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What makes us conscious? It’s energy, not information


Image of video feedback

​A researcher based at Cardiff Met may have brought us closer to solving the most perplexing puzzle in science and philosophy: what is it that makes us conscious?

Dr Robert Pepperell, an interdisciplinary professor who has published on consciousness for more than 20 years, proposes that consciousness depends on a certain kind of 'energy feedback' in the brain, similar to the intricate patterns that occur in video feedback when a camera is pointed at its own output.

The new theory, which brings together advanced work in the neuroscience of consciousness, ideas from Greek philosophy and a trippy video effect from the 1980s, challenges current scientific claims that consciousness depends on information processing.

Dr Pepperell explained: "Brains are not squishy digital computers; there is no information in neurons. They are delicate organic instruments that convert energy from the environment and body into reflexes, thoughts, emotions and actions that allow us to survive. Brains process energy, not information."

The potentially significant breakthrough presented in the paper, to be published this month in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology, follows the observation that energy has an extraordinary property which, until now, has been overlooked.

Dr Pepperell said: "Energy is simply a difference in nature. For example, the difference between an object travelling at speed and its surroundings gives the object its kinetic energy. Without energetic differences, nothing in the universe would exist."

Referring to a theory developed by American philosopher Thomas Nagel, Dr Pepperell argues that everywhere there is a difference due to the actions of energy or forces, then there is "something it is like" to undergo that difference, from a subjective point of view.

Dr Pepperell explains: "Think of a rope that's relaxed, then stretched taught. There must be 'something it is like' to be stretched, from the rope's perspective, that's different from being relaxed. This is not to say the rope is conscious, in the same way as we are. But something changes inside the rope when the forces at work on it change."

To support his proposal, Dr Pepperell has gathered some of the most advanced work in the neuroscience of consciousness, including studies of the effects of anaesthesia on the annihilation of consciousness and pioneering studies of patients with severe brain injuries who are found to have residual awareness, despite being classified as unconscious by clinicians.

These studies show that measuring the organisation of energy processing in the brain can predict how conscious someone is — even if they show no outward signs of being so. And most critically, that consciousness depends on loops of neural feedback that bind distant regions of the brain together.

Pepperell concludes: "The brain works as a kind of biological 'difference engine'. It uses the signals exchanged by neurons to create states of energetic difference, each having a 'something it is like' property. These different states are deeply integrated across brain regions through loops of energy flow."

"Unthinkably complex flows of neural energy cause torrents of self-referential 'something it is like-ness' to occur in certain regions of the brain. It is this blossoming energetic feedback that we intrinsically experience as consciousness. Video feedback may be the nearest we have to visualizing conscious processing in the brain."

 To read this story in Welsh, click here.