Gustav Bernroider is leading a research unit for Neurosignaling and Neurodynamics in the Department for Organismic Biology, University of Salzburg, Austria. His research focuses on neural correlates of higher level brain functions, such as conscious perceptive states, cognition and emotions. His work integrates theoretical, physical, modellistic and empirical research within the field of behavioral and comparative neurobiology and comparative cognition. Gustav Bernroider has organized several international conferences and workshops related to consciousness research and the mind-brain interface (e.g. Quantum-Mind 2007, Salzburg) . His main working hypothesis assumes that consciousness is a purely perceptive property that is based on multiple-scaled transition dynamics ranging from atomic to classical states, hosted by membrane channel proteins and organized along the sensory-motory segregation pattern in the brain. His more recent behavioural work is summarized in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35, 2009-2016 (2011).
How can the phenomena behind conscious experience become integrated with a physical description in brain science? Although once controversial, it is becoming increasingly accepted that essential progress in cognitive neuroscience cannot avoid the central question on how the phenomenology of subjective experience is connected with the physical analysis of brain processes. In this presentation I first outline the three routes that need to be combined when addressing fine grained correlates of brain states that can possibly qualify as unique signatures for the subjective states of an agent. First, we have the functional anatomy of brains ranging from cellular to molecular, sub-molecular and quantum-chemical levels of neural organizations. The ‘neuronal specificity’ behind this aspect can quite generally be found within the ‘synaptomics’ of neuronal connections. Particular features behind the complexity of synaptomics can now be successfully attributed to various dissociations of the states of consciousness. For example, the intact presence of top-down recurrent connections in higher order associative cortex has recently been shown to be indispensible for the presence of conscious perception (e.g. Boly, et al., Science, 332, 2011). The second aspect involves the electrical signaling pattern of the brain. Here again several unique properties can dissociate conscious states (e.g. large scaled synchronizations of potentials and small scaled, de-correlations during awake states, e.g. Ecker et al., Science, 327, 2010, or reproducibility of activation patterns in response to sensory stimuli, Schurger et al., Science 327, 2010 and cyclic recurring brain events, Madl et al., Plos ONE, 6,4,2011). Finally, we can discern a distinctive class of behaviors and motory expressions in men and animals that clearly point to the presence of conscious perceptive states and propositional learning behaviors (e.g. reviewed by Bernroider & Panksepp, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35, 2009-2016 (2011)).
Despite of this progress in identifying brain characteristics that can discriminate different states of experience ranging from vegetative states to minimally and fully conscious states and despite of the picture that emerges from these studies, one essential question remains unanswered: what precisely is the mechanism that is different in states of experience that either come along with ‘how it feels to have this experience’ or are not associated with any phenomenal and purely subjective quality ? Can we ‘fine-grain’ the list of necessary properties for the presence of conscious experience up to the extent that we may finally agree on a sufficient explanation and extend this explanation to the challenging world of individual variations and psychopathology ?
‘Experience’ goes beyond data processing. I therefore advocate the view that a sufficient explanation for the phenomena of experience, if purely framed within the corset of objectivism and strict physicalism cannot really be expected. Physics deals with the states of systems. It is rather blind to the transitions between these states. Transitions are only inferential in physics (assumed causal connectivities between states). My own conjecture, based on an extensive list of necessary properties behind multiple scaled ‘brain-states’ is, that there is a particular class of transitions between these states, setting out from the quantum scale and organized over a large range of physical dimensions, that carries the phenomenal quality of experience. Adopting a more ‘constructivistic view’ in neurobiology may eventually allow us to discern this class of (physical ) state successions with transients that shift the preconscious and subliminal domain of experience into the states of consciously ‘being like something’.