The New Science of Consciousness

What can complexity science tell us about consciousness?

Posted Jan 24, 2017

Like most neuroscientists my professional life has been focused on the “easy problem” of consciousness—exploring experimental relationships between brain and mind activity, the so-called consciousness correlates or signatures of consciousness revealed with experimental measures like electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). But, let’s be clear—such scientific efforts fall far short of adequately addressing the deep mystery of consciousness itself, the famous “hard problem” that has perplexed scientists and philosophers for at least several centuries.

Attitudes towards the hard problem, expressed by both scientists and non-scientists, cover a broad range. At one extreme is the claim that no hard problem actually exists; the brain creates the mind, end of story. At the other end of the spectrum, consciousness is believed to be far too mysterious for science to deal with; perhaps the issue should be left to philosophy or religion. Here we explore a middle ground, suggesting that the new science of complexity provides us with interesting new insights into the deep mystery of consciousness. We can strongly support science as our handy “BS detector,” but at the same time reject extreme versions of scientism that place science at the pinnacle of human knowledge and experience, necessarily taking primacy over ethics, philosophy, religion, and humanistic views. By adopting this viewpoint, one may argue that complexity science comfortably accommodates the apparently contrasting views of materialism (mind emerges from the physical properties of brain) and dualism (the mental and physical represent distinct aspects of reality).

But, just what is complexity science? Complexity science employs novel cross-disciplinary partnerships between subfields like ecology, economics, information science, physics, sociology, and more. Complexity science investigates how relationships between the small parts of some entity give rise to the collective behavior of large-scale systems, and how these emergent global systems interact and form relationships with lower levels of organization and with the surrounding environment.

Many seem to agree that brains are genuine complex systems; so perhaps you ask why I bother to state the obvious. In reply, I argue that many neuroscientists, while paying lip service to complexity, often employ implicit assumptions that brains are actually simple. In contrast to such “simple views,” plausible assumptions about the underlying causes for various healthy and disease states are suggested by analogies to other complex systems that are better understood and more easily visualized, for example human and animal social systems. Human social networks interact with each other in many complex ways; they are also embedded within larger cultures that act top-down on the local networks. More generally, the profound idea of top-down influences across multiple levels of organization (spatial scales) applies to many areas of complexity science as well as to our everyday lives.

Paul Nunez
Source: Paul Nunez

One can contrast the new approach of complexity science with the scientific position of strong reductionism, which mostly discounts the top-down influence of emergent systems on smaller systems. Reductionism is nicely illustrated by the great man theory in which history is explained by the impact of influential individuals who, due to charisma, wisdom, money, or political skills, employed their influence (bottom-up) in a manner that provided decisive large-scale historical impacts. The counter-argument, more consistent with complexity science, holds that such great men are products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the existing social and political conditions acting top-down. Wars, religions, and national economic and political policies are large-scale phenomena that act top-down on individuals at small scales, who then act bottom-up on the larger scales, as in the prominent examples of Jesus, Darwin, Marx, Einstein, and Hitler. Modern complexity science explicitly recognizes such circular causality; that is, interactions across multiple levels of organization in both directions. The brain’s neural networks, which can form nested hierarchies at multiple spatial scales, may act in an analogous manner to produce various conscious, pre-conscious, and unconscious processes. In future blogs I will link complexity science more closely to mind-brain interactions.


Danielle S. Bassett and Michael S. Gazzaniga, “Understanding Complexity in the Human Brain,” Trends in Cognitive Science 15 (2011): 200-209.

Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

Karl J. Friston, Giulio Tononi, Olaf Sporns, and Gerald. M. Edelman, “Characterizing the Complexity of Neuronal Interactions,” Human Brain Mapping 3 (1995): 302–314.

Paul L. Nunez, Neocortical Dynamics and Human EEG Rhythms (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Paul L. Nunez, Brain, Mind, and the Structure of Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Paul L. Nunez, The New Science of Consciousness: Exploring the Complexity of Brain, Mind, and Self (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2016).

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