Scientist recounts strange long journey to study consciousness
Could magic mushrooms hold the key that unlocks the secrets of consciousness?
Well, maybe not the only key. But Allen Institute neuroscientist Christof Koch says hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin, the active ingredient found in certain types of fungi, may help clinical research into the roots of depression, ecstasy and what is hidden under our sense of self.
“What they can teach us about consciousness is that the self is only one aspect of consciousness,” Koch says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “You are still very conscious, and very often this is associated with states of ecstasy, or states of fear or terror, or a combination of ecstasy and terror. … What is remarkable is that in all of these states the self is gone, and very often the outside world is gone, yet you are very aware.
The quest to understand consciousness through detailed analysis of the structure and function of the brain, scientific studies of religious and traditional practices – and yes, research into the effects of psychedelic drugs – is at the center of a film. 102 minute documentary titled “Aware: Glimpses of Conscience.”
“Aware” has been on the film festival circuit for weeks, and an online screening will be the centerpiece of a live broadcast event slated for November 10. The documentary will also air on PBS next April as part of the public television channel Independent Lentil Series.
Koch, who is the chief scientist of the Seattle-based Allen Institute’s MindScope brain mapping program, is one of the stars of the show.
Koch says he agreed to participate in the project because filmmakers Frauke Sandig and Eric Black were asking “interesting questions” about conscience.
Among these questions: Do animals and plants have levels of consciousness? How do Tibetan Buddhist monks, meditators and traditional Mayan healers feel when they enter altered states? Are there clinical applications for psilocybin and other hallucinogens?
Koch himself explored more than one path leading to the Secret Garden of Consciousness: In addition to mapping the brain to the nanoscale, he worked with other neuroscientists to develop a “conscious meter” that could be used. to measure patient awareness. that do not respond to treatment.
“We’re developing this procedure where you basically hit the brain with a magnetic pulse, and you measure the reverberation, and you can look at the complexity of the EEG. [brain wave pattern]”Said Koch.” If it’s complex, the patient is probably aware although they may not respond. If it’s low complex, the patient is not completely there.… It shows progress on this. very old mind-body problem, so we are not doomed forever to walk in epistemic fog.
Another more personal path concerns psilocybin. In the film, Koch recounts his experience taking magic mushrooms under the guidance of experts.
“They’re totally magical in the sense that you lose your sense of yourself a little bit – you know, that constant nagging voice in your head that reminds you of your inadequacy and the things you still haven’t done, and so on.” , did he declare. me. “And you can be out there in the world. So it’s sort of an enhanced mindfulness.
Koch isn’t the only one with a professional interest in psychedelics. “There are currently 55 different clinical trials for various psychiatric conditions in which psilocybin is used – one or two trials with psilocybin for, say, the treatment of major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer-related anxiety. , alcoholism, etc. ., etc. “, did he declare. “It’s always in combination with a therapist, so it’s never alone.”
This month, Seattle City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for the priority to be removed from enforcement of laws banning the use of psilocybin and other natural hallucinogens. Koch said such measures, coupled with other clinical research, could eventually bring hallucinogenic drugs into the medical mainstream.
“What could happen, once some of these drugs are approved and pass phase 3 clinical trials and are approved by the FDA, still with a therapist, then you can see your doctor and he can prescribe it off-label,” Koch said. . “So you can say to your doctor, ‘I’m feeling a little depressed,’ whatever. And then the doctor can say, yes, then we’ll give you two doses. “
The connection to psilocybin comes out even more strongly during the film’s interviews with Roland Griffiths, director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University. Griffiths and his colleagues have conducted more than 600 experimental sessions in which psilocybin has been given to patients, including patients with life-threatening cancer cases.
“The measures of depression are dropping markedly,” Griffiths says in the documentary.
Another researcher featured in “Aware”, Monica Gagliano, is conducting experiments at the University of Sydney and other research institutes to determine the level of awareness plants have of their environment.
“We know that trees and plants are not only able to detect sounds in their surroundings, but that they would also produce their own sounds,” she says in the film. “The incredible amount of data emerging in the field of plant behavior and communication obviously raises more uncomfortable questions as to whether plants are really sensitive, intelligent and conscious. “
Koch wouldn’t go that far. But he suspects that animals (including his dog) have different levels of consciousness. This would be predicted by a conceptual framework known as Integrated Information Theory, or IIT – a theory adopted by Koch. One of the ideas behind IIT is that the level of consciousness is determined by the amount of irreducible integration built into an information system.
The theory has sparked much debate in neurological circles, and at least one experimental campaign has been organized to determine whether IIT or a competing model called the Global Neural Workspace Theory better explains the nature of consciousness.
If IIT is correct, Koch says it would rule out the sci-fi scenario where computers become aware.
He recognizes that artificial intelligence may one day become able to mimic all the characteristics of human intelligence, “including writing books and painting and doing all the other things we think are unique.”
“So the question is, if they can be as intelligent as we are, don’t they also share our consciousness?” And this is where IIT differs, ”Koch said. “You can simulate the behavior… but that doesn’t mean you have the same causal power. It’s like you can simulate the gravity associated with a black hole, but funny enough, you don’t have to worry about being sucked into cavitation.
The answer to the question might be different if the inventors succeed in building a neuromorphic computer that mimics the structure and function of the human brain, rather than just simulating human-level intelligence. But it could take decades, even centuries.
Koch, who turns 65 in November, is fully aware that he likely won’t see all of the mysteries of consciousness revealed in his lifetime.
“We’re making progress on things like the conscious meter, but it’s slow,” he said. “If you are a scientist, you know that you are standing on the shoulders of giants, and it is a generational project to light up the darkness of the world and try to understand, in a rational way, the place that we humans in particular , let’s occupy in the universe. It is something very humiliating… but it is the mission that I have chosen for my own life.
So, is there a mystery Koch would like to see revealed? Even he was surprised by the answer he found: “Are there other intelligences out there? he said. “I mean like a human, not just insects.”
For example, is there a chance that extraterrestrials will broadcast unmistakable signals picked up by the search for extraterrestrial intelligence? Could they send an interstellar asteroid like Oumuamua through our solar system as a calling card?
“It would be nice to have some certainty,” Koch said, “because it would drastically change the discussion on planet Earth.”
This report was originally published on Alan Boyle’s Cosmic Journal. Check out the original post for bonus links to Koch’s favorite consciousness film, the top book on his reading list, and other recommendations from the Cosmic Log Used Book Club.