Posts tagged ‘McFadden’

frogSo it turns out consciousness really is an electric buzz around the brain.

JohnJoe McFadden claims his conscious electromagnetic field information (CEMI) theory – which says that consciousness lies in the brain’s electromagnetic field – has now been borne out by a number of recent research findings. His paper is in the JCS, but a pdf can be accessed at Machines Like Us. We first discussed the CEMI theory eight years ago (can it really be that long?).

The case for CEMI is based in turn on the idea that synchronous neural firing can be shown to correlate with conscious awareness. Others have thought that lots of neurons firing in harmony at the right frequencies might be important of course; but the CEMI theory explains why it should be important by suggesting that synchronous firing produces effects in the endogenous magnetic field, which unsynchronised activity does not. If registering in that field is taken to be the same as presentation to consciousness we have a neat account of the phenomenon.

The first of the new studies quoted by McFadden, by Fujisawa et al, showed that fields of the kind generated by gamma oscillations in a slice of rat hippocampus affected the neuronal firing pattern. This demonstrates that neurons can influence each other significantly by electromagnetic means quite separate from ‘normal’ synaptic activity. The second, by Frohlich and McCormick, showed broadly similar influences of electromagnetic fields in the visual cortex of ferrets, supporting the claim that the endogenous fields provide a positive feedback loop that helps set up oscillatory networks. The third is research by Anastassiou et al which showed that neurons could influence each other through electric field effects: we discussed this ‘ephaptic coupling’ and pointed out its relevance to McFadden a couple of years ago (you read it here first, folks!).

So there’s the evidence; what does it actually mean? I think McFadden is right to claim that the evidence for electromagnetic field effects on neuron firing is now too strong to ignore. At a minimum, it’s something brain simulations will need to take into account. It’s likely, moreover, that rather than simply being a nuisance factor, it actually plays some functional role in how networks of neurons are recruited and operate together. Anything more?  McFadden suggests it may solve the binding problem; I’m not so sure. The binding problem is essentially the question of how information flows from different senses, processed at different speeds, with lags and gaps, somehow manage to end up in a smoothly coherent perception of reality with no jumps or lip-synch problems. Solving that problem may well involve bringing the activity of different neural assemblies together, but to me it’s not clear how field effects could do anything other than smoosh all the inputs together, which is almost the opposite of what we want.

Speculatively McFadden suggests the EM field might be doing field computing, whatever that may be. He quotes a bizarre finding from the School of Cognitive & Computing Sciences (COGS) group at the University of Sussex. They used an evolutionary approach to develop a network which could perform  a certain task, and then deleted the nodes which weren’t playing any part in the the final network.  Weirdly, they found that one of the essential nodes was not actually connected to anything; yet removing it made the network stop working; put it back and the network worked again. They concluded that electromagnetic coupling must be playing a part. Of course electromagnetic effects in a field-programmable gate array (the equipment used by COGS) are not particularly likely to be anything like electromagnetic effects in the radically different physical substrate of neuronal tissue, but it does illustrate the general principle.

I still don’t see that there are particularly good reasons to say that the EM field is the home of consciousness. For one thing consciousness is full of very complex content: while I can easily see how that complexity could be encoded in the fantastically complex patterns of neuron firing which go on in the cortex, it’s harder to think that the EM field has a sufficiently elaborate structure. My consciousness is (in places) quite sharply defined and multi-layered, whereas a EM field seems more likely to provide a misty general glow. Perhaps the neurons provide the content and the EM field the subjectivity?

But one thing McFadden’s theory cannot be is a solution to the ‘Hard Problem’ of subjective experience; his electromagnetic consciousness is playing a vital functional role in the operation of the brain, whereas qualia, strictly defined, have no causal effects. So much the worse for the theory of qualia, you might think; that just helps show that Dennett was right and the whole business of qualia is nonsensical. However, Sue Pockett, whose electromagnetic theory of consciousness is a kind of cousin of McFadden’s, has jumped the other way on this, accepting that her own electromagnetic consciousness is epiphenomenal: it is produced by the brain but doesn’t in turn produce any effects of its own; consciousness is a mere observer. This enables her to stay in the game so far as the Hard Problem is concerned, but of course it lands her with a different set of problems.

Perhaps in another eight years things will look very different – I rather hope so.


Picture: ephaptic consciousness. The way the brain works is more complex than we thought. That’s a conclusion that several pieces of research over recent years have suggested for one reason or another: but some particularly interesting conclusions are reported in a paper in Nature Neuroscience (Anastassiou, Perin, Markram, and Koch). It has generally been the assumption that neurons are effectively isolated, interacting only at synapses: it was known that they could be influenced by each other’s electric fields, but it was generally thought that given the typically tiny fields involved, these effects could be disregarded. The only known exceptions of any significance were in certain cases where unusually large fields could induce ‘ephaptic coupling ‘ interfering with the normal working of neurons and cause problems.

Given the microscopic sizes involved and the weakness of the fields, measuring the actual influence of ephaptic effects is difficult, but for the series of experiments reported here a method was devised using up to twelve electrodes for a single neuron. It was found that extracellular fluctuation did produce effects within the neuron, at the minuscule level expected: however, although the effects were too small to produce any immediate additional action potentials, induced fluctuations in one neuron did influence neighbouring cells, producing a synchronisation of spike timing. In short, it turns out that neurons can influence each other and synchronise themselves through a mechanism completely independent of synapses.

So what? Well, first this may suggest that we have been missing an important part of the way the brain functions. That has obvious implications for brain simulations, and curiously enough, one of the names on the paper (he helped with the writing) is that of Henry Markram, leader of the most ambitious brain simulation project of all,Blue Brain.  Things seem to have gone quiet on that project since completion of ‘phase one’; I suppose it is awaiting either more funding or the advances in technology which Markram foresaw as the route to a total brain simulation. In the meantime it seems the new research shows that like all simulations to date Blue Brain was built on an incomplete picture, and as it stood was doomed to ultimate failure.

I suppose, in the second place, there may be implications for connectionism. I don’t think neural networks are meant to be precise brain simulations, but the suggestion that a key mechanism has been missing from our understanding of the brain might at least suggest that a new line of research, building in an equivalent mechanism to connectionist systems could yield interesting results.

But third and most remarkable, this must give a big boost to those who have suggested that consciousness resides in the brain’s electrical field: Sue Pockett, for one, but above all JohnJoe McFadden, who back in 2002 declared that the effects of the brain’s endogenous electromagnetic fields deserved more attention. Citing earlier studies which had shown modulation of neuron firing by very weak fields, he concluded:

By whatever mechanism, it is clear that very weak em field fluctuations are capable of modulating neurone-firing patterns. These exogenous fields are weaker than the perturbations in the brain’s endogenous em field that are induced
during normal neuronal activity. The conclusion is inescapable: the brain’s endogenous em field must influence neuronal information processing in the brain.

We may still hold back from agreeing that consciousness is to be identified with an electromagnetic field, but he certainly seems to have been ahead of the game on this.

Johnjoe McFaddenBitbucket Susan Pockett isn’t the only person who thinks consciousness is basically an electromagnetic field. Johnjoe McFadden put forward a similar theory back in 2000 and his version has some advantages. There is a short account of the theory on his own website at the University of Surrey, with the two papers which flesh it out more fully. In his view, the endogenous electromagnetic (em) field produced by the human brain contains the same information as the neurons, but in a form which is analogue, integrated and distributed; all characteristics which seem to be shared by consciousness and not by the digital, discrete activity of the neurons themselves. His version of the theory steers well clear of epiphenomenalism and all its problems: the em field arises from neuronal activity in a normal way and has straightforward causal effects on the firing of neurons in its turn.

He concedes that the very small charges involved may mean that quantum effects are relevant; but quantum mechanics plays no special part in the theory and he does not rely on strange quantum effects to explain the strange properties of consciousness. It does seem, however, that his theory can clarify a lot of different problems. The distinction between conscious and unconscious action, for example, is simply a matter of whether the em field was, or was not, playing a decisive role at the time. As we drive along the road, our over-learned responses produce robust patterns of firing in the neurons which require no intervention from the em field; but if we hit a novel situation our neuronal response becomes confused and less co-ordinated, and the subtle influence of the em field takes over – we begin to think about what we are doing again.
BlandulaThat’s all very well – but we don’t stop thinking altogether while we’re driving. If our mind wanders, we start thinking about something else. If McFadden is right, these other thoughts must be coming from neuronal activity too, mustn’t they? So he thinks that in that case the electromagnetic field will be most influenced, not by the strongest patterns of firing, but by weaker ones? That doesn’t make much sense. If his theory were right, it wouldn’t be that our mind wanders – we’d suddenly find that our actions had gone terrifyingly out of conscious control every time a habitual pattern of behaviour kicked in.
Bitbucket No, no. How could we be terrified by something which, by definition, we have stopped paying attention to? Besides, the contents of consciousness are not decided merely by the largest electrical influence – I’ll explain that in a moment. The theory also offers a convincing explanation of qualia. It would be perfectly possible for our brains to run unconsciously through pure neuronal computation, taking account of sensory inputs and modifying behaviour accordingly – but it is the extra buzz of em activity which gives them their phenomenal qualities, engaging them in the process of consciousness. This view has the advantage of setting qualia apart from the routine causality of mental processes without rendering them irrelevant. McFadden thinks fading and absent qualia are perfectly possible; but at the same time a person or robot without qualia would be readily distinguishable from a fully conscious person. McFadden doesn’t think, incidentally, that artificial consciousness is impossible, if the machine were constructed in the right way. There are fascinating results here from Sussex University. A neural network was trained to distinguish two tones: once trained it emerged that some of the cells which were essential to performing the task were not actually connected to the rest! The only explanation is that they were contributing to the performance of the network through some field effect – very much as the em field hypothetically would do. The implication is that this network had a dim, restricted form of phenomenal experience.
Blandula I simply don’t see why we should assume that an electromagnetic ‘buzz’ has anything more to do with qualia and actual experiences than the firing of neurons (or any other physical process). The problem is that physical processes and real experiences are as different as chalk and cheese, and substituting one physical process for another makes no difference whatever.
Bitbucket If you take that line, you’re simply making the problem unanswerable by definition. But anyway, McFadden’s theory also offers an obvious solution to the issue of free will. The problem with free actions is that they seem to come out of nowhere; well, the truth is that come out of the em field. They really are exceptions to the underlying neuronal causal process, but there’s nothing spooky or magic about them: they are perfectly normal results of normal physical processes.
BlandulaThe theory seems incomplete to me. After all, the brain (and the rest of the body) is full of activity which generates electromagnetic fields. Why should only some of them, on this reading, be conscious? For that matter, why aren’t ambient electromagnetic fields, like that of the Earth itself, conscious? Why don’t television broadcasts have minds of their own, and given the strength of them, why don’t they over-ride our conscious thoughts? At least Susan Pockett acknowledges that only certain kinds of patterns of activity can be conscious.

Bitbucket First, it’s obvious that a degree of complexity is necessary: no one supposes a simple electromagnetic field is automatically conscious. Second, the brain is actually rather well insulated from outside fields. Where magnetic fields are strong enough and targeted in the right place, they undoubtedly do disrupt mental activity. Although there is a difference here between Pockett and McFadden, he accepts that not all field effects arising from the brain are the same. He specifies that only those which eventually influence motor neurons are to be regarded as conscious.
Blandula>Why only those? it seems a very arbitrary distinction. And at the time some field event takes place, you can’t tell for sure whether it will set off a chain of events that impinges on motor neurons, can you? But it must either be conscious or not at the time it happens, surely?

BitbucketYes, of course. The distinction is a practical one which could no doubt be sharpened up theoretically: the basic point is clearly that we’re talking about reportable processes in some sense. But we still haven’t touched on possibly the strongest advantage of the theory, namely that it also deals with the binding problem. It has always been a mystery how the different bits of data from different senses get bound together into a coherent, consistent account of reality: but if there is an overarching em field which picks up neuronal influences from all the senses and transmits the combined result instantly over the brain, the solution is clear.

Blandula I don’t see that. Part of the binding problem is how processes which run at different speeds are co-ordinated: how does an instant field cope with that? And it seems to me that a single field would bind things together too much: if that’s where our view of reality comes from it would all be hopelessly melted together in an incoherent buzz. It is of the essence that the right things get bound together in the right way, not just instantly smudged together.
What really puts me off the theory, though, is that it seems like another blow in favour of electricity. We’ve always suffered from treating the brain as if it were made of copper wire, when it’s perfect clear that subtle chemical effects are absolutely crucial. In fact, I’d say one of our big problems here is that we draw a major distinction between physics and chemistry which Nature simply doesn’t recognise.

Bitbucket There’s an element of truth in that, but I think McFadden’s theory is a corrective to the ‘copper-wire’ view, not a reinforcement of it. He points out that these effects exist – ephaptic coupling of nerve activity through electromagnetic fields is an established fact – and surely they need to be considered.

Blandula The trouble with those ephaptic effects is that, as I understand it, they are mainly associated with disorders, like tinnitus. They’re like the sort of interference you would sometimes get between old-fashioned phone wires because of induction; unwanted signals in a system which was designed to work without them. After all, neurons go to great lengths to connect up with each other, often at great distances; surely direct effects from an em field are just going to be unhelpful noise.
The bottom line here is that McFadden (and Pockett) want electromagnetism to do what the spirit does in traditional accounts, but it just isn’t up to the job.

Bitbucket I see it as a strength of the theory that it sits well with intuitive and traditional ideas about the way the mind works, while requiring nothing but ordinary mainstream science to sustain it. One of its virtues is that it is amenable to experimental testing, and I have no doubt that over time evidence will accumulate. What I’d really like to see is an AI project in parallel, seeing whether there aren’t practical advantages to the kind of set-up McFadden describes. Unfortunately I don’t think this is happening at the moment.