doi:10.1038/nindia.2015.169 Published online 17 December 2015

The consciousness conundrum

Anil K. Rajvanshi

Chimpanzees are more intelligent than humans in some ways; and rats behave in similar fashion in both the real and virtual worlds. Interesting nuggets such as these came through at a recent conference discussing various facets of consciousness and cognition.

Chimpanzees can be taught to recognize numbers (1-20) in a sequence regardless of the order they are presented on a computer screen. These primates identify numbers way faster than humans, said Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University, Japan at the 4th international conference on Consciousness, Cognition and Culture: Implications for 21st Century” at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru (9-12 December 2015).

“Their working memory for numbers is vastly superior to humans,” he said. The awareness of reality and consciousness varies in different species and comparisons with humans may not be appropriate, Matsuzawa said showing results of his 37-year-long primate research.

Mayank Mehta of University of California at Los Angles works on how the brain thinks, which part of the brain reacts to different stimuli and how. By measuring the firing of individual neurons in rat brains, he and his team have shown that very few (order of 100) neurons were capable of creating a brain map of a maze. His research shows that rats use 60% less neurons while travelling in the virtual world than what they use while travelling on the same route in the real world. “This is a mystery and we don’t know why it is so,” he said.

The conference discussed the interesting issue of telepathic conversations. Rajesh Rao of the University of Washington, USA showed that humans can have a telepathic conversation with each other by using a brain-computer interface. Like Rao, many of the 23 papers presented at the 3-day meet addressed the question of the neural basis of perception of reality and consciousness.

Close to 180 participants at the conference heard talks ranging from neural basis of consciousness to art and emotion, consciousness in Indian philosophy, autism in children, auditory hallucinations in schizophrenic patients, the role of music in patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's Disease.

Other interesting issues discussed at the conference were modern physics and insights of classical traditions regarding reality, raising deep questions with which physicists have been grappling such as the origin of universe, quantum entanglement, time and consciousness and the “ultimate reality”. Practitioners of Vedanta, Buddhism, Jainism, yoga and Kashmir Shaivism also talked about their understanding of the traditional systems in the light of modern physics.