December 8th, 2013 by Wil
I’ve been reading a book I’ve been interested in for some time: “The Mind’s I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul.” The subject is probably obvious from the title. Within its pages I came across an very thought provoking line of inquiry.
First, let’s consider the “conventional” view of consciousness. The idea is that we have all these brain neurons – tens of billions of them – connected to each other by their arms and legs (or more correctly dendrites and axons.) They send signals to one another and somehow, out of this mass of connecting wires, arrives consciousness. This is largely the premise of the book “Connectome” which I discussed on these very pages.
Let’s apply a thought experiment. Suppose you take a person’s brain and tease apart all the neurons from each other. You put each neuron in its own nutrient bath (to keep it alive) and you fix some kind of radio transmitter on each of its inputs and outputs (e.g. arms and legs.) Each neuron can now pass signals to all its fellows as it did before, only now it’s using these transmitters. (This is technically impossible but go with me on this.) Is it reasonable to conclude that this brain is still conscious? Maybe, though something seems off.
Let’s get even crazier. Lets say we observe that a particular experience – eating a cheese sandwich – causes the neurons to fire in a very precise order (as it almost certainly would.) Then, instead of placing radio transmitters on each neuron, we place little pulse devices that can zap each neuron just like a brain signal. At this point we should be able to activate (in this brain) the experience of eating a cheese sandwich just by zapping the neurons in exactly the same order (and same speed) they would be zapped during a “real” sandwich eating experience. But would our brain – a bunch of neurons lying in separate chemical baths, not even connected to each other but receiving zaps from pulse devices – be conscious? It seems hard to believe it would. What is binding these neurons together?
I can think of several possible conclusions from all this.
1) Dualists and spiritualists are right: there is an immaterial soul. Something that takes all that neural processing and in some way interprets it as a conscious experience. Of course, this is just taking one mystery – how does the brain work? – and replacing it with another – how does the soul work? (You could exchange the word “soul” with “mind” and make the same point.)
2) There’s some missing part to the connectome theory – some strange property that emerges out of complex systems like the brain, or dark matter, or weird laws of quantum physics, who knows what. This sort of thing is what I believe the quantum consciousness movement advocates.
3) Separate strands of unconnected brain tissue CAN be conscious. Maybe all sorts of weird complex systems can. Maybe clouds are conscious! Computers! The universe!
4) This one is hard to really put into words but I like it. We are presuming the brain has to correlate to this thing we call consciousness but we have never really defined consciousness. Maybe we aren’t really conscious at all? Maybe it’s just some kind of illusion? (But don’t we need to be conscious to be fooled by an illusion? Like I said, this one is tricky.)
October 21st, 2013 by Wil
A while back I was considering an idea for a fiction character. The conceit was that the character had multiple consciousnesses in their brain, but each consciousness generally arrived at the same decisions. So, if this person received an coffee from a waitress, one consciousness might think, “Wow, she sure brought the coffee fast, I better thank her,” while another consciousness might think, “Look at this whore. I bet she thinks by bringing me coffee quickly she’ll get a tip! Oh, well, I better thank her in the interests of conforming to society. Bleg.” In addition, neither consciousness was aware of the other.
I’m continuing to read Ray Kuzweil’s “How To Create a Mind” and he gets into some related territory, even allowing for the possibility of multiple consciousnesses. There is strong evidence for some version of this possibility. For example, we have Mike Gazzaniga’s split brain patients. I described these patients in an earlier post.
These are people, usually epileptic, who’ve had the series of neural fibers that connect their left and right brain hemispheres separated (for therapeutic reasons.) Gazzaniga came to find that in subtle ways these people are really of two minds. The right hemisphere is very literal and has no language function. The left hemisphere is the interpreter (e.g. it can construct stories and explanations – often incorrectly – from observed events), and has rich language functionality.
His exact experiments have been described many times and I see no reason to repeat them here. (This Nature article covers the gist.) But what’s observed is that the two separate sections of brain really seem to process the world separately and be unaware of each other.
We can also consider half brain patients. These are people, as you might suspect, have half a brain (either because of a birth defect or a surgical procedure.) The term is often considered derogatory, but in fact patients with half a brain function quite well. But they beg the question, what is that missing half a brain (present in most people) doing?
And of course, we can consider the unconscious – the part of your brain regulating your heart, causing your legs to walk and, possibly, repressing your sexual attraction to your dog, your primal hatred of all life etc. (Sometimes these two types of unconscious are broken up into the terms “unconscious” and “subconscious.”) Is the unconscious in some way conscious, but cordoned off from what we consider our conscious experience to be?
In a sense, I’m alleging that there’s more than one “I” in our skull. There’s our standard consciousness, which has rich language functionality and subjective experience, though maybe even that can be split into separate “Is” as the split brain experiments show. Then there’s the unconscious—probably the domain of our fear and pleasure driven reptilian brain—which has no language functionality. And maybe the unconscious can also be split into multiple components, each of them independently (in some sense) conscious.
You of course might say, “But I only feel that main, traditional consciousness—the one that gets up for work in the morning and and watches late night television at night?” Correct – “you” do, but I’m saying there are many “yous” in your body. It might help to think of those classic horror films where a person has an evil conjoined twin growing out of their body. That twin has no real say about what you (the main consciousness) decides to do, but he sits there, growing out of your chest and stewing in his anger*.
* Why do I presume these unconscious units are filled with hatred and anger as opposed to affable joy? It’s just the way I see the world, I guess.
Of course I’m really saying, maybe that evil twin (the un/subconscious) does have some effect on your decisions. He’s the classic Freudian subconscious nag, spurring you to chose a wife who reminds you of your mother, or to fear the boss who reminds you of the uncle who molested you before you had memory.
The question is whether these additional consciousnesses are really conscious the way “we” are. I suspect no; their consciousness is more like that of a dog or a bug. And we – the top consciousness – are left hearing the cries and pleas of these tiny consciousnesses and using them to guide our path through life.
UPDATE: Another neurosis implying some possible separate consciousness in one body: Alien Hand Syndrome! After a stroke…
The patient complained of a feeling of “strangeness” in relationship to the goal-directed movements of the left hand and insisted that “someone else” was moving the left hand, and that she was not moving it herself. Goldstein reported that, as a result of this report, “she was regarded at first as a paranoiac.” When the left hand grasped an object, she could not voluntarily release it. The somatic sensibility of the left side was reported to be impaired, especially with aspects of sensation having to do with the orienting of the limb. Some spontaneous movements were noted to occur involving the left hand, such as wiping the face or rubbing the eyes; but these were relatively infrequent. Only with significant effort was she able to perform simple movements with the left arm in response to spoken command, but these movements were performed slowly and often incompletely even if these same movements had been involuntarily performed with relative ease before while in the abnormal ‘alien’ control mode.