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

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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