Brain, Mind & Consciousness
Department Editor: Dr Todd Feinberg
Dr Feinberg, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry & Neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, is our Department Editor of “Brain, Mind & Consciousness” – exploring the latest research and thoughts on consciousness.
You can contact Dr Feinberg in relation to articles and submissions at [email protected]
If you are interested in submitting material for this department please consult our submissions guidelines.
Dr Feinberg on the Self & Consciousness:
I believe that the reason for our current lack of understanding of the relationship between consciousnesss, the self and the brain is that we have not paid sufficient attention to the hierarchical arrangement of the nervous system. Nervous systems have evolved toward the creation of a hierarchy of brain structures of ever increasing complexity and abstractness, and by understanding the nature of these hierarchies many mysteries about the self and consciousness may be resolved. The functioning of the nervous system can be understood as the result of the two great developmental trends, a medial-lateral trend in which the nervous system expands from its center outward, like the growth of rings of a tree, and a caudal-rostral trend that results in the hierarchical growth of later-developing and more complex neurological sructures upon those with more simple and basic organization and function. Progressive growth under the influence of the medial-lateral trend in both evolution and in the course of development of the individual gives rise to an interoself system that is primarily involved with the internal milieu and homeostatic needs of the organism, and an exterosensorimotor system that is primarily concerned with organism’s interactions with the environment. A third system – the integrative self system – serves to assimilate the interoself systems with the extero systems, and integrate the organism’s internal needs with the external environment. It is within the integrative self system that the most advanced aspects of the self and those we consider the most characteristic of the human individual take center stage.
I use the basic hierarchical neural architecture of the self to examine some of the fundamental scientific enigmas of our era, such as how the brain maintains mental unity, and the unique design features displayed by the brain that make the self and consciousness possible. I suggest that it is through a deeper understanding of the nature of neural hierarchies that the biological basis of the wholeness of self and consciousness can be explained. This hypothesis leads to a solution for what is commonly known as the mind body problem – why consciousness and the self seem so different in form and function from the material brain.
I present what I call the Nested Hierarchy Theory of Consciousness (NHTC) as a way to explain these unique and perplexing problems regarding the relationship between the brain and consciousness. My analysis leads naturally to the conclusion that we must conceive of our personal consciousness as a process. We generally conceive of ourselves as discrete entitities – things – and that is certainly true to an extent. We have material bodies that include material brains, things that can be weighed and measured, touched and divided. But here I will present my belief that many of our commonsense notions of what we are as selves are misguided, and the true nature of the self, as others have suggested before me, is not what the brain is, but what it does. The self – what you may think of as “you” – is an ever-changing process that cannot be located in any specific physical component of the brain itself. It is only by appreciating this dynamic that we can understand how we progress from axons to identity.