Studies in the Osteopathic
The Physiology of Consciousness:
Louisa Burns, M.S., D.O., D.Sc.O.
THE NATURE OF CONSCIOUSNESS.
It is very evident that it is impossible to define
consciousness in any exact sense. It is just as evident that it is impossible
to define any primitive conception. Such terms as energy, matter, life,
and all other terms applied to simple ideas, are, by that fact impossible
of definition, just as the axiom in mathematics is impossible of proof.
Consciousness is one of these ideas.
Yet, while the exact definition of the term is impossible,
it is, like other primitive ideas, capable of a certain amount of elucidation.
In order to use the term at all with profit, it is necessary to agree upon
the application of the term. This must be done, as in the case of other
primitive ideas, by the statement of certain relationships between consciousness
and other ideas with which we are more or less familiar. It must be recognized
that in our inability to exactly define consciousness we are placed in
exactly the same position as we are in our inability to define matter or
energy or any other primitive idea. We may only explain the use of the
word matter, energy, etc., by the statement of the relationship between
matter and movement, for example, or between energy, heat and light, and
by otherwise expressing relationship. In the same way it becomes possible
to understand something, not of the real nature of consciousness, but of
its relationship to other phenomena of nature, and especially to other
phenomena of physiology and biology.
Consciousness is a phenomenon associated with the
activity of the cells of the cerebral cortex, probably of the external
layer. It is associated with the activities of all parts of the cortex,
and it is vivid or dim according to the metabolism of these neurons. Consciousness
is dim when the metabolism of the cortical neurons is less energetic, and
is vivid when the metabolism of the neurons is most energetic. Of the entire
extent of the cortex, those areas in which metabolism is most energetic
represent their specific energies most vividly in consciousness. Increased
activity of the sense areas gives rise to increased vividness in consciousness;
increased activity of the motor areas gives rise to an increased sense
of power and volition in consciousness. There are infinite gradations in
the vividness of consciousness, according to the infinite gradations of
neuronic activity. There are infinite variations in the characteristics
of consciousness, according to the infinite variations in the relative
activity of different neuron groups at different times.
Grades of Consciousness
All grades of consciousness exist in the factors
present at any one time. No consciousness is probably associated with the
meager activities of undeveloped neurons, as, for example, the neurons
of the visual area of the cortex of the person born blind, while the most
vivid consciousness is associated with the activity of neurons often stimulated
by incoming sensory and associational impulses. Between these extremes
are found almost an infinite variety of grades of consciousness. It is
no more possible to establish limits and grades of consciousness, levels
of minds above minds, than it is to classify the tints of yesterday’s sunset,
or to establish the gradations of twilight during a winter’s evening.
Consciousness and Neurons
Every factor in consciousness is capable of being
expressed in terms of neuronic activity. Every habit of thought and feeling
is capable of being expressed in terms of neuronic physiology or morphology.
The characteristics of personality are probably due to the relative structural
relationships between neuron groups and the physiological activities of
the neurons so related. If our knowledge of the physiological processes
of the cortical neurons were complete, it should be easy to anticipate
not only the manner in which any person would act under certain circumstances,
but also how he would feel in so acting. It is not necessary to say that
we have as yet no such exact information concerning physiological processes.
It is also true that the difficulties in the way of research into the physiology
of the cortical neurons are so great that it now seems impossible that
the problems associated with the physiology of the cortical neurons should
ever be answered.
Stream of Consciousness
The term “stream of consciousness’ is used. This
depends for its forcefulness upon the fact that there is a constantly changing
relationship between the relative energies of the different neuron groups.
Not only are the different primary sense areas subject to constantly varying
stimuli, but the overflow areas are constantly being stimulated by these
sensory impulses, and the intermediate areas are, in turn, being stimulated
by these and by one another, and so there must at all times be a succession
of states of consciousness compelled by the constantly varying conditions
and relations of neuronic activity.
Consciousness is not to be regarded as a force, in
any sense of the word. Consciousness is no more a force than the sweetness
of sugar, or the pinkness of a rose, or the brightness of the stars, or
the beauty of the sunset sky. Indeed, it is not so much a force as sound,
since sound waves are really a form of energy; nor as light, since this
also is a form of energy. Consciousness is merely a function of the cortical
neurons, so far as physiological knowledge is concerned. It is absolutely
valueless as a stimulant of physiological activity. But the conditions
of the cortical neurons which may affect physiological reactions may, and
often do, affect consciousness, and this is the reason why so many people
think the mind is the efficient factor in producing the physiological effect.
It is the activity of the cortical neurons which produces both the physiological
changes and the variations in consciousness.
The Body-mind Controversy
The idea of the great importance of the control of
the mind over the body arose from a misunderstanding of the physiology
of the cortical neurons. Much of what is ponderously explained by the effect
of the mind over the body is made simple and easily understood when it
is recognized that it is not mind, but the cerebral neurons which affect
bodily activities. Strength comes, not because of the consciousness of
strength, but the consciousness of strength comes because the cortical
neurons are stimulated in a certain manner. It is true that such information
is not always exact. Often the consciousness of strength may be associated
with even a dying condition. This is true of all our sensations; not one
of them is to be depended upon absolutely. But so far as we are conscious
of anything at all, we are conscious through the activities of the cortical
neurons. And while this activity may not give exactly correct information,
it is the best we have at present.
The study of the physiology of consciousness, then,
is a study of the physiology of the cortical neurons. Such a study inquires
into the effects produced in consciousness by neuronic activity, and also
into the relationships between the centers of the nervous system in their
effects upon consciousness, either directly or indirectly. The effects
of somatic conditions upon the activities of the cortical neurons, the
effects of the environmental conditions upon the body itself and thus upon
cortical activity, the effects of cortical activity upon the lower nerve
centers and thus upon the body itself, and the manner in which relations
are formed between the cortical neurons and the external world, all are
problems which are associated with the physiology of consciousness.
The facts and conclusions of this study should be
of value to educators, and especially to those who deal with abnormal persons.
In this connection the original meaning of the word “doctor” as “teacher”
must be suggested.
In this study it is needful to limit the factors
under consideration to the physiological aspects of the problems under
consideration. Many very interesting, and perhaps, under other circumstances,
very helpful, factors must be eliminated from this frankly physiological
study of consciousness. The elimination of these other considerations from
this discussion does not imply any denial of their existence. In the study
of astronomy no mention is usually made of the “soul of the universe,”
or of the marvelous beauties of the nightly sky, or of the ultimate destiny
of the stellar system. So, in studying the physiology of consciousness,
the philosophical, and esthetic, and idealistic view may be eliminated
in the same way as these same views are eliminated in the study of the
physics or the chemistry of the physiology of digestion or circulation.
Function of Consciousness
It seems probable that consciousness is developed
pari passu with cephalization—that is, with increasing complexity of reaction
to environmental variations, with increasing complexity of neuronic relationships,
and with increasing complexity of the environmental factors as affecting
the sensorium. Consciousness is of value only as it increases the efficiency
of the reactions.
If the environment of an individual be made larger,
as it is by the increased efficiency of the sensory neurons and the neuron
groups associated with these, the reactions of the individual must be made
more efficient. If intermediate and overflow areas add to the complexity
of the reactions possible to any given stimulation, and consciousness is
associated with this increasing complexity, only the added efficiency is
able to approve the increased metabolic expenses.
Only as the phenomenon of consciousness added to the vigor, and force
and efficiency of the race is its existence proved to be worth its price.
This rather materialistic view of consciousness arouses
many questions. Are there no other forms of consciousness than those associated
with the activity of the cortical neurons? This question is not to be answered
from the physiological standpoint. It is not ever safe to hazard negative
statements in the absence of absolute proof, and absolute proof is a thing
which it is impossible, at present, to secure. If it were possible to catch
ideas without any connection with physiological processes, the matter would
be solved for ever. Or if it were possible for elements of consciousness
never before experienced to become present to any individual, then would
the matter be settled, in a certain sense. But neither of these things
seems to be possible. The only attempt which is being made along such lines
was begun by the Psychical Research Society. The “ghost stories” accumulated
by this organization are alike in failing to eliminate the possibility
of physiological explanations of the marvelous occurrences. In order to
secure evidence of value, the conditions experienced by certain chosen
individuals should be related in order; then the number of those experiences
which seem to be associated with the occurrence of circumstances outside
the realm of the experiences of these persons should be noted. Elements
whose association might have led to the conclusions which have part in
the so-called psychical information should be eliminated from the final
summing up of results and the probabilities of error estimated, together
with the chances for coincidence. Such experiments, including many factors,
and being performed upon normal persons as well as upon those blind and
deaf from birth, should give exact information as to whether (1) consciousness
is possible in the absence of physiological activities, and (2) whether
ideas are capable of being transmitted without the intermediation of sensory
impulses. There is, at present, no evidence that either such condition
Nature of Volition
The world-old question of the “freedom of the will”
arises in connection with the physiological interpretation of consciousness.
In physiological terms, volition is the consciousness of the activity of
the cortical neurons concerned in producing motor activities, either in
the primary motor area, in which the reaction occurs immediately, or in
the motor overflow area, in which the memories and probably also certain
decisions are stored.
As to “freedom of choice,” what is it that is meant
to be free? The expression of personality is that which is usually understood
by freedom of will. If personality means anything in the physiological
sense, it means the sum of characteristics, mental and physical; or in
other words, individuality is the sum of certain inherited characteristics,
plus the variations produced, as these have been subjected to the action
of a certain series of environmental variations. From the so-called mental
aspect, individuality depends upon the structural relations of the neurons
plus the physiological conditions of the neuron systems as they are modified
by use and by environmental factors. The only “freedom” desirable, then,
is that there shall be no abnormal condition interfering with the passage
of nerve impulses from any cortical area to other related cortical centers,
and that no impediment shall exist to the activities resulting from the
coordination of the nerve impulses through and by the various cortical
centers. For certainly no greater efficiency is to be desired than that
resulting from the normal activity of normal neurons, acting in accordance
with the present sensory stimulation, modified by racial and individual
memories and associations. All the freedom needed is found in the activities
of normal neurons, in normal bodies, placed in the midst of a normal environment.
Hesitancy is the consciousness of inhibitory process
in the cortical neurons, with simultaneous activity of the neurons of the
intermediate areas. Choice is the consciousness of the increased activity
of certain neuron groups, often, but not always, motor. Reason is the effect
produced in consciousness by the passing of impulses to and from the different
intermediate and overflow areas. Judgment is the consciousness of the activity
of motor areas, following the process of reasoning, and usually associated
with activity of the language centers. Memory is the effect in consciousness
of the repeated activity of neuron groups, as these are stimulated from
Attention is the effect in consciousness of excessive
activity of any given cortical area. Marked activity of any cortical area
is usually associated with efferent impulses form that center.
Attention which is called active or volitional is
the effect produced in consciousness by the increased metabolism of the
cortical neurons of an area subjected to stimulation by the impulses form
the intermediate or overflow areas. The sense of volition in attention
depends upon the existence of the activity of the cells of the motor areas.
The attention called passive is the effect in consciousness of the increased
activity of the cells of some primary sense area, resulting from increased
In terms of psychology, the active volition is that
which the person himself chooses, as in applying himself to some line of
study, though it may be neither interesting nor pleasant. Passive attention
is produced by external stimulation of a marked type, as a blow, a loud
sound, a bright light, etc.
Consciousness of Personality
The consciousness of personality depends upon the
normal relationship between a series of neuronic events. The activities
of the neurons of the anterior intermediate areas are concerned in the
coordination of the impulses which relate the individual to his environment,
and it is the consciousness aroused by these activities which we call self-consciousness,
or the consciousness of one’s own proper place in the midst of things—of
his relations to his environment and to his fellow man. With the loss of
the functions of these areas the person is not properly oriented to his
circumstances. The condition is most conspicuously displayed in senility
and in paresis. In both of these conditions, as well as in certain other
diseases, the pathological process may affect first the frontal lobes.
There is a slow degeneration of the neurons of the cortex, first those
more superficial, then the deeper neurons. At first there is not produced
any paralysis, nor any pressure symptoms. It often occurs under such conditions
that very exact pictures of the effects of loss of function of the anterior
association areas are shown. The person so affected loses his sense of
relationship with his fellows; he becomes careless of the opinions of other
people, is inordinately vain, or considers himself a person of tremendous
importance, or of fabulous wealth, or in other ways shows a lack of appreciation
of his own proper place. At the same time, he may show as great intelligence
in regard to things not personally related to him as ever. In such cases,
if death occurs early in the disease, it is usually found that the left
frontal cortex is chiefly or alone affected. If death occurs later, it
is usually found that these areas show the oldest lesions.
Since these areas receive the impulses arising from
visceral changes, and since the longer tracts carry impulses from almost
every other part of the cortex to the frontal lobes, it is evident that
this consciousness of personal relation to the environment is capable of
being affected by many conditions.
Probably the impulses from the body itself, including
the viscera, are of importance in modifying the consciousness of personality,
though this matter is not easily subject to any tests. Under abnormal conditions
of visceral disorder the ideas of personality often become changed. A sleep
occurring after long or wearying or sleepless days is often followed by
a recognizable space of time during which one is unable to orient himself
to his surroundings. The same condition is sometimes found after anesthesia
or after great pain. In one case there was a period of great pain, followed
by unconsciousness, probably associated with a cardiac disturbance. The
process of recovery to consciousness was associated with a total loss of
personality. The patient described a universe of pain, without personality,
simply a whirling of objectless and subjectless pain, which lasted, as
she expressed it, for several eternities. Consciousness of herself as suffering
pain followed, then came a peculiar sensation as of a body without parts,
then consciousness of arms followed a reflex movement, then at once consciousness
of the entire body followed. Similar conditions may be associated with
nightmare, delirium, and under various abnormal conditions of the cerebral
Dissociation of Personality
As a result of certain not very well studied pathological
conditions of the cortical neurons a condition called dissociated personality
may be produced. This condition has its physiological analogue in the condition
of the normal person who is just awaking from a sound sleep. He may be
unable to “place” himself for a part of a minute, or even longer.
The physiological basis for the condition lies, probably,
in the interruption of the effect in consciousness normally produced by
the constant cortical activity; that is, after unusually sound sleep, such
as follows unusual fatigue, but not otherwise abnormal, the cortical neurons
probably either fail in assuming their functions with their accustomed
facility, or during such sleep their activity is rendered slightly abnormal.
The lack of any exact knowledge concerning the metabolism of the cortical
neurons during sleep renders it impossible at present to decide which,
or whether either, of these possibilities is the true solution of the problem.
At any rate, the slightly abnormal failure of the consciousness of personality
under such conditions brings the phenomena of dissociated personality into
line with the conditions associated with practically normal life and mentality.
In the presence of shock, or long-continued neurasthenic
or hysterical conditions, the activities of the cortical neurons become
unbalanced. Certain neuron groups, being acted upon by paralyzing poisons,
display great eccentricities of conduct. Certain entire areas of the cortex
may become non-functional so far as the production of consciousness is
concerned, yet memories may be stored during this stage of non-function
of the neurons concerned in consciousness; that is, the hysterical person
may be unable to see certain colors or objects placed slightly on one side
of the field of vision. Yet after recovery the patient may describe the
very object and colors to which he had been blind. This peculiar condition
has been so often described that the fact is probably indisputable.
The structural basis for such conditions probably
lies in the peculiarities of the cell structure of the cortex. There is
reason to believe that consciousness is affected by the activity of the
cells of the stratum zonale. If these cells fail in their physiological
requirements, if they are starved, or subjected to great pressure, or poisoned,
consciousness is variously affected.
The possibility of being so affected by stimulation
as to reply to subsequent stimuli with greater ease seems to be a function
of all living cells in different degrees, and this seems to be peculiarly
a function of nerve cells, of all nerve cells, probably. When cortical
neurons are subjected to a series of stimulations, their metabolism becomes
variously modified, so that they reply with greater ease to subsequent
stimuli of the same nature. When the cells are thus stimulated by subsequent
stimuli, they may cause the stimulation of the cells of the stratum zonale,
and the effect in consciousness is that of a memory.
Stimuli may, under abnormal cortical conditions,
affect the cells of the deeper layers of the cortex without stimulating
the cells of the stratum zonale. The person under such circumstances would
not be conscious of the sensory impulses reaching the primary sense area,
because of the temporary paralysis or disuse of the stratum zonale cells.
But these impulses might affect the metabolism of the deeper cell layers
of the cortex, and these cells, being subjected to appropriate stimulation,
might bring about the stimulation of the stratum zonale cells of the overflow
area, and the consciousness of memory would result.
When this abnormal cortical activity occurs, there
may be produced a peculiar insular or lacunar form of consciousness, in
which alternating areas of the cortex are subjected to this loss of function
in such a way as to cause alternating personalities. Any temporary paralysis
of the neuron systems by which the anterior association areas are related
to other parts of the cortex would result in losing to the individual all
sense of personality for a time. The activities of other cortical areas
are usually partially retained, so that persons thus affected do not lose
the power of speech, of using good language, of counting money, and of
buying and selling with a certain ability. They retain most of their habits
and faculties, though these may be subject to great variations in the different
personalities. The instinctive and emotional states usually are greatly
varied because of the variations in the liminal value of the different
neuron systems which carry inhibitory impulses.
The number of personalities in which any person
may dwell at different times is not known to be limited by anything except
the length of the patient’s life and the time which is employed in the
different states as they follow one another. Many physicians suppose that
exact information concerning the occurrences of these alternating lives
may be secured by hypnotism. But the extreme irritability of certain neuron
groups, together with the comparative inefficiency of the inhibitions in
hysterical persons, lessens the value of this method of securing information
concerning such people. Statements made under hypnosis should be very carefully
verified before any conclusions concerning the matter should be accepted.
Multiple personality may be defined as the abnormal
consciousness associated with the activity of the anterior association
areas following some disturbance of the functions of the neuron systems
relating this area to other parts of the cortex.
Recognition of Truths
It has been noticed that of all things recognized
as true, there are some things which seem to have a greater truth, or a
higher truth, or a finer truth, as it is variously termed. The facts of
the newer scientific attainments do not impress us as being quite so beautifully
true as do the facts of older truths. No description of a colony of bacteria
could now inspire a poem, though that culture might be the result of greater
real bravery than any heroism of ancient times. For example, in the study
of yellow fever, lives were risked and lives were lost in order that facts
might be determined concerning the deadly scourge. Facts were determined,
and for every life lost thousands have already been saved, while the future
is full of life which would have been sacrificed to the fever under ignorance.
In all of history is found no braver deed than this, yet where is the poet
who sings of such courage? It is said that “time makes ancient good uncouth,”
but it is time that makes ancient good a thing of poetry and beauty. New
facts are not in themselves inspiring; new attainments need mellowing until
they are sweet with many days of sunshine.
Consciousness of Beauty
Cortical association processes which follow a series
of neuron groups whose liminal value has been lowered during racial development
are those processes which are concerned in the consciousness of the recognition
of truths. A certain pleasure is associated with the recurrence of activity
of cortical neurons, and this sense of pleasure gives the sensation of
the beauty of the older truths, the poetry of deeds long since performed
bravely, and the consciousness of being uplifted, and inspired, and encouraged,
which results from the appreciation of the truth long known, and thus called
Truths newly discovered, which are not related to the so-called
“higher” truths, do not arouse such feelings. This is partly due to the lack
of the associations which are brought into play with the recurrence in consciousness
of ideas before experienced, but it is also due in part to the fact that the
newer facts have not any series of neuron groups ready for their reception.
The science of today begins the preparation for the “higher” truths of tomorrow.
The foundation for all grandeur and nobility of thought must be laid in the
solid and undecorated facts; but when the facts have been subjected to the association
processes, when complex relationships are established between the neurons in
which are laid down the memories of the facts, the appreciation of their significance,
and the coordination of the motor reactions which give efficient reply to the
environmental variations upon which all this nervous activity is based, then
comes the time when the seeds of truth in the mere facts blossom into the beauty
of feeling and expression: the fruit that they bear is achievement and progress.