The Effort to Explain How the Brain Produces Consciousness Is Still a Mystery

The public will bet on almost anything. Scientists are also people, so there have been famous bets made between scientists over the years that have attracted the public’s attention.

A notable bet between Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon was embarrassing for Ehrlich. Ehrlich predicted in 1980 that commodities, or raw materials, would increase significantly over the next ten years. Simon claimed to be full of it, and he really was. Ehrlich had to pay $576.07 for the price that was reduced.

In 1998, Christof Koch, a neuroscientist, bet philosopher David Chalmers on the discovery of the way brain neurons produce consciousness by 2023.

Both scientists agreed, however, that answers to the question of human consciousness remain elusive. One of the biggest puzzles of humankind is still a mystery.

Is consciousness an electrochemical process between neurons, which we will eventually be able unravel? Is consciousness a philosophical issue that can only be resolved by gaining a better understanding of the metaphysical reality of our existence?

Neuroscientists naturally gravitate towards physical processes. Dr. Koch, for example, has spent 25 years studying these reactions. He has also been devoted to identifying the “bits and pieces of brain that are essential — really needed to generate a sense of seeing, hearing, or wanting,” he says.


Koch was optimistic that the mystery would be solved sooner than later because of certain technological advances. The fMRI, which measures the small changes in blood circulation that are caused by brain activity was a laboratory hit. Optogenetics, which allows scientists to stimulate certain sets of neurons within the brains nonhuman primates and other animals, was also a new phenomenon. Koch was a young Assistant Professor at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, at the time. “I was taken by all of these techniques,” says Koch. “I thought, in 25 years? “No problem.”

There are two hypotheses to consider: Is there a brain-centered center of consciousness, or does the entire brain produce what we call “consciousness?”

On Friday, the ASSC meeting revealed the results of one experiment that involved many researchers including Koch and Chalmers. The experiment tested two leading hypotheses, Integrated Information Theory (IIT) as well as Global Network Workspace Theory (GNWT). IIT suggests that consciousness is formed in the brain by a type of neuronal connection that is active as long as an experience is taking place, like looking at a picture. The posterior cortex is believed to contain this structure. GNWT, on the other hand suggests that consciousness is created when information is transmitted to brain areas through an interconnected system. According to the theory the transmission occurs at the start and end of a particular experience, and is mediated by the prefrontal cortex, located at the front of your brain.

The Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness made the findings public. Koch purchased a fine case of Portuguese wine as restitution for Chalmers’ loss. Koch replied that he would like to double his bet when asked whether he was willing to make another wager.

“I can’t wait more than 25 years because I am old.”