Notes and Suggestions towards A Theory of Consciousness

brain mind body consciousness

Abstract:

We open by considering briefly some of the characteristics of ordinary consciousness which seem to have gained consensus acceptance among those studying the problem of how the physiological systems we are attain subjectivity. We then look at the Thalamo-Cortical system so aptly described by Newman and offer some observations on the roles of feedback processes, propagation delays, resonant systems and Llinas' (et alia) 40Hz oscillations. These factors, we argue, provide a way of locking together the phenomenal, subjective world and the physiological substrate on which consciousness runs. We then discuss the role of culture in forming brains and consciousnesses, and close with the suggestion that there is no "Hard Problem": that the phenomenal and physiological representations are two sides of the same coin.


1. What is Consciousness ?Click here to expand yours.

This will take you places you have never been beforeż 

To know the world and to act independently within it and to do things for oneself. Reflection within on the patterns within as well as reflection off the world by interacting with others and by projecting into the world for purposes of generating feedback.

1.1. Consciousness is the "I", the "self" that we all know, from which we view the world and interact with it, that sense of (to quote John Searle) "subjective qualitative states of awareness, sentience or feeling"(1). In the 17thCentury Rene Descartes showed that no matter to what extent our senses might be deceived there would still remain a something which could be called "myself" even if it were utterly deceived as to the existence of any one or any thing else. I suppose his "cogito ergo sum" might have been better put if he'd said I am deceived therefore I am. William James (2a) (in the late 19thCentury) put it as having a sense of a personal consciousness that is ours, not something that we share [though in passing, how we consider this against the matter of the social construction of our world view remains to be discussed].

1.2. Everything we know is a function of experience, either through sense perception or reflection upon that experience. The mind or the "I" is born empty of knowledge of the world. As John Locke (3) described it we are born "tabula rasa" (or a 'blank slate'). It is only by our experience of the world that we gain ideas of it. There are no "innate ideas".

"Let us then suppose the Mind to be, as we say, white Paper, void of all characters, without any Ideas; How comes it to be furnished ?....To this I answer, in one word, from Experience... Our observation employed either about External sensible objects; or about the Internal Operations of our Minds, perceived and reflected by our selves... These two are the Fountains of Knowledge from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring. [Locke. A Treatise of Humane Knowledge, 1721, p67]

It is the data of sensation that have the qualities or "qualia" which are the stuff of our subjectivity, that which we know.

1.3. Consciousness is a function of the state of our central nervous system, i.e. the physiology is the substrate upon which consciousness runs. To quote William James in his Text Book of Psychology, 1892 (2b):

"The immediate condition of a state of consciousness is an activity of some sort in the cerebral hemispheres... One has only to consider how quickly consciousness may be abolished by a blow on the head...[or] by a full dose of alcohol...to see how at the mercy of bodily happenings our spirit is... Destruction of certain definite portions of the cerebral hemispheres involves losses of memory and of acquired motor faculty of quite determinate sort...Taking all such facts together, the simple and radical conception dawns upon the mind that mental action may be uniformly and absolutely a function of brain-action, varying as the latter varies, and being to the brain-action as effect to cause." [James, 1892, pp5-6]

1.4. Our state of consciousness:

a/ is always changing as we are exposed to continually novel sensations.
b/ is selective of what it pays attention to, and
c/ provides a sense of temporal continuity which the normal day-to-day changes of sleep and wakefulness, as well as abnormal changes such as unconsciousness, do not interrupt.

1.5. Paul Churchland (author of "The Engine of Reason; The Seat of the Soul") (4) has described some salient aspects of consciousness, which we would need to explain in a theory of consciousness.

a/ Short-term memory and its decay.
b/ Directable attention, or conscious control over what we attend to and what we do.
c/ Multi-valent comprehension through "mulling" or reflection.
d/ Independence from sensory input in say, daydreaming.
e/ The disappearance of consciousness during sleep.
f/ Unity across the senses and unity over time.

1.6. Robert Kirk (5) (of Nottingham University) has developed a concept of what he calls the "basic package" of capacities that an organism must have for it to be conscious. This is first about being able to collect information which is specifically intended for the organism's own use, and then about its capacity to decide what to do with that information. There is a package of related activities which apply to this collecting information.

a/ The organism must be able to use the information.
b/ The organism must be able to initiate and control its activity on the basis of the information it collects.
c/ The organism must be able to assess the information for its usefulness or interpret it.
d/ The organism must be able to assess the situation it is in so that it can decide how to respond or whether it should respond.

1.7. Our ability to respond to novelty in active and constructive ways is considered to be somehow over and above the mere 'irritability' of the senses and the body's reflexivness to sensations which may or may not then have conscious impact. The plant which follows the sun across the daily sky is not able to refuse to do that. It has no opportunity to decide whether or not it will not respond to the tropism of the sun. It can only do it, there is no capacity to act independently of this tropism.

1.8. So ultimately the problem for a theory of consciousness is to explain how it is that the physical system that we are, this bundle of cells and organs and nerves, can have subjectivity, can behave independently, can do things for itself and can respond to input in a way that takes account of whim and ideology rather than simply reacting to current conditions. This is the question that David Chalmers (6) asks in his formulation of the "Hard Problem":

"Why is it that physical processing in the brain, no matter how sophisticated, should give rise to any subjective inner life at all? Why couldn't that have all gone on in the dark? That's the real mystery." [Chalmers: Brain Project interview]

1.9. Two views of the relationship of the brain to the mind or consciousness seem to have developed since Descartes. The first is the "dualistic" view that consciousness somehow exists independently of the physical world and body. This position derives from Descartes but is perhaps more akin to the modern religious view of the "soul". The second is the physicalist view which says that in some manner consciousness is a direct function of the physiology. This view was espoused early on by de la Mettrie in his very radical 17th Century work "Man a Machine" (7).

My argument is essentially that it is not necessary to dualise the mind away from the brain, but that normal physiological functioning of the brain includes, within the array of its processes, that which we consider to be consciousness. That is, that consciousness is an inescapable result of an immensely complex but highly organized information processing and representation system.

2. How we know.

2.1. The multiple ways of talking about consciousness are representations. So we have the diverse array of philosophical representations, the physiological representation, the phenomenological representation, the neural net representation, etc., which I argue are all simply different ways of talking about the same thing. Representation is transformation of information from one modality to another. Within a physiological discussion (representation) of sensation; colors, sounds, feelings and other qualia are phenomenological representations of those sensations coming in through the eyes and ears and proprioceptive senses. Each layer of information processing in the brain is a transform of the input representation into a new representation. The very act of seeing is in fact a mediated process through a series of layers of representations of which we are largely unconscious into a series of representations which are bound (usually inextricably) with sense representations from the other modalities; hearing, touch, etc. and of which we are in some way aware or conscious. What we know is entirely mediated by the sense organs and the brain. What we know of the world is inference. So we have two areas of study, on the one hand that which physical and biological scientists do, and on the other, that which philosophers and psychologists and cognitive scientists do. For simplicity I will call these the physiology and the phenomenology of consciousness.

2.2. Phenomenology is the study of what we actually know of the world; qualia, the stuff, the contents of consciousness, rather than the study of what we infer about the world based on that phenomenology, which is the business of the physical sciences. How we know it is one aspect of the phenomenology. We perceive and report our perceptions. We imagine and reflect on the contents of the phenomenology. We report and interact through language which we gain through the culture as we grow up. Culture and language mould our consciousness and render us human. But, ultimately, we see colors, hear sounds, feel emotions all through the use of the brain. Consciousness, whatever its relationship to the physiology, requires that physiology as the substrate on which it runs.

2.3. So it is the study of the physiology of the brain that is our first task in developing a theory of consciousness. Whatever we may think about the phenomenology, whether we take a mystical view or a physicalist view of consciousness, there is still the information processing and as far as anyone can tell all information is necessarily embodied in something physical.

3. Physiology

3.1. As Hughlings Jackson (8) said in 1876:

"All nervous centers, from the lowest to the very highest (the substrata of consciousness), are made up of nothing else than nervous arrangements, representing impressions and movements...I do not see of what other materials the brain can be made." [Hughlings Jackson "West Riding Asylum Reports" 1876 p267].

And William James asserts that there is a complete parallelism between the arrangements of nerves and the ideas to which they project:

"The muscles and the sensitive points are represented each by a cortical point, and the brain is nothing but the sum of these cortical points, to which, on the mental side as many ideas correspond." [James 1891, p30] Thus it is the "motor and sensory ideas variously associated [that] are the materials of the mind". [James, ibid]

3.2. So we need to know something of the physiology and the organization of the brain to enable us to at least see on what it is that consciousness operates, that is the substrate or the embodiment of consciousness. [And there are some considerable differences in the implications of these two terms for our final theory].

3.2.1. For the sake of discussion, the system of the brain can be broken up into a number of interlinked parts. These are, essentially, the bodily connections through the spinal cord and the brain stem, the reticular activating system at the top of the brain stem, the sensory modalities and their connections to the cortex through a central relay station and the cortex, to which all sensory data may be sent and in which much of the interpretive and planning and control processing is done. It is the central relay station which will interest us most here. This central relay system is known as the thalamus. It, in linkage with the cortex, the basal ganglia, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and several other structures, forms the thalamo-cortical system.

3.3. In an excellent review, published as an electronic seminar on the Internet, Jim Newman (9) has demonstrated the functions of the thalamo-cortical system and its tributaries in being the site (or better, the system) most likely for the embodiment of the major functions of day-to-day consciousness and the processes of integration and control of the informational structure through which we have our place in the world.

3.3.1. To summarize the thalamo-cortical system. The thalamus acts somewhat as the hub in a wheel, the spokes of which are nerve bundles traveling from the body periphery (carrying sense and bodily data) and which are then relayed up into the cortex and cortical association areas for interpretive processing. All of the sensory pathways (with the exception of the olfactory) are routed through the thalamus. For example, the optic tract runs from the retina, through the optic chiasm to the thalamus and thence into the lateral geniculate from where it is distributed into the occipital (or visual) cortex at the back of the brain. Auditory data from the inner ear is relayed through the medial geniculate into the auditory cortex in the temporal lobes. All of the face and body's proprioceptive data is routed through the thalamus on its way to the somato-sensory cortex. These are ascending pathways.

3.3.2. At the same time there is a vast array of nerve bundles descending from the cortical areas onto the intralaminar nuclei and the nuclear reticularis in the thalamus. These descending pathways act to gate the sensory data being presented to the cortex and it is in this capacity for the cortex to control what data it is being sent at any moment that we can find the function we call selective attention. Also nerve bundles from the frontal and prefrontal areas go via the basal ganglia to the thalamus where they are integrated with sensory data to help in the control of motor functions.

3.4. Essentially what's going on is that there is an array of massively connected feedback control circuits, organized horizontally around the thalamus and the basal ganglia and various emotion function nuclei and vertically between the cortex and the thalamus. The former (the horizontal) give behavioral control and the latter (the vertical) provide sensory control, especially in preventing the cortex from being overwhelmed by sensory input.

3.5. Also, in the cortex are vast arrays of intra-cortical nerve connections which probably provide the capacity to associate different sensory modalities and to interpret grouped or bound collections of data from different senses that allow one to, for example, recognize that the sounds you hear are coming from the mouth you see speaking to you, and that the individual whose mouth you are watching is saying things that have meaning.

4. The organization of things

4.1. But it is the purpose of the descending pathways which I want to concentrate on for a moment. These descending pathways act as a control system. The data the cortex is being fed from moment to moment is determined or controlled by the cortex. We have operating here a kind of feedback network which turns the whole thalamo-cortical system into a self-regulating process. This capacity for self-regulation forms the basis for almost all levels of life, from the regulation of cellular metabolism to the behavior of individuals in society.

4.2.1. So what is this feedback thing? In a system which, say, acts as a buffer for a subsequent processing system the results of the process are compared with the needs of the system and any difference (or error) is analyzed in such a way as to provide an indication to the buffer of what is needed by the subsequent processor. This feedback can be either negative (i.e. inhibitory) with respect to the input, or positive (i.e. excitatory) with respect to the input.

memory brain mind
Wiener's generalized feedback process (from Norbert Wiener. Cybernetics, 1948 (10))

4.2.2. In the brain, the cortex feeds back to the thalamus a complex set of inhibitory and excitatory controls which allow it to have a measure of control over what it is being fed, thus it does not get overwhelmed by the immense amounts of sensory input which are to a large extent unnecessary for its survival. If this feedback control system did not exist it would be as though we lived permanently in the grip of an LSD experience, and we and all of society would collapse. But not with binaural beat audio technology. Click Here binaural beat brain wave audio technology

4.3. In an engineering context an electronic amplifier is regulated by a certain proportion of the output being fed back into the input as an inverted (or negative) representation of that input. But, and this is a crucial point, it takes time for this process to occur. It takes time for the electrons to travel through the circuit to the output. This is called propagation delay. If the frequency of the signal, and the propagation delay through the amplifier, is such that the output of the amplifier, when fed back to the input is positive (or non-inverted) with respect to the input then the amplifier becomes an oscillator. You've heard this numerous times when a microphone is placed in front of the speaker to which it is being fed. The combination of feedback and propagation delay causes a circuit to reverberate or act as an oscillator. It becomes a resonant circuit which may be considered as holding the information in the circuit for longer than the period of the original information. This is a form of memory.

consciousness brain mind body
Video Feedback shows the effect of propagation delay in creating an oscillating system which can undergo considerable perturbation and still be stable.

4.3.1. In the thalamo-cortical reverberatory system this will be what we know as short-term memory. But there is a bigger system here. Myriads of feedback pathways are operating, propagation delays of all sorts of intervals are involved and so we have a very complex, but organized and self-regulating set of systems which is the activity of our brains. The period of the resonance might well be in the order of several hundred milliseconds, which is similar to human reaction time. This short-term memory period is our present, our being-in-the-world. We don't feel the world as being a succession of instantaneous states but as a period of connectedness with things before they become the past.

4.4. Now Rodolfo Llinas and others, particularly using magneto-encephalography, have remarked on a rhythmical 40Hz pattern traveling "across the entire cortex" (Newman). This is a field being sensed by the detector with a duration of 25 milliseconds before it collapses again. (Is this some sort of function of the refractory period of a neuron's activation sequence?) This rhythmical field will be the result of coordinated neural activity which happens in steps (or cycles). In the engineering world we call this a clocked system. Clocked systems grab the state of the system and hold it till the next clock cycle where they grab the next state. The state of the system is refreshed every 25 milliseconds.

4.4.1. Given the variable propagation delays through different sensory pathways a means of synchronizing and holding various input so that they can be bound together and become as different aspects of a single event is provided by a clocked system. This will also provide what is perhaps the so called eidetic memory into which we dip for confirming what was just said for example. Or perhaps from which we "hear" ourselves speak and know what we are saying.

4.4.2. Presumably also some aspects of the past state of the system are retained by the current sample and fed back into the current sample via descending processes from the cortex, enabling the sense of being in a continuing phenomenal field of the present.

4.5. But this would only apply to the conscious system, what we are actively attending to, the stuff of our consciousness currently. Now, obviously, we all also have instant response requestors and reflexes which operate at the immediate sense level and use express routes into the attention setting sub-system. So there may be higher processing frequencies, or clock rates, with other faster (for example music listening) systems being active. Though the massively parallel nature of all sensing sub-systems presumably enables this full sensory awareness to occur at slower speeds than otherwise necessary, (that is, at sampling rates below what would be necessary in serial sampling for sensory awareness).

4.6. In the magneto-encephalographic frame this field of activation, showing up as 40Hz oscillations, is a matter of nerve propagation and the activities of electrons and electro-magnetic fields. I want to suggest that in order to describe what goes on in these reverberatory fields we might use the concept of phase modulation as a means for describing the process of the large-scale behavior of an organized complexly interacting system. That is, the electro-magnetic/chemical activity of the system is describable within phase-modulation terms.

4.6.1. I will elaborate: in a dynamic system, phase is a description of the timing aspects of various parts of the system with respect to one another. If we look at an event at one moment, look away to something else and then look at the first event again we will see that event at a different phase of its process. Phase describes sets of relations over time and as these sets of relations are altered by, say, contextual factors, the system may be said to be phase modulating.

4.6.2. Behavior impacts on the nervous system which is undergoing this immensely complex phase-modulation live. The thalamo-cortical system, fed by perceptual input and the brain stem, and supported, analyzed and "driven" by the cortex is an immense feedback network which, if happening in an electronic circuit environment, could only be considered a resonating circuit. Notice that propagation delay will play an important role such that the propagation delay and its results in the adding and subtracting of waveforms (i.e. phase modulation) contributes to the resonance of a system.

4.6.3. Any input, fed forward from sensory input systems or fed back into the circuit from cortical association and control structures will affect the "shape" of the overall reverberating circuit. The amount of any signal in the circuit will be affected by the intensity of the input and the feedback structures.

4.6.4. Signals being propagated through the thalamo-cortical structure or any other structure in the brain are embodied in nerve processes and grouped as assemblies, the magnitude of which are determined by the needs of the active system at the time (a la Greenfield (11)). These nerve processes have at least an electronic aspect (as well as a neurochemical aspect) and as such will create an electro-magnetic field within and about the physiological structures of nerve assemblies. This electro-magnetic field is what is detected in magneto-encephalography, and because it is embodied in a physical structure it will display a kind of "shape" showing the phase relationships among different representational aspects of the current condition of conscious knowing and the near-conscious data contained in various support structures' informational processes. Any instantaneous state of the system can be described by a phase diagram (albeit an extremely complex one) and as the system changes in real time, according to new input, reverberant memory and associations, the phase state of the system will be modulating. Thus a phase modulation description will map the ongoing changing states of the physiology and of consciousness.

4.6.5. It should be obvious from what I have been saying here that the changes in phenomenal consciousness generated by a new input, a new decision or whatever, will take place in actual physiological nerve processes and these physiological changes will thus change the electron transport conditions in the nerves. Electron transport can be detected as electro-magnetic fields and so we have directly detectable physical concomitants of phenomenological activity. Of course our detection equipment would need to have extraordinarily sophisticated signal processing to tease out the contribution of any particular input or thought to the overall shape of the field, but in principle it could be done.

4.6.6. The nervous system is an electro-chemical system undergoing phase modulation and propagation delay and resonance with the world. The period of the propagation delay may well be a couple of hundred milliseconds, enough to give us the present we are always with. The buzz of representations and productions in the brain are us and we represent them phenomenologically and investigate their physiology and their physics. We are inside this resonance, we live it, we are it.

5. A couple of observations on phenomena

I would like to mention a couple of phenomenal events which say interesting things about some of the conditions of this reverberatory process of being conscious.

5.1. First. At Tucson II, Daniel Dennett gave a demonstration of a visual phenomenon in which a person looking at an image on a monitor screen was simultaneously watched for eye movement, or saccades, as the subject focused on different aspects of the image presented. When one such saccade occurred the image displayed was changed in some way, usually quite strongly, for example the color of a coat worn by someone in the image would change color. The person being tested would almost invariably be unable to detect any change in the image, being unable to describe what had changed. It was usually not until told about the change, that they would suddenly see it.

5.1.1. Now the saccade is of interest for me here. I would suggest that the saccade happens in the collapsed period of Llinas' 40Hz rhythmical field and thus we don't see anything during that period. As we are triggered by difference (i.e. the activity of things changing, the actual changing) as our primary comparator, the slower cortical comparators don't have the data of a noticed change to set them up (or off). One of the reasons for this to happen is that the collapsed period, in some sense means no seeing (or whatever). During a saccade the shifting pattern of light on the retinas moves very fast and all sorts of confusing data would be provided and so it might be necessary that a number of critical circuits, particularly motion detectors, be disabled while the flick of the eye occurs so that we don't "spin out".

5.2. Secondly, I want to mention another visual phenomenon that shows some interesting relations here. I've often noticed, oddly enough mostly while sitting in restaurants, that a person will walk past an open doorway, say walking along the street, and I will realize that I only noticed them being in the doorway after there had already developed a significant space behind them, i.e. between them and the door jam on the edge from which they had entered the scene. So this must mean that it takes a considerable period for the recognition of most mundane, non-threatening events, possibly an interval of 25 milliseconds, which is the period of these putative "sampled events in consciousness".

6. Now, back to the cortex itself: Addressing memory.

6.1. In the cortex there is also a layer of horizontally connected nerve processes. These are the association pathways which store and associate all the array of stimulus which has become memory. I wonder whether a neuron assembly which is involved in memory processing could be able to assist in the remembering of different things overlaid onto the one network by controlling the triggering of patterns of data through different synaptic structures applied to a particular neuron. Nerve nets are programmed dynamically by weightings that might also recede to zero (off) just as they might vary only slightly around a mean value. The same nerve net will produce a great array of different outputs depending on the weights applied at its inputs and so a number of different, say, "concepts" could be represented by the same nerve net, depending on the representations of input and recurrent data available in all the contextual, i.e. surrounding, neural elements in the net. These "patterns of activation" [P.M.Churchland's phrase] could be seen as a kind of addressing structure in which the values represented serve as addresses (or pointers) for concepts further upstream.

6.2. A neuron structure will then be able to assist in the storage and retrieval of a number of different memories from an assembly through this variable addressing structure. This addressing structure will presumably emulate the original patterns of the laying down of any particular memory trace. In a sense the addressing structure is the memory and it triggers activators (or representation processors) to work in particular ways in assembling different memories (that is re-assembling the past).

6.3. These addressing structures are set down by experience, by learning, by practice in the environment particularly through childhood where the basic patterns are set down. The culture, in which the individual grows up, sets up the meme structure which is actively embodied on the inter-neuronal synaptic structure. Memes then become addressing structure with a phenomenological frame or representation. Notice the role of culture.

7. The Culture dimension

7.1. What of this cultural dimension? Culture and society provide the sources of the modulating activity of our day-to-day lives: the external/social/perceptual and the internal/generative/reflective: We are interactive systems within the culture. We have an active relationship with others and the world around us be it in real space, mythic/cultural space or cyberspace.

7.2. Each of us has active relations with people and things. Our social interactions operate in the face-to-face, the personal, the social; and the remote (e.g. publishing a book, or producing art). They operate at many scales, and depending how much social power our output has, within greater or lesser segments of the society or culture. We generate output, from an embrace to the Magna Carta, and this output has some sort of impact on some other entities in the culture. The people and structures upon whom this output impacts will then, should they so chose, be able to produce responses which are feedback to us, if we choose to receive it. So one is in an active relation with the world around: what we do changes it, what others do changes us. Now the content of this activity has meaning and this is achieved through the operations of our brains, bringing the sensory input into consciousness.

7.3. Culture modulates and guides the growth and development of a living conscious entity. Culture shapes the content and the interpretive structures of the brain. We grow into our current self(-identity). What we experience shapes the maturation of the nervous system and the growth of our "minds".

7.3.1. As an infant develops any move of the muscles stimulates afferent nerves. This stimulation initiates myelination of the nerve fiber, and also asserts in the brain the existence of the fiber and its mapping into whichever cortical area it is involved with. Adjacent fibers carrying stimuli (signals) from adjacent areas on the sensing surface are similarly myelinated and mapped into the cortex. The infant will at first only sense inchoately. As more input occurs mappings will be consolidated and refined. At the same time efferent nerves are carrying signals which initiate movements, the nerves are myelinated by their use and the muscles are stimulated to develop in their ability to respond. As muscles move they impact with external objects and stir internal proprioceptive sensors, thus returning signals to the appropriate sensory cortexes which carry feedback on the muscle action.

7.3.2. In the brain nerve processes from sensory areas feed data to other areas of the brain including direct, and higher level, motor control areas. When the infant hand impacts upon an object the grasping reflex leads to attempted interaction with the object which further stimulates the sensory systems. If grasping is not possible, say because of the size of the object, then other action will tend to take place to compensate in some way, by, say, opening the hand more. The activity of reaching and touching stimulates the nerves in the arms to grow and myelinate and stimulates the differentiation and mapping of the nerves in the brain which handle sense data, feeding it into control centers, differentiating and mapping these nerves. This provides a substrate for finer control over the muscles. A feedback loop of refining control by successive approximation results, our aim becomes better and better; and soon we are reaching, holding, pulling, crawling and so on better and better. Maturation of the brain and consciousness takes place in direct relation with maturing of the body.

7.4. If the brain is seen as a numerically immense collection of organized systems of nerves and their interconnections and the supporting wetware that keeps everything operating, we can represent it as a collection of neural nets in which the whole range of distributed processing tasks, which we use either in or out of consciousness, function to keep us operating in the world. All the patterns of stimulation which flow through this massively parallel distributed processing system are originated in the body's ongoing becoming in the world, or in external data from the world and our reflections upon that. So the connectionism that develops among neural processes is determined by the stimulus they receive and the kinds of systems available for handling that stimulus. If the so-called "weightings" of the synaptic connections are dependent upon the exercise of stimulated neural processing systems then the world as we know it will be embedded in the data structures set up within these neural nets. At birth there will be little beyond the basic propensities of the brain: to learn to crawl, to walk, to recognize a face, to acquire language: no content as such. The contents of consciousness and thus our being in the world are embedded in us by stimulus we acquire by being in the world.

7.4.1. Setting up the addressing patterns/structures suggested in section 6 is started here, at birth. Socialization of the infant into the family, language and society at large, establish and enable consciousness in ourselves as individuals. The surrounding culture is an intrinsic and necessary part of the process of the emergence of consciousness in all humans beings. An entirely isolated individual would fail to develop many of the aspects of consciousness which I canvassed in section 1.

7.4.2. Daniel Dennett talks of units of meaning, memes, that are the content of our consciousness and no doubt active below consciousness as well. Among other things the brain is a system for acquiring, elaborating and reporting memes. Their propagation in society is enabled by their operation within the system of our brains (the processes of our physiology) in which memes have their duration and their change and flow. The physiology is the skein within which these things are embodied, given substance. Ideas only exist in brains and in the cultural, in-the-world-manifested projections of our minds, i.e. the models we project onto the world and the things we make of the world, be they books or buildings.

7.5. The contents of the brain may well be like the contents of a language, codes for those things apprehended, as words are codes, signs standing in for the object. There is only the complex of processes (the patterns of activation, the addressing structures) standing for the object in the brain. There is a sense in which the known world is not congruent with what is "out there" in that everything we know of the world is contained in the processing system which we call the brain. Computer graphics and imagery are often spoken of as being "simulacra" of things in the world, the "virtual" as distinguished from something supposed to be real, but all we know of the world partakes as simulacra. What is contained in the brain/body/self is (an encoding of) the current flow through, and resonance's of, the data of the world: social, physical; in light and sound and smell.

7.5.1. What we know is not the world, but our sensory processing of its waves and disjunctions. It is our culturally derived representations of what we have experienced. When an infant is born and commences interacting with all about it its nerves are sparked into the commencement of maturation. The discernment of the buzzing, blooming confusion reaches focus and sound is differentiable enough to be from specifiable sources and resolves into language and light resolves into recognition. The brain is in a very strong way being wired up (more correctly the pathways not stimulated drop away, atrophy). The internal structures of the nervous system physiology are the coat-hangers upon which the coats of the culture are being hung. Each individual will be unique, having been exposed to a unique stream of stimulus and context. The wardrobe of self will be entirely distinctive made up from the available elements and styles of the culture surrounding. If people don't wear shirts then shirts are unknown. One might argue that our representations as internally generated actually project out meaning onto the fabric of unknowability.

7.5.2. Our physiology develops via interaction with its environment, both in terms of its immediate physical environment as contacted via movement and touch (for the drawing out of mobility and engagement), and in terms of the development of the social-interactive capabilities that render our individual consciousnesses human. As visual and auditory sensations become sorted out the nerves establish the connectionism of their nets, and personal, cultural and linguistic capacities develop. We are dependent on the stimulation we receive from the world for the growth of our physiology as much as through any drive on the part of the physiology itself. It is as if growth were drawn out of us by the world, the fabric of the source of all our sensations. This process never really stops, the ripples and ramifications of our being in the world feed, enfold, inform the world that we know, informing, enfolding and feeding us. In this larger scale, culture is the driver of the "phase modulation" of the physiology of consciousness.

7.6. Emotions and chemical modulation. Our existence in the world requires input from the world, we are not closed systems. We require food and air and sunshine and stuff and these have various effects upon our physiology. We also engage in social contact and this also has impact on the body's physical being. Physical/social events produce physiological responses both as the process of moving our arms or our mouths and as the biochemical impacts of the metabolism which enables a muscle to move. The brain monitors this behavior and feeds back into the body with desires and needs which also produce biochemical events. All of this stuff starts to become a (somewhat simplified) look at the role of emotions in consciousness. The appearance of highly emotional stimuli will change our hormonal chemistry balance and this at least in some sense will have a modulatory impact on consciousness. If we feel hungry our consciousness will try and direct us towards feeding.

8. In conclusion:

A summary of what I think might be going on to produce consciousness.

In a complex flow of world processing, if we change (arbitrarily) the state or the sign of one aspect, then the timing of this change will effect/affect the phase-shape of the waveform of that processing flow. In humans this change of state is psychological/phenomenological: we have decided to alter the conditions, but it alters the physiological conditions as a direct result. Which came first? The decision or the conditions requiring the decision. It matters little, they come from both directions, embedded in the physiology where all this goes on.

This assumes that we have an identifiable system through which this world-processing occurs. In Bernie Baars' terms this is the Global Workspace (12), in James Newman's and Rudolfo Llinas' and John Taylor's and Joseph Bogen's terms the thalamo-cortical system (9) is the work horse, the structure through which this occurs. The two classes of representation used here map directly onto each other. The downward control flow from the cortex is the pathway through which a psychological decision (e.g. a change of plans) is translated into the global consciousness and the physiology.

A formal description (a model only, an abstraction) of the particular planning process will have decision points within the streams of data where, so to speak, "collision" or merging occurs between streams. One might call it a functional description of the processes, or functions, engaged at any particular moment. Conjunctions between ideas will occur, new perceptions enter, some demanding immediate attention, priority. Planning needs to be altered: "Don't bump into me!". The link between perception and planning, between hearing and interpretation is through the thalamo-cortical system. What to attend to is determined as much by input, (e.g. an interruption) as by high level decision about what word to put next.

The real time "results" of "running" the function description is the process of being of an individual. (And on another scale, where the exchange and flow of ideas and goods in a society describe the dynamic "state", the fluid flow, of that society).

We are a phenomenological state machine implemented on a physiological substrate. Consciousness will be a subsection of this state-machine running day-to-day, moment-by-moment thoughts and memory, attentiveness and active sensory and motor control. We change the neural states and assemblies and we change the weightings of synaptic connections and this is going to change the process and pathways of electron flow which modulates the waveform of the system description live, on the fly. Modulating the waveform of our on-going process is a function of the phase relationships of the contributory data streams. It happens over time.

This complex wave shape of "immense dimension" modulating over time will produce a self-sustaining resonance. Our sense of continuity shows much depth in this resonance.

These resonant circuits will run in both localizable and global levels. Are the smaller ones, the localizable, directly a part of consciousness or more the (source of) contributory streams? Are they entities in themselves (Daemons)? Are they ideas? concepts? thoughts and emotions that keep coming back to us? Is there a system with oversight which I call self: "myself"? We are probably a complex of these things which it is the job of the psychiatrist, for example, to repair when damaged or disrupted or just grown too distorted to allow us to keep operating.

The "explanatory gap" invoked by David Chalmers in his formulation of the Hard Problem is the issue of how to explain the presence of subjectivity, i.e. the phenomenal, in an otherwise materialist, objective, representation which is physiology. Descartes originally created this problem when he split off the mind, the self, from the otherwise mechanical description of the body. Having made the separation (which I suspect was more of a political act than anything else) he then had to explain how the mind could control the body. His invoking the Pineal body as the means through which this control occurred was shown to be unsatisfactory and so the problem as formulated remained. We now see it in Chalmers' Hard Problem which is really a question of how do the two kinds of representation map onto each other.

As I have said above "The buzz of representations and productions in the brain are us and we represent them phenomenologically and investigate their physiology and their physics. We are inside this resonance, we live it, we are it."

There is no Hard Problem, consciousness is simply the ongoing process of being (inside) an immensely complex reverberatory circuit with a stripped down, simplified set of attentions and interpretations which we apply at any particular moment. Our active control over what we are doing from moment to moment is a physiological activity. We know what we want to do and we do what's necessary to achieve it by the self-regulation of what comes onto the "global workspace" the "stage" of consciousness [Baars]. I don't see this as some sort of competitive process but a co-operative process which we are inside and actively engaged in. Self-regulation is not competitive but constructive.

The only dualism necessary is the dualism of two classes of descriptive representation, the phenomenological and the physiological. They talk about the same process and we can see this mapping relation in the phase modulation of the electro-magnetic fields produced by nerve activities which are a direct affect of a change of phenomenological state, (e.g. a change of mind, a new decision).

The only hard problem we really have is getting our own heads around this idea that just as the complex interrelations between molecules and cells and their organized structuring and dynamics produces living things so the organized dynamics of the vast neuronal structure of our brains as in the world will also "go live" and this is being conscious.


References and Links

1. John Searle: presentation to Tucson II.

2a. William James. (1890) Principles of Psychology
2b. William James. (1892) Textbook of Psychology

3. John Locke. (1721) An Essay on Human Understanding

4. Paul Churchland. (1995) The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the Soul. A Philosophical Journey into the Brain. M.I.T. Press.

5. Robert Kirk (1996) The Basic Package in The Brain Project

6. David Chalmers (1996) The Hard Problem in The Brain Project

7. de la Mettrie L'Homme Machine

8. Hughlings Jackson. West Riding Asylum Reports 1876

9. James Newman (1997) Putting the Puzzle Together, Part I: Towards a General Theory of the Neural Correlates of Consciousness. in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4 1, pp47-66.

10. Norbert Wiener (1948) Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Wiley.

11.. Susan Greenfield (1996) Neural Assemblies in The Brain Project

 

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