The November/December 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind included an article by Christof Koch, who is a former collaborator with Francis Crick, who with James Watson won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure and the function of DNA. The title of the article is “A Brain Structure Looking for a Function.” The brain structure in question is the claustrum. The claustrum is a thin, irregular sheet of cells, tucked below the neocortex, which is the gray matter that allows us to see, hear, reason, think, and remember. It is surrounded on all sides by white matter, the tracts, or wire bundles, that interconnect cortical regions with one another and with other brain regions. There are two claustra one for each side of the brain. They lie below the general region of the insular cortex, underneath the temples, just above the ears. They have a long, thin wisp of a shape that can be easily overlooked when inspecting the topography of the brain region.
Advanced brain-imaging techniques have revealed white matter fibers coursing to and from the two claustra that it is a neural Grand Central Station. Almost every region of the cortex sends fibers to the claustra. These connections are reciprocated by other fibers that extend back from the claustra to the originating cortical regions. Although each claustrum receives inputs from both cortical hemispheres, but only project back to the overlying cortex on the same side.
Crick looked at these facts and believed that a reliable guide to understanding function, is to study structure. And he, working with Koch formulated the idea that the claustra are a key component of the networks generating conscious experience. This work turned out to be Crick’s Swan Song to science as he was suffering from end-stage colon cancer. He finished his paper with Koch before passing away,
“What is the Function of the Claustrum?, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Vol. 360, No.1458, pages 1271-1279.
Additional research supporting this contention of Crick and Koch is cited in the Koch piece in Scientific American Mind. Nevertheless it is always fascinating to speculate about conscious. It is the only product of the brain with which we have direct experience. Yet the brain is raging with activity 24 hours a day. There are many reasons to believe that we can use our conscious experience to improve our focus and ability to attend. We can also use it to control our emotions and it lets us take a third person look at our own interactions with other. Fundamentally, meditation and mindfulness is a matter of learning to control our conscious experience to advantage.
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