientifically and that the solution will probably be found in complex patterns of neural networks.
On a deeper level, Roger Penrose, another physicist, has argued that a quantum theory of the brain must precede our understanding of perception and consciousness. In his book, Shadows of the Mind, Penrose gives evidence from general anaesthetics that synaptic connections and therefore consciousness are controlled by some collective phenomenon involving a large number of cytoskeletons. He also discusses microtubules within the neuron and suggests that large scale quantum coherence of these microstructures may solve the mystery of consciousness.
Whether one is interested in a more fundamental understanding of the physical world and our quantitative description of it in terms of rigorous mathematics and how the human brain assimilates this understanding, or if one seeks practical remedies for brain damage or disease, there is a wealth of problems to be solved in the multidisciplinary fields mentioned above.