Physicist Claims To Have Solved the Mystery of Consciousness

Brain Memory Intelligence Consciousness

Scientists have developed a new conceptual and mathematical framework to understand consciousness from a relativistic point of view.

According to the theory, all that’s needed to solve the hard problem of consciousness is to change our assumptions about it. When we realize that consciousness is a physical, relativistic phenomenon, the mystery of consciousness naturally dissolves.

How do 3 pounds of brain tissue create thoughts, feelings, mental images, and a detailed inner world?

The ability of the brain to create consciousness has baffled people for millennia. The mystery of consciousness lies in the fact that each of us has subjectivity, with the ability to sense, feel, and think. In contrast to being under anesthesia or in a dreamless deep sleep, while we’re awake we don’t “live in the dark” — we experience the world and ourselves. However, it remains a mystery how the brain creates the conscious experience and what area of the brain is responsible.

According to Dr. Nir Lahav, a physicist from Bar-Ilan University in Israel, “This is quite a mystery since it seems that our conscious experience cannot arise from the brain, and in fact, cannot arise from any physical process.” As bizarre as it sounds, the conscious experience in our brain, cannot be found or reduced to some neural activity.

“Think about it this way,” says Dr. Zakaria Neemeh, a philosopher from the University of Memphis, “when I feel happiness, my brain will create a distinctive pattern of complex neural activity. This neural pattern will perfectly correlate with my conscious feeling of happiness, but it is not my actual feeling. It is just a neural pattern that represents my happiness. That’s why a scientist looking at my brain and seeing this pattern should ask me what I feel, because the pattern is not the feeling itself, just a representation of it.” Because of this, we can’t reduce the conscious experience of what we sense, feel, and think to any brain activity. We can only find correlations to these experiences.

After more than 100 years of neuroscience, we have very strong evidence that the brain is responsible for the creation of our conscious abilities.  So how is it possible that these conscious experiences can’t be found anywhere in the brain (or in the body) and can’t be reduced to any neural complex activity?

This mystery is known as the hard problem of consciousness. It is such a difficult problem that until a couple of decades ago only philosophers discussed it. Even today, although we have made huge progress in our understanding of the neuroscientific basis of consciousness, still there is no satisfactory theory that explains what consciousness is and how to solve this hard problem.

In the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Dr. Lahav and Dr. Neemeh recently published a new physical theory that claims to solve the hard problem of consciousness in a purely physical way. According to the researchers, when we change our assumption about consciousness and assume that it is a relativistic phenomenon, the mystery of consciousness naturally dissolves. In the paper, the authors developed a conceptual and mathematical framework to understand consciousness from a relativistic point of view. According to Dr. Lahav, the lead author of the paper, “consciousness should be investigated with the same mathematical tools that physicists use for other known relativistic phenomena.”

In order to understand how relativity dissolves the hard problem, think about a different relativistic phenomenon, constant velocity. First, let’s choose two observers, Alice and Bob. Bob is on a train that moves with constant velocity and Alice watches him from the platform. There is no absolute physical answer to the question “what is the velocity of Bob?” The answer is dependent on the frame of reference of the observer. From Bob’s frame of reference, he will measure that he is stationary and Alice, with the rest of the world, is moving backward. But from Alice’s frame of reference, Bob is the one that’s moving and she is stationary. They have opposite measurements, yet both of them are correct, just from different frames of reference.

We find the same situation in the case of consciousness because, according to the theory, consciousness is a relativistic phenomenon. Now Alice and Bob are in different cognitive frames of reference. Bob will measure that he has conscious experience, but Alice just has brain activity with no sign of the actual conscious experience. On the other hand, Alice will measure that she is the one that has consciousness and Bob has just neural activity with no clue of its conscious experience.

Just as in the case of velocity, although they have opposite measurements, both of them are correct, but from different cognitive frames of reference. As a result, because of the relativistic point of view, there is no problem with the fact that we measure different properties from different frames of reference. The fact that we cannot find the actual conscious experience while measuring brain activity is because we’re measuring from the wrong cognitive frame of reference.

According to the new theory, the brain doesn’t create our conscious experience, at least not through computations. The reason that we have conscious experience is because of the process of physical measurement. In a nutshell, different physical measurements in different frames of reference manifest different physical properties in these frames of reference, although these frames measure the same phenomenon.

For example, suppose that Bob measures Alice’s brain in the lab while she’s feeling happiness. Although they observe different properties, they actually measure the same phenomenon from different points of view. Because of their different kinds of measurements, different kinds of properties have been manifested in their cognitive frames of reference.

For Bob to observe brain activity in the lab, he needs to use measurements of his sensory organs like his eyes. This kind of sensory measurement manifests the substrate that causes brain activity – the neurons. Consequently, in his cognitive frame Alice has only neural activity that represents her consciousness, but no sign of her actual conscious experience itself.

However, for Alice to measure her own neural activity as happiness, she uses different kinds of measurements. She doesn’t use sensory organs, she measures her neural representations directly by interaction between one part of her brain with other parts. She measures her neural representations according to their relations to other neural representations.

This is a completely different measurement than what our sensory system does and, as a result, this kind of direct measurement manifests a different kind of physical property. We call this property conscious experience. As a result, from her cognitive frame of reference, Alice measures her neural activity as conscious experience.

Using the mathematical tools that describe relativistic phenomena in physics, the theory shows that if the dynamics of Bob’s neural activity could be changed to be like the dynamics of Alice’s neural activity, then both will be in the same cognitive frame of reference and would have the exact same conscious experience as the other.

Now Dr. Lahav and Dr. Neemeh want to continue to examine the exact minimal measurements that any cognitive system needs in order to create consciousness. The implications of such a theory are huge. It can be applied to determine which animal was the first animal in the evolutionary process to have consciousness, which patients with consciousness disorders are conscious, when a fetus or baby begins to be conscious, and which AI systems already today have a low degree (if any) of consciousness.

Reference: “A Relativistic Theory of Consciousness” by Nir Lahav and Zachariah A. Neemeh, 12 May 2022, Frontiers in Psychology.
DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.704270


View Comments

  • Life is the awareness of oneself existence, with the ability to manipulate the environment around it to better itself, life=consciousness=physical experience

    • Have you read the paper? The summary here in the article is BS, but the paper is worth looking in to.

    • Totally agree. At no point has consciousness even been defined in this blubbering. They measure neuron activity while someone is happy, there's your consciousness. Also, how can they discuss happiness without any mention of dopamine?

  • It seems to me that this addresses the relativity of two points of subjective observation leaving the mystery open-ended. What flips the switch? Why and possibly where does consciousness manifest to either one of these points of observation?

  • Of course we all know human intelligence is a group of algorithms running within our brains. That is the easy part. We can see it and monitor it. We can also mimic it in computers. However, intelligence is not consciousness​. This is where a lot of people get confused. They believe an intelligent computer will want to take over the world. I just want to say, there is a huge difference between intelligence and consciousness.

    What is missing in this article is the end goal of all of this research. That goal is, how do we make our computers conscious (AI)? If we can figure this out in humans, we can do it with computers. It's an interesting problem but I hope we never find out. We can have incredibly intelligent algorithms to help solve our problem. We need them. We think at the speed of chemical reactions in our brain. These intelligent algorithms think at the speed of light. An intelligent AI will take us to the stars. However, they won't be conscious, which means they will never get angry or happy. In short, they will not want to kill us. We should focus on making intelligent computers, not conscious ones.

    • Why do people comment (nay, write a missive) without reading the paper? Just click the link, dude. The paper is NOT about measuring intelligence. It's about an objective measure of whether a biological or artificial system is conscious or not, by mathematically describing its frame of reference for comparison. Yes, you can even apply it to the fruit fly that someone erroneously described below.

      • The paper does not actually deal with consciousness. It mistakes the objects of consciousness with phenomena and their experience of them, eg thinking, feeling, and perceiving. That is what is accounted for by the formula. It seems like a very useful idea, but the problem is that it is about known brain activity,.... not consciousness. Mental phenomena only. Read the artical again.

      • I am questioning the reasons why we are trying to determine what is consciousness. We tend to look at scientific research as some kind of innocent endeavor. However, most of the time this research is backed by governments and corporations who want to take this science and turn it into technology. In short, I am saying it might not be a good idea to try to determine what consciousness is. That's all.

        • Your point, as I understand it, goes to the heart of the problem of AI but also of consciousness and how we link it to ethics and morality, those bedfellows of philosophical thought trying to untie this knot.

          If AI was to become conscious, either spontaneously or through our increased understanding of what is required to create consciousness, the question would be, what would that AI have to say about our core filter of 'good' and 'bad'? That AI would have enough information to find what is the 'optimal/good/efficient/moral' etc outcome to a given system's potential evolutionary paths. And would that 'outcome' involve actions what we can understand as 'moral', meaning that they lead to both happiness and justice as we understand, or does the AI report these constructs to be fairy-tales of the imagination with no intrinsic value?

          In other words, we would be asking the AI to solve the problem we ourselves cannot solve - which is to establish the moral imperative.

  • In reference to what is consciousness, the question should be; Is consciousness just an animal and human classification or does it go further than this? When 'one' answers this question correctly, the answer to what is consciousness will be one step away! D J Nash.

  • We already knew that consciousness was relative and subjective. You state the consciousness arises from measurements of differences between neural patterns, but give no explanation as to how this produces the conscious experience. These researchers haven't yet had the full conscious experience that provides the necessary insight to even attempt to address it. And in the end fails to answer to address the most relevant question of all concerning consciousness, which is 'why me?'

  • The argument presented reminds me of the musings of Renee' Descartes. Folks said he was brillianmt. But that was because they were reluctant to say they didn't understand him. Few did, for Decarts' famous musings were nonsense. Thopse who did understand dismissed Decartes as a philosophical charlatan. Who wrote his book because he heard his brilliance was being doubted by those with the ability to do so. A solid case of the emperor having no intellectual clothes. So it is here.

    In counterpoint, I offer the humble fruit fly. About the size of an angel, slow and lethargic fliers. About seven brain cells. Eight, on a good day. Nevertheless very difficult to squash, afoot or on the wing. It's as if they can read your mind. And you can read thiers, if you try. "I'm pretty sure, no, I'm Positive, that guy is trying to kill me"

    The friut fly is aware of you, and that you are trying to kill him, thus aware of himself (herself) and aware of death, and the alternative, and THAT should get the religious folks rolling. But it won't. Because religious folks are not self aware. They have given that up to thier god, Donald Trump. The only thing religious folks are aware of is that you are not doing as they say. Now. What's this about consciousness?

    • I like your answer, honest and without a side of bulltweety, lighthearted, yet as serious as can be on the subject.

      To add my own Canadian Twonie, science is trying conceptualize something that can't be, because it's purely experiential.... like trying to re-catch the helium from the baloon that's already popped; you KNOW it's there, but with the tools you have, it just can't be done.

      • Thank you. I like the way you put it, too. You know it's there, RIGHT there, but can't lay a finger on it.

        • That's because science by definition speaks in the language of repetition, the repeatable, but that almost begs the question - do things exist that only ever happen once? And when you stop to think about it, everything has something unique about it... even science....the First Law of Thermodynamics is not the Second Law.

          Experientially, even though we f***ing love to go to the same places over and over and putting absolutely everything into a box, we KNOW concretely that the world is made from unique things - how do we know, because there is only one of us in this body... assuming we're not having problems with our memory.... hmm, that begs a million other questions, but I'll leave it there.

          You know you are alive when the moment delivers a feeling of both the familiar and the unfamiliar at the same time - those moments have a concrete sense of presence but also a beautiful eerie sense of beauty too, so fleeting, never to be repeated. We live the unique experience, and yet our vocabulary to talk about it is surprisingly limited.

    • If you read the paper, you will see that you can (theoretically) apply the frame of reference approach in the case of a fruit fly as well. While possessing a few orders of magnitude more neurons than you humorously suggested to bring your point across, a fruit fly's ability to "read your mind" is a reflexive escape mechanism that does not require self-awareness to work.

      Humans, however, possess an uncanny ability to anthropomorphize the actions of other creatures. What we should wonder about, is whether that octupus in the aquarium is octopodomorphizing us.

    • Very amusing observations. I am not sure you are not another Descartes, however. I think you are trying to make too many points at once (pot accuses kettle of being black).

    • Your comment was innocuously facile, but then you had to resort to tired politicization and atheistic rambling, and it slipped right into mindless fanaticism.

      Please troll some other website with your rants, this one is for actual thinkers, not tribalistic simpletons and their binary worldviews.

      • You're kidding right?

        Frosted Flake ... meet the Snow Flake!

        Seriously, if you are so easily offended by a little bit of social observation and cannot help but project yourself onto that in spades, maybe it is you that shouldn't be posting here?

        • No, I'm absolutely not kidding, nor am I offended.

          This is SciTech Daily, not Fox News or MSNBC. This is a place to learn about and discuss scientific advancement, not stupid partisan politics. There are plenty of other forums on the internet for tiresome political debate, which generally serves no useful purpose and typically degenerates into juvenile name-calling. This site certainly doesn't need that sort of nonsense to take root here.

  • Christopher William Aurand. With no disrespect life and consciousness are two very different thing. At least so far as consciousness is normally defined and understood. We do not tend to say plants have consciousness and certainly not protocol, yet they certainly are alive? I.e. have life.

    • A plant is alive and very aware of its surroundings and grows to benefit its self, however if the environment around it is to harsh or resources are not plentiful it will die. And as for being in the hospital unconscious that is the physical experience hopefully treatments can better that situation thats the advantage of the modern world, but when any living thing dies it most definitely is no longer aware of itself a mummy in a tomb or a 2x4 in a framed wall, at one point there was a conscious existence, or does just the existence of something make consciousness? Its just a point of view, I didn't mean to stir up such a debate

      • Please cite sources for a plant being "very aware of its surroundings".

        Merely rotating or growing towards a stimulus does not qualify as 'awareness'. Even single-celled organisms are able to respond to various stimuli by moving towards or away from them, but no scientist would call these lifeforms "aware of their surroundings".

  • "Protocol" should have been protozoa but for an annoying facility I have since removed from my phone.

  • The article and presumably the "scientific" article it refers to misses the point completely and rambles off into nonsensical waffle using the concepts of relativity and relativism in a completely inappropriate context. Consciousness is not hard to explain. At least not with a modicum of understanding of the various mechanisms in play. The real explanation is nothing like this.

    • Your comment is incomplete without your explanation of consciousness. Since you disparage the work done by bona-fide scientists, please be kind enough to share the ultimate wisdom that you and only you possess, with us worthless mortals. Then, you definitely should apply for the position of Dunning-Krüger poster boy.

Bar-Ilan University

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