I have almost finished reading F.A. Hayek‘s The Sensory Order, which was originally published in 1952. Chapter VI is Consciousness and Conceptual Thought. In the section headed the Functions of Consciousness, Hayek writes:
6.29. …[I]t will be the pre-existing excitatory state of the higher centres [of the central nervous system] which will decide whether the evaluation of the new impulses [arising from stimuli external to the higher centres] will be of the kind characteristic of attention or consciousness. It will depend on the predisposition (or set) how fully the newly arriving impulses will be evaluated or whether they will be consciously perceived, and what the responses to them will be.
6.30. It is probable that the processes in the highest centres which become conscious require the continuous support from nervous impulses originating at some source within the nervous system itself, such as the ‘wakefuleness center’ for whose existence a considerable amount of physiological evidence has been found. If this is so, it would seem probable also that it is these reinforcing impulses which, guided by the expectations evoked by pre-existing conditions, prepare the ground and decide on which of the new impulses the searchlight beam of full consciousness and attention will be focued. The stream of impulses which is thus strengthened becomes capable of dominating the processes in the highest centre, and of overruling and shutting out from full consciousness all the sensory signals which do not belong to the object on which attention is fixed, and which are not themselves strong enough (or perhaps not sufficiently in conflict with the underlying outline picture of the environment) to attract attention.
6.31. There would thus appear to exist within the central nervous system a highest and most comprehensive center at which at any one time only a limited group of coherent processes can be fully evaluated; where all these processes are related to the same spatial and temporal framework; where the ‘abstract’ or generic relations for a closely knit order in which individual objects are placed; and where, in addition, a close connexion with the instruments of communication has not only contributed a further and very powerful means of classification, but has also made it possible for the individual to participate in a social or conventional representation of the world which he shares with his fellows.
Now, 64 years later, comes a report which I first saw in an online article by Fiona MacDonald, “Harvard Scientists Think They’ve Pinpointed the Physical Source of Consciousness” (Science Alert, November 8, 2016):
Scientists have struggled for millennia to understand human consciousness – the awareness of one’s existence. Despite advances in neuroscience, we still don’t really know where it comes from, and how it arises.
But researchers think they might have finally figured out its physical origins, after pinpointing a network of three specific regions in the brain that appear to be crucial to consciousness.
It’s a pretty huge deal for our understanding of what it means to be human, and it could also help researchers find new treatments for patients in vegetative states.
“For the first time, we have found a connection between the brainstem region involved in arousal and regions involved in awareness, two prerequisites for consciousness,” said lead researcher Michael Fox from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre at Harvard Medical School.
“A lot of pieces of evidence all came together to point to this network playing a role in human consciousness.”
Consciousness is generally thought of as being comprised of two critical components – arousal and awareness.
Researchers had already shown that arousal is likely regulated by the brainstem – the portion of the brain that links up with the spinal cord – seeing as it regulates when we sleep and wake, and our heart rate and breathing.
Awareness has been more elusive. Researchers have long thought that it resides somewhere in the cortex – the outer layer of the brain – but no one has been able to pinpoint where.
Now the Harvard team has identified not only the specific brainstem region linked to arousal, but also two cortex regions, that all appear to work together to form consciousness.
A full account of the research is given by David B. Fischer M.D. et al. in “A Human Brain Network Derived from Coma-Causing Brainstem Lesions” (Neurology, published online November 4, 2016, ungated version available here).
Hayek isn’t credited in the research paper. But he should be, for pointing the way to a physiological explanation of consciousness that finds it centered in the brain and not in that mysterious emanation called “mind.”