So says Jonathan Downar, explaining his decision to major in science as an undergraduate at Toronto’s McGill University. His combination of interests made him the perfect person to field a phone call from a friend he’d written screenplays with in college: Daniel Ferguson, now co-writer and first assistant director of Wired to Win. “Daniel said, ‘You’ll never guess what I’m working on: this movie about the brain. And I have neuroscientists who’ve never written a screenplay and writers who’ve never seen a real brain,” Downar recalls. He knew how to bridge the cultures: “I could propose a scene that would showcase neuroscience and also advance the story and help the character development.” The resulting script received a $2.8-million grant from the National Science Foundation, which got the ambitious project underway.
Where does the mind come from?At the time Downar was halfway through his Ph.D. research, and he was pursuing consciousness. “We have some idea where the universe came from, how life developed, where humans came from,” he points out. “But we still don't know where the mind originates—how all the billions of neurons buzzing away in our heads make a conscious being who can sit around thinking about consciousness in the first place! Why do we have any inner life at all? Why aren’t we walking around like zombies?”
At the time, neuroscientists knew what Downar calls “a strange but true fact: we’re only aware of what we pay attention to.” We’re only conscious of a tiny fraction of the sensory information pouring in—the hum of the air conditioner, the feel of a footstep, the color of the sky out the window. That’s why a magician’s sleight of hand can deceive us, or why, if we’re really focused on the ball, we’re likely to miss the guy at midfield in the gorilla suit.
Imaging of stroke-damaged brains had already identified four key brain areas (the frontal cortex, the temporoparietal cortex, the cingulate cortex and the insular cortex) that control our attention: the where of consciousness. These areas can synchronize their activity, all lighting up on an MRI when the subject becomes aware of something. For example, the visual cortex may be subconsciously processing a stream of faces, or the temporal cortex monitoring a stream of speech, but if a face is identified as your mother’s, or your name comes up in the conversation—“bing! That area seizes the attention of this global network across the brain and says, ‘Okay, guys, let’s focus on this,’” Downar explains. “And when that happens, you become aware. The information is important to you.”
These brain areas stand at the crossroads between the parts of the brain that represent the “value-neutral” external world—where stuff is, what it looks or sounds like, how it feels to the touch—and the subjective internal world of emotions, motivations, and basic drives like hunger and sexual desire. Downar’s research focused on this “bridge”: What happens inside the brain when information becomes subjectively important?
Four experiments explore the neural correlates of consciousnessPlacing his research subjects in an MRI scanner, the neuroscientist first instructed them just to relax as they received different kinds of information: visual (on a screen via an angled mirror); auditory (through earphones); and tactile (as he brushed different patterns onto their legs). When the information changed—a red pattern shifting to blue, or a circle pattern brushed on the skin changing to squiggles—the respective corresponding area of the subjects’ brains lit up, then calmed down.
Next, Downar asked his subjects to raise a finger when the signal changed—and not to miss any! Because the information had become subjectively relevant, their brain areas showed stronger activation. Their responses were also stronger when novelty was introduced: the subjects signaled a random occurrence like a Z or S thrown in among the A’s and B’s, or a discordant note. Last, through electrodes attached to the subjects’ wrists, he introduced pain. Again, the input produced a response across the same areas (this time prolonged for the duration of the stimulus because pain, unlike other sensory information, cannot be ignored).
“In combination, these four studies give evidence for why these areas of the brain are critical for conscious experiences,” says Downar. “They take the world outside us and say, ‘How does this relate to me?’ I don't think it's a coincidence that the same areas that represent a thing’s subjective value give rise to our subjective experiences.”
On to the next challengeMost researchers are content to delve ever deeper into their specialties, but Downar felt the pull of another discipline. His next question was, what can I do to improve the world around me with this knowledge? His answer was to go to work on mental illness, which is emerging as the greatest medical burden in the developing as well as the developed world. He’s now getting his M.D. in order to become a clinician scientist: a medical doctor who does research and sees patients. “The field of psychiatry is desperate for people who know about neuroscience,” he explains. “The study of consciousness is what the future’s built on, but I’d like to help people who are ill today.”
Name: Jonathan A. S. Downar
Born: Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1975
Job: Physician, neuroscientist, scientific and screenwriting consultant on Wired to Win
Education: B.Sc. (Hon.), McGill University, 1997; Ph.D., University of Toronto, 2002; M.D., University of Calgary, 2005
Where I go to watch IMAX films: The Ontario Science Centre. I spent more of my childhood there than I’d care to admit.
Book(s) I’d want if I were stranded on a desert island: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Also, The Ultimate Book of Power Kiting and Kiteboarding—it would be a shame to waste all that surf.
Favorite place to visit: Black Rock Desert, Nevada
Favorite food: All Indian, all the time.
Favorite artist/kind of music: Anything instrumental, anything improv, from Keith Jarrett or Egberto Gismonti all the way through to live-performance dance music, like The New Deal or Lorin.
Biking experiences: One unforgettable weekend touring the shores of Manitoulin Island, up on the edge of the Canadian Shield, during a huge thunderstorm with lightning coming down all around us. I'm really more at home on the water, though.