"RealDream" at the Clocktower © 1975 Collette

Colette, a New York based multimedia artist, says her intrigue with sleep began during her childhood in Europe. Fairytales depicting drugged, sedated, cursed, enchanted, or charmed sleepers had a tremendous influence on her. By the 1970s, Colette was creating large sculptural room environments in which she performed the act of sleep. “When entering one of my installations,” she says, “the room is entirely covered with soft ruched fabrics. The material is embedded with lights, mirrors, and sound and sometimes smells. I would be reclining, with eyes closed, as the central element.” 

In 1977, I viewed one of Colette’s sleeping rooms, what she calls a landscape, in Washington, D.C. I walked over to the entrance of her painstakingly crafted silken womb of pale pastels. I looked in.

She was prone, relaxed, breathing slowly, with eyes shut. Being the only one in the gallery, I told Colette the coast was clear to say hello. I called her name, “Colette!” After repeated attempts to get her attention, I wondered about her conscious state, but despite my worry she didn’t break her sleeping performance. Most all of us have also faked sleep at some time or another and know what it takes to do it convincingly even for a short time.

As a viewer, I found studying the sleeping Colette fully engaging, I was reminded that the workings of the mind, its thoughts, memories, and perceptions could be unobservable to the naked eye. We can’t always know that someone can feel and experience, or if they have inner mental life.

How do we know if there is somebody in there?

Neuroscientists are among a widening circle of international researchers who are working to unlock the mysteries of consciousness by studying the brain structures, its specific neural correlates, and the biochemical properties that support consciousness, making this internal world visible. And like artists, they mine self-awareness in their pursuit to understand it.

In the 1990s, the neuroscientist Christophe Koch, now the Chief Scientific Officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and the famed biophysicist and neuroscientist Francis Crick, directed their research toward seeing the brain in action with neuro-imaging technology to understand its neuroanatomical functioning. They studied the footprints of the neural correlates of consciousness and tracked the minimal bioelectrical activity needed to give rise to a specific conscious precept. The idea is that every action, thought, and experience has a neural pattern that can be seen with this new imaging technology. When a person becomes comatose or locked-in, it is only through CAT scans, MRI, fMRI, PET, TES, TCM, DBS scans and EEGs that scientists and medical professionals can best assess and understand the patient’s level of consciousness. This same noninvasive brain-imaging technology, along with newer invasive instruments, is helping neuroscientists to study the brain’s electrical signals and patterns in action and construct an empirical framework for the nature of consciousness.

For the scientist Gerald Edelman, a 1972 Nobel laureate and director of the Neuroscience Institute, the uniqueness of each person’s consciousness is due to the structure of the brain’s wiring—what he calls “neuronal group selection.” The way the neurons form groups and fire in units or patterns has led Edelman to see the brain as primarily a pattern recognition device as opposed to functioning like a computer. A theory of how matter becomes imagination was the goal for Eldeman’s work with Guilio Tononi by using the technology to identify the brain waves that correlate with a specific conscious experience. The overview is that when an interconnected group of neurons fire together they represent a word, a thought fragment, a feeling, or an unconscious brain activity, which changes the internal environment of the brain, producing thoughts and behavior.

Since then, Guilio Tononi, now a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at the Center for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin, has been working on his Integrated Information Theory (IIT), a computational view of the mind/brain with consciousness as a property of its physical system. The new consciousness science works off developments in neuro-modeling and scientific analysis to form a computational theory of mind. He focuses on the brain as an information processing system that continually acquires and merges information—experiences called qualia. He has found that when it comes to these systems, complexity is a good thing. Experiments mapping the correlations between neural, mental, and behavioral states show that the amount of integrated information in the brain equals the level of consciousness one has, what Tononi calls phi. Subjective sensory experience of a stimulus is a state of the formation of integrated neural information—a set of networks where parts of the brain, each with their function, work together as a dynamic system.

Tononi has found that in deep sleep or when under general anesthesia, two states where the brain becomes completely unconscious, the brain’s regions become fragmented. Its parts can’t talk and memories aren’t cross-linked to new experiences. Again, he has confirmed that the quality of states of consciousness equals the brain’s integration or specific circuit complexity. It is not enough to acquire qualia; conscious sensation and perception must be fully integrated or merged into the reservoir of experience for full consciousness. Consciousness, as an emergent property of a complex system, is still not defined by the computational brain paradigm. The plan is to take what can be known about real brains over into virtual ones, translating neuronal behavior into mathematic algorithms.

MIT cosmologist, Max Tegmark is thinking about consciousness from a physics point of view. He has proposed that consciousness is another state of matter, like gas, liquid, or a solid, hypothesizing that memory must be written in matter that has a long-lived, enduring state.

The same mysteries of consciousness that surrounded our childhood concerns for sleeping princesses like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, haunt and elude us all today. Neuroscientists are called upon to answer questions about these real-life conditions where consciousness has become impaired. It is these dilemmas of life and consciousness that push them forward. The challenge for determining treatment of such people rests in their ability to ascertain the level of brain function and thus the potential for recovery. Real life comas often involve difficult decisions for medical professionals and family members. At what point does a person not exist?

Marcello Massimini at the University of Milan along with Tononi and other colleagues have developed a way to assess a patient’s mental state by stimulating the brain with an electromagnetic pulse and measuring the response using transcranial magnetic stimulation and electroencephalography (TMS/EEG). They can quantify cortical EEG responses and TMS responses in people who can no longer communicate, due to severe brain injuries, to reveal what they are thinking.

For Colette, who strongly believes in the power of the unconscious mind in artistic endeavors, the special ability to mimic sleep became a language of self-expression: “The experience of posing to be asleep in my installations can best be described as a meditation. Sometimes, I experienced it as a sort of trance. It can be very intense since my eyes are closed.” What was hidden from the act of looking at her was the fact that she perceived herself in a state of expanded awareness, without ego boundaries between her and the environment. That’s the difficulty with perceiving consciousness in others without conscious communication—it’s the difficulty in art and life. There was no way to really know her inner mental life. I could not feel what she feels or know what is going on in her mind by observing her. There is no other behavior to read besides her resting body; however this is the art, the communication, the meaning: a process that gives rise to thoughts regarding conditions of universal human consciousness as well as other realities we may have previously chosen to ignore. But science may be changing that.

Is consciousness only an innate feature of biology as Ned Block claims or also an achievement of cultural evolution or a social construct related to language as Julian Jaynes posited? Noam Chomsky tells us that when you look at the structured expression language of humans, you know that each of us has an internalized computational system. Springing from its philosophical foundations, this new science of consciousness is focused on discovering the unsolved realms of how consciousness arises.

In a discussion about sleep, Colette said, “What I have observed and found most interesting is that you could have your eyes wide open and in fact be sleeping or vice versa.” Would I have found her sleep performance even more perplexing had her eyes been open, and acknowledging? Could she be in a state of introspection and reflection then? Even though consciousness can exist in the brain even when a person can’t interact and communicate with the external world, Rita Carter tells us in Mapping The Mind that, “People can have their conscious mind totally destroyed, yet their eyes will still scan the room and lock on to and track a moving object. The eye movements are triggered by the brainstem and are no more significant of consciousness than the turning of a flower to the sun. Yet even when you know this, it is deeply disturbing to have your movements followed by the eyes of a person you know is for all intents and purposes dead.”

“In the end”, as Giulio Tononi has said, “consciousness is all that matters. It is all we are and all we have: lose consciousness and, as far as you are concerned, your own self and the entire world dissolves into nothingness.”

2014 © Gayil Nalls, All rights reserved.

About the Author

Gayil Nalls Ph.D.

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.

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