Monday, July 23, 2012

Self-Consciousness and Ketamine

For what seems like an eternity, some people have wondered if animals possess the same quality of awareness as humans. In recent years some neuroscientists have stepped forward and proclaimed that their research has pointed to the area of self awareness. They believe it resides in the neo-cortex of the brain which is behind the forehead and is also the most recently evolved part of ourselves. Therefore they believe that as this is a unique part of human anatomy, only humans possess that quality: self-consciousness.

The class of psychoactive drugs known as dissociatives (PCP, DXM, MXE, N2O, etc) work on the NMDA receptors in the brain by inhibiting them. The psychological-phenomenological effect is a disassociation or fragmenting (breaking apart) of perceived elements of the mind such as the senses, cognition (thoughts), and body-self image. A particular kind of drug in this class called Ketamine provides some very interesting insight on the anatomy of self-awareness.

Ketamine was first developed in the 1960s as a derivative of PCP with the intention to replace it. This was a time when the medical industry was looking into the anesthesia effects of dissociatives (because of their ability to separate different parts of the mind from each other). It was seen as a better alternative to PCP because it paralyzed the person more or less; this is unlike PCP which leaves the patient with the ability to move around- a problem considering the person is in a fragmented state of mind. However Ketamine showed the problem of still bringing people into a bizarre inner world. This was called the “emergent phenomenon” as it seems that people emerge into a hallucinatory world. Because of this, its anaesthetizing use was stopped on adults and used only for young children and animals (hence why some refer to it as cat tranquilizer). It was still used because unlike other chemical agents used for anaesthetizing, Ketamine does not cause much harmful bodily side effects like respiratory depression. It only because of the emergent phenomenon that it is not used on humans usually.

Around the 1970s, consciousness researches like John C. Lilly were starting to write about the mental effects of sub-anesthesia doses of Ketamine. They described a world devoid of the familiar outside environment, which is replaced by the mind turned into itself. To explain this in metaphor, think of the mind’s relation to the body and world as a feedback loop; the mind takes information from the body and world and then outputs behavior. Ketamine blocks the signals going to that part of our brain where the neuroscientists believe is the seat of self-awareness: the neo-cortex. Therefore by blocking the signals from the body, world, and rest of the brain, the loop neo-cortex is part of turns on itself; the output of behavior becomes the input of information, without going thought the body or world. This leaves that part of the brain isolated unto itself. That fact will prove to be the most insightful.

The effects of Ketamine at doses which block the neo-cortex from all signals from the rest of the body and world leave one feeling as if they are pure self-awareness distilled from the prior personality and environment. There are anecdotal accounts of people becoming made of light with no real identity to the body or even to humanity and life. Therefore there may be some merit to the idea that this part of the brain is the center or location of self-consciousness because of the experience being so primarily centered on self-awareness and not anything pertaining to the body or the outside world.

Personally I’ve been a subscriber to the notion that consciousness cannot be pin pointed in one spot and is instead more like a gestalt of the interaction of brain-body-world. However this insight provided by the mental effects of Ketamine, in that they make the person feel like a distilled piece of consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, makes me wonder if this location-the neo-cortex- is the location of self-awareness. But I stop there and wont make the step to say that place causes self-consciousness. For all I know that area could be like an antenna receiving rather then generating self-awareness. One should remember, neurological correlations of psychological phenomenon do not necessarily mean a causal link; correlation does not equal causation Thus I stand by original my affirmation that the brain does not cause consciousness, yet I am willing to place importance on the area of the brain in regards to self-consciousness.

One last word on the question whether or not animals possess the same quality of consciousness as we do- our self-awareness. Our neo-cortex being a unique part of human physiology not shared in nature can lead one to assume that animals as a result do not have self-awareness like we do.