An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Problem of Consciousness
By Ciara Balanza
We know how neurons fire with chemical precision, but can we understand someone else’s consciousness? Neuroscience can draw from computer science and the humanities to define consciousness.
With the advent of new scanning technologies and microscopic imaging, neuroscientists have learned more about the structure and function of the brain and neurons. Neuroscientists consider the prefrontal cortex responsible for executive function. They know how neurons fire with chemical precision. However, the way neurons interact to create our subjective experience is elusive. Consciousness is an ambiguous term, so I’ll define it as metacognition—the awareness of our own thought process. My interest in metacognition comes from my experience with mental illness. When attending sessions of cognitive-behavioral therapy, I found the ability to divert my thought patterns empowering. If we can control our thoughts, then what are “we”? From this question, a conscious self that drives our thought patterns emerges. While neuroscience can provide neural correlates, our understanding of being ourselves is not this reductionist.
Neural networks challenge definitions of consciousness. Through my research internship at Weill Cornell, I have closely examined neural networks to categorize novel psychoactive substances. Machine learning approaches can identify similarities in data inputs better than a manual approach by humans. How do non-biological computations differ from the activity of neurons in our brain? If consciousness is defined as representations of our own brain processes, neural networks are not so different when they make predictions based on prior experience.
The humanities allow for collective consciousness, a culture, through which we can articulate our own experiences. In an independent study I read books on magical realism, a genre characterized by integrating fantastical situations into daily life. It reflects a subjective experience where magical elements have symbolic meanings. The way the conscious experience is portrayed through literature and art is dependent on their historical context. Artists integrate political realities into their frame of reference, suggesting a scientific approach to consciousness that acknowledges changes over time.
The current limitation in our understanding of consciousness requires an interdisciplinary approach. Questions proposed by philosophers remain unresolved (and perhaps unanswerable) by modern science. What is the relationship between the mind and body? Why do we have an experience of “free will”? And the eternal one: Who am I? In college, I want to expose myself to diverse perspectives on these questions. I will take courses in biology, computer science, and literature, which would help me to integrate current and historical understandings of consciousness in these fields. I will use writing as a tool to share what I learn and inspire others as they navigate their own journeys to understand themselves and the world around them. I would like to be a regular contributor to media outlets on mental health and neuroscience. I also plan to write a book on the relevance of consciousness for Artificial Intelligence and Brain-Machine interfaces.
I wrote the essay for a scholarship that prompted me to write about the intellectual frontiers I would like to engage in. I have ranging interests, but they all connect to the mind. Consciousness perfectly encapsulates the intersections and limitations of these fields. I believed I could take a multi-disciplinary approach to explaining consciousness. I focused on the implications of consciousness for neuroscience, computing, and the humanities. After applying for the scholarship, my mentor suggested I submit the piece to GWN. I wanted to make edits since I was no longer under time crunch and word count constraints. She made suggestions and we met on a Zoom call to implement them. While I still had lingering apprehensions, she reminded me to step back. She asked me, “What does the good enough version of this essay look like?”
Ciara Balanzá is a high school junior located in NYC. She loves being outdoors as an avid runner and hiker. Since a young age, she has loved to curl up with a book and attempt her own hand at writing poetry and stories. Now she continues to craft creative writing and delves into journalism as an editor and writer for her school newspaper. She intends to go into medicine but wants to continue writing as an adult. Combining her interests in mental health advocacy and writing, she has founded a mental health magazine called Each Mind.