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Neuroscience is abound with debates over the nature of consciousness. Which makes sense, because it’s a very abstract idea. We know we are conscious, but theories of why, how and what brain activity causes it are still simply that: theories.

Hosted by: Anthony Brown
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Sources:
https://dictionary.apa.org/consciousness
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mila.12264
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https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2807%2961127-1
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This episode is sponsored by Fabulous, an app that helps you start  building your ideal daily routine.

The first 100 people who click on the link will get 25% OFF a Fabulous subscription. [♪ INTRO] The nature of consciousness is one of  the most heated debates in neuroscience. Scientists can’t seem to agree on  anything when it comes to consciousness: what it is, why it happens, how  it happens, or even if it matters.

Consciousness in the sense I’m  talking about isn’t just being awake. It’s also our awareness of the world and  the way we subjectively experience it. So scientists have put their heads together to figure out how our brains  manage this incredible feat.

There are tons of different theories of what type of brain activity causes consciousness. Some of them rely on specific brain areas, like the prefrontal cortex,  thalamus, or anterior insula. Others focus more on the rhythm of neurons  firing, which neurons fire together, or the way networks of neurons  interact with each other.

And some link consciousness  to chemical messengers, like dopamine and GABA, in the brain. One of the problems with all of these  theories is that not all brains are the same, and brains can even change over a person’s life, but that doesn’t necessarily  make someone less conscious. In some people, those brain chemicals  might be more or less active.

Sometimes babies are born with entire  parts of their brain, just...missing. And some people experience  brain injuries or diseases that damage and destroy massive amounts of the brain. Like...almost all of it.

But while these can have significant  effects on people’s lives, a lot of people with these conditions  aren’t any less conscious than anyone else, or any less conscious than they used to be. Lots of brain functions are plastic,  meaning that if a critical brain area gets damaged or destroyed, the brain can rewire and reorganize itself to  compensate for that damage. So, for example, a lot of people who are blind actually process some sounds in  the visual parts of the brain.

So maybe consciousness is plastic, too. But that would mean that consciousness isn’t just some inherent property  of specific neural firing patterns. It could mean that consciousness  is something our brains learn.

And keep relearning. This is called the radical plasticity theory,  and it was originally proposed in 2011. The idea here is that two things  are necessary for consciousness: knowing what’s going on inside you and having some sort of emotional  response to that information.

So it’s not just a thermostat that registers that the temperature is below a  set point and turns up the heat. There’s an aspect of knowing  that you know it’s too cold. And think about emotions when  you look at something green.

Part of the experience might be associating  it with the color of your first car, the feeling of jealousy, or  a stoplight signaling “go.” And both of these factors,  being aware of what’s going on inside you and having an emotional  response to it, require learning. And learning requires plasticity. Learning comes down to strengthening and weakening connections between neurons.

And as they say, neurons that  fire together, wire together. Everything we experience is represented in  our brains by patterns of neurons firing. So if you see a dog, a pattern  of neurons in your visual system that represents the shape of  the dog will start firing.

Then at some point, you see a dog shape, and someone points and tells you it’s a dog. The visual representation of a dog is  now linked to the concept of a dog. And in the future when you see a  dog, both the visual representation and the conceptual  representation will be activated.

Now let’s say you’ve been bitten  by a dog a couple of times. So now when you see a dog,  that visual representation and conceptual representation go off, but you  also have fear signals firing with them, strengthening the connection between dog and fear. And by that point, you’ve learned a neural  representation of “dog” that includes what a dog looks like, what a dog is,  and that you should be scared of them.

So back to radical plasticity theory. In this idea, the brain is learning  in a few different ways at once. First, it’s learning the basic  neural representations of things.

Then, it’s learning the fact that we  have representations of those things and the fact that those representations  are /tied/ to experiences and emotions. So we end up with representations  of the representations. And with this hypothesis, our brains are both constantly learning and learning what they know.

In other words, we’re always learning  and relearning consciousness. And so, if part of our brain is damaged,  we don’t necessarily lose consciousness, because what’s left of our brain just  learns how to be conscious on its own. So consciousness may not actually be set in stone.

We may not be born with it in its final form. It may actually be a constant, evolving process. And that is a pretty cool thing to be aware of.

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 And the first 100 people who click on the link will get 25% off a Fabulous subscription! Thanks so much for watching  this episode of SciShow Psych! [♪ OUTRO]