"I want to try to understand consciousness from a neuroanatomy and neuro-function standpoint. What would consciousness look like in a brain scanner and other types of imaging? What are we looking for, in a sense, and could I predict from basically the architecture and the anatomy, that this could be conscious, and this would not be able to be conscious?"
- Dr. Jay Giedd, Developmental Neuropsychiatrist, UCSD School of Medicine, Rady Children's Hospital, and Johns Hopkins
EPISODE 8: Roundtable Part One – The Developing Brain & Consciousness – A thoughtful discussion exploring some fundamental issues that confront the science of consciousness. Namely, how do we define consciousness? What does that term mean? Where do we even start?
Neuroscientist David Edelman and Developmental Neuropsychiatrist Jay Giedd, Professor of Psychiatry at UCSD School of Medicine and Director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at Rady Children's Hospital talk candidly about our understanding of the complex - and often tantalizing - nature of consciousness.
In the context of the developing human brain, how can we understand consciousness? To many of us, consciousness seems like a simple, commonsense notion. When we’re awake, we all know that we are, more often than not, aware—of the world, of our thoughts and emotions, of our feeling states (i.e., hunger, thirst, pain, etc.), among others. When we fall into a deep, dreamless sleep, that awareness slips away.
But, this notion is actually quite confounding—particularly when one considers that there must be a specific moment during development when the brain transitions from a small, non-conscious organ comprising a few dozen cells to a complex, 86 billion-cell nexus of conscious feelings, emotions, and thoughts.
When, precisely, does that moment occur? In the womb? When we are just a few weeks old? These are the key questions that David Edelman and developmental neuropsychiatrist Jay Giedd ponder in this podcast.
A lively back-and-forth ensues as the two neuroscientists bring their respective backgrounds to bear on the emergence and nature of consciousness during development:
- one, a neuroscientist focused on consciousness in non-human animals and the other,
- a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who has spent more than thirty years exploring the growth and development of the human brain from embryogenesis through childhood and adolescence well into adulthood.
Along the way, David and Jay reinforce the notion that memory is a sine qua non of conscious states. As they learn to negotiate the world, very young infants experience the world with their developing senses, remember certain experiences, and then modify their behaviors accordingly.
But, when do the first substantive memories actually form? There is certainly a Rubicon that is crossed; we just haven’t figured out when it happens or what that passage looks like. Memory is a ubiquitous faculty across the animal kingdom; even relatively simple animals like the humble marine snail Aplysia can learn and remember at a fundamental level.
Are the different developmental stages of memory in growing infants comparable to the increasingly sophisticated memory faculties found in the nervous systems of ever more complex organisms?
Roundtable Part One Talking Points
- 0:03 – Opening lines by David Edelman.
- 0:58 – Jay Giedd introduces himself, his background in psychiatry, robotics, and reproductive medicine, and how all of it ties together as he studies brain development.
- 1:52 – David Edelman opens the conversation by asking about Jay Giedd’s idea of
- 2:15 – Jay Giedd looks at consciousness from the perspective of the developing brain in a fetus, particularly at what point does consciousness arise and how would that be detectable through a brain scanner.
- 3:14 – Edelman makes a connection between Giedd’s outlook on consciousness with that of the brain’s behavior during a sleeping state.
- 6:02 – Jay Giedd points out that a memory appears to be essential for the rise of consciousness, and how sleep, a process which no animal escaped from evolutionarily, is essential for proper memory formation.
- 8:57 – David Edelman describes what happens in the brain while a person is asleep and proposes the idea that consciousness may have a variety of forms and that a brain’s sleeping state may be one of several.
- 10:11 – Giedd brings up the role of dreams and our vague understanding of them.
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David and Jay highlight important questions that may provide important waypoints along the way. Towards the end of their conversation, David and Jay consider the transition from wakefulness to deep non-REM sleep and its signal importance as a transition between conscious and non-conscious states during which changes in brain activity occur that we can actually study—and that provides clues as to the nature of consciousness.
Sigmund Freud once said, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.” Though Freud was clearly referring to understanding a behavioral manifestations of a dreaming brain that may now be understood to be conscious in some sense (albeit mostly a matter of the cerebral cortex, cut off from the world, “talking to itself”), we can certainly invoke his spirit as a scientific observer in pursuit of the verifiable truth when we say that investigating the passage from wakefulness to deep sleep and back again may well help pave the royal road to understanding consciousness in the brain, whether still in the throes of development or fully formed.
David Edelman, PhD: A neuroscientist and currently Visiting Scholar in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, David has taught neuroscience at the University of San Diego and UCSD. He was Professor of Neuroscience at Bennington College until 2014 and visiting professor in the Dept of Psychology, CUNY Brooklyn College from 2015-2017. He has conducted research in a wide range of areas, including mechanisms of gene regulation, the relationship between mitochondrial transport and brain activity, and visual perception in the octopus. A longstanding interest in the neural basis of consciousness led him to consider the importance—and challenge—of disseminating a more global view of brain function to a broad audience.
*Watch Episode 8 on Our YouTube Channel
**Roundtable Episodes of the podcast “On Consciousness with Bernard Baars” were recorded and filmed in the dining room of the La Jolla house that was my father’s home for more than 20 years. These explorations of consciousness are a special tribute to David's Dad, Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman, and his verdant imagination, immense creativity, prodigious output, and the many discussions about the scientific study of consciousness and biological science generally that we had within these four walls.
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