In Pursuit of Consciousness

Since the dawn of modern science, humanity has sought a fundamental understanding of the Universe. Bearing the fruits of this surprisingly successful pursuit, each generation has witnessed a richer view of nature than the last. Now, atop the shoulders of our scientific ancestors, can science finally unravel the mystery of consciousness?

In its exploration into the brain, neuroscience has shown us that the sophistication of an organism’s neural networks is what determines its intelligence. For instance, the Elegans Roundworm, a creature no more than 1mm in length, possesses a simple network of 302 neurons (which determine all its actions).

Adult Caenorhabditis elegans.jpg

Image of the Elegans Roundworm. Source: Kbradnam via Wikipedia Commons.

Unsurprisingly, due it’s relatively simple neural structure, the worm exhibits no signs of consciousness. On the other side of the spectrum however, the human brain contains an incredible 100 billion neurons and, as we know, exhibits consciousness. It goes without saying, our brains are far superior than the worm’s brain! Science has shown that the sophistication of our brains is what creates consciousness. The better an organism’s brain, the more intelligent it is. While this is expected, there still remains a deeper mystery behind consciousness.

Science has proven you, dear reader, to be nothing more than a very particular arrangement of lifeless particles forming your body. How is it that such particles are reading these words? Why do they feel? Why do they think? More specifically, how do such lifeless particles produce the splendours of consciousness in beings (like us) who are very much alive? This is the mystery to which science directs its attention to. However, while we don’t yet fully understand consciousness, neuroscientists still strongly believe that it comes solely from the brain.

In 2014, scientists from The OpenWorm Project managed to map all 302 neuronal connections in the Elegands Roundworm (that tiny creature I mentioned above). In doing this, they created a simulation of the worm and uploaded it to a small robot (with no further instructions). Fascinatingly, the robot followed nearly all the behaviour patterns of the worm. Lucy Black, a writer for I Programmer, stated that,

“Stimulation of the nose stopped forward motion. Touching the anterior and posterior touch sensors made the robot move forward and back accordingly. Stimulating the food sensor made the robot move forward.”

Was this robot alive? After all, its ‘thought’ processes were identical to the worm. I shall leave this question to the philosopher.

File:The Human Connectome.png

Rendering of the human brain’s connectome containing 100 billion neurons. Source: Andreashorn via Wikipedia Commons.

Nevertheless, the achievement from The OpenWorm Project begs the dream of one day mapping all 100 billion connections in the human brain. Upon uploading such a file into a robotic body, would it (or rather, he/she) suddenly become conscious? Only time and science will answer such a question.

3 Responses to “In Pursuit of Consciousness”

  1. scripps says:

    Cool article! Reminds me of the replicants in bladerunner

  2. Evie Kielnhofer says:

    What an interesting piece and a great read! I certainly would never have imagined mapping neural connections in roundworms to learn more about our own brains. I will certainly be keeping an eye out on this project to see what they find.

  3. S says:

    Fascinating topic! It’s rather chilling to think that the ability to map all the neurons in the human brain can possibly mean life after death. A question for the philosophers would be “Does the self still exist when the physical body is no more?”.