The brain seeks meaning and patterns. It would be very adaptive to do so in nature, because you need to know how to predict danger and to develop social ties. So our brains are very good at recognizing patterns, but also at creating them, even when they're not there.
- Dr. Jay Giedd, Chair of Child Psychiatry at Rady Children's Hospital - San Diego and Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Professor of Psychiatry at UCSD School of Medicine, and Professor in the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Episode 20: Neural Traffic Flow in the Conscious Brain with Dr. Jay Giedd
In this lighthearted conversation, Bernard Baars welcomes returning guest, developmental neuropsychiatrist Dr. Jay Giedd, Professor of Psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine. Their discussion touches on the nuances of unconscious and conscious states, the relationship between dreams and waking moments, and what the recent science tells us about different brain specializations.
- 0:00 – How does consciousness emerge?
- 8:46 – Ways to study dreams
- 17:05 – Conscious truth and fantasy
- 22:57 – Brain connectivity: The street map and the traffic flow
- 29:19 – Clarifying the concepts
How does consciousness emerge?
Jay Giedd shares with Bernie Baars one of the utmost questions on his mind as of late, namely, at what point do we cross the threshold from being unconscious to being conscious?
They examine how sleep studies and improving brain imaging technology can help us understand the nature of consciousness, and Jay considers the notion that emergence of awareness is caused not only by the quantity of brain neurons, but also by the types of connections.
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
The duo discuss dream content, and Jay reflects on his initial training as a Freudian psychoanalyst, part of which included keeping a dream journal. He makes the observation that although the dreaming mind can create a narrative where the laws of physics and biology are defied, our dreams are nonetheless connected to our day-to-day activities. Bernie suggests that one possible hypothesis for this phenomenon is the cortex trying to find meaning, even with random input.
Sensory Perception and Conscious Beliefs: True or False?
Jay highlights the fact that perception and cognition do not always accurately represent reality. In terms of increasing our chances of survival, it may be more important that our perception and pattern recognition skills actually work, rather than how accurate they are. Jay also emphasizes that over time, the physiology underlying conscious signals might have been strengthened by providing humans the ability to cooperate and better understand one another, thus further increasing our odds of survival.
How neural traffic flow is measured and the limitations of our scientific tools.
Bernie makes a distinction between the functional and the anatomical connectivity of the brain. Jay reinforces this by explaining how neural traffic flow can be measured. Scientific tools have greatly improved, but there are still many puzzles that are unsolved.
In the final moments of their conversation, Jay shares his belief that one day, consciousness will not seem incomprehensible, although he acknowledges that we still have a long way to go. He emphasizes the immense complexity of the developing brain and the emergence of consciousness.
“Good science always raises more questions than answers,” concludes Dr. Giedd. “And consciousness is a great example of that.”
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