WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
- One of life’s mysteries is why life exists in the first place, and the mystery of consciousness comes a close second, but the latter might be about to be solved
Consciousness has long baffled, well, everyone. Let’s face it – noone really knows why when life is essentially a mixture of dumb and lifeless chemical cocktails we’re conscious. But now, hot on the heels after scientists announced that they think they’ve found the seat of human consciousness, there’s been another potential breakthrough. Scientists have discovered a huge single cell that wraps around the entire circumference of the brain. The neuron’s connections into the various regions of the outer brain are so dense that researchers suspect that it might be the link from which consciousness emerges, reports Nature.
The neuron’s actually one of three newly discovered giant cells that extend across both brain hemispheres. Only the largest one wraps around the entire organ like a “Crown of Thorns,” but the discovery of any of the three alone would be considered significant.
Perhaps most curious about these neurons is that they each grow out of the same central brain region known as the claustrum, a thin sheet of hyper-connected grey matter that has been linked to consciousness in previous studies. All mammalian brains are suspected to possess a claustrum, and in humans it’s known to communicate with almost all regions of the cortex. Many higher cognitive functions such as language, long-term planning and advanced sensory tasks like seeing and hearing have been associated with it.
It’s possible that the claustrum is where synchronisation happens between the brain’s hemispheres and cortical regions – the synchronization that explains where the seamless quality of conscious experience comes from.
How could researchers have missed such a huge neuron until now? The brain is a massively complex web of neurons, and the task of unravelling each of them is time-intensive and tedious. Also, researchers don’t usually have the luxury of unravelling the neural networks of live human brains, for obvious ethical reasons, so they often have to perform their experiments on animals, which has its limitations.
For instance, this study was performed on mouse brains. Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, and his team discovered the three giant neurons by tracing them through a mouse’s brain with dye. The pathway had to be delicately followed by hand, a particularly arduous task, given how long these neurons turned out to be. In the end, it took 10,000 cross-sectional images of the mouse brain and a computer program to create a 3D reconstruction to show just how extensive the three dyed cells were.
The existence of such all encompassing neurons emerging from an area of the brain that’s already known to be hyper-connected and linked with higher order brain processing is compelling, but more research will be needed to definitively establish this network as the seat of consciousness. Still, just the fact that this could be the string from which the mysteries of consciousness finally get unravelled is exciting to think about.
What if the wonders of the soul all hang on the thread of just these three, albeit very long and connected, brain cells? It seems impossible. But then, in many ways, so does consciousness itself.
Matthew Griffin Global Futurist, Tech Evangelist, X Prize Mentor ● Int'l Keynote Speaker ● Disruption, Futures and Innovation expert
Matthew Griffin, Futurist and Founder of the 311 Institute, a global futures think tank, is described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers.” Recognised in 2013, 2015 and 2016 as one of Europe’s foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew mentors several XPrize teams, and is an award winning author, entrepreneur and international speaker who is regularly featured on the BBC, Discovery, Kurzweil, Newsweek, TechCrunch and VentureBeat. Working hand in hand with accelerators, investors, governments, multi-nationals and regulators around the world Matthew shines a light on the future and helps them transform their industries, organisations, products and services by demonstrating how the combination of democratised, and increasingly powerful emerging technologies, are helping fuel cultural, industrial and societal change that is transforming old industries and creating new ones. Matthew’s clients include Accenture, Bain & Co, Bank of America, Booz Allen Hamilton, Boston Consulting Group, Dell EMC, Deloitte, Deutsche Bank, E&Y, Fidelity, Goldman Sachs, Huawei, JP Morgan Chase, KPMG, McKinsey & Co, PWC, Qualcomm, SAP, Schroeder’s, Sequoia Capital, UBS, the UK’s HM Treasury, the USAF and many others.