The essence of consciousness and ways to appreciate it while it lasts

Unraveling the emergence of consciousness from specific configurations of organic matter has captivated scientists and philosophers for centuries. Today, with AI systems exhibiting remarkably conscious-like behaviors, understanding what and who can experience consciousness is more crucial than ever. In his book “Then I Am Myself the World,” Christof Koch argues that our intimate familiarity with the subjective experience of life demands explanation. As a physicist and neuroscientist, Koch has dedicated his career to locating the neural basis of consciousness, focusing on the posterior hot zone of the neocortex. This region, densely interconnected with neurons in looped configurations, plays a critical role in self-awareness and sensory experiences like sound, sight, and touch. According to Koch, this intricate feedback loop is the cornerstone of consciousness.

In the hot zone

According to integrated information theory (IIT), which Christof Koch strongly supports over other theories of consciousness, the key to subjective experience lies in a system’s ability to influence itself—using its past state to affect its present and its present to shape its future. Koch argues that the cerebellum, despite its billions of neurons, lacks the necessary self-influencing loops found in the neocortex to generate consciousness. Conversely, the neocortex, with its reverberatory, self-sustaining excitatory loops, provides the foundation for subjective experience.

Experimental evidence, as Koch presents in Chapter 6, supports this view: injuries to the cerebellum do not eliminate self-awareness, whereas damage to the neocortex’s posterior hot zone alters how individuals perceive and describe sensory information. Koch acknowledges that current artificial computer systems, with their limited connectivity compared to the human brain, are not capable of consciousness, despite exhibiting sophisticated behaviors.

Koch’s exposition of IIT and his lucid neuroscientific explanations are compelling, even for staunch physicalists. His narrative is enriched by references to philosophers, writers, musicians, and psychologists, making complex concepts more relatable. For instance, he introduces the idea of phenomenology—the subjective experience of an event—with a quote from Eminem: “I can’t tell you what it really is, I can only tell you what it feels like.”

Going beyond consciousness’ limits

The first half of “Then I Am Myself the World” posits that integrated information theory (IIT) may provide the best explanation for consciousness, despite being contested by many neuroscientists. Koch emphasizes the potential for humans to enhance and transform their consciousness, advocating for a life filled with illumination rather than settling for semi-darkness.

In the second half, Koch explores transformative states like near-death, psychedelic, and mystical experiences, as well as the transformative benefits of sustained exercise. He delves into the concept of “the flow,” where one experiences complete engagement with the world and minimal self-awareness, akin to direct awareness.

Koch discusses how meditation and psychoactive substances like psilocybin can quiet the brain’s posterior hot zones, leading to experiences of calm and immediate awareness. He suggests these practices can foster a deeper connection to life’s direct experiences, enhancing well-being.

Overall, “Then I Am Myself the World” offers a comprehensive introduction to brain states, consciousness, and transformative experiences. Koch’s personal journey adds depth, underscoring the human quest to expand and appreciate conscious life to the fullest.