Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Fundamentals of Consciousness

In conversations with our young grandchildren we sometimes observe some surprisingly deep thinking. Several years ago our almost three year old granddaughter, in response to one of our questions replied, “I haven’t thought about that yet.” At her tender age she was already aware of the thought process as an outgrowth of her human existence. Her grandfather occasionally points to the foreheads of his grandchildren with the news that their brain is located inside their heads: “That’s where you think.”

Young children are aware of their subjective experience. They see and hear. They experience joy and cheer and happily express delight. Sometimes they encounter pain or become sad, impatient, bored, or angry. They express their subjective feelings without hesitation. We might characterize them as masters of subjective experience. Consciousness is a subjective experience having many dimensions. Children are masters of their own consciousness.  

A few years down the road I may further explain to my grandchildren that the brain is home to billions of cells—neurons which carry trillions of electrical pulses in a network of millions of neural pathways within the organ known as their brain—a convoluted three pound mass of grey and white matter identified by neuroscientists as the seat of conscious thought. Such wonders are not visible in graphic diagrams or photographs of the physical brain. Through powerful microscopes neuroscientists have now instructed us concerning astonishing wonders of the sub-visible world of the brain. Going beyond the visual, scientists have described a superabundance of incredible events occurring within the brain.

Perhaps after several years our grandkids will become more objective and less subjective. Objective scientific explanations will increasingly dominate their conscious thought. With increasing intellectual maturity they will become interested in their body’s biological systems, including what happens in their brain. If they understand the basic objective truth that all matter is composed of atoms they will recall that atoms are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Two of these three particles, the proton and electron, possess electrical charges. One statement charged with truth is, “All matter is electrical in nature.” Translation: Without electricity pulsing through their brains there is no conscious brain function.

The body’s other biological functions are also interconnected with the brain’s system of neurons. Scientists have an easier task explaining the processes of electrical communication between ten other body systems and the brain. Causes and effects are easier to identify. For example, when an event happens such as body overheating or overcooling, the brain signals the body to respond to the changes in remarkable, multiple ways.

Brain function is considerably more difficult to grasp. Many scientists propose that the brain is the seat of human consciousness. Some dispute the truth of this statement, perhaps because the subject of consciousness is so poorly understood. David Chalmers calls consciousness “the most mysterious phenomenon in the universe.” It is possible to study correlations between events occurring in our environment and brain activity as well as correlations between events occurring only within our brain. So far as these events correlate with consciousness, we become less certain of causes and effects.

What conclusion do we make about the mysterious subject of human consciousness? Was my granddaughter’s comment concerning not having “thought about that yet” an early expression of her knowledge of consciousness? Our recent post discussions do not begin to answer the deepest mysteries of consciousness. Many contemporary experts in the subject look forward to a rich harvest of discovery in future years. At present, the topic is known fully only in the infinite mind of God.           


Friday, January 27, 2017

Explaining Conscious Thought

What really happens in our brain when we think, desire, create, feel, recall, or decide? One neuroscientist, Paul King, says, “The brain is a multilayered ecosystem of hierarchically organized neurons, circuits, networks, and brain areas.” Alva Noe is a philosopher working in the area of perception and consciousness. He has stated, “A human being is a locus of densely interwoven coupling with the world around us.” We do not quote these two sources because they are more insightful than many thousands of other scientists and philosophers working in their field. Rather, experts working to relate what happens when we think, desire, create, feel, recall, or decide have discovered there are thousands of relevant observations to offer concerning the subject of conscious human thought. The most eloquent observations attract the most attention. The above quotes serve as examples.

The truth about human brain activity—in particular, human thought—is that when we set out to explain it, we spend most of our time describing “What?” and very little time explaining “How?” This is not meant to be a criticism directed toward researchers who explain what happens. For example, it is impossible to describe human memory, creativity, and decision making except with reference to the continual storm of electrical activity in the billions of neurons which provide building blocks for the millions of neural networks in the brain. Physical stimulation from motion or energy is completely converted to trillions of electrical spikes in the human brain. From quadrillions of rapidly occurring electrical spikes traveling the length of multiple neurons, all human thought somehow connects with human consciousness. The foregoing information is the “what?” In contrast, the “how?” remains obscured. Have neuroscientists really explained how billions of electrical spikes in the brain produce the phenomenon of conscious apprehension about what we think, desire, create, feel, recall, or decide?

Human consciousness is termed “The Hard Problem of Consciousness.” Many neuroscientists acquire fame as they lecture about the “hard problem.” The “hard problem” refers to the uncertainty of bioscientists’ explanations for the mystique of human consciousness, defined as awareness by the mind of itself and the world. One cognitive scientist—David Chalmers—is celebrated for originating the term and proposing meaningful speculation concerning the “hard problem.” Some contemporary scientists currently object that there is no such thing as a “hard problem of consciousness.” We align with Chalmers on this question. 

Chalmers describes consciousness as “the most mysterious phenomenon in the universe.” He claims much writing about consciousness answers questions of correlations and are not really explanations. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) in an article “The Hard Problem of Consciousness” claims we can still meaningfully ask the question, “Why is it conscious?” after answering questions concerning the functional, dynamical, and structural properties of the conscious mind. IEP suggests that, “…an explanation of consciousness will have to go beyond the usual methods of science. Consciousness therefore presents a hard problem for science, or perhaps it marks the limits of what science can explain.”

Scientists devoted to the paradigm of naturalism are distressed with the proposal that there are limits on what science can explain. Such scientists are wholly gripped by the idea that there is nothing that cannot be explained according to the tenets of naturalism. For instance, in many discussions with naturalistic evolutionists we encounter insistence that the existence and development of Earth’s life forms must be explained according to the model of naturalism. Such a proposal would rule out any supernatural explanation at any time in the present or past. To the degree that human consciousness cannot be scientifically explained, we inquire where neuroscientists and cognitive scientists go from here? In the dualism of naturalism vs supernaturalism, there is only one other investigative and exploratory alternative.

We have investigated the subject of consciousness previously in our blog. I suggest my readers review a previous post from 2015 in which we discussed the “hard problem of consciousness.” The search for modern scientists’ explanation for consciousness according to the principles of naturalism has not become easier since this post appeared:



Monday, January 23, 2017

Brain Power

All human abilities, aptitudes, achievements, talents, and gifts are mediated by the human brain. The primary organ of the central nervous system, the brain is a command and control center and the source of our ability to function. Virtually all human ability and performance originates with activity of the brain. Even aptitude, a statement of what a person can do but has not yet done, is a product of our brain as is achievement—describing what a person has already done. Talent relates to a special skill level as we travel our road to achievement. At the edge of this spectrum of traits is the category of giftedness—an exceptional manifestation of talent. Finally, in the ultimate gifted category we have very rare young people considered to be prodigies. Perhaps best known prodigies are musicians, especially adept on the keyboard or stringed instruments.

When I was very young, my parents observed my ability to pick out melodies of hymn tunes with one finger on our old upright piano. This ability prompted them to enroll me in music lessons beginning in second grade. The lessons continued until eighth grade. The music theory course from Art Publication Society in St. Louis was geared for promising young musicians. I showed promise and was once pronounced to have “much talent” by a visiting professor from St. Louis. The truth was that I preferred to explore the brooks, fields, and barns on my grandfather’s farm just a few stone throws from my home rather than to practice on the piano. The visiting professor did not pronounce me “gifted.” He merely stated I had “much talent.” My brain’s activity produced a desire to devote only a modicum of practice time on the keyboard. Very young gifted or prodigy musicians generally possess an insatiable urge, even an obsession, to practice extensively. By this metric alone, my parents realized I was certainly no prodigy. Nevertheless, I acquired a good grasp of musical theory which served me throughout life.

Prodigies possess an “off the charts” memory. They need normal, age-appropriate socialization but most schools do not meet their intellectual needs. Sometimes socialization becomes difficult: Classmates often do not understand the advanced, unique workings of their prodigy friend’s mind. Parents of prodigies must be careful not to exploit such children since the child may be harmed. Their great challenge is to share the gifts of their prodigy children with the public without harm to the children.

This aforementioned challenge is significant. Prodigies sometimes cannot control the outworking of their prolific mental production. In raising a prodigy, parents and advisers must ask for God’s supernatural wisdom. We must remember that prodigies are an exceedingly rare phenomenon: less than one per million. Their achievements come early in life. Some are able to talk, read, or create exceedingly early. With respect to musical performance many achieve adult level in their first few years of life.

Special reporting caters to the public’s desire for the unique or unusual. Many volumes and articles have been published on the topic of prodigies. Much speculation relates to the “nature versus nurture” question of the cause of such magnificent talent. The brains of the highly musically talented manifest subtle differences from average or musically deficient individuals. Brain centers with their physical neural connections are more highly developed. Some of these differences are subtle and identifiable only by experts in brain physiology. Evidence is plentiful that genetics is undeniably important in the production of a musical prodigy or even in ordinary musical achievement. Likewise, parental and environmental influence, encouragement, and training has been shown to be crucial. Detailed study concerning prodigies helps us discover what occurs in the human brain whether they are prodigies or not.

The working memory of most prodigies is metaphorically “off the charts.” Their conscious thought processes, creative ability, and performance skills are related to trillions of electrical impulses generated in neural networks of the brain. Bioscientists have researched and discovered the essence of what occurs in the human brain, including the brains of typical individuals, the gifted, the genius, and the rare prodigy. We are deluged with television advertising for supplements touted to enhance bodily function of one sort or another. For instance, certain products are advertised as memory enhancers for older people. Chemical substances derived from jellyfish are credited with ability to help with “mild memory problems associated with aging.” Without commenting on the uncertain efficacy of such products, we call attention to an attractive graphic in some recent television advertising: diagrams of neurons in the brain are interesting representations of astonishing neural networks alive with electrical activity.

Educators tailor their offerings to promote the learning of a wide spectrum of students. The physical and social needs of their school population are accounted for, but our school districts primarily foster growth of intellectual skills. At the heart of human ability to progress intellectually is the working of the brain. The deep, mysterious human consciousness originates in brain centers. Researchers sometimes disconnect the explanation of consciousness—personal awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings—from the more easily described manifestations of intellectual achievement. 

We conclude our discussions of giftedness and prodigies with the reminder that human intellect is a divine gift to all men and women created in the image of God. We reiterate that “all life is a gift bestowed by the Creator of life.” We have described the “bell curve” of physical and intellectual talents which reveals that the vast majority of humanity is classified as non-prodigy or non-gifted with respect to their achievement. The question arises concerning physical differences among the brains of prodigies, the gifted, and the vast majority of our human population. Certain brains and specific brain areas with their neural networks are more highly developed in some persons in terms of individual achievement and production. 

Some may conclude that brains differ structurally from one subject to another. This conclusion is inaccurate, just as the gifted athlete’s physical body is not anatomically different from the bodies of non-athletes. The athlete’s body organs, however, are more highly developed. Muscle tissue, for example, is more massive, flexible, and highly conditioned in the athlete. More specifically, body build or musculature of the long distance runner may differ from the football lineman, the basketball point guard, or the baseball clean-up hitter. So also is the athlete’s intellectual familiarity and control of the diverse skills involved in his sport. Magnetic imaging of more active brain areas in mentally and physically gifted individuals is powerfully instructive. Our achievement potential is substantially dependent on personal mental control.

The human body and mind is a bequest of the Creator to mankind. We may state that the astonishing performance gifts of a young musical prodigy at the age of six or seven would be impossible without an initial supernatural gift of creativity from our Maker. That is true, but the creative prodigy must be receptive to encouragement and exercise diligent will and effort to practice and perfect his or her output. The nature vs nurture duality is ever present. Talent and motivation are an inseparable combination. We need teachers to help unlock the potential of both.

God is the Creator of All Things, even the diversity of talents and gifts bestowed on humanity. With respect to the physical and mental we cite several passages in scripture that point to physical well-being and conditioning as the responsibility of each individual (I Corinthians 9:24-27 and II Timothy 2:5). Likewise, we are responsible for our own healthy mental outlook (Romans 12:2 and Phillipians 4:8). God is pleased with the control WE exercise in the use of HIS gifts.      


Monday, January 16, 2017

Born or Raised, Nature or Nurture?

For centuries there has been a robust discussion concerning the relative importance of nature and nurture with respect to the traits humans develop. Are human traits inherent and innate or are they environmentally and culturally determined? Stated differently, are we born with our human traits, or do they manifest themselves as we are raised by parents and shaped by our environment—relatives, teachers, and society? To answer this complex question, we recognize several stages of historical focus on these questions. John Locke in 1690 promoted the “blank slate” idea. Locke saw the human as being totally produced by factors in his environment.

In the intervening centuries, philosophers such as Rene Descartes speculated on innatism, the concept that man possesses significant knowledge inherently and innately. Not all knowledge is gained from experience according to that belief. Since Charles Darwin’s time, behavioral scientists have fluctuated between the relative importance of our innate characteristics and the nurture acquired by our environment in the shaping of our total humanity. 

In the past few decades our knowledge has been fueled by a significant advance in  knowledge of genetics and the influence of environmental factors. The modern view does not tilt heavily toward either nature or nurture to the exclusion of the other. Instead, each complements the other. For discussion purposes, we term this dualism the genetic-environmental interaction. Philosophers, theologians, and scientists continue to be occupied by the discussion. As we study the subject of giftedness and prodigies our attention often shifts to fascinating causes and effects. 

The “nature or nurture” dualism enters the discussion. Lately we have been treated to televised confirmation hearings of cabinet nominees in the administration of our newly elected American president. Gifted and talented candidates appeared before U. S. Senate committees to explain their background and qualifications for various important governmental posts. On Thursday, January 11, 2017 Dr. Ben Carson, formerly a candidate for the nation’s highest office, appeared as a candidate for Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The brilliant neurosurgeon recounted his fascinating background as he prepared for his life’s work as a young person. Dr. Carson serves as a case study in the nature vs nurture discussion.

The child of divorced parents, Carson characterized himself as a “terrible” student. His mother refused to accept assistance from social welfare agencies. She insisted on a schedule for the young Carson to discover the value of reading and move upon his own motivation to travel his road of life from bottom to top. The now familiar story of Ben Carson’s success includes earning a scholarship to Yale and eventually becoming a famous pediatric neurosurgeon, performing “breathtaking life-changing surgeries.” No one is qualified to tell the story of the human brain better than Dr. Carson.

Human achievement of people of ordinary intelligence and achievement, to less common gifted individuals, to the true prodigies perhaps numbering less than one individual in a million or less, comprises the total spectrum of humanity. Scientific knowledge reveals that total physiological function, human consciousness, and ultimately all human achievement springs from brain activity. Dr. Carson’s testimony last week before the senate committee inspires renewed awe for the processes of the human brain. “We have to develop all of our talent….” Speaking of one’s profession, the doctor stated, “There’s an assumption that you can do only one thing—that we have these limited brains and that we are incapable or learning anything else.”

         One of Dr. Carson’s most startling statements in his 15-minute opening statement consisted of his brief synopsis of the functioning brain. He stated, “I find it humorous, particularly knowing what the brain is capable of—billions of neurons, hundreds of billions of interconnections, can process more than 2 million bits of information in one second…any brain can do that. You can’t overload it.”

Is Dr. Carson a prodigy? According to the research on prodigies who manifest their unique talents before the age of 10, he is not a prodigy in the classic sense. He is superbly gifted, however, with diverse talents evolving as he developed into adulthood. The interplay of nature and nurture find unique fulfillment in the life of Dr. Benjamin Solomon Carson. 

If Dr. Carson’s statement, “Any brain can do that” is correct, how do we account for the difference between average intelligence, giftedness, and the unique achievements of true prodigies? Were we to actually view the buzz of trillions of electrical messages pulsing through billions of neurons each moment of our lives, would neuroscientists be able to explain the existence of human consciousness and productivity? This post does not pretend to answer that question. Neither does Psalm 139:14: “We are fearfully and wonderfully made,” does not answer the question of How?” The psalmist’s exultation serves to inspire and strengthen personal devotion and love for the omnipotent and omniscient Creator of human life.         



Friday, January 6, 2017

Gifted Prodigies

All life is a gift bestowed by the Creator of Life. In this sense, all humans are gifted. The broader phenomenon of giftedness, however, is associated with possession of exceptional talent. Giftedness is a topic of considerable worth and wonder, both to those blessed by possession of exceptional talent and also to those who observe the talent in others. Giftedness is surpassed by a term describing a young person of exceedingly advanced and unusual achievement. These rare young people possess highly exceptional, atypical talent and creativity. Such a person is considered a prodigy.

The broad definition for gifted may overlap with the definition of prodigy. When children are very young, parents are anxious to describe them in keeping with their perception of unusual early talent or skill. Do their abundant physical, mental, and social skills appear earlier than normal? If so, optimistic parents may see their children as candidates for special placement in gifted and talented classes. Educators have devoted much attention to categories of giftedness and how to identify students worthy of placement in these special activities or classes.

We might distinguish between gifted individuals and true prodigies in any field of human talent or endeavor by citing a statistical reality of the human experience. We encounter a well known phrase: the “normal distribution curve,” also known as the “bell curve.” Genetic physical traits such as height and blood pressure may be arranged along the graphic continuum of short to tall, or low to high. Artistic and musical talent and intelligence ratings may also be arranged quantitatively from low to high. The classic bell curve manifests a symmetric clumping of data entries on both sides of the mean, diminishing as we travel away from the mean in either direction. We notice the typical bell shape flair at the extremes of the graph—the curve is closer to horizontal the farther it is from the mean. There are fewer occurrences at those low or high extremes.

Although the scores of almost any genetically influenced physical characteristic or type of talent may be plotted on a bell curve, we will use musical ability to illustrate some typical features of the normal distribution curve. Most people are aware that a large majority of the human population may be considered “average” in their musical ability. Gifted people possess varying degrees of desirable musical skills. Rare prodigies are in an elevated category considerably beyond the more common giftedness.

Frequently neglected are individuals whose musical ability is deficient according to common standards. A few people may be musically deficient to the point of being tone deaf. This deficiency is called amusia. Purportedly, 4% of the population suffers from it. It is due to insufficiency in neural networks governing musical aptitude. Musical “insufficiency” fits the realities of the normal distribution curve.      

As we graph larger and larger quantities of scores we come closer to a perfectly symmetrical bell shape. Statisticians use one, two, or three (or more) “standard deviations” (Greek letter sigma) on both sides of the mean. One standard deviation (s.d.) on both sides of the mean score includes approximately 68% of all scores (34% below, 34% above the mean). Two standard deviations on both sides of the mean includes about 95% of all scores. Three standard deviations on either side of the mean includes 99.72% of all scores—almost all of them. We see there are very few scores as high as three standard deviations above the mean, just as there are very few scores as low as three standard deviations below the mean. The highest extremes of musical ability occur at three standard deviations in half of 0.28% of the population—about one in 700 members of the population!

It is doubtful that one in 700 musicians in the normal population could be considered musical prodigies, even though they may be very capable musicians. More likely, prodigies would fall into the extreme positive range of the 0.28%—perhaps on the order of 0.028%, or even 0.0028%. This latter percentage figures to one prodigy per 70,000+ individuals.

Over two-thirds (68%) of the population falls within what may be termed an “average” performance level. Are they gifted? Depending on our criteria, some of them may be considered gifted. One more positive standard deviation now includes the most talented several percent of the human population. Are those positioned at two positive standard deviations gifted? By many more criteria, yes, they are gifted musicians. Add a third standard deviation and ask again: Are these people gifted? Most analysts would enthusiastically say, “Yes, exceptionally gifted.” A few may even be musical prodigies!

As a public school educator I was called upon to serve all of my clients spread out on the theorized bell curve. As Christian educators, we all wish to perceive our clients at the positive edge of the educational bell curve. As parents, however, and as servants of the Creator, we must serve the needs of the entire range of humanity, regardless of where they are located on the bell curve.

Realities of human life, including the reality of the normal distribution curve relating to so much of our experience, are worthy of our study. There is much potential for an effective and satisfying educational ministry to meet diverse human needs. We remind ourselves again of the plea of the Apostle James: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” James 1:6 (NIV).