The New Science of Consciousness: Exploring the Complexity of Brain, Mind, and Self

The New Science of Consciousness: Exploring the Complexity of Brain, Mind, and Self

by Paul L. Nunez


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This book explains in layperson's terms a new approach to studying consciousness based on a partnership between neuroscientists and complexity scientists. The author, a physicist turned neuroscientist, outlines essential features of this partnership. The new science goes well beyond traditional cognitive science and simple neural networks, which are often the focus in artificial intelligence research. It involves many fields including neuroscience, artificial intelligence, physics, cognitive science, and psychiatry.

What causes autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease? How does our unconscious influence our actions? As the author shows, these important questions can be viewed in a new light when neuroscientists and complexity scientists work together. This cross-disciplinary approach also offers fresh insights into the major unsolved challenge of our age: the origin of self-awareness. Do minds emerge from brains? Or is something more involved?

Using human social networks as a metaphor, the author explains how brain behavior can be compared with the collective behavior of large-scale global systems. Emergent global systems that interact and form relationships with lower levels of organization and the surrounding environment provide useful models for complex brain functions.

By blending lucid explanations with illuminating analogies, this book offers the general reader a window into the latest exciting developments in brain research.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633882195
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 11/08/2016
Pages: 350
Sales rank: 1,178,530
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Paul L. Nunez is emeritus professor of biomedical engineering at Tulane University and the owner and chief scientist of Cognitive Dissonance, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in brain research. He is the author of five books on the brain, including Brain, Mind, and the Structure of Reality (Oxford University Press, 2010) and The New Science of Consciousness (Prometheus Books, originally released in 2016).

Read an Excerpt

The New Science of Consciousness

Exploring the Complexity of Brain, Mind, and Self

By Paul L. Nunez

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2016 Paul L. Nunez
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63388-220-1




The challenge of consciousness is uniquely curious. I am conscious, but what about you? We have no direct experience of any consciousness other than our own. We infer that others share similar kinds of internal experiences mainly because they look, behave, and talk as we do. These similarities encourage the belief that others are aware of their own existence, thoughts, and environment just as we are. But how much do we really know about the internal experiences of others? How do you experience a Mozart concerto, a bungee jump, a cockroach in your kitchen, or a nude person surprising you in an elevator? What about your dog or cat — what kinds of internal experiences do they have? Or, in the colorful words of one philosopher, "What is it like to be a bat?"

The word self in this book's subtitle suggests that even if consciousness emerges from brain complexity as believed by most scientists, the very existence of the phenomenon of self-awareness remains a deep mystery. The title also suggests that self-awareness involves developments beyond mind; some lower animals can have "minds" but apparently lack a sense of "self." In other words, lower animals probably have primary consciousness, an awareness of their current environment. They may, however, lack the higher consciousness of higher animals, that is, those with awareness of self and its relation to the past, present, and future. If this distinction is indeed valid, just where do we draw the line separating higher from lower animals? Most of us think that dolphins, chimps, and dogs are conscious. But to what extent are they conscious, and how are humans special?

The phenomenon of consciousness is the major unsolved challenge of our age. Not only do we not have answers, we are often unsure of the right questions. This is not to say that the study of consciousness lies outside the province of science. The consciousness challenge may be divided into two parts, the easy problem and the hard problem. The "easy problem" is concerned with the various electrical or chemical measures of brain functions that occur in different brain states. These measures, called consciousness correlates or signatures of consciousness, are indicated symbolically in figure 1-1, where the lighted regions might indicate any one of several kinds of brain activity. For example, what happens to blood-oxygen levels in different brain regions when we recognize a face or carry out some task? Or, how do electrical patterns over the brain change between waking and sleeping or with various depths of anesthesia? How do brain injuries or diseases that afflict certain brain structures change our consciousness? What causes autism, schizophrenia, or Alzheimer's disease? And the really big question — how can the massive interactions between nerve cells (neurons), shown in figure 1-2, determine our thoughts and behaviors?

No one questions that these studies of consciousness correlates represent legitimate science. By contrast, the hard problem is concerned with the very existence of the amazing phenomenon of conscious experience. Many scientists do not consider the hard problem to be a scientific problem at all; they would leave this issue at the feet of philosophers. We will look into this controversy from several perspectives in the following chapters. Suffice it to say, our scientific knowledge about how brains work grows every day, yet a central theme that permeates our story is the delicate balance between knowledge and ignorance: how much we know, but how little we know of consciousness.

Brains are "complex" in the manner understood in the field of complexity science, an exciting new approach adopted to study everything from social systems to ecology to economics to weather patterns. Plausible assumptions about the underlying causes for various healthy and disease states of brains are suggested by analogy to other complex systems that are better understood and more easily visualized, for example, human and animal social systems. Human social networks interact with each other in many complex ways; they are also embedded within larger cultures that act top-down on the local networks. The profound idea of top-down influences across multiple levels of organization applies to many areas of science as well as our everyday lives. We will return to this issue many times in later chapters, but the following outline summarizes the general idea.

Our interactions with friends on religious, political, financial, and other issues are likely to be substantially influenced by larger systems like the mass media or the culture of our local geographic region, as indicated in figure 1-3. The arrows, both vertical and horizontal, indicate top-down influences across levels of organization. Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Are you a born-again Christian or an atheist? Regardless of our beliefs, the activities of any of our many overlapping social networks are likely to look quite different in Texas than in California. To take a more-obvious example, imagine that one of your social networks in the United States were to be suddenly transported to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi laws and customs would provide major top-down influences. Ask your wife to drive you to the airport? Forget it. Meet with friends to have drinks at a local restaurant? Don't even think about it. Such top-down social interactions provide useful and intriguing metaphors for the brain's neural networks, which are similarly influenced by top-down effects. As discussed in later chapters, top-down influences on neural networks originate from both inside and outside the brain, as indicated in figure 1-4. With such metaphors in mind, one might label this approach to brain science as neuron sociology.


The scientific material, interpretations, and opinions in this book are biased by my educational, professional, and other life experiences. This is, of course, true of all books and their authors, but such influences can be masked by the author's desire to appear unbiased. This book addresses both the "easy" and "hard" problems of consciousness. Most agree that the so-called easy problem, finding brain correlates of conscious states, lies well within scientific purview. However, the hard problem is considered by many to lie outside of science, perhaps to be left to philosophy or religion. In contrast to most scientific publications, religious issues are faced in this book when they appear to overlap the consciousness challenge. After all, much of humanity follows some sort of faith, and conflicts between science and religion often surface when addressing the hard problem. Not surprisingly, religious persons typically favor explanations that support their faith. In response to such bias, scientists and their followers sometimes overreact by opposing ideas perhaps mainly because they "smell" a little too religious. Biases on one side can beget counter biases and so forth. With this background in mind, our goal here is to avoid all aspects of epistemophobia, a fancy label for the irrational fear of knowledge, regardless of its nature. We shall be entirely free to offend the faithful, the scientists, or anybody else when the evidence demands it.

Our aim here is a friendly discussion of the consciousness challenge with open minds. For this reason, it seems like a good idea for me to reveal my "tribal membership" at the outset. My fellow tribal members include scientists, religious persons, agnostics, atheists, and others with differing worldviews and from many walks of life. Our religious members differ from the dogmatically religious in making no claim of access to personal truths that automatically trump the beliefs of others. Our tribe rejects the idea that any mathematician, philosopher, scientist, rabbi, pope, priest, imam, pastor, Torah, Qur'an (Koran), or Bible is immune from close scrutiny or criticism. We reject seduction by "guru wisdom." We believe that Truth is approached in a series of successive approximations, and at no point can final and complete accuracy be claimed. We employ the scientific method as our favorite tool, employed in order to achieve better approximations to Truth. But we don't automatically reject nor are we hostile to nonscientific beliefs like faith, intuition, speculation, and so forth, as long as they are properly acknowledged as such.

Consistent with my tribe's philosophy, I strongly support the scientific study of consciousness but reject extreme versions of scientism that place science at the pinnacle of all forms of human knowledge and experience, necessarily taking primacy over ethics, philosophy, religion, and humanistic views of reality. We hold that no field of knowledge should be insulated from scientific rigor when application of genuine scientific methods is possible. However, we must be ready to expose pseudoscientific babble and imposters masquerading as genuine science. Some prominent philosophers and scientists have implied that we are nothing but a collection of nerve cells (neurons), essentially robots lacking free will. Are our conscious "free choices" really nothing but illusions? In this view, consciousness is nothing but an accidental product of physical processes. But such views, while often promoted as the most "scientific," may actually be inconsistent with genuine twenty-first-century science.


Modern brain science is very much concerned with the idea of emergence. This is a process whereby new large-scale features arise through the actions of smaller entities that do not possess these features in isolation. The important scientific term scale refers to various levels of organization in systems of nearly any kind. In both philosophy and science, emergence refers to novel holistic or "global" properties that arise in complex systems from relatively simple interactions within smaller-scale systems. Nations emerge from the collective interactions of individuals. The large protein molecules necessary for life have important properties that may be impossible to anticipate from the fundamental features of their atomic building blocks. In meteorology, tornadoes emerge from simpler interactions of small air masses. In some materials, superconductivity emerges from quantum interactions between atoms and electrons.

The general idea of the top-down influence of emergent systems on smaller systems is indicated in figure 1-5. In the philosophical or scientific position known as strong reductionism, the importance of emergent properties of higher-level systems acting top-down on lower-level systems is mostly discounted. Strong reductionism is nicely illustrated by the great man theory, in which history is explained by the impact of great men; that is, influential individuals who, due to charisma, wisdom, money, or political skills, employed their influence (bottom-up) in a way that provided a decisive large-scale historical impact. The counterargument holds that such great men are products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the existing social and political conditions acting top-down. Wars, religions, and national economic and political policies are large-scale phenomena that act top-down on individuals at small scales, who then act bottom-up on the larger scales, as in the prominent examples of Jesus, Darwin, Marx, Einstein, Hitler, and Osama bin Laden. Modern complexity science explicitly recognizes such circular causality; that is, interactions across multiple levels of organization in both directions.

Such interactions can occur across many levels of organization, which are referred to as spatial scales in scientific circles. They can result in emergent systems, as demonstrated by figure 1-5, where the vertical arrows demonstrate circular causality, that is, the combined up-and-down interactions across spatial scales. The lowest-level system shown at the bottom consists of some kind of interacting entities. These can be almost anything; let's say they represent DNA, protein, and other molecules. Interactions between these molecules and with the external environment cause the (bottom-up) emergence of living cells. In this example, we may call the cellular level the "Level I emergent system." A single cell like the neuron may contain a hundred billion interacting molecules. It seems to act much like a natural supercomputer, an information-processing and replicating system of enormous complexity that can act down on the molecular scale and act up on the "Level II emergent system." Let a lot of cells interact in the right manner and in the right environment, and a human being will emerge. In this case, the emergent system is a person who can produce many top-down influences on the two lower levels, like when he eats a pizza, runs a race, visits his local bar, or hops in bed with his partner. A more-accurate picture of living systems would include intermediate emergent systems, for example, organ systems between the levels of cells and persons.

Many other examples come to mind. We might, for example, consider the lowest-level entities to be individual persons, with Levels I and II representing corporations and national populations, respectively. Lower-level social systems or individuals may act bottom-up to facilitate major political shifts, economic depressions, wars, and so forth. In the United States, the super wealthy can generate major bottom-up influences by buying and controlling newspapers and TV stations, donating to political campaigns, funding lobbyists, and so forth. The resulting large-scale systems like political action committees, corporate lobbies, and governments then act top-down at multiple lower levels, perhaps by writing or passing laws that encourage even more wealth concentration. In this manner they close the cycles of circular causality.

So what's so new about our views of brain complexity? Consider the history of our knowledge of the physical world as an appropriate analogue. According to Plato, the stars and planets revolved around the earth, a stationary sphere at the center of the universe. It took more than a thousand years before it was realized that our sun is just an ordinary star in a vast universe. We now know that Our Milky Way galaxy alone consists of more than a billion stars. But even this "modern view" was shown to be far too small-minded, a limited parochial view of nature.

Before the 1920s most scientists believed that our universe consisted entirely of our galaxy, the Milky Way. This idea was shown to be spectacularly wrong by the famous astronomer Edwin Hubble. He provided evidence that the many fog-like objects in the sky, then classified as "nebulae," were actually galaxies located well beyond the Milky Way. We now know that our observable universe is about one hundred thousand times larger than the Milky Way and contains several hundred billion galaxies. The actual size of the universe is unknown because we cannot observe anything beyond the distance traveled by light since the origin of the universe, the big bang. For all we know, our universe may be infinite. Furthermore, many physicists now take seriously the idea that our universe may be just one of a vast collection of universes known as the multiverse.

The point of this cosmological history is to suggest that recent ideas about brain complexity held by many scientists have been too parochial. Such oversimplified conceptual framework has been demonstrated in a number of other ways, notably with exaggerated claims and associated hype in the early days of artificial intelligence (AI). Some scientists in this field believe that "human intelligence" can be created in a machine. Some may even equate this imagined accomplishment with consciousness, the ultimate virgin birth. But is it really plausible that one might accurately simulate a human brain on a computer without accurately simulating the neurons that make up the human brain, as claimed? Is such simulation even theoretically possible? While these extreme claims are largely unsupported, there is no doubt that many thousands of AI applications are deeply embedded in the infrastructure of nearly every industry in our culture. Our computers do more and more every year, but does this imply that they may eventually become self-aware? This question will be addressed in several different contexts throughout the book.


The hard problem concerns the very existence of consciousness and self-awareness. While nearly all agree that the easy problem is appropriately approached by mainstream science, attitudes toward the hard problem cover a broad range summarized as follows: (1) There is no problem; the brain creates the mind; end of story. (2) Yes, there is a problem, but we shouldn't admit it; such talk only encourages extra-scientific "mystical thinking." (3) Yes, there is a problem, but it's far too hard for today's science to deal with. (4) Yes, there is a problem and it is very hard, but we can take some small steps toward a better understanding of the hard problem by first addressing the easy problem with our scientific tools. We may then follow implied directions of the new information to address the hard problem. Attitude number 4 is adopted throughout this book.


Excerpted from The New Science of Consciousness by Paul L. Nunez. Copyright © 2016 Paul L. Nunez. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface 9

Chapter 1 Introduction to Mind and Brain 13

1.1 The Deep Mystery of Consciousness 13

1.2 A Personal Perspective on Science, Philosophy, and Religion 18

1.3 What's So "New" about the Science of Consciousness? 19

1.4 The Easy Problem versus the Hard Problem 23

1.5 Unconscious and Pre-Conscious Brain Processes 26

1.6 Zombies, Dualism, and Computer Consciousness 30

1.7 Crick and Edelman: Two Pioneers Following Very Different Paths 34

1.8 Summary 37

Chapter 2 The Science and Philosophy of Mind 39

2.1 Brain and Mind 39

2.2 Are We Nothing but Packs of Neurons? 43

2.3 Materialism, Dualism, and Monism 46

2.4 Zombie Worlds 50

2.5 The Unity of Self 55

2.6 The Problem of Personal Identity 58

2.7 Consciousness Takes Time 62

2.8 Summary 66

Chapter 3 A Brief Look into Brain Structure and Function 69

3.1 Are Brains Like Other Complex Systems? 69

3.2 The Human Brain at Large Scales 73

3.3 Drugs, Neurotransmitters, and Brain Disease 76

3.4 Brain Inputs and Outputs 78

3.5 Chemical Control of Brain and Behavior 81

3.6 Electrical Transmission 86

3.7 The Cerebral Cortex 87

3.8 The Nested Hierarchy of the Neocortex: Multiple Scales of Brain Tissue 90

3.9 Cortico-Cortical Connections Are Non-Local 95

3.10 Human Brain Evolution 97

3.11 What Makes the Human Brain "Human"? 102

3.12 Summary 106

Chapter 4 States of Mind 109

4.1 What Is Consciousness? 109

4.2 What Is It Like to Be a Bat? 111

4.3 Patterns and Sub-Patterns of Consciousness 114

4.4 The Conscious and the Unconscious 117

4.5 Sleep 119

4.6 General Anesthesia and Coma 122

4.7 Epilepsy: A Collection of Local-Global Diseases 124

4.8 Locked-In Syndrome 128

4.9 Brain Injuries and Language 130

4.10 Summary 135

Chapter 5 Signatures of Consciousness 139

5.1 What Is Time? 139

5.2 Consciousness Takes Time 140

5.3 Pre-Conscious and Conscious States 143

5.4 The Christmas-Tree Brain 147

5.5 Christmas Lights, Electrophysiology, and fMRI 150

5.6 Free Will? 153

5.7 Alzheimer's Disease 156

5.8 Schizophrenia 158

5.9 White Matter Matters to Mental Health 160

5.10 Summary 163

Chapter 6 Rhythms of the Brain 167

6.1 The Music of Consciousness 167

6.2 Rhythms Recorded on the Scalp 174

6.3 Rhythmic Thinking 177

6.4 Normal and Abnormal Rhythms 182

6.5 Synchronous Gamma Rhythms Recorded from Inside the Skull 188

6.6 Local-Global Nervous Systems 189

6.7 A Short History of Alpha Rhythms 194

6.8 Alpha Rhythms: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly 196

6.9 Summary 200

Chapter 7 Brain Synchrony, Coherence, and Resonance 205

7.1 Separated Systems Interact to Form Larger Networks 205

7.2 Mass Action in the Nervous System 210

7.3 What Are Functional Connections? 215

7.4 Time Delays and Dynamic Patterns 217

7.5 Synchrony and Coherence 220

7.6 High-Resolution EEG 223

7.7 Frequency Tagging 226

7.8 Binocular Rivalry 230

7.9 Multiscale Synchrony and Coherence 233

7.10 Summary 235

Chapter 8 Networks of the Brain 239

8.1 Networks, Models, and Theories 239

8.2 Networks versus Continuous Media 243

8.3 Networks and Graph Theory 245

8.4 Network Caveats and Limits to Progress 249

8.5 Visual Perception Networks 251

8.6 Constructing an Android Composed of Nested Networks 253

8.7 Brain Resonance 260

8.8 Cross-Frequency Coupling and Binding by Resonance 266

8.9 Summary 271

Chapter 9 Introduction to the Hard Problem 275

9.1 The Chicken-Soup Test 275

9.2 What Is Life? 280

9.3 The Neurology of Consciousness 283

9.4 Multiple Levels of Consciousness 286

9.5 Large-Scale Intelligence? 287

9.6 Multiscale Patterns of Information 290

9.7 What Is Information? 292

9.8 Summary 296

Chapter 10 Multiscale Speculations on the Hard Problem 299

10.1 Betting on Long Shots 299

10.2 Multiscale Memory and Consciousness 302

10.3 Digging Deep to Even-Smaller Scales 305

10.4 Ultra-information 309

10.5 Quantum Mechanics: Science at Small Scales 312

10.6 Ultra-information and the RQTC Conjecture 315

10.7 Fields and Dynamic Information Patterns 319

10.8 A "Crazy" RQTC Implication: Top-Down Brain Influences 323

10.9 Summary 326

Glossary 331

Notes 345

Index 365

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