February 23, 2020

Five Myths About Consciousness

““Consciousness” refers to any subjective experience — the delectable taste of Nutella, the sharp sting of an infected tooth, the slow passage of time when bored, the sense of vitality and anxiety just before a competitive event. In the words of the philosopher Thomas Nagel, consciousness exists in a human or other subject whenever “there is something it is like to be that organism.” The concept has inspired countless philosophical theories since antiquity and much laboratory work over the past century, but it has also given rise to many misunderstandings.

MYTH NO. 1
Humans have a unique brain.
There’s a long history of scientists thinking they have identified a particular feature to explain our advanced consciousness (and planetary dominance). In a popular TED talk, the neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel argues that the human brain’s distinctiveness lies in the huge number of neurons that make up the outermost layer of the organ, the cerebral cortex (or neocortex): 16 billion, out of some 86 billion total neurons. “That’s the simplest explanation for our remarkable cognitive abilities,” she says. Other suppositions have included special brain regions or nerve cells found only (or primarily) in humans — spindle or von Economo neurons, for example. Or perhaps the human brain consumes more calories than the brains of other species?

After close to two centuries of brain research, however, no single feature of the human brain truly stands out. We certainly do not possess the largest brain — elephants and whales trounce us. Recent research has revealed that pilot whales, a type of dolphin, have 37 billion cortical neurons, undermining Herculano-Houzel’s hypothesis. And researchers have found that whales, elephants and other large-brained animals (not just great apes and humans) also have von Economo neurons. New research shows that humans and mice have about the same number of categories of brain cells. The fact is, there is no simple brain-centric explanation for why humans sit atop the cognitive hill. “

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