The Neural Correlates of Consciousness

Consciousness is a hot topic in neuroscience and some of the brightest researchers are hunting for the neural correlates of consciousness (NCCs)—but they will never find them. The implicit theory of consciousness underlying this quest is misguided and needs to be retired.

The idea of the NCCs is simple enough and intuitively tempting. If we believe in the 'hard problem of consciousness'—the mystery of how subjective experience arises from (or is created by or generated by) objective events in a brain—then it's easy to imagine that there must be a special place in the brain where this happens. Or if there is no special place then some kind of 'consciousness neuron', or process or pattern or series of connections. We may not have the first clue how any of these objective things could produce subjective experience but if we could identify which of them was responsible (so the thinking goes), then we would be one step closer to solving the mystery.

This sounds eminently sensible as it means taking the well-worn scientific route of starting with correlations before moving on to causal explanations. The trouble is it depends on a dualist—and ultimately unworkable—theory of consciousness. The underlying intuition is that consciousness is an added extra—something additional to and different from the physical processes on which it depends. Searching for the NCCs relies on this difference. On one side of the correlation you measure neural processes using EEG, fMRI or other kinds of brain scan; on the other you measure subjective experiences or 'consciousness itself'. But how?

A popular method is to use binocular rivalry or ambiguous figures which can be seen in either of two incompatible ways, such as a Necker cube that flips between two orientations. To find the NCCs you find out which version is being consciously perceived as the perception flips from one to the other and then correlate that with what is happening in the visual system. The problem is that the person has to tell you in words 'Now I am conscious of this', or 'Now I'm now conscious of that'. They might instead press a lever or button, and other animals can do this too, but in every case you are measuring physical responses.

Is this capturing something called consciousness? Will it help us solve the mystery? No.

This method is really no different from any other correlational studies of brain function, such as correlating activity in the fusiform face area with seeing faces, or prefrontal cortex with certain kinds of decision-making. It correlates one type of physical measure with another. This is not useless research. It is very interesting to know, for example, where in the visual system neural activity changes when the reported visual experience flips. But discovering this does not tell us that this neural activity is the generator of something special called 'consciousness' or 'subjective experience' while everything else going on in the brain is 'unconscious'.

I can understand the temptation to think it is. Dualist thinking comes so naturally to us. We feel as though our conscious experiences are of a different order from the physical world. But this is the same intuition that leads to the hard problem seeming hard. It is the same intuition that produces the philosopher's zombie—a creature that is identical to me in every way except that it has no consciousness. It is the same intuition that leads people to write, apparently unproblematically, about brain processes being either conscious or unconscious.

Am I really denying this difference? Yes. Intuitively plausible as it is, this is a magic difference. Consciousness is not some weird and wonderful product of some brain processes but not others. Rather, it is an illusion constructed by a clever brain and body in a complex social world. We can speak, think, refer to ourselves as agents and so build up the false idea of a persisting self that has consciousness and free will.

We are tricked by an odd feature of consciousness. When I ask myself 'what am I conscious of now?' I can always find an answer. It's the trees outside the window, the sound of the wind, the problem I am worried about and cannot solve—or whatever seems most vivid at the time. This is what I mean by being conscious now, by having qualia. But what was happening a moment before I asked? When I look back I can use memories to claim that I was conscious of this or that and not conscious of something else, relying on the clarity, logic, consistency and other such features to decide.

This leads all too easily to the idea that while someone is awake they must always be conscious of something or other. And that leads along the slippery path to the idea that if we knew what to look for we could peer inside someone's brain and find out which processes were the conscious ones and which the unconscious ones. But this is all nonsense. All we will ever find is the neural correlates of thoughts, perceptions, memories and the verbal and attentional processes that lead us to think we are conscious.

When we finally have a better theory of consciousness to replace these popular delusions we will see that there is no hard problem, no magic difference and no NCCs.