The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Inquire about purchasing the book | Table of Contents | Annotated Bibliography | Class on Nature of Mind

These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Trail of Asymmetry

Somehow asymmetry seems to play a protagonist’s role in the history of our universe and our life. Cosmological models speculate that the four fundamental forces of nature arose when symmetry broke down after the very high temperatures of the early universe began to cool down. Today, we live in a universe that is the child of that momentous split. Without that “broken symmetry” there would be no electrical force and no nuclear force, and our universe would be vastly impoverished in natural phenomena.

Scientists have also speculated at length about the asymmetry between matter and antimatter: if one is the mirror image of the other and no known physical process shows a preference for either, why is it that in our universe protons and electrons (matter) overwhelmingly prevails over positrons and antiprotons (antimatter)?

Most physical laws can be reversed in time, at least on paper. But most will not. Time presents another asymmetry, the “arrow of time” which points always in the same direction, no matter what is allowed by Mathematics. The universe, history and life all proceed forward and never backwards.

Possibly related to it is the other great asymmetry: entropy. One can't unscramble an egg. A lump of sugar which is dissolved in a cup of coffee cannot become a lump of sugar again. Left to themselves, buildings collapse, they do not improve. Most artifacts require periodic maintenance, otherwise they would decay. Disorder is continuously accumulated. Some processes are irreversible.

It turns out that entropy is a key factor in enabling life (and, of course, in ending it). Living organisms maintain themselves far from equilibrium and entropy plays a role in it.

Moreover, in 1848 the French biologist Louis Pasteur discovered that aminoacids (which make up proteins which make up living organisms) exhibit another singular asymmetry: for every aminoacid there exist in nature its mirror image, but life on Earth uses only one form of the aminoacids (left-handed ones). Pasteur’s mystery is still unexplained (Pasteur thought that somehow that “was” the definition of life). Later, biologists would discover that bodies only use right-handed sugars, thereby confirming that homochirality (the property of being single-handed) is an essential property of life.

Finally, an asymmetry presents itself even in the site of thinking itself, in the human brain. The two cerebral hemispheres are rather symmetric in all species except ours. Other mammals do not show preferences for grasping food with one or the other paw. We do. Most of us are right-handed and those who are not are left-handed. Asymmetry seems to be a fundamental feature of our brain. The left hemisphere is primarily used for language and the interplay between the two hemispheres seems to be important for consciousness.

It may turn out to be a mere coincidence, but the most conscious creatures of our planet have also the most asymmetric brains.

Was there also a unified brain at the origin of thinking, whose symmetry broke down later on in the evolutionary path?


Back to the beginning of the chapter "The New Physics" | Back to the index of all chapters