The brain’s ‘on-off switch’ for human consciousness is even more intriguing than we thought

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However, things are more complicated than that. There’s some evidence that the hallucinogenic drug known as salvia may work partially by affecting the claustrum — specifically, inhibition of the kappa-opioid receptors that are so common on its surface. Due to the impossibility of feeding college kids salvia in an ethics-approved study, the academic literature on this is based largely on the self-submitted trip-out reports on sites like Erowid.

If the claustrum does play some large-scale coordinating role in the brain, that could explain why salvia can cause the brain to interpret visual information in such bizarre ways — the parts of the brain that are good at visual tasks aren’t being properly engaged to actually do them. And it might also explain why it’s possible for someone with a damaged or inhibited claustum to receive visual information through the optic nerve, but not consciously see that visual information with the higher brain and snap back to reality.

Francis Crick (of Watson and Crick fame) spent much of his career pushing for continued study of the claustrum, which he believed was the seat of consciousness. We now know that’s not true — people can be quite conscious with their claustrum partially or entirely destroyed. But it may be to be one of the crucial elements in taking the many powerful but limited portions of the brain, and letting them complement each other’s abilities. It’s been called the conductor of the brain’s orchestra.

As scientists begin to understand these systems-level structures in the brain, our understanding of concepts like attention, memory, and perception could change dramatically. And with them, concepts like intention, self-awareness, and self.

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