Our Mind Electric?
Are our thoughts made of electricity? Not the familiar kind of electrical signals that travel up and down wires in our computer or nerves in our brain, but the distributed kind of electromagnetic field that permeates space and carries the broadcast signal to the TV or radio.
Professor Johnjoe McFadden from the School of Biomedical and Life Sciences at the University of Surrey believes our conscious mind could be an electromagnetic field. "The theory solves many previously intractable problems of consciousness and could have profound implications for our concepts of mind, free will, spirituality, the design of artificial intelligence, and even life and death," he said.
Most people consider Ďmindí to be all the conscious things that we are aware of. But much, if not most, mental activity goes on without awareness. Actions like walking, changing gear in your car or peddling a bicycle can become as automatic as breathing. The biggest puzzle in neuroscience is how the brain activity that weíre aware of (consciousness) differs from the brain activity driving all of those unconscious actions.
When we see an object, signals from our retina travel along nerves as waves of electrically charged ions. When they reach the nerve terminus the signal jumps to the next nerve via chemical neurotransmitters. The receiving nerve decides whether or not it will fire, based on the number of firing votes it receives from its upstream nerves. In this way, electrical signals are processed in our brain before being transmitted to our body. But where in all this movement of ions and chemicals, is consciousness? Scientists can find no region or structure in the brain that specialises in conscious thinking. Consciousness remains a mystery.
"Consciousness is what makes us Ďhumaní, Professor McFadden said. "Language, creativity, emotions, spirituality, logical deduction, mental arithmetic, our sense of fairness, truth, ethics, are all inconceivable without consciousness." But whatís it made of?
One of the fundamental questions of consciousness, known as the binding problem, can be explained by looking at a tree. Most people when asked how many leaves they see will answer Ďthousandsí. But neurobiology tells us that the information (all the leaves) is dissected and scattered amongst millions of widely separated neurones. Scientists are trying to explain where in the brain all those leaves are stuck together to form the conscious impression of a whole tree. How does our brain bind information to generate consciousness?
What Professor McFadden realised was that every time a nerve fires, the electrical activity sends a signal to the brainís electromagnetic (em) field. But unlike solitary nerve signals, information that reaches the brainís em field is automatically bound together with all the other signals in the brain. The brainís em field does the binding that is characteristic of consciousness. What Professor McFadden and, independently, the New Zealand-based neurobiologist Sue Pockett, have proposed, is that the brainís em field IS consciousness.
The brainís electromagnetic field is not just an information sink; it can influence our actions, pushing some neurones towards firing and others away from firing. This influence, Professor McFadden proposes, is the physical manifestation of our conscious will.
The theory explains many of the peculiar features of consciousness, such as its involvement in the learning process. Anyone learning to drive a car will have experienced how the first (very conscious) fumblings are transformed through constant practise into automatic actions. The neural networks driving those first uncertain fumblings are precisely where we would expect to find nerves in the undecided state when a small nudge from the brainís em field can topple them towards or away from firing. The field will Ďfine tuneí the neural pathway towards the desired goal. But neurones are connected so that when they fire together, they wire together, to form stronger connections. After practice, the influence of the field will become dispensable. The activity will be learnt and may thereafter be performed unconsciously.
One of the objections to an electromagnetic field theory of consciousness is if our minds are electromagnetic, then why donít we pass out when we walk under an electrical cable or any other source of external electromagnetic fields? The answer is that our skin, skull and cerebrospinal fluid shield us from external electric fields.
"The conscious electromagnetic information field is at present
still a theory. But if true, there are many fascinating implications for
the concept of free will, the nature of creativity or spirituality,
consciousness in animals and even the significance of life and death. The
theory explains why conscious actions feel so different from unconscious
ones Ė it is because they plug into the vast pool of information held in
the brainís electromagnetic field," Professor McFadden concluded.
Notes for editor
The University of Surrey is one of the UKís leading professional, scientific and technological universities with a world class research profile and a reputation for excellence in teaching and research. Ground-breaking research at the University is bringing direct benefit to all spheres of life Ė helping industry to maintain its competitive edge and creating improvements in the areas of health, medicine, space science, the environment, communications, defence and social policy. Programmes in science and technology have gained widespread recognition and it also boasts flourishing programmes in dance and music, social sciences, management and languages and law. In addition to the campus on 150 hectares just outside Guildford, Surrey, the University also owns and runs the Surrey Research Park, which provides facilities for 80 companies employing 2,500 staff
Synchronous Firing and Its Influence on the Brainís Electromagnetic Field Evidence for an Electromagnetic Field Theory of Consciousness
Abstract: The human brain consists of approximately 100 billion electrically active neurones that generate an endogenous electromagnetic (em) field, whose role in neuronal computing has not been fully examined. The source, magnitude and likely influence of the brainís endogenous em field are here considered. An estimate of the strength and magnitude of the brainís em field is gained from theoretical considerations, brain scanning and microelectrode data. An estimate of the likely influence of the brainís em field is gained from theoretical principles and considerations of the experimental effects of external em fields on neurone firing both in vitro and in vivo. Synchronous firing of distributed neurones phase-locks induced em field fluctuations to increase their magnitude and influence. Synchronous firing has previously been demonstrated to correlate with awareness and perception, indicating that perturbations to the brainís em field also correlate with awareness. The brainís em field represents an integrated electromagnetic field representation of distributed neuronal information and has dynamics that closely map to those expected for a correlate of consciousness. I propose that the brainís em information field is the physical substrate of conscious awareness ó the cemi field ó and make a number of predictions that follow from this proposal. Experimental evidence pertinent to these predictions is examined and shown to be entirely consistent with the cemi field theory. This theory provides solutions to many of the intractable problems of consciousness ó such as the binding problem ó and provides new insights into the role of consciousness, the meaning of free will and the nature of qualia. It thus places consciousness within a secure physical framework and provides a route towards constructing an artificial consciousness.
Johnjoe McFadden, School of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey, GU2 5XH, UK. Email: email@example.com
Difficulties with the Electromagnetic Field Theory of Consciousness
Abstract: The authorís version of the electromagnetic field theory of consciousness is stated briefly and then three difficulties with the theory are discussed. The first is a purely technical problem: how to measure accurately enough the spatial properties of the fields which are proposed to be conscious and then how to generate these artificially, so that the theory can be tested. The second difficulty might also be merely technical, or it might be substantive and fatal to the theory. This is that present measurements seem to show a non-constant relationship between brain-generated electromagnetic fields and sensation. The third difficulty involves the basic question of whether consciousness per se has any direct effect on the brain. As an afterword, the disproportionate contribution of synchronously firing neurons to conscious percepts is simply explained in terms of the electromagnetic field theory of consciousness.
Correspondence: Susan Pockett, Department of Physics, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org