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The Conundrum of Consciousness

Baby Sherlock Holmes tries to determine if he's attained consciousness yet.

Lambert/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This section might just "blow your mind," to use a common expression. But do you even have a mind? Scientists don't know where the brain ends and the mind begins. Are they the same thing? What about souls? Are these located in our brains? What is responsible for all of the unique thoughts and feelings that make us who we are? Everyone from philosophers to physicists has taken up this question of consciousness and come up empty.

For a long time, the study of consciousness was considered too far out to study. How do you scientifically study something so subjective? How can what one person feels become something that another person can quantify? But now, in their relentless pursuit to understand every single thing about the world, scientists are trying to figure out what exactly is going on with consciousness.

Though deep metaphysical questions about the nature of a soul, a mind and brain leave questions as to whether this issue is in the realm of scientists, the brain is likely involved in some way with our conscious thoughts. With the help of brain imaging, scientists can watch different parts of the brain light up, and they know they can alter the brain and our consciousness with surgeries or chemicals [sources: Eagleman, Pinker]. But what scientists don't know is at what stage of the process a firing neuron becomes a conscious thought. The things that make up consciousness may be scattered all over the brain, with different cranial parts responsible for different pieces of a person. But, as we've mentioned, there are tons of other brain mysteries about how these parts might work together.

Scientists are also trying to figure out the relationship between conscious and unconscious experiences. There are some things -- like breathing and maintaining a regular heart beat -- that we don't have to think about. How are these unconscious actions wired differently than the conscious ones? Is there any difference at all? We like to think we make our own decisions, but one recent study shows that we may not even do that. This study found that by using brain scanners, researchers could predict how a person was going to act a full seven seconds before the person knew that a decision had been made [source Keim]. Our consciousness might just be an illusion.

It's possible that something like free will could enter into the equation at the last possible moment, overriding the decision made by the brain. The researchers in the study also admitted that this test was best suited to a simple laboratory test that involved pushing a button, as opposed to a more important decision like taking a job [source: Keim].

Will we ever solve these brain mysteries? Who knows -- our instrument for doing so is the very one we're trying to figure out. But you could start combing the scene for overlooked clues by reading the stories and links on the next page.

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