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Mind Control: Brain's On-Off Switch for Consciousness Discovered During Experiment -- Self-Awareness, Sentience — Turned Off & On

When the claustrum was stimulated, the woman just stopped whatever she was doing (speaking, reading, moving) and stared blankly into space; when stimulation was removed, she continued as normal with no recollection of what had just happened.


By Sebastian Anthony
Researchers at George Washington University are reporting that they’ve discovered the human consciousness on-off switch, deep within the brain. When this region of the brain, called the claustrum, is electrically stimulated, consciousness — self-awareness, sentience, whatever you want to call it — appears to turn off completely. When the stimulation is removed, consciousness returns. The claustrum seems to bind together all of our senses, perceptions, and computations into single, cohesive experience. This could have massive repercussions for people currently in a minimally conscious state (i.e. a coma), and for deciding once and for all which organisms are actually conscious. Are monkeys conscious? Cats and dogs? A fetus?

(Click to see full-sized image)
The claustrum, below the neocortex, in a human brain
When it comes to human consciousness, much like the rest of our brain’s operation, there isn’t a whole lot in the way of actual scientific knowledge. Despite a century of “modern” neuroscience, we still only have a rough sketch of how the human brain works. Most theories, though, generally agree that consciousness is probably created by a part of the brain that integrates activity from different regions of the brain into a single, holistic experience. To put it in (very loose) computing terms, this seat of human consciousness would be somewhat like a CPU; without it, you’d just have a bunch of different parts that are theoretically functional, but not really capable of getting anything useful done.

The research, led by Mohamad Koubeissi at GWU in Washington DC, was originally tasked with analyzing a woman with epilepsy. The neuroscientists were stimulating regions of the brain with electrodes in an attempt to discover where her seizures originated from. Then, when they stimulated the claustrum — a thin region of the brain underneath the neocortex — the patient slowly lost consciousness. When the stimulation was removed, consciousness returned. When the claustrum was stimulated, the woman just stopped whatever she was doing (speaking, reading, moving) and stared blankly into space; when stimulation was removed, she continued as normal with no recollection of what had just happened.

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