Cognitive science

The Universe May Be Conscious, Prominent Scientists State

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What consciousness is and where it emanates from has stymied great minds in societies across the globe since the dawn of speculation. In today’s world, it’s a realm tackled more and more by physicists, cognitive scientists, and neuroscientists. There are a few prevailing theories. The first is materialism. This is the notion that consciousness emanates from matter, in our case, by the firing of neurons inside the brain.

Take the brain out of the equation and consciousness doesn’t exist at all. Traditionally, scientists have been stalwart materialists. But doing so has caused them to slam up against the limitations of materialism. Consider the chasm between relativity and quantum mechanics, or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and you quickly start to recognize these incongruities.

The second theory is mind-body dualism. This is perhaps more often recognized in religion or spirituality. Here, consciousness is separate from matter. It is a part of another aspect of the individual, which in religious terms we might call the soul. Then there’s a third option which is gaining ground in some scientific circles, panpsychism. In this view, the entire universe is inhabited by consciousness.

A handful of scientists are starting to warm to this theory, but it’s still a matter of great debate. Truth be told, panpsychism sounds very much like what the Hindus and Buddhists call the Brahman, the tremendous universal Godhead of which we are all a part. In Buddhism for instance, consciousness is the only thing that exists.

Such is the focus of the famous Zen koan, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” One must come to the realization that everything we experience is filtered through and interpreted by our mind. Without it, the universe doesn’t exist at all or at least, not without some sort of consciousness observing it. In some physics circles, the prevailing theory is some kind of proto-consciousness field.

Cosmic dust cloud.

Is consciousness derived from an invisible field that inhabits our universe? Getty Images.

In quantum mechanics, particles don’t have a definite shape or specific location, until they are observed or measured. Is this a form of proto-consciousness at play? According to the late scientist and philosopher, John Archibald Wheeler, it might. He’s famous for coining the term, “black hole.” In his view, every piece of matter contains a bit of consciousness, which it absorbs from this proto-consciousness field.

He called his theory the “participatory anthropic principle,” which posits that a human observer is key to the process. Of this Wheeler said, “We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago.” In his view, much like the Buddhist one, nothing exists unless there is a consciousness to apprehend it.

Neuroscientist Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, is another supporter of panpsychism. Koch says that the only theory we have to date about consciousness is, it’s a level of awareness about one’s self and the world. Biological…

10 Living Philosophers and Why You Should Know Them

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It can be easy to think that all the good ideas have already been thought; after all, philosophy have been going on for more than 2500 years. But that isn’t true! There are still some genius philosophers out there, of course. Here, we give you ten living people with ideas worth learning about.

Noam Chomsky

One of the most cited philosophers of the modern age, Chomsky has written extensively on linguistics, cognitive science, politics, and history. His work has had an effect on everything from developmental psychology to the debates between rationalism and empiricism, and led to a decline of support for behaviorism. He remains an active social critic and public intellectual, including here on Big Think.

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky’s Trick for Avoiding Political Letdown: Low Expectations

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Noam Chomsky’s Trick for Avoiding Political Letdown: Low Expectations

Noam Chomsky

Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

02:54

“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”

Slavoj Zizek

Zizek is a modern Marxist who has commented extensively on culture, society, theology, psychology, and our tendency to view the world through the lens of “Ideology”. He has devoted a great deal of time to updating the idea of Dialectic Materialism. He is also a frequent Big Think contributor.

Slavoj Žižek

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Interesting?

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“Humanity is OK, but 99% of people are boring idiots.”

Cornel West

Cornel is an American philosopher who focuses on politics, religion, race, and ethics. Hardly shy for the camera, West is often seen on television talk shows and even had a cameo in the Matrix films. His work has expanded on the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois on more than one occasion, and continues to focus on the issues of being an “Other” in modern society. His Big Think videos can be found here.

Cornel West

Cornel West: Hope Is an Action We Can All Take

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“The Enlightenment worldview held by Bu Bois is ultimately inadequate, and, in many ways, antiquated, for our time.”

Martha Nussbaum

An American philosopher at the University of Chicago, Martha has written about subjects as diverse as…

How Do Tics Develop in Tourette Syndrome?

Tourette syndrome is a brain dysfunction that leads to involuntary motor tics, such as sniffing, blinking, or clapping. In about 10 percent of cases, it also leads to the spontaneous utterance of taboo words or phrases, known as coprolalia. Until recently, these tics were believed to be the result of a dysfunction primarily in a brain structure known as the basal ganglia—a brain region associated with voluntary motor control, which primarily uses the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) to function. Recent studies of rat, monkey, and even human brains, however, has suggested that the tics stem from a more complex, system-level dysfunction that involves the cerebellum, the thalamus, and the cortex, which are all connected.

To better explore these brain regions and their influence on Tourette syndrome, Daniele Caligiore, a researcher at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies of the Italian National Research Council in Italy, and his colleagues created a computer-simulated model of the neural activity of a brain with Tourette syndrome. The results are published in PLOS Computational Biology.

“The model presented here is a first step of a research agenda aiming at building virtual patients, allowing us to test potential therapies by using computer simulations,” Caligiore tells mental_floss. This method can be performed at low cost, without ethical implications, and, he hopes, help develop “more effective therapeutic protocols, and suggest promising therapeutic interventions.”

Using a…

From Mind Control to Curing Brain Diseases, a Neuroscience Revolution Is Coming

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If the idea of physicalism is correct — that all of our mental states can be described in purely physical terms — then neuroscience is not only the study of our brains, but the study of our entire existence. Neuroengineering, defined as the application of engineering principles to neurological problems, then becomes how we engineer our relationship with existence itself.

Fifty years ago, nobody but computer programmers knew the personal computer was being developed, and the primary market for the device was thought to be scientists. Today, computers are a ubiquitous.

Digital technology has revolutionized nearly every facet of our lives. Today, neuroengineering is in a similar infancy. While most people would understand the basic idea of using engineering techniques to alter, improve, repair, and study neural systems, most people would lack for ideas on the application.

This article is part of a series sponsored by The Hertz Foundation. Discover more of what remarkable students can do in the sciences: — From Space Elevators to Drone Delivery, Looking for Failure Inspires Innovation

Dr. Ed Boyden is somebody who does not lack for those ideas.

Brain Science: Optogenetics and Expansion Microscopy Edward Boyden

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Brain Science: Optogenetics and Expansion Microscopy

Ed-boyden-hs

Edward Boyden

MIT Professor, Media Lab Synthetic Neurobiology Group Leader

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As professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the MIT Media Lab, Boyden has launched an award-winning series of classes at MIT which teach principles of neural engineering, starting with the basic principles of how to control and observe neural functions. While studying neuroscience at Stanford University as a Hertz Foundation Fellow, Boyden discovered that human memories are stored by a specific molecular mechanism, and that the content of a memory determines the mechanism used by the brain.

His work focuses on dramatically improving how the brain is imaged, opening a world of opportunities for people who wish to study the neural pathways that make our brains work. Dr. Boyden’s high resolution 3-D maps of the brain, unlike prior 2-D maps, allow researchers to pinpoint exactly what part of the brain they wish to…