Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Can lab-grown brains have "consciousness"?

Sara Chodosh (popsci.com, 4/26/18); Dhr. Seven, Pat Macpherson (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly

A bulbous human brain in a jar, dead utterly dead and inert (Kaushik Narasimhan)
As our ability to create organs expands, ethical questions come into play
There are lots of reasons one might want to grow brains. For starters, they would allow humans to study human neurological issues in detail, which is otherwise quite challenging to do.

Neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s have devastated millions of people, and brains in a jar (so to speak) could allow us to study disease progression and test potential [herbs, interventions, and if worse comes to worst, toxic-allopathic] medications.
The prospect of a lab-grown brain is so compelling that the authors of an editorial in Nature published this week wrote:

“The promise of brain surrogates is such that abandoning them seems itself unethical, given the vast amount of human suffering caused by neurological and psychiatric disorders, and given that most therapies for these diseases developed in animal models fail to work in people.”
But there’s a problem. The closer we get to growing a full human brain, the more ethically risky it becomes....

A pickled brain in a saline solution
Given how tantalizing -- and [potentially] genuinely beneficial -- the promise of lab-grown brains is, they [the writers of the editorial] write that we can almost be certain that we will, at some point, grow a whole brain. We’re far from that point.

All we can do now is grow clumps of brain cells -- but now is the time to consider the ethics. The authors advocate for careful consideration by lawmakers, bioethicists, researchers, and any other experts who’ll have a say.
Buddha's Brain (Rick Hanson)
And there’s one more group who should be thinking about these issues: all of us. Yes, us, the readers of this piece, should start rolling these ideas in our minds. We may not have the power to directly influence policy about brain research (or who knows, maybe we do), but these policies will be public policies.

They will influence the kind of research our government institutions are allowed to carry out. Our tax dollars will fund that research. Think about it now, before it matters.
The editorial itself raises a number of hugely important issues: How would you dispose of a living bit of brain? Who has ownership of the brain bits if the cells come from a donor? But non-neurologists tend to leap to one big question in particular: More
When would a brain to be its own person?
 Dhr. Seven, Ashley Wells, Amber Larson, Pat Macpherson (COMMENTARY)
We might also ask the more provocative, Can robots ever have "consciousness"?

Unraveling Mind & Body thru Abhidhamma
The physical "seat of consciousness" is probably distributed. It is spread throughout our holographic body, with each cell and its DNA participating. But the Buddha and ancient texts were careful never to specify the exact location.

However, the commentary as embodied in the Abhidharma ("the Dharma in Ultimate Terms") does specify. That seat is in the area of the heart (hrdraya). Here resides what is called the "mind door."

If emerging from meditative-absorption (jhana, dhyana, zen, chan, seon, thien), which is temporarily purifying, one turns attention between the ears where the brain is, one will see nothing!

But if attention is redirected to the area just above the heart, one will see a green reflective surface that "mirrors" the mind. This is the mind door. Consciousness is seated here. It is really, according to at least one great living Buddhist master and enlightened scholar-monk, in the blood.

Now that's how a whole brain really looks!
Realizing that it is in the blood passing through this spot in the heart is crucial. Self-consciousness (one's own six senses) are not in one spot but in the interaction of one spot and the blood that pervades the entire body down into the marrow of the bones.

This understanding solves the obvious problem of logically deducing (from insufficient information) that if consciousness really resided in or around the heart, a heart transplant would cause a shift in consciousness. Which, of course, it partly does.

Not every memory comes over from the heart donor in a transplant, just some. (It could be supposed that a hand, face, or other organ transplant would have a similar though less powerful affect on a person's consciousness).

The brain continues down the spinal cord
Where are neurons in the human body? We think the answer is in the brain, particularly the cortex and neocortex. But there are many, many neurons in the lining of the gut and in the heart. The whole human body is conscious. Why do brain scientists foolishly stick electrodes in living brains of conscious subjects and, with the stimulation of a vivid memory, jump to the false conclusion that all memories therefore reside in the brain?

Why in the world do they not take those same electrodes to the gut and heart, to the neurons in these locations, to see the exact same thing happen? The brain is important, almost as important as the spinal column. How big is the brain? The real answer is that it extends from the crown of the head to the base of the spine and the long nerves the emanate from the spinal column, the sciatic nerve and such.

Cap detects brain activity (MARC.ucla.edu)
Now, as to the question at hand, would organized brain cells in a jar have consciousness? Yes, probably, but not the sort of fully formed consciousness a whole body would have. Buddhism recognizes six general senses (and science now realizes there are many more than five such as proprioception, etc.), the sixth being mind.

A tactile sense reaction, like burning the hand, bypasses the brain. It goes from the hand to the spinal cord back to the hand to pull away, then the brain comes into consciousness about what just happened. Therefore, in a very real sense, there is "consciousness" in the body without the bulbous end of the brain at the top of the spinal cord or what we call "the brain."

The brain stem, the "reptilian brain," are all still the brain. And some suffering from microencephaly (little to no brain matter between the ears) can go about and graduate from college and never know. Our sense of "self" and our ability to be conscious is not fully brain-dependent. The brain is a part of it, not the whole story.

What are "consciousness" and "mind"? Buddhism knows. Read about it in Unravelling the Mysteries of Mind & Body Through Abhidhamma by Sayalay Susila, edited by Dhr. Seven.
If a hand is grown in a jar and stimulated, it is likely to twitch. Is someone somewhere twitching? We don't even ask. Think of all those discarnate frog's legs in lab doing liminal and subliminal testing. Is any being feeling those electrical impulses and reflexive jerks? In a sense, yes. Where is that consciousness without a frog "brain"?

Maybe there are a few neurons around, or neuronal bodies, ganglia, synapses, "nerve wires," all of which play their part in our embodied consciousness. And when we die, when there's no working body (as measured by EEG and heart monitors), we are perfectly conscious and aware. Ask a NDE survivor. How did that happen?

Dr. Jill Bolte had a stroke of insight (TED).
"Consciousness" (cittas and cetasikas or "mind moments and the concomitants of consciousness") are interdependent with this body not fully dependent on it, for there are other more subtle bodies here unseen (astral, etc.), at least in seven sheaths of subtle bodies. And the subtle light-body of "spontaneously-born" (opapatika) beings, which is what we'll have from the first moment of death, has that interdependence on mind when this dense body no longer serves that function.

It's complicated, and we'll have to return to this topic when scientists announce that they've been growing brains and callously disposing of them for a long time just as they grown in vitro humans without telling anyone for the ethics firestorm it would ignite.

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