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David Shultz – Consciousness may be the product of carefully balanced chaos

Is my yellow the same as your yellow? Does your pain feel like my pain? The question of whether the human consciousness is subjective or objective is largely philosophical. But the line between consciousness and unconsciousness is a bit easier to measure. In a new study of how anesthetic drugs affect the brain, researchers suggest that our experience of reality is the product of a delicate balance of connectivity between neurons—too much or too little and consciousness slips away.

“It’s a very nice study,” says neuroscientist Melanie Boly at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who was not involved in the work. “The conclusions that they draw are justified.”

Previous studies of the brain have revealed the importance of “cortical integration” in maintaining consciousness, meaning that the brain must process and combine multiple inputs from different senses at once. Our experience of an orange, for example, is made up of sight, smell, taste, touch, and the recollection of our previous experiences with the fruit. The brain merges all of  these inputs—photons, aromatic molecules, etc.—into our subjective experience of the object in that moment.

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