vilayanur_ramachandran's picture
Neuroscientist; Professor & Director, Center for Brain and Cognition, UC, San Diego; Author, The Tell-Tale Brain

Genes, Claustrum, and Consciousness 

What's my favorite elegant idea? The elucidation of DNA's structure is surely the most obvious, but it bears repeating. I'll argue that the same strategy used to crack the genetic code might prove successful in cracking the "neural code" of consciousness and self. It's a long shot, but worth considering.

The ability to grasp analogies, and seeing the difference between deep and superficial ones, is a hallmark of many great scientists; Francis Crick and James Watson were no exception. Crick himself cautioned against the pursuit of elegance in biology, given that evolution proceeds happenstantially—"God is a hacker," he famously said, adding (according to my colleague Don Hoffman), "Many a young biologist has slit his own throat with Ockham's razor." Yet his own solution to the riddle of heredity ranks with natural selection as biology's most elegant discovery. Will a solution of similar elegance emerge for the problem of consciousness?

It is well known that Crick and Watson unraveled the double helical structure of the DNA molecule: two twisting complementary strands of nucleotides. Less well known is the chain of events culminating in this discovery.

First, Mendel's laws dictated that genes are particulate (a first approximation still held to be accurate). Then Thomas Morgan showed that fruit flies zapped with x-rays became mutants with punctate changes in their chromosomes, yielding the clear conclusion that the chromosomes are where the action is. Chromosomes are composed of histones and DNA; as early as 1928, the British bacteriologist Fred Griffith showed that a harmless species of bacterium, upon incubation with a heat-killed virulent species, actually changes into the virulent species! This was almost as startling as a pig walking into a room with a sheep and two sheep emerging. Later, Oswald Avery showed that DNA was the transformative principle here. In biology, knowledge of structure often leads to knowledge of function—one need look no further than the whole of medical history. Inspired by Griffith and Avery, Crick and Watson realized that the answer to the problem of heredity lay in the structure of DNA. Localization was critical, as, indeed, it may prove to be for brain function.

Crick and 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. I am stating the obvious here only because there are some philosophers, called "new mysterians," who believe the opposite. The erudite Colin McGinn has written, for instance, "The brain is only tangentially relevant to consciousness." (There are many philosophers who would disagree, e.g., Churchland, Dennett, and Searle.)

After his triumph with heredity, Crick turned to what he called the "second great riddle" in biology—consciousness. There were many skeptics. I remember a seminar Crick was giving on consciousness at the Salk Institute here in La Jolla. He'd barely started when a gentleman in attendance raised a hand and said, "But Doctor Crick, you haven't even bothered to define the word consciousness before embarking on this." Crick's response was memorable: "I'd remind you that there was never a time in the history of biology when a bunch of us sat around the table and said, 'Let's first define what we mean by life.' We just went out there and discovered what it was—a double helix. We leave matters of semantic hygiene to you philosophers."

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.