Consciousness Based on Wireless?
By Jeffrey Benner
2:00 a.m. May
21, 2002 PDT
Human consciousness is actually wireless communication between the cells of your brain, according to a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey in Great Britain.
Pulling together research from neuroscience, psychology, physics and biology, Johnjoe McFadden has proposed a radical answer to questions that have vexed philosophers and scientists since Plato's time and, more recently, those on a quest for artificial intelligence: What is consciousness? How does the brain create intelligent thoughts? Do we have free will?
If proven correct, McFadden's theory could turn philosophy on its head, revolutionize neuroscience, and bring us a step closer to creating lifelike artificial intelligence. "It gives a physical theory of consciousness that can be tested," he said. "If we can understand it, we can improve it, change it, and even create artificial consciousness."
McFadden, author of Quantum Evolution, argues that human consciousness is actually the brain's electromagnetic field interacting with its circuitry.
Nerve cells firing simultaneously create powerful waves in the field, which in turn cause other neurons to spark. In this way, the electromagnetic field works as a sort of wireless processor, combining the most important information from the hard wiring of the brain into a wireless signal, which is then transmitted back to the brain as conscious thought.
This "field effect," he said, is the piece of the puzzle artificial intelligence experts have missed. "Some have been saying that if computers are powerful enough, they'll become conscious, but it hasn't happened," McFadden said. "It's time they realize there's something missing. You have to design an artificial brain using field effects."
Bruce MacLennan, a computer science professor at the University of Tennessee, found McFadden's theory intriguing. An expert in neural nets -- circuits that mimic biological processes -- MacLennan has also been searching for the building blocks of human emotions and mental states in the circuitry of individual brain cells.
"It strikes me as very intriguing," MacLennan said. "He's gathered a lot of good evidence and support. His approach brings a new perspective to my work. It suggests we may be looking in the wrong place."
Published in the most recent issue of The Journal of Consciousness Studies, the theory (PDF) faces an uphill battle for acceptance among cognitive scientists. Scientific study of consciousness has only recently begun to gain acceptance as a legitimate scientific discipline, and some think field theories like McFadden's are pseudo-science that threaten their hard-worn legitimacy.
"No serious researcher I know believes in an electromagnetic theory of consciousness," Bernard Baars wrote in an e-mail. Baars is a neurobiologist and co-editor of Consciousness & Cognition, another scientific journal in the field. "It's not really worth talking about scientifically."
McFadden acknowledges that his theory -- which he calls the "cemi field theory" -- is far from proven but he argues that it is certainly a legitimate line of scientific inquiry. His article underwent peer review before publication. In fact, Baars is on the editorial board of the journal that published it.
"The cemi field theory is not idle speculation," McFadden said. "It is one of the few theories of consciousness that actually provides predictions that are scientifically testable."
McFadden's cemi field theory makes several predictions, some of which can be tested fairly easily. His assertion that the brain's electromagnetic field plays an active role in thinking means that outside electromagnetic fields should have an effect on our behavior.
Among the first criticisms of cemi field theory has been from those who say, if correct, it would mean radiation from cell phones and power lines messes with our minds. Aside from the fact that most people don't seem to trip out while talking on a cell phone, numerous studies launched to investigate the problem have failed to show electromagnetic fields have any effect on us at all.
But McFadden argues that these studies have also found that the reason cell phones don't affect us is that our skull and protective membranes effectively block the radiation. According to his calculations, the fields from these outside sources are far weaker than the brain's own natural electromagnetism.
Although controversial, some testing of the effect of strong magnetic fields on the brain has already been done by psychiatrists seeking to treat depression. The tests show that the fields can affect behavior.
Aside from artificial intelligence, if correct, the theory would revolutionize philosophy as well. Those who argue that the mind is of a different substance than the physical body -- we have a soul -- have been on the run in modern times, but McFadden's theory could bring this kind of dualism back into fashion.
Except in his version, our spirit is not the breath of God, but a wireless signal our brain sends to itself. "It restores dualism, but in a completely different way than Descartes envisioned it," McFadden said. Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, argued that the soul accessed the body through the pineal gland.