Our minds are radios
CONSCIOUSNESS, we might all agree, is precious stuff: it what sets us apart from earthworms and pocket calculators, and allows us to build cathedrals and argue with football referees. But what is this faculty that we’re so proud of? How the conscious mind works, where it’s located, and why it evolved all the fundamental questions are still entirely unresolved. Neuroscience has failed to discover any region or structure of the brain specialising in conscious thinking could it be because there isn’t one?
Professor Johnjoe McFadden, of Surrey University, has thrown his hat into the ring with a theory equating the conscious mind with the brain’s electromagnetic (em) field. The theory proposes a solution to one of the great puzzles of neuroscience: how conscious brain activity that we experience as thought and emotion differs from unconscious brain activity, and how the two interact. In McFadden’s model, our conscious thoughts are composed of fluctuations in a distributed em field a kind of low-wattage local radio network. The subconscious mind, controlling autonomous activity such as walking or balancing on a chair, is wired into neural pathways in the brain itself, which interact with the em field when a conscious decision is made.
McFadden, of Surrey’s School of Biomedical and Life Sciences, is confident that his theory can withstand the most rigorous interrogations of scientists and philosophers. He claims: â€œthe theory solves many previously intractable problems of consciousness and could have profound implications for our concepts of mind, free will, spirituality, the design of artificial intelligence, and even life and death.
The key to McFadden’s theory is the synchronous firing of neurones, which act to switch on’ conscious thought in the brain’s em field when enough of them fire simultaneously. When we see an object, signals from our retina travel along nerves as waves of electrically charged ions. When they reach the nerve terminus the signal jumps to the next nerve via chemical neurotransmitters. The receiving nerve decides whether or not it will fire, based on the number of firing votes it receives from its upstream nerves. Familiar patterns experiences or actions that the brain has learned are hard-wired into neural pathways, and produce correspondingly lower neuronal vote counts; only when an experience is unfamiliar or decision-making is required, do enough neurones fire to stimulate conscious activity in the em field.
McFadden uses the experience of driving along a familiar route as an example of how this interaction occurs. While driving home from work our conscious minds may be busy reviewing the events of the day; at the same time, we are watching traffic, changing gear and following the road, without being aware of these operations. Yet if we encounter a hazardous situation such as a child in the road we instantly become aware of the child, the road, the motor operations of driving, and thereafter slow down to drive more carefully under conscious control. The sudden rush of new information (the child) sparks synchronous firing of fresh neurones, stimulating the conscious mind to take over at the wheel.
The em field theory also offers an explanation of the role of consciousness in the learning process. McFadden points to the example of a learner driver: the first (very conscious) fumblings are transformed through constant practice into automatic actions. The neural networks driving unlearnt activity are in an undecided state a small nudge from the brain’s em field can topple them towards or away from firing. As the conscious mind perfects the new activity, the em field fine-tunes the neural pathways: the neurones are connected so that as they fire together, they wire together, to form stronger connections. After practice, the influence of the field becomes dispensable. The activity is learnt and may thereafter be performed unconsciously.
One of the fundamental questions of consciousness, known as the binding problem, can be explained by looking at a tree. Neurobiology has shown that the packets of visual information the individual leaves and branches are scattered amongst millions of widely separated neurones. Neuroscientists are seeking to explain where in the brain all those leaves are stuck together to form the conscious impression of a whole tree. How does our brain bind information to generate consciousness?
McFadden argues that every time a nerve fires, the electrical activity sends a signal to the em field. The information that reaches the em field is automatically bound together with all the other signals in the brain the characteristic binding process of consciousness. McFadden and, independently, the New Zealand-based neurobiologist Sue Pockett, argue that, rather than functioning simply as an information sink, the em field is consciousness: it selectively controls behaviour by pushing some neurones towards firing and others away from firing. This influence, McFadden proposes, is the physical manifestation of our conscious will.
The challenge for the scientific community is now to upset McFadden’s grandiose convictions by disproving the em field theory, known in neuroscience as the conscious electromagnetic information field (cemi field) theory. Pockett identifies a potential problem: that present measurements seem to show a variable relationship between the brain’s em field and sensation. Another key objection to an em field theory of consciousness is that if our minds are electromagnetic, why don’t we pass out when we walk under an electrical cable or any other source of external electromagnetic fields? The answer, according to McFadden, is that our skin, skull and cerebrospinal fluid shield us from external electric fields.
McFadden looks forward to the intense critical scrutiny that is bound to follow publication. He concludes: The conscious electromagnetic information field is at present still a theory. But if true, there are many fascinating implications for the concept of free will, the nature of creativity or spirituality, consciousness in animals and even the significance of life and death. The theory explains why conscious actions feel so different from unconscious ones it is because they plug into the vast pool of information held in the brain’s em field.
The paper Synchronous firing and its influence on the brain’s electromagnetic field: evidence for an electromagnetic field theory of consciousness, Johnjoe McFadden, is published in the current edition of Journal of Consciousness Studies, with a commentary by Susan Pockett.