1997 - Consciousness at the Frontiers of Neurosciences

Conference Report on the 19th Symposium of the Centre de recherches en sciences neurologiques (Université de Montréal, May 5-6, 1997)
Published in Journal of Consciousness Studies Vol. 4, #5-6, 1997, p. 397-398.

The 19th Symposium of the Centre de recherches en sciences neurologiques of Université de Montréal, held on May 5 and 6, 1997, was a very interesting one. There were more than 350 participants although only about 100 had been expected. It was not meant to be a "mini-Tucson" conference, but this large attendance showed that consciousness studies increasingly raise interest and attention in many a field of scientific research.

The Symposium was dedicated to Dr. Herbert Jasper, well-known neurobiology pioneer, who ­ at age 90 and still very sharp-minded­ actively participated in the two-day event. A good demonstration that a constant intellectual questionning prevents sclerosis at all levels.

The outline of the Symposium programme was the same as the content of Jasper's 1954 book Brain Mecanisms and Consciousness. The story is told about this book that a few years after it was published, Jasper met Pope Paul VI who told to mind his own business, and not to cross the frontiers and impinge on the territory of religion.

The theme : "Consciousness at the Frontiers of Neurosciences", while enticing many philosophers, psychologists and psychiatrists to attend the Symposium, acknowledged the fact that there is a frontier ­ and therefore something beyond. The Symposium itself, however, was not meant to cross that frontier, but rather stayed within the stronghold of neurosciences and contended itself with a few forays to the outskirts.

Always enthusiastic, David Chalmers gave it a good start with his presentation of the background and the forefront of "the problem", trying to bridge ontology and epistemology. Suffice to say the "neurocorrelates of the consciousness zoo" were well received. As a counterpoint, Patricia Churchland, in control of her play as usual and in her mature and convicing way, made the transition to epistemology. Then followed a boon for neurobiologists, and a brain-racking for non-specialists, when we were shown where the game was at in neuro-anatomy and neurochemistry with Edward Jones, neurophysiology with Rodolfo Llinas, brain-mapping with Peter T. Fox, and "third generation phrenology" according to Roch Lecours in linguistics.

The second day presentations treated us with high points such as the "evolutionary perspective on conscious experience" by M. Gazzaniga, Jeffrey Grey's Comparator model, Benjamin Libet's questioning, David Hubel's reflexions on his own research, G. Tononi's cognitive approach to consciousness "as a process, not a thing". Finally, Christof Koch enthousiastically discussed neural correlates of consciousness, showing the difficulties of combining parallel brain processing with serial oral output.

The interest of the Symposium also lied in the fact that almost all speakers ­ along with other prominent researchers in the audience such as Stuart Hameroff, stayed around for the whole two days and raised the level of discussion with their questionsé A real treat!

The proceedings of this meeting should be published in Advances in Neurology in the course of 1998. It should include not only presentations but questions and answers as well. According to Paul Valery, "un problème bien posé est déjà à moitié résolu" (a question well asked is already half-solved) and the problem, says David Hubel, is that it takes time to ask the right question, more than ten years in his own research setup. So watch for these proceedings : the questions left unanswered were what made this Symposium so stimulating.

On a more personal note, this Symposium confirmed me in the belief that advances and discoveries in neurosciences depend largely on available technology, and advances in technology are likely to bring surprising developments in consciousness studies and research. The EEG showed us the electrical activity of neurones; after that, the arrival of MEG allowed the discovery of the 40hz oscillation of magnetic brain field; then MRI proved that the cells can produce radio signals in some artificial setup and possibly spontaneously; and finally the PET results imply the nagging question of the primary role of the blood vessels prior to neuronal activity in consciousness.

My guess is when gravitational waves detection technology will become available, it may very well radically change the landscape of neurobiology and consciousness research. How so? By pointing to an important role for mesodermic organs (as opposed to ectodermic neurons alone), for a more complete embodiment of consciousness.

© Jean Ratte