Brain’s active life is no grey matter
THOUGHTS about the nature of consciousness keep Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield awake at night.
The Oxford University neuroscientist is developing a new theory of consciousness, based on the discovery in the laboratory of “ripples in the brain”, or neuronal assemblies.
“A neuronal assembly is a transient coalition of millions of brain cells that are recruited to work together and disband in less than a second,” she said.
“Momentary living fires them up. It doesn’t have to be a thought – it could be an alarm clock, for example, that recruits a large number of brain cells sufficient for consciousness.”
She describes these neuronal assemblies as a kind of Rosetta stone that humans need to be able to talk about consciousness both “subjectively and objectively”. While she hasn’t solved the problem, she feels we now have a “neural correlate of consciousness” that helps us look for the answers.
“The more you think about it, it does drive you mad actually,” she said.
Her next book, A Day in the Life of the Brain, due for release next September, updates her 2001 bestseller The Private Life of the Brain.
“Penguin approached me because now we’re 15 years on and I’ve got a lot more hard evidence, whereas Private Life of the Brain was based on theory, really, and ideas,” she said.
“This, now, 15 years on, we’ve been very fortunate to implement these ideas with hard experiments from both myself and other labs.”
The new book follows activity in the brain through a contrived “day” – from sleeping to waking, breakfast, walking the dog, going to the office, coming home (to a wife with depression, a child with ADHD and grandma with dementia), then listening to music, going to bed and dreaming. The former Adelaide Thinker in Residence (2004-05) was back in town to celebrate the 10th birthday of the Australian Science Media Centre and check on progress at the RiAus. Both organisations were formed in response to her residency.
Baroness Greenfield said she was “really pleased” the Australian centre worked so well. She said it was one of her earliest ideas for ways to help science escape from the “ivory tower”.