[Paleopsych] Economist: The neurology of consciousness: Crick's last stand

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The neurology of consciousness: Crick's last stand
Jul 28th 2005

Francis Crick suggests where to find the seat of consciousness

IT IS traditional to begin an article about Francis Crick by quoting his 
collaborator, James Watson, who wrote, “I have never seen Francis Crick in a 
modest mood.” The immodesty that carried Crick to the discovery of the 
structure of DNA in 1953 clearly never left him. His latest paper (and his 
last, for he died in 2004) proposes to explain, of all things, the neurological 
basis of human consciousness.

Mechanistic explanations of consciousness are hard to come by because 
consciousness is so poorly understood. Indeed, it is one of the few unexplained 
phenomena that are genuinely mysterious rather than merely problematical. But 
Crick, together with his long-time collaborator Christof Koch, of the 
California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, focused on a part of the 
mystery that seems tractable. This is the integrated nature of conscious 

As the two researchers put it in their paper, which was published this week in 
the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, “When holding a rose, you 
smell its fragrance and see its red petals while feeling its textured stem with 
your fingers.”

The part of the brain that caught the two researchers' interest is the 
claustrum, a thin sheet of grey matter that lies concealed beneath part of the 
cortex (the outer covering of the brain that carries out the computations 
involved in seeing, hearing and language).

The key to the researchers' claim is that most, if not all, regions of the 
cortex have two-way connections to the claustrum, as do the structures involved 
in emotion. It is plausible that the smell, the colour and the texture of the 
rose, all processed in different parts of the cortex, could be bound together 
into one cohesive, conscious experience by the claustrum. The authors liken it 
to a conductor who synchronises and co-ordinates various parts into a united 

Thus far, this is mere anatomical speculation fuelled by the fact that very 
little is known about what the claustrum actually does. Crick hoped that his 
final paper would inspire researchers to begin to develop molecular techniques 
to disable the claustrum in animals to observe the aftermath. Time will tell 
whether Crick's spectacular contribution to understanding genetics will be 
replicated in the sphere of consciousness.

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