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Brain, science and consciousness

does-the-brain-produce-consciousness

What are the links bet­ween brain and conscious­ness ? Does the brain pro­duce conscious­ness ? A ques­tio­ning that fol­lows the article Thoughts + Emotions = Mental. In this article, I dis­cuss the brain/consciousness rela­tion­ship from the pers­pec­tive of medi­cine, neu­ros­cience and medi­ta­tion.

            

An unexpected state of consciousness

It is pos­sible to expe­rience a more or less brief loss of conscious­ness a few minutes after an aneu­rysm has rup­tu­red. Briefly, the pro­cess at work is as fol­lows : when blee­ding begins, the body imme­dia­te­ly sets up a defense mecha­nism cal­led hemo­sta­sis, which pur­pose is to stop the blee­ding.

Hemostasis – which is cor­re­la­ted with a decrease in cere­bral per­fu­sion pres­sure [1] – induces, among other things, a decrease in blood flow inside the brain, and conse­quent­ly a decrease in oxy­gen sup­ply. In some people, this may lead to loss of conscious­ness, and thus help to confirm the diag­no­sis of menin­geal hemor­rhage.

                 

mental-on-off

This loss of conscious­ness did not occur in my case. In fact, not only did it not hap­pen, but it is rather dis­tur­bing to note that it was pre­ci­se­ly at the moment it could have hap­pe­ned – within the first five minutes of the onset of the blee­ding – that I expe­rien­ced an expan­ded conscious­ness (see the articles about My sto­ry). Thus, ins­tead of having lost conscious­ness, in the medi­cal sense of the word, I have, so to speak, per­cei­ved my conscience more than ever before.

Let us note that our voca­bu­la­ry is very revea­ling : we speak of loss of conscious­ness, as if we pre­sup­po­sed that a state of uncons­cious­ness total­ly cuts us off from conscious­ness. But is that real­ly the case ? Let’s conti­nue our explo­ra­tion.

                   

A score for consciousness

How does it work ?

There are two pro­gnos­tic scores, from which the seve­ri­ty of a menin­geal hemor­rhage can be esti­ma­ted using a cli­ni­cal scale. These scores also help to esti­mate the chances of reco­ve­ry of the affec­ted per­son. These are direct­ly dependent on her ini­tial cli­ni­cal assess­ment. The first score, that of Hunt and Hess, was deve­lo­ped in 1968. It is spe­ci­fic to menin­geal hemor­rhages, and comes in a gra­dua­tion from 0 (unrup­tu­red aneu­rysm) to 5 (deep coma).

The second score, that of the World Federation of Neurosurgery (WFNS), is used to eva­luate the func­tio­nal prog­no­sis at six months. It is deri­ved from the Glasgow score, which is based sole­ly on the state of conscious­ness. In addi­tion to the fact that the Glasgow score itself is a rele­vant indi­ca­tor for my research, it is the only one that has been indi­ca­ted in my medi­cal records. So I’m dou­bly inter­es­ted in it.

 

The Glasgow scale

glasgow-scaleThe Glasgow Scale, or Glasgow Score, takes its name from the epo­ny­mous city in Scotland. This is where the Institute of Neurology where it was deve­lo­ped by Graham Teasdale and Bryan Jennet in 1974 is loca­ted. This scale was deve­lo­ped as an indi­ca­tor of the level of conscious­ness to help doc­tors esti­mate the seve­ri­ty of head inju­ries. With this infor­ma­tion, they can bet­ter adapt their actions to main­tain a per­son’s vital func­tions in a state of emer­gen­cy. The scale goes from 3, for a per­son in a deep coma, to 15, for a per­fect­ly conscious and orien­ted per­son, i.e. kno­wing who she is, what has hap­pe­ned to her, and being able to situate her­self in time and space. The score is eva­lua­ted accor­ding to three cri­te­ria : ver­bal res­ponse, eye ope­ning and motor res­ponse.

                    

A too short scale for consciousness

According to my medi­cal records, when I arri­ved at the emer­gen­cy room, I was a « Glasgow 15 patient ». In other words, I couldn’t be more aware of myself… Even though I appre­ciate how cru­cial the eva­lua­tion of « my score » was to the medi­cal team at the time, when I later became aware of this infor­ma­tion, I couldn’t help but smile as I thought that the « expan­ded conscious­ness » case had obvious­ly not been pre­dic­ted on this scale !

Indeed, how can we, from the out­side, eva­luate an inner expe­rience ? Even if we had mea­su­red this score a few minutes after the start of the hemor­rhage, we would have found 15, because exter­nal­ly I must have been in about the same state, and inter­nal­ly I was the only one who could appre­ciate – that’s the case to say  – my expe­rience.

The fact that this last one goes far beyond loss of conscious­ness and the limits of the Glasgow scale led me to take a clo­ser look at how medi­cine views the rela­tion­ship bet­ween conscious­ness and brain. I rea­li­zed that, in a way, it is still trying to assess inner expe­riences.

In this way, it matches the dif­ferent states of conscious­ness with brain’s rhythms. But if this cor­res­pon­dence has the merit of cla­ri­fying the rela­tion­ship bet­ween conscious­ness and brain, it never­the­less raises a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion : is conscious­ness pro­du­ced by the brain ? In other words, can conscious­ness be sum­med up as che­mi­cal, phy­si­cal and elec­tro­ma­gne­tic acti­vi­ties in the brain ?

                      

Brain and neurosciences

fields-of-consciousness

For neu­ros­cien­tist and phy­si­cist Denis Bédat, a spe­cia­list in brain states, the inten­si­ty of the elec­tro­ma­gne­tic ener­gy gene­ra­ted per­ma­nent­ly by the brain varies accor­ding to our per­mea­bi­li­ty to exter­nal sti­mu­li. Thus, « the grea­ter the exter­nal soli­ci­ta­tions are, the more the neu­rons absorb and pro­cess infor­ma­tion » [2]. It increases the inten­si­ty of elec­tro­ma­gne­tic ener­gy in the brain. If, on the contra­ry, we are able to remain imper­vious to these soli­ci­ta­tions, then the elec­tro­ma­gne­tic ener­gy gene­ra­ted will be much less intense. He explains that « the great yogis qui­ck­ly reach the state of conscious­ness of their choice and stay in, even in the middle of a dis­co­theque ! Their brain waves are struc­tu­red, some­times even har­mo­nic. » [3]

Therefore, this sug­gests that one may have a dif­ferent res­ponse, in terms of state of conscious­ness, to the same envi­ron­ment.

                  

Fields of consciousness

There are four main cate­go­ries of fre­quen­cies. They cor­res­pond to dif­ferent brain acti­vi­ties, each asso­cia­ted with a spe­ci­fic field of conscious­ness. These fre­quen­cies oscil­late bet­ween 0.5 and 40 Hz per second, and range from deep sleep to intense acti­vi­ty. The fre­quen­cy close to abso­lute zero cor­res­ponds to very redu­ced brain acti­vi­ty (coma). On the other hand, the sixth fre­quen­cy range, that of gam­ma waves, around 40 Hz, does not seem to cor­res­pond to an ordi­na­ry state of conscious­ness.

Indeed, the fre­quen­cies emit­ted are those obser­ved in yogis for example. Each field of conscious­ness reflects a par­ti­cu­lar men­tal state, impac­ting our bio­lo­gi­cal pro­cesses. « The release of this or that neu­ro­trans­mit­ter in the brain is condi­tio­ned by the inten­si­ty of com­mu­ni­ca­tion bet­ween neu­rons » [4] explains Denis Bédat.

The resear­cher also indi­cates that « thanks to elec­troen­ce­pha­lo­gram and neu­ro­feed­back sys­tems, cur­rent­ly avai­lable in some neuro-hospital research cen­ters, it is now pos­sible to iden­ti­fy and act on the brain fre­quen­cy in real time » [5]. Thus, thanks to sti­mu­la­tions in the form of light, sound or other vibra­tions, one can switch from one fre­quen­cy to ano­ther very easi­ly.

The fol­lo­wing table is based on the Denis Bédat’s work. It lists these dif­ferent fields of conscious­ness by asso­cia­ting to them the vibra­ted fre­quen­cies as well as the cor­res­pon­ding body and brain acti­vi­ty.

Fields-of-consciousness

                 

Meditation and neurosciences

In 2002, gam­ma waves were the sub­ject of scien­ti­fic stu­dies [6] thanks to Richard Davidson. Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, he has a neu­ros­cience research labo­ra­to­ry. He also works at the American Mind and Life Institute, whose aim is to pro­mote a reci­pro­cal contri­bu­tion bet­ween Buddhism and science, and in par­ti­cu­lar to show the neu­ro­lo­gi­cal effects of medi­ta­tion.

                       

brain-and-meditation

                

With the sup­port of the Dalai Lama, Richard Davidson has mana­ged to convince Buddhist monks with bet­ween 10,000 and 50,000 hours of medi­ta­tion to lend their brains to neu­ros­cience. He was able to reveal a signi­fi­cant pro­duc­tion of gam­ma waves in the monks’ brains while they were medi­ta­ting on uncon­di­tio­nal com­pas­sion. The lat­ter can be defi­ned as a willin­gness and rea­di­ness to help all living beings, which is only pos­sible from the space of the heart.

 

For a synchronized brain !

Gamma waves are found in eve­ry per­son’s brain, and are the only waves that are present in all brain areas. However, they are only acti­va­ted when the brain under­takes a las­ting and sus­tai­ned action, such as during an effort of atten­tion or memo­ri­za­tion. The more they are acti­va­ted, the more they make the popu­la­tions of neu­rons present in the dif­ferent cere­bral areas inter­act, final­ly lea­ding them to have a synchronous acti­vi­ty.

Meditation can signi­fi­cant­ly increase the pro­duc­tion of gam­ma waves, in pro­por­tion to the num­ber of hours wor­ked. In doing so, it pro­duces grea­ter syn­chro­ni­za­tion of brain areas. Thus, the main bene­fit of this prac­tice lies in the increa­sed cohe­rence of brain acti­vi­ty. Better, it is a restruc­tu­ring of the brain that is at play, because this cohe­rence conti­nues after each ses­sion. Of course, the sus­tai­na­bi­li­ty of brain restruc­tu­ring goes hand in hand with regu­la­ri­ty of prac­tice.

                      

The brain : a dynamic system

From neuronal plasticity…

neuronal-plasticity

These results were confir­med in 2004 during ano­ther series of expe­ri­ments car­ried out with the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. He is also a mem­ber of the Mind and Life Institute and is acti­ve­ly invol­ved in research on neu­ro­nal plas­ti­ci­ty. This can be defi­ned as the brain’s abi­li­ty to create, undo or reor­ga­nize neu­ral net­works and neu­ral connec­tions. In fact, it’s neu­ral plas­ti­ci­ty that explains brain restruc­tu­ring.

Indeed, research on the sub­ject shows that throu­ghout life – and not just in ear­ly child­hood as one has long been belie­ved – the brain acts as « a dyna­mic sys­tem, constant­ly recon­fi­gu­ring itself » [7]. The changes that occur in it are not the excep­tion but the rule, both at the cel­lu­lar level and in the struc­tures and func­tions of the brain.

Corroborating pre­vious expe­riences, Matthieu Ricard’s brain sho­wed an increase in gam­ma acti­vi­ty in a medi­ta­tive state, an acti­vi­ty that conti­nued when the monk left this state. The brain ima­ging (MRI) used for the occa­sion high­ligh­ted, among other things, acti­vi­ty in the area res­pon­sible for mana­ging emo­tions. This acti­vi­ty is conco­mi­tant with an appea­se­ment of the regions that main­tain the conscious­ness of the « I » and the « other ».

                   

… to brain training

These ele­ments have esta­bli­shed the fact that brain trai­ning leads to increa­sed per­cep­tion, grea­ter problem-solving abi­li­ty and, above all, expan­ded conscious­ness. It should be noted that the concept of men­tal trai­ning is some­times found in the lite­ra­ture. On the one hand, men­tal has a very spe­cial mea­ning for me. On the other hand, it can easi­ly mis­lead us in mat­ters of conscience. That’s why I think it’s more accu­rate to talk about brain trai­ning.

Although medi­cine allows us to observe cor­re­la­tions bet­ween states of conscious­ness and brain rhythms, it does not make it pos­sible to explain what conscious­ness is, nor what its links are with lived expe­rience. And for my part, the more I pro­gres­sed in my inves­ti­ga­tion of conscious­ness, the more I felt that it might be more accu­rate to speak of conscious expe­rience rather than conscious­ness.

              

meditation-and-universe

               

I sug­gest you conti­nue your explo­ra­tion of conscious­ness, by rea­ding the article on conscious expe­rience, or the one pre­sen­ting the point of view of the phy­si­cist Nassim Haramein : see the article Quantum conscious­ness.

                   

                 


Key points

  • One may have a dif­ferent res­ponse, in terms of state of conscious­ness, to the same envi­ron­ment.

  • Meditation pro­duces grea­ter syn­chro­ni­za­tion of brain areas, thus increa­sing the cohe­rence of brain acti­vi­ty.

  • Brain is a dyna­mic sys­tem, in per­pe­tual recon­fi­gu­ra­tion.

  • Although medi­cine allows us to observe cor­re­la­tions bet­ween states of conscious­ness and brain rhythms, it does not make it pos­sible to explain what conscious­ness is, nor what its links are with lived expe­rience.

                    

              

                   



Notes and references
    

[1] Cerebral per­fu­sion takes place in the cir­cu­la­to­ry sys­tem where extracel­lu­lar gas and liquid exchanges take place. Within this net­work, the ele­ments have extre­me­ly small dimen­sions and dia­me­ters, of the order of micro or nano­me­ter (this is cal­led micro­cir­cu­la­tion). Cerebral per­fu­sion pro­vides ener­gy sub­strates (oxy­gen and glu­cose) to neu­rons accor­ding to local meta­bo­lism.
[2] BEDAT Denis. (December 20, 2013), quo­ted by Réjane Ereau, Les champs de la conscience. In : INREES – Inexploré, free trans­la­tion
[3] Ibid., free trans­la­tion
[4] Ibid., free trans­la­tion
[5] Ibid., free trans­la­tion
[6] RICARD Matthieu, LUTZ Antony and DAVIDSON Richard. (February 2015). Méditation, com­ment elle modi­fie le cer­veau, In : Pour la Science, n°448, free trans­la­tion
[7] LES DOSSIERS DE LA RECHERCHE. Interview with Jean-Pierre Changeux : La plas­ti­ci­té céré­brale forge notre indi­vi­dua­li­té, n°40, August 2010, p.6, free trans­la­tion

                 




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