Consciousness And The Claustrum
[Francis] Crick and [James] Watson didn't just describe DNA's structure, they explained its significance. They saw the analogy between the complementarity of molecular strands and the complementarity of parent and offspring—why pigs beget pigs and not sheep. At that moment modern biology was born.
I believe there are similar correlations between brain structure and mind function, between neurons and consciousness.
Crick did not, in my opinion, succeed in solving consciousness (whatever that might mean). Nonetheless, I believe he was headed in the right direction. He had been richly rewarded earlier in his career for grasping the analogy between biological complementarities, the notion that the structural logic of the molecule dictates the functional logic of heredity. Given his phenomenal success using the strategy of structure-function analogy, it is hardly surprising that he imported the same style of thinking to study consciousness. He and his colleague Christoff Koch did so by focusing on a relatively obscure structure called the claustrum.
The claustrum is a thin sheet of cells underlying the insular cortex of the brain, one on each hemisphere. It is histologically more homogeneous than most brain structures, and intriguingly, unlike most brain structures (which send and receive signals to and from a small subset of other structures), the claustrum is reciprocally connected with almost every cortical region. The structural and functional streamlining might ensure that, when waves of information come through the claustrum, its neurons will be exquisitely sensitive to the timing of the inputs.
What does this have to do with consciousness? Instead of focusing on pedantic philosophical issues, Crick and Koch began with their naïve intuitions. "Consciousness" has many attributes—continuity in time, a sense of agency or free will, recursiveness or "self-awareness," etc. But one attribute that stands out is subjective unity: you experience all your diverse sense impressions, thoughts, willed actions and memories as being a unity—not jittery or fragmented. This attribute of consciousness, with the accompanying sense of the immediate "present" or "here and now," is so obvious that we don't usually think about it; we regard it as axiomatic.
So a central feature of consciousness is its unity—and here is a brain structure that sends and receives signals to and from practically all other brain structures, including the right parietal (involved in polysensory convergence and embodiment) and anterior cingulate (involved in the experience of "free will"). Thus the claustrum seems to unify everything anatomically, and consciousness does so mentally. Crick and Koch recognized that this may not be a coincidence: the claustrum may be central to consciousness; indeed it may embody the idea of the " Cartesian theater" that's taboo among philosophers—or is at least the conductor of the orchestra. This is this kind of childlike reasoning that often leads to great discoveries. Obviously, such analogies don't replace rigorous science, but they're a good place to start. Crick and Koch may be right or wrong, but their idea is elegant. If they're right, they've paved the way to solving one of the great mysteries of biology. Even if they're wrong, students entering the field would do well to emulate their style. Crick has been right too often to ignore.
I visited him at his home in La Jolla in July of 2004. He saw me to the door as I was leaving and as we parted, gave me a sly, conspiratorial wink: "I think it's the claustrum, Rama; it's where the secret is." A week later he passed away.
Quoted on Tue Jan 17th, 2012