Carlos Hojaij: Psychiatry and Cosmology: From Stardust to an Invisible Power*
The dominant energy in the universe may be associated with empty space, and moreover, this energy is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate with time. (Krauss, 2001)
Science has always tried to eliminate the subjective from its descriptions of the world. But what if subjectivity itself is its subject? (Edelman & Tononi, 2000)
Something called consciousness does exist. Such a statement is valid because we do experience a continuous process that permits us to be aware of ourselves, the world and of the meanings of things and events, and because we do experience a continuity of ourselves giving the picture of our history. The meaning of “conscious” is different from “consciousness”: whilst sleeping we are not conscious, but our consciousness remains active through dreams, giving continuity to our personal history.
Until now the investigation of consciousness can only be developed through consciousness itself. This means that to investigate a person’s consciousness we have to rely on that same person’s consciousness, and then on our own. It is easy to perceive the amount of bias that accompanies this kind of methodology, distorting the whole process of investigation and consequently the results. Following this path, even a well-prepared phenomenologist has to accept a margin of error (minus or plus). It seems impossible to perform an objective investigation of consciousness, and consequently impossible to share such an investigation instantaneously with other people to compare data, results and conclusions. For such a kind of phenomenon we cannot expect to have the same degree of exactitude and confidentiality that we have for the concrete phenomena, but we should be content with a high degree of fidelity (in terms of description). Therefore, the degree of reality would be given just by the description (and ‘understanding” in the case of humans) of the events propitiated by the phenomenon (consciousness). Once more, the investigation of consciousness remains an indirect investigation of consciousness. We cannot touch it, yet.
A description of a phenomenon such as consciousness may give an approach (and an understand- ing) to the object, but it does not clarify how the phenomenon exists. So, how is it possible that something exists which cannot be touched? In such a case, we could say that energy matters. It is common knowledge that if the brain ceases to function a person no longer shows what we call consciousness, because he cannot be aware of something and provide an understanding; at the same time, we cannot approach the person to relate to the consciousness. Of course, this does not mean that consciousness is somewhere in the brain, although it is surely linked to brain activity.
If we maintain the simplistic tendency to split body and mind, it would be difficult to understand how from a concrete body we can have a psychological phenomenon. However, if we consult modern cosmology, becoming aware that an incommensurable cosmos arose from a simple dot in space (Delsemme 1988; Gribbin 2000), that a whole human being arose from stardust, maybe we can admit that even in psychiatry energy matters, i.e. energy can be a real process emanated from matter, relatively taking its own conduction and direction until matter again perishes or the energy vanishes.
We can speculate that being emanated from the brain, energy organises itself relatively independent- ly from the brain, constituting a meta-structural process. Consciousness could be understood as that meta-structural energetic process.
Considering that consciousness is only observed in human beings, which brain structures are involved in the process of consciousness? In order to find a preliminary answer to this question, one should look at the more recent brain structures that appeared in the evolutionary process of primates (paleoanthropology and neuroanatomy).
It is estimated that the brain of an Australopithecus Afarensis (4 million years ago) had a size less than 400cc for a female body of 1.1m and 29kg, and for a male body of 1.5m and 45kg (differences between females and males indicating a sexual dimorphism). The great primate cerebral development occurred in the last 2 million years (the brain increasing in weight from 600g to 1300g); the most significant development occurred during the last 500 to 100 thousand years. Over that period of time there was a continuous change in shape: vertical enhancement, parietal enlargement, occipital rounding and significant growth of the pre-frontal cortex and cerebellum (Donald 1996; Jones et al. 1999).
Accompanying the growth of the matter, new areas formed in the brain (the pre-frontal cortex, the anterior language area [Broca], the posterior language area [Wernicke] and the Brodman areas [39,40,44 and 45]), while some others reduced in size (like the olfactory bulb). The importance of the amygdala for emotions and pleasure, and of the cerebellum not only for equilibrium but also for language thoughts and memory, is well known. New tracks have been created, like the one connecting the temporal, parietal and occipital areas (associative connections). The neo-neo-cortex is well known for its relation with cognitive functions such as consciousness and self-consciousness, thoughts, memory, feelings, imagination and creativity. The brain growth was also accompanied by a tremendous enhancement in neural connections. And in a very unusual procedure, in a process that could be analysed under economic laws, the brain evolved differently in each hemisphere (maybe that is why our brain has two hemispheres), resulting in the functional asymmetry (Eccles 1977, 1992; Edelman and Tononi 2000).
Some other characteristics of the human brain allow a significant evolution to occur during the first two years of life. The human brain has a very long process of maturation, taking roughly 24 months to be completed. The so-called neo-neo-cortex (the privileged brain) is the last one in the onto and phylogenic process, the last one to receive a complete myelination, allowing it to be subject to a significant environmental influence during its development and maturation process (maturation plasticity) (Eccles 1977, 1992).
Someone already said that the current brain is “a jungle in the head”. We can summarise that the current brain is an organ (may be it would be better to say “the brains”, or to refer to the brain as a “multiple organ”) weighing 1300g, composed of 100 billion neurones and 1 trillion glial cells; the cerebral cortex constitutes 80% of the brain mass (30 billion neurones and 1 trillion synapses). It has been calculated that the possible neural circuits in the brain reach the impressive figure of 10 followed by one million zeros. (It is assumed that if one wanted to count all the possible connections, it would take 32 million years at one connection per second!) (Edelman and Tononi 2000)
The brain, this unique “thing”, needs something special to coordinate all the functions and activities in order to propitiate what we call the wholeness and unity of consciousness. Before this eventuates, it has to be organised in a way which gives that process a chance. A possible conception of the structural organisation of the current brain is that of a three dimensional meshwork, a set of parallel and unidirectional chains linking the cortex to the cerebellum, basal ganglia and hippocampus, and a diffuse set of connections called “a large fan” (Edelman and Tononi 2000). It is not within the scope of this Editorial to go into details of that structural organisation, but we can refer to the important fact that the “large fan” has its origin in a small number of neurones with a relatively small number of cells, concentrated in specific nuclei, like the locus coeruleus (about 300 thousand noradrenergic neurones), raphe (about 75 thousand serotoninergic neurones), dopaminergic nucleus in the striatum, etc. These nuclei fire whenever something important occurs. At that point the notion of “value” is introduced to the brain activity: the neurons do not fire for nothing and in any direction; they are triggered in a way to set up an adequate response for the organism. We could say that the brain works “intentionally”, directing the functioning to achieve specific goals. Therefore, the fantastic number of connections will be selectively activated in accordance with the purpose of the action. If before it was clear that the human brain has a large capacity in terms of connectivity and plasticity, we now have to consider its ability to categorise. The human brain works based on the categorisation of events, propitiating a subjective communication with other brains (or between persons). That whole process is dependent on value, defined as the intention and purpose of the forthcoming expression.
This cascade of firings needs to result in a comprehensive and unified response. It is necessary that a process develops in order to coordinate the immensities of firings after the going on and coming back of stimulus throughout the neurones: a “coherent process” only activates functional clusters of neurones. As a consequence, a unity of consciousness is possible.
Considering the huge amount of connections, one could easily conjecture that there are no equal brains. Each brain has its particular chain of connections, a particular developmental history and a particular experimental history. From the same very objective matter (brain) we go to a very unique matter giving existence to the particular history of a brain and its consciousness. Consequently, the current brain results from an interaction between its special characteristics, the whole body and the environment (Edelman and Tononi 2000).
Which kind of neuronal processes arise from the brain of the present human being in order to give existence to that meta-structural process called consciousness? To try to obtain a preliminary answer to this question, one should look at neuronal processes (neurophysiology) from the perspective of quantum physics.
Jaspers (1963) describes an interesting dream that we could use to exemplify the speed, unity and interactive process of consciousness: a person was dreaming about the French Revolution’s Terror Era, scenes of assassination and tribunals, condemnations, the trip to the place of execution, the guillotine, and then he felt as though his head was separated from his body, and woke up: the head of his bed had fallen down and hit his neck. (Jaspers says: “The end of a dream is its beginning.”)
How is it possible that in a fraction of a second an entire story can be lived by a person in a dream state? What kind of process occurs in order to facilitate a profusion of images in such a short period of time? Consciousness has a speed transcending the common velocity allowed by the most rapid of molecular processes. The speed of consciousness has to be considered under a non-material perspective. One should consider a transmission different to the one made by molecules (subject to gravity forces), since its speed would not be quick enough to permit the comprehension of all the incoming signals, their coordination and delivery of a unified response by the entire organism; the explanation of the profusion of images (and thoughts) lived by the human in a fraction of time is expanded in a description by Dostoievski (cited in Jaspers 1963): “In the epileptic aura one second is lived as an eternity or even as without time.” One should apply for sub-atomic particles releasing energy for a communication as fast as the speed of light (electromagnetic laws). For each proton there is a release of 10 billion photons, a fantastic stream covering more or less the entire brain. Despite the axons having a length from millimicra to meters, we may have from tens of milliseconds to hundreds of milliseconds from the firing of a neuron to action of the organism. The firings of neurones are not always synchronic. To allow discrimination of forms, colours, distance, etc., distinct clusters of neurons fire asynchronically. Such great speed permits an almost immediate but differentiated, and holistic communication between several parts of the brain, thanks to the asynchronical firing of different clusters of neurones (Edelman and Tononi 2000).
Apart from having an incredible speed, consciousness has the particular characteristic of being an integrative-coherent and interactive process. Thinking about the continuity (unity) of consciousness leads us to speculate that consciousness has a structure evolving with time. But such a structure should be conceived under an energetic perspective, allowing the existence of all the previous functional characteristics described. Consciousness has a structure and at the same time is a process. Therefore, we can say that consciousness is a meta-energetic structural process. It is a meta-energetic structural process originated in the brain, which transcends the brain and takes relative control over the whole body in its interaction with the environment.
Returning to cosmology, we should ask: does the brain have the same expansive process as the universe?
To evolve such studies of consciousness, the currently available tools (PET, Functional MRI) do not offer enough resolution and speed to follow the electromagnetic transmission of photons and series of other sub-atomic particles, resulting in a frustrating wait for some decades ahead.
For the moment, humans cannot see their power.
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Eccles J.:Evolution of the brain, Creation of the Self. Labor, Barcelona; 1992.
Edelman G, Tononi G.: Consciousness. The Penguin Press, London; 2000.
Gribbin J,: Stardust. The Penguin Press, London; 2000.
Jaspers K.: Psicopatologia General. Editorial Paidos, Buenos Aires; 1963.
Jones S, Martin R, Pilbeam D.: Human Evolution. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; 1999.
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*Based on an editorial published in The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, 5:1, 4-7, 2004.
September 14, 2017