The phenomenal content of neural activity

This post is about the mind-body problem. Specifically, what is the relationship between the activity of the brain and the phenomenal content of conscious experience? It is generally thought that experience is somehow produced by the electrical activity of neurons. The caricatural example of this idea is the concept of the “grandmother cell”: a neuron lights up when you think of your grandmother, or conversely the activation of that neuron triggers the experience of, say, the vision of your grandmother's face. The less caricatural version is the concept of cell assemblies, where the single cell is replaced by a set of neurons. There are variations around this theme, but basically, the idea is that subjective experience is produced by the electrical activity of neurons. There actually is some experimental evidence for this idea, coming from the electrical stimulation of the brain of epileptic patients (read any book by Oliver Sacks). Electrical stimulation is used to locate the epileptic focus in those patients, and depending on where the electrode is in the brain, electrical stimulation can trigger various types of subjective experiences. Epileptic seizures themselves can produce such experiences, for example auditory experiences of hearing specific musics. Migraines can also trigger perceptual experiences (called “aura”), in particular visual hallucinations. So there is some support for the idea of a causal relationship between neural activity and subjective experience.

The obvious question, of course, is: why? At this moment, I have no idea why neural activity should produce any conscious experience at all. We do not believe that the activity of the stomach causes any subjective experience for the stomach, or the activity of any set of cells, including cardiac cells, which also have an electrical activity (but of course, maybe we are wrong to hold this belief).

I propose to start with a slighly more specific question: why does neural activity cause subjective experience of a particular quality? Any conscious experience is an experience of something (a property called intentionality in philosophy), for example the vision of your grandmother's face. Why is it that a particular spatio-temporal pattern of activity in a neural network produces, for that neural network, the experience of seeing a face? One type of answer is to say that this particular pattern has been associated with the actual visual stimulus of the face, ie, it “encodes” the face, and so the meaning of those neurons lighting up is the presence of that visual stimulus. This is essentially the “neural coding” perspective. But there is a big logical problem here. What if the visual stimulus is not present, but the neurons that “encode” the face light up either naturally (memory, dream) or by electrode stimulation? Why would that produce a visual experience rather than anything else? If experience is produced by neural activity alone, then it should not matter what external stimulus might cause those neurons to fire, or what happened in the past to those neurons, or even what world the neurons live in, but only which neurons fire now. Which neurons fire now should entirely determine, by itself, the content of subjective experience. Again the problem with the neural coding perspective is that it is essentially dualist: at some stage, there is some other undefined process that “reads the code” and produces subjective experience. The problem we face here is that the firing of neurons itself must intrinsically specify the experience of seeing a face, independent of the existence of an outside world.

I will try to be more specific, with a very simple example. Imagine there is just one neuron, and two stimuli in the world, A and B. Now suppose, by conditioning or even simply by anatomical assumption, that stimulus A makes the neuron fire. A neural coder would say: this neuron codes for stimulus A, and therefore this neuron's firing causes the experience of A. But you could also assume a different situation, maybe a different organism or the same organism conditioned in a different way, where stimulus B, and not A, makes the neuron fire. If neural activity is what causes subjective experience, then this neuron's firing should produce exactly the same experience in both cases, even though different stimuli cause them to fire. This example can be vastly generalized, and the implication is that any two patterns of neural activity that are identical up to a permutation of neurons should produce the same subjective experience for that set of neurons.

As if all this were not puzzling enough, I will now end on a disturbing experiment of thought. Imagine we measure the entire pattern of neural activity of someone experiencing the vision of his grandmother. Then we build a set of blinking red lights, one for each neuron, programmed so as to light up at the same time as the neurons did. The red lights don't even need to be connected to each other. The electrical activity of this set of lights is thus the same as the activity of the neural network. Therefore, by the postulate that electrical activity is what causes subjective experience, the set of lights should experience the sight of the grandmother, with the impression of being the grandson. Would it?

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