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Fields or firings? Comparing the spike code and the electromagnetic field hypothesis

Fields or firings? Comparing the spike code and the electromagnetic field hypothesis

Where is consciousness? Neurobiological theories of consciousness look primarily to synaptic firing and “spike codes” as the physical substrate of consciousness, although the specific mechanisms of consciousness remain unknown. Synaptic firing results from electrochemical processes in neuron axons and dendrites. All neurons also produce electromagnetic (EM) fields due to various mechanisms, including the electric potential created by transmembrane ion flows, known as “local field potentials,” but there are also more meso-scale and macro-scale EM fields present in the brain.

The functional role of these EM fields has long been a source of debate. We suggest that these fields, in both their local and global forms, may be the primary seat of consciousness, working as a gestalt with synaptic firing and other aspects of neuroanatomy to produce the marvelous complexity of minds. We call this assertion the “electromagnetic field hypothesis.” The neuroanatomy of the brain produces the local and global EM fields but these fields are not identical with the anatomy of the brain.

These fields are produced by, but not identical with, the brain, in the same manner that twigs and leaves are produced by a tree’s branches and trunk but are not the same as the branches and trunk. As such, the EM fields represent the more granular, both spatially and temporally, aspects of the brain’s structure and functioning than the neuroanatomy of the brain.

The brain’s various EM fields seem to be more sensitive to small changes than the neuroanatomy of the brain. We discuss issues with the spike code approach as well as the various lines of evidence supporting our argument that the brain’s EM fields may be the primary seat of consciousness. This evidence (which occupies most of the paper) suggests that oscillating neural EM fields may make firing in neural circuits oscillate, and these oscillating circuits may help unify and guide conscious cognition.

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