TCS Daily


Our Mind, Electric?

By Johnjoe McFadden - June 10, 2002 12:00 AM

GUILDFORD, Surrey -- Are thoughts made of electricity? I don't mean here the familiar kind of electrical signals that travel up and down wires in your computer or nerves in your brain, but the distributed kind of electromagnetic field that permeates all of space. A new theory put forward by the New Zealand neurophysiologist, Dr Susan Pockett, and independently by myself, claims that our conscious mind is an electromagnetic field. The theory solves many previously intractable problems of consciousness and, if right, has profound implications for our concepts of mind, free will, spirituality, the design of artificial intelligence, and even life and death.

We tend to consider 'mind' to be all the conscious stuff that we are aware of but much, if not most, mental activity goes on without awareness. The difference between the two types of thinking was brought home to me recently whilst driving along a Cornish country road. Anyone used to the narrow lanes of the English countryside will be well practised in the 'thank you wave' offered towards the driver of the vehicle who has thoughtfully pulled into a lay-by to allow your car to pass. If asked I would have sworn that this action was entirely voluntary -- a conscious action. But then why did my arm automatically rise to wave to the leading car in a queue of stationary traffic halted by an emergency traffic light? Embarrassed at what might have looked like a friendly wave of recognition I attempted to turn the action, mid-wave, into a nonchalant tapping on the steering wheel.

My wave was an automatic action. The robot inside me was taking control. Like walking, changing gear or peddling a bicycle, the action had become as automatic as breathing. In this situation, the action was inappropriate so I managed to stop the autopilot in mid-flight. I - my conscious mind - took control back from the autopilot. The biggest puzzle in neurophysiology is the nature of this 'taking control'.

When we see an object, signals from our retina travel along nerves as waves of electrically charged ions. When they reach the nerve terminus the signal jumps to the next nerve via chemical neurotransmitters. The receiving nerve decides whether or not it will fire, based on the number of firing votes it receives from its upstream nerves. In this way, electrical signals are processed in our brain before being output, as motor nerve signals, to our body. But where, in all this movement of ions and chemicals, is consciousness? And how do unconscious neural pathways -- like those that lifted my hand towards a wave -- differ from those that adjusted that movement towards a self-conscious tapping on the steering wheel?

The example is trivial but the problem is not. Consciousness is the key attribute of the human brain, the one that makes us distinctively 'human'. Language, creativity, emotions, spirituality, logical deduction, mental arithmetic, our sense of fairness, truth, ethics, or our sense of embarrassment when we are caught doing something stupid -- are all inconceivable without consciousness.

So where in the brain can we find consciousness? Scientists can find no region in the brain that specialises in conscious thinking or no difference in nerve firing between conscious and unconscious neural processes. Theoreticians who attempt to explain consciousness resort at one point or other in their arguments to 'emergent structures', 'higher-level processing' or other such evasions. Consciousness remains a mystery.

My interest in the problem was kindled when writing a popular science book 'Quantum Evolution' that explored the role of quantum mechanics in biology. Chapter thirteen was planned to be an account of the quantum theory of consciousness popularised by the Oxford-based mathematician, Roger Penrose, in his book 'The Emperor's New Mind'. Penrose believes that consciousness is made possible by brain proteins called microtubules that he claims can slip into the weird quantum world. But when I came to writing the chapter I found I couldn't believe in quantum microtubules. They are much too biochemically busy to be able to slip into the extraordinarily delicate states of quantum mechanics.

But Penrose's quantum consciousness was a 'field theory' that did tackle the fundamental questions of consciousness, known as 'the binding problem'. Look at a tree - how many leaves do you see? Most people would answer 'thousands'. But neurobiology tells us that the information - all those leaves - is dissected and scattered amongst millions of widely separated neurones. Where in the brain do all those leaves get stuck together again to generate the conscious impression of a whole tree? More generally, how does our brain bind information to generate our seamless 'stream of consciousness'? In Penrose's theory all the distributed information is physically unified within a quantum field. Fields solve the binding problem, but without quantum microtubules, where is the field?

Remarkably, the answer has been known for more than a century. Over a hundred years ago the English physicist Richard Canton made electrical recordings from the brain surface of dogs a rabbits. Today, EEG and MEG are routinely used to measure and map the brain's electromagnetic (em) field.

Every time a nerve fires the electrical activity sends a signal to the brain's em field. Information in nerves becomes 'bound', into a physically unified structure -- the brain's em field. This information is encoded in energy rather than the matter of nerves but it is just as real as nerves (remembering Einstein's famous E = mc2 equation). And in contrast to the scattered information held in neurones, field-based information is as unified as a single electron, a single photon, or a single thought.

The philosopher, David Chalmers, proposed that all information has an 'awareness aspect'. If he's right, then the only place in the known universe where this information-awareness gets bound together to encode objects as complex as our thoughts, is in the em field generated by animal brains.

And the brain's em field is not just an information sink -- it can influence our actions, pushing some neurones towards firing and others away from firing. Mostly, its influence will be weak. But in a busy brain there will be many neurones poised on the cusp of firing that will be sensitive to the field's tiny electrical nudges. These nudges are experienced as our conscious will -- the influence of the field on our actions. This is what happens when our conscious mind 'takes control' of our body.

The theory accounts for many of the peculiar features of consciousness, such as its involvement in the learning process. Anyone who has attempted to learn a new skill (like playing a musical instrument, or driving a car) will have experienced how the first (very conscious) fumblings are transformed, through constant practise, into automatic actions. The neural networks driving those first uncertain fumblings are precisely where we would expect to find nerves in the undecided state when a small nudge from the field can topple them towards or way from firing. The em field will 'fine tune' the neural pathway towards the desired goal. But neurones are connected so that when they fire together, they wire together, to form stronger connections. The small pushes and pulls from the brain's em field will become hard-wired. After practice, the influence of the field will become dispensable. The activity will be learnt and may thereafter be performed unconsciously.

Of course there are many obvious objections to the theory, but they are easily answered. If our minds are electromagnetic, then why don't we pass out when we walk under an electrical cable or any other source of external em fields? The answer is that our skin, skull and cerebrospinal fluid form a very effective 'Faraday cage' that shields us from external electric fields. Changing magnetic fields will perturb the brain's em field but these do indeed change our thoughts. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is used to treat some psychiatric conditions and induces a range of cognitive disturbances in subjects, such as changing reaction times, suppressing visual perception or speech and inducing mood changes.

The conscious electromagnetic information (cemi) field is, at present still a theory. But in the paper I just published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, I outlined eight predictions and described experimental evidence in favour of most of them. In contrast to most theories of consciousness, the cemi field at least places the phenomenon in a secure scientific framework that is amenable to experimental testing.

And if it is right, there are many fascinating implications for our concept of mind, free will, the nature of creativity or spirituality, consciousness in animals and the even the significance of life and death. The theory explains why conscious actions feel so different from unconscious ones. It is because they plug into the vast pool of information held in the brain's em field. This is what makes consciousness useful. Consciousness thinking may be the key evolutionary advantage captured by the human mind.

The theory predicts that current efforts to generate a conscious artificial intelligence (AI) are doomed to failure. This is because the conventional electronic architecture, in either your desktop PC or even the most advanced supercomputers, must dissect information in the same way as neurones. But, unlike neurones, they are insensitive to their self-generated em field. So there is nowhere in your computer's mind where all the leaves are brought together again to make a tree. Computers may be fast but, unlike our brain, they cannot hold whole concepts in their mind. As in Wordsworth's poem, they must "murder [concepts] to dissect."

But new generations of computers are being designed with circuit boards connected by light signals. Light is a fluctuation in the electromagnetic field, so these computers will generate electromagnetic representation of the information they process. Artificial consciousness may not be so far away.

And what about the beginning and end of consciousness? What happens when we die? If consciousness is an aspect of information then a principle of physics holds that information is neither created nor destroyed (except perhaps in a black hole). The end of life may not mean the end of consciousness.

Johnjoe McFadden is Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey in southeast England and the author of "Quantum Evolution" (HarperCollins, UK; WW Norton, USA).
The paper "Synchronous firing and its influence on the brain's electromagnetic field: evidence for an electromagnetic field theory of consciousness. Johnjoe McFadden, is published in the current edition of Journal of Consciousness Studies, along with a commentary by Dr Susan Pockett, author of "The Nature of Consciousness: A Hypothesis" (Writers Club Press).
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