Science finds ‘switch’ for human consciousness

Consciousness can refer to many things, depending on how abstract you want to get with it (are any of us every really conscious?). In scientific terms, however, we’ve all had experience with it: We’re conscious when we’re awake, and we’re unconscious whenever we’re not. How exactly this is controlled was never clear, but New Scientist reports that scientists from George Washington University have successfully controlled consciousness with electrical impulses for the first time.

Of course, there’s a major caveat: They’ve only performed the exercise on one person.

The research centers around the claustrum, a small area of the brain now believed to control how the brain takes wildly unrelated activity and forms it into coherent thoughts, feelings and emotions. Though only tangentially, it brings us closer to addressing the more abstract, philosophical notions of consciousness.

“Ultimately, if we know how consciousness is created and which parts of the brain are involved then we can understand who has it and who doesn’t,” says Christof Koch, at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. “Do robots have it? Do fetuses? Does a cat or dog or worm? This study is incredibly intriguing but it is one brick in a large edifice of consciousness that we’re trying to build.”

There’s not much to the claustrum, little more than a small, thin sheet of brain matter situated deep within the brain. Still, Kock and his colleagues believed it to be perfectly suited to interpreting environmental factors and helping to package them into perceptible experiences. Their suspicions were confirmed last week when a study was published by George Washington University’s Mohamad Koubeissi: By stimulating the claustrum of an epileptic woman, he was able to bring her in and out of consciousness.

While stimulated, the patient was essentially comatose, unresponsive to all stimuli. As soon as the electrical pulses ceased, she regained consciousness. Though more research is needed (and obviously a larger sample size), Koubeissi believes the claustrum may act like a car ignition, functioning as the one place where disparate systems come together to operate the machine.