Golgi stained neurons in the dentate gyrus of an epilepsy patient. Image: WikiCommons
Show Hide image

Self-awareness by numbers

What is consciousness? In the past, this question was the preserve of theologians, psychologists and philosophers. Scientists seemed unable to find a way to probe the grey matter between our ears. Now that has changed. The study of the brain has experienced a renaissance.

We are in a moment similar to that when the telescope provided a way for the likes of Galileo to explore the outer reaches of the solar system. The development of the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner, techniques of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and EEGs (electroencephalograms) has given scientists a way to ask the brain new questions. One of the most intriguing proposals to emerge is that mathematics might hold the key to unlocking the mystery of consciousness.

To understand what makes something conscious, one can look at the converse question of what contributes to things being unconscious. Every night, when we fall into dreamless sleep, our consciousness disappears. So what is happening in the brain that causes us to lose our sense of self until we wake or dream?

In the past, it was impossible to ask the sleeping, dreamless brain questions. New TMS techniques allow us to infiltrate the brain and artificially make neurons fire. By applying a rapidly fluctuating magnetic field to the brain, we can activate specific regions when people are awake and, more excitingly, when they are asleep. So how do the conscious and sleeping brains respond to this stimulation of neurons?

Experiments conducted by Giulio Tononi and his team at the Centre for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have shown that the brain’s reaction to TMS when it is awake is strikingly different from when it is dreamlessly sleeping. The first part of the experiment involves applying TMS to a small region of the participants’ brains when they are awake or conscious. Electrodes attached to the head record the effect using EEG. The results show that different areas far away from the stimulated site respond to the stimulation at different times in a complex pattern that then feeds back to the original site of the stimulation. The brain is interacting as a complex, integrated network.

Participants are then required to fall asleep and, once in deep, “stage-four” sleep, TMS is again applied to the brain in the same location, stimulating the same region. Unlike in the conscious state, the electrical activity does not propagate through the brain. It’s as if the network is down. The tide has come up, cutting off connections. The implication is that consciousness has to do with the complex integration in the brain.

Our gut has as many neurons as our brain, yet we don’t believe it is conscious. Is this because the neurons are not wired to have this integrated feedback behaviour? Tononi has even developed a mathematical coefficient of consciousness that measures the amount of integration present in a network. Called “phi”, it is a measure that can be applied to machines as well as the human brain and offers a quantitative mathematical approach to what makes me “me”.

Could Tononi’s phi help us understand if a computer, the internet or even a city can achieve consciousness? Perhaps the internet or a computer, once it hits a certain threshold, might recognise itself at some point in the future. Consciousness could correspond to a phase change in this coefficient, rather like the way water can change state when its temperature passes the threshold for boiling or freezing.

If consciousness is a spectrum encoded by this coefficient, measuring from the consciousness of a stone to the consciousness of the human mind, who are we to say there might not be consciousness beyond where evolution has taken the brain? The fMRI scans that have been done on Tibetan monks as they meditate seem to show that the act of meditation takes them into an altered brain state that might well be an increased level of consciousness. The brain appears to be organised into two networks: the extrinsic network and the intrinsic – or default – network.

When people are performing tasks external to themselves, such as playing a musical instrument or filling the kettle, it is the extrinsic portion of their brain that is active. When individuals are reflecting more on themselves and their emotions, it the default network that appears to be more dominant.

The interesting observation is that these two networks are rarely fully active at the same time. One side of the see-saw needs to be down in order to allow the other side to play its part in enabling an individual to concentrate on whatever task is at hand. Yet evidence from scanning the Buddhist monks during periods of meditation indicates that they seem to be able to raise both sides of this neural see-saw at the same time.

The research opens up the thrilling possibility that there are ways to increase your levels of consciousness. And so, on 2 March, as part of the Barbican’s and the Wellcome Trust’s season “Wonder: Art and Science on the Brain”, I will be collaborating with the musician James Holden to see whether we can use music to take the collective phi of our audience and turn it up to 11.

Marcus du Sautoy is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. “Wonder: Art and Science on the Brain” will run at the Barbican Centre, London EC2, from 2 March to 10 April

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

Picture: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images
Show Hide image

What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496