I am, therefore I think ...

The black dots correspond to the 264 areas of the cerebral cortex that the researchers probed, and the lines correspond to the increased strength of the functional connections between each of these brain areas when subjects consciously perceive the target. The "hotter" colors are associated with stronger connections. This figure illustrates that awareness of the target corresponds to widespread increase in the strength of functional connections. Credits: Marois / Godwin

Cogito, ergo sum.  I couldn't help but remember René Descartes famous "I think, therefore I am" when I read the hypotheses formulated by researchers at Vanderbilt University about awareness and consciousness.

Reading their research results made me think (no pun intended) that our thinking is nothing but an emergent property of the communications going on in our brain.

Their result, in a way, contradicts the hypotheses that a few brain areas are responsible for awareness, which in a way is tied to thinking. When you, I, think, you feel as if this process is taking place in a separate space from your body, hence the duality between mind and bodies that permeates most cultures since ancient times.

What scientists have proved is that our thinking is just a consequence of the working of our brain.  So far the belief was that the activation of a few areas, located in the grey matter (the outer part of the brain), was responsible for this. 

What the researchers at Vanderbilt are saying with their experiments is that there is no specific area, nor in the grey nor in the white matter, that is actually "in charge" for awareness. By observing the communications taking place inside the brains of several people who agreed to be tested the researchers have been able to show that awareness seems to be the result of the engagement of a multitude of parts of the brain, it is the fact that these parte get tied with one another in communications that results in awareness and what we call thinking. I am (my brain is connected in a certain way), therefore I think!

What captured my interest in reading the news is, also, the approach they have taken in looking at the communications taking place in the brain. They have used the math of graphs to study the nodes, their interconnections and the networks/subnetworks structures. Whilst the brain appears to be structured into almost vertical networks (in terms of functionality), one dedicated to visual recognition, another to language understanding, another to movements...it seems that awareness arises only when all of these networks get tied one another. It is the whole that creates the thinking and the awareness of thinking, not the single parts. This is also in line with the hypotheses that we are moving from one state to another and it is this state evolution that creates the thinking.  In a brain it is not possibile to separate storage from processing, nor subsequent steps of execution. All is present at the same time. A partial, but wonderful example is the way we read a text. We capture the whole and reassemble the letters in the order in which they make sense.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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