Scientists Discover Lightswitch for Human Consciousness


By electrically stimulating one specific area of the brain, scientists have discovered a lightswitch for human consciousness. This a milestone for neurologists who have been probing and electrically stimulating sections of the brain for years, but this is the first time they have arrived at this result.

The specific area under examination is called the claustrum. The study has only been conducted on one person, but the results suggest that it is universal amongst individuals who have a normal functioning brain. The claustrum is integral to consciousness due to its role in taking disparate brain activity and turning it into sensations, thoughts, and emotions.

The results from this study is another step in the direction that scientists have pursued, the question: how does consciousness awareness arise? Out of the many theories circulating on this topic, most neurologists believe that awareness comes, not from a single section of the organ, but the integration of several networks, allowing humans to perceive their surroundings in one unifying experience.

One supporter of this idea was Francis Crick, a pioneering neuroscientist who is known for identifying the structure of DNA. Crick was the first scientist to begin making theories about the claustrum, he described that the human brain requires a composer to unify its orchestra of different internal and external perceptions.

Crick, and his colleague Christopher Koch, at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science, hypothesized that this composer would need to rapidly integrate information from different regions of the brain and join together different pieces of information arriving at different times. An example they provided of this biological function is the smell of a rose triggering a memory of a romantic conquest that involved roses in one’s past.

The research provided by Crick and Koch paved the way for today’s scientist to discover a lightswitch for human consciousness. The Seattle scientist pair suggested that a sheet-like, thin structure that is hidden deep in the brain, what would be later known as the claustrum, is this orchestra conductor.

Mohammad Koubeissi, a neurologist at George Washington University, continued the study, incidentally. He and his colleagues recently published a study that detailed how they were able to turn a woman’s consciousness off, and turn it on again by stimulating the claustrum. The woman suffered from epilepsy, and the researchers were utilizing deep electrodes to find where the seizures originated from.

One electrode was placed on the claustrum, a place that has never been electrically stimulated in a human being before. When they turned on this electrode, the woman would stare blankly into the distance, completely unresponsive to anyone’s audio or verbal commands. As soon as the stimulation stopped, she would regain consciousness and admitted having no recollection of what happened.

The scientist tested their new human consciousness lightswitch for two days, the same results were produced every time they electrically stimulated the claustrum. Because their were no signs or symptoms of epilepsy during the woman’s drifting to and from consciousness, the team reported that the phenomenon is not a side effect of her ailment. The team is now looking to make their findings contribute to the alleviation of brain related disabilities.

By Andres Loubriel

New Scientist
End Game Time
Scientific American

2 Responses to "Scientists Discover Lightswitch for Human Consciousness"

  1. Stevan Harnad   July 7, 2014 at 5:54 am


    This center cuts off awakeness, not (just) consciousness. Inactivating the claustrum seems to put the subject into an immobile trance that is not sleep (which is an active dynamical state) but a kind of “suspended animation”).

    But consciousness means feeling — feeling anything at all. It is not (just) awakeness,

    If something could “cut off” feeling while leaving “doing” intact (moving, talking, etc.), then it would make us into the Zombies that we would have been if we were not conscious. (Now that would be a real “on-off” switch!)

    But there is no such center, or switch. Because consciousness is much more fundamental and pervasive than mere awakeness.

    And for some reason that no one can understand or explain, there (probably) cannot be Zombies — at least not with human-scale (or probably even any biological-scale) doing-capacity. To be able to explain how and why that is the case would require solving the mind/body problem (the “hard” problem).

    By the way, general anaesthesis also cuts of awakeness, as this claustral inhibition does, but it induces a lot of other accompanying changes in state along with it. (Maybe, if it is not harmful, claustrum inhibition could be used for surgery instead of pharmacologically inducing sleep or coma?)

    And local anaesthesia merely cuts off sensation (which also happens to be felt): It makes the stimulation of the anesthesized location unfelt (but of course it leaves all other feeling intact).

  2. CG   July 5, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    You need an editor who recognizes the difference between “their” and “there.” This is a deplorable mistake to make.

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