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The process of re-entry


Consciousness: A process not a thing
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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[Q] Where in the brain does consciousness lie?

Ah, well, that's of course a mistake that's made broadly by people who've entered into the field in thinking that there are consciousness neurons, whether the consciousness is here rather than there. Consciousness, as [William Bo] James pointed out, is a process not a thing. And it's a dynamic process according to this idea of the dynamic core, which means a huge number of events all over in this re-entrant circuitry and, because it's degenerate, never even for the same experience, twice the same set of events. So the question is essentially in a way meaningless. Yes, it's happening in the brain – that makes me what's called an internalist – and I don't think the thoughts are out in the world but it isn't in one part of the brain per se, although there are parts of the brain that do not contribute to it – for example the cerebellum, for example the basal ganglia, things that are related to movement and episodic things, those may not be related. But you can't say there are consciousness neurons etc., etc. Incidentally, Freud made that mistake forgivably, when in a cocaine fit, after three weeks of taking cocaine... during three weeks of taking cocaine, he wrote what's called the Project for a Scientific Psychology, in which he attacked the problem of consciousness, and he said there were consciousness neurons. That seems to be not really the case. My colleague... former late colleague, Francis Crick, very much pushed for this idea because, in his work in molecular biology, that would be a sensible form of reduction, but I haven't... I don't know if I'd managed to persuade him completely, but I think to some extent that you can't pinpoint it that way.

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: Project for a Scientific Psychology, William Bo James, Sigmund Freud, Francis Crick

Duration: 1 minute, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008