Monday, May 21, 2012

Consciousness is not an Illusion or an Epiphenomenon

I have updated my web page on Skeptical Fallacies to include a section Consciousness is not an Illusion or an Epiphenomenon

Skeptics will sometimes say that consciousness is an illusion or that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain. An epiphenomenon is caused by some phenomenon but cannot affect the phenomenon that causes it.

Saying that consciousness is an illusion or an epiphenomenon does not really explain consciousness. See the section Consciousness cannot be Explained as an Emergent Property of the Brain for an explanation of why giving a scientific name to a phenomenon is not the same as explaining it.

The Wikipedia article on Epiphenomenon says,

An epiphenomenon can be an effect of primary phenomena, but cannot affect a primary phenomenon. In philosophy of mind, epiphenomenalism is the view that mental phenomena are epiphenomena in that they can be caused by physical phenomena, but cannot cause physical phenomena.

The Wikipedia article of Ephphenomenalism says:

Epiphenomenalism is the theory in philosophy of mind that mental phenomena are caused by physical processes in the brain or that both are effects of a common cause, as opposed to mental phenomena driving the physical mechanics of the brain. The impression that thoughts, feelings or sensations cause physical effects, is therefore to be understood as illusory to some extent. For example, it is not the feeling of fear that produces an increase in heart beat, both are symptomatic of a common physiological origin, possibly in response to a legitimate external threat.[1]

If consciousness cannot affect the brain, then consciousness may be an illusion. However, there is significant evidence that consciousness can affect the brain.

One form of evidence that consciousness can influence the brain comes from the placebo effect. In certain situations, if a patient is given an inactive substance but is told that he is being given a drug, the patient will experience the effects that the drug is said to cause. One example of this occurs when a patient is given a sugar pill but told it is a pain killer. In this situation, patients report that pain is reduced and in fact studies have indicated that this effect is caused by the production of naturally occurring opioids in the brain.

The Wikipedia article on the Placebo Effect says,

The phenomenon of an inert substance's resulting in a patient's medical improvement is called the placebo effect. The phenomenon is related to the perception and expectation that the patient has; if the substance is viewed as helpful, it can heal, but, if it is viewed as harmful, it can cause negative effects, which is known as the nocebo effect. The basic mechanisms of placebo effects have been investigated since 1978, when it was found that the opioid antagonist naloxone could block placebo painkillers, suggesting that endogenous opioids are involved.[31]

What is significant about the placebo effect is that it requires the patient to believe they are being given a drug. With a real drug like a pain killer, the patient will experience the effects even if they don't know they are being treated with it. However, for the placebo effect to occur, the patient must be conscious of the fact that they are being treated. This shows that conscious awareness of a medical treatment can cause the brain to produce opioids. It shows that consciousness can affect the brain.

Another form of evidence that consciousness can affect the brain comes from the phenomenon of self-directed neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of neurons in the brain to change their organization or grow. This can occur when someone learns a skill or recovers from an injury. Self-directed neuroplasticity occurs when neurons in the brain change their organization or grow in response to self observation of mental states.

One situation where self-directed neuroplasticity occurs is meditation. During meditation, a person will observe, (ie. be conscious of) their inner state: their mental activity and the sensations in their body. This conscious attention has been found to cause changes in the brain.

The article Self-Directed Neuroplasticity: A 21st-Century View of Meditation by Rick Hanson, PhD discusses this:

One of the enduring changes in the brain of those who routinely meditate is that the brain becomes thicker. In other words, those who routinely meditate build synapses, synaptic networks, and layers of capillaries (the tiny blood vessels that bring metabolic supplies such as glucose or oxygen to busy regions), which an MRI shows is measurably thicker in two major regions of the brain. One is in the pre-frontal cortex, located right behind the forehead. It’s involved in the executive control of attention – of deliberately paying attention to something. This change makes sense because that’s what you're doing when you meditate or engage in a contemplative activity. The second brain area that gets bigger is a very important part called the insula. The insula tracks both the interior state of the body and the feelings of other people, which is fundamental to empathy. So, people who routinely tune into their own bodies – through some kind of mindfulness practice – make their insula thicker, which helps them become more self-aware and empathic. This is a good illustration of neuroplasticity, which is the idea that as the mind changes, the brain changes, or as Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb put it, neurons that fire together wire together.

The article Mind does really matter: evidence from neuroimaging studies of emotional self-regulation, psychotherapy, and placebo effect. (Beauregard M. Prog Neurobiol. 2007 Mar;81(4):218-36. Epub 2007 Feb 9) says,

The results of these investigations demonstrate that beliefs and expectations can markedly modulate neurophysiological and neurochemical activity in brain regions involved in perception, movement, pain, and various aspects of emotion processing. Collectively, the findings of the neuroimaging studies reviewed here strongly support the view that the subjective nature and the intentional content (what they are "about" from a first-person perspective) of mental processes (e.g., thoughts, feelings, beliefs, volition) significantly influence the various levels of brain functioning (e.g., molecular, cellular, neural circuit) and brain plasticity. Furthermore, these findings indicate that mentalistic variables have to be seriously taken into account to reach a correct understanding of the neural bases of behavior in humans.

The scientific evidence from the placebo effect and from self-directed neuroplasticity shows that consciousness cannot be an illusion or an epiphenomenon produced by the brain because consciousness can affect the brain.

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