Mirror of Zen Blog

Most Brain Activity is “Background Noise” — and That’s Upending Our Understanding of Consciousness

An excellent very recent article on the latest neuroscientific insights into the nature of consciousness, by Thomas Nail, a professor of philosophy at The University of Denver.

What are you thinking about right now?

Have you ever wondered why it’s so hard to answer this simple question when someone asks? There is a reason. 95 percent of your brain’s activity is entirely unconscious. Of the remaining 5 percent of brain activity, only around half is intentionally directed. The vast majority of what goes on in our heads is unknown and unintentional. Neuroscientists call these activities “spontaneous fluctuations,” because they are unpredictable and seemingly unconnected to any specific behavior. No wonder it’s so hard to say what we are thinking or feeling and why. We like to think of ourselves as CEOs of our own minds, but we are much more like ships tossed at sea.

What does this reveal about the nature of consciousness? Why is our brain, a mere 2 percent of our body mass, using 20 percent of our energy to produce what many scientists still call “background noise?” Neuroscientists have known about these “random” fluctuations in electrical brain activity since the 1930s, but have not known what to make of them until relatively recently. Many brain studies of consciousness still look only at brain activity that responds to external stimuli and triggers a mental state. The rest of the “noise” is “averaged out” of the data.

Fortuitously, multiple scientists have been working on exactly this problem. One of the most exciting new research fields in brain science today is known as the “neuroscience of spontaneous thought.” Several critical studies in this area have shown that cognitive flux, or “spontaneous fluctuation,” is not secondary to but rather fundamental for consciousness, as neuroscientists Georg Northoff, Robin Carhart-Harris, and Stanislas Dehaene argue. The frequency and distribution of this flux can even accurately predict whether someone is conscious or unconscious.

Read the entire article here: (many thanks to Daniel Kapelian for the share)


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