What does it mean to be conscious anyway?
I know I’m conscious. I can say “I”. I can plan what I want to do and then do it. I can plan to do something, not do it and feel bad about it. I remember what I did yesterday and what I thought I wanted to do tomorrow, last week. Much beyond the last few months or the next few months, things get a little hazy.
But “because I know” is a tough definition to get others to believe. There are a couple of neuroscientists and thinkers who have helped me flesh out this definition a bit. Antonio Damasio and Anil Seth.
In short, for both thinkers, the drive to remain alive or more simply, the drive to keep our bodies in working order underpins much of consciousness. We, each of us, sort of riffs on that theme, creating more and more levels of abstraction around that simple drive. If you’re skimming too fast, you may miss the subtlety that consciousness begins in the body. We humans are starting to understand that there’s no separation between mind and body. That we don’t treat one and not the other. But we’re really hard headed on that fact which is why we have separated mental and physical health so abruptly and incorrectly for much of our history. That influence causes us to have to choose — should I go to the doctor or is this all in my head? Well, yes. Absolutely.
But let’s say I’m a conscious human and I detect a slight alteration in the functioning of my liver. What’s that you say? I can’t detect that? OK, let’s say I’m a human and I’ve been feeling ever increasing anxiety for the past few months. I don’t go see my doctor, I go see a therapist. The therapist asks me to think about whether I can feel this anxiety originating in any part of my body. I point to my liver. Ah, interesting, the therapist says. Then we move on to my childhood. Antonio Damasio or Anil Seth might say that the stimulus originates in the body and the anxiety is what happens to that stimulus when the mind works frantically to predict the reason and find a way to bring me back into homeostasis, or a correctly functioning state.
The therapist is not entirely wrong. I learned much of what I know about what the feelings in my body mean and what to do about them in childhood. But a similar feeling can be produced by a variety of different types of homeostatic hiccups. Maybe I was hungry. Maybe I was afraid of the neighbor’s dog. And who would I go to to alleviate either of those two issues? My parents. So as children, we learn that in order to deal with homeostatic issues, we need to influence these two people (or one, or three, actually more would probably be better) to help us get our needs met (which puts social structure front and center early on to physical survival). So our little budding conscious minds begin to study and learn how to influence our primary care givers to, well, give us care. And boy do we learn a valuable lesson. It’s not always so easy to do. Even if there are two of them and they are both relatively healthy (when I say that, I don’t mean just physically healthy as is the assumption), they may not understand what we need, and may replace our needs with needs they think we should have/want. We are smart little creatures, so we learn what works, even if it doesn’t make any sense. The more unhealthy the parents, the more we have to develop patterns that are out of line with the norm of society. But as young children, we don’t know that yet.
As we get older, we start to realize that those patterns don’t work everywhere, and don’t make sense to other people. But it’s too late in many cases because we’ve hardwired those patterns in our developing brains (maturing brains prune lots of neurons and leave the connections that are the most effective). Often to a degree that we do not realize that our approach is not getting us what we want because the approach is flawed. This is where mental health starts to break down, and this is where an understanding of consciousness can really come in handy (along with psilocybin).
Consciousness is not static nor is it binary. Much of what goes on in our bodies is not illuminated by consciousness, including much of what goes on in our brains. This is by design, and helpful most of the time. There are very complex processes happening very quickly everywhere inside us right now, and if we had to be conscious of them for them to work, we’d be dead. Our minds constantly make predictions about stimuli both internally and externally, and using unconscious intelligence (intelligence does not in any way equal consciousness), to determine what to do about them and where to route them. Our consciousness doesn’t get a direct say in how that filtering and routing happens, at least not until after the fact.
Let’s take an example loosely based on a thought experiment from Anil Seth. Walking in the woods you see a trees, leaves and other plant life. There are lots of details of light and shadow, and you may assume that what you see is actually what is there. But that’s not how vision works. Between the raw photon data collected by your eyes and the actual image formed in your mind (because you see with your mind, not your eyes), data is being filtered pretty systematically. Data from two neurons may provide enough action potential (electrical charge) to affect one more, then a group of its peers may help it provide enough affect another in the chain, or not, and there’s a dead end for that particular piece of information. When just enough information is available to recognize a thing, any missing details are filled in by what we already knew about that kind of thing. So really, you’re seeing a sliver of what your eyes actually detect. And we have the hubris to think that we see the world as it is.
But, here’s where it gets interesting. Something moves in the distance. Something that is not a tree or a leaf that we can safely and happily allow our minds to deceive us about. This is new and novel and has motion. Your heart is already beating a bit faster and breathing has already gotten more rapid. All of those things cause our consciousness to wake up a bit. What was that? Assuming we haven’t spent much time in the wilderness and don’t already have some stored information to rely on, we will probably turn toward it and look closer. It’s dark. We know that. But our brain doesn’t have any information to fill in the gaps, so we need to get closer. Luckily, the thing in the distance begins moving toward us. Is it another hiker? Is it a skunk? No. It doesn’t fit those stored archetypes. But we focus. Our conscious minds are now in the game, and directing the show a bit more.
Oh shit. I think it’s bear. Is it? It’s getting closer. By the time you can consciously ask that question, your body has already been reacting for some time. Pre-conscious intelligence has already keyed into the potential for reaction to this new stimulus before your conscious mind has been asked to decide what to do. Should you run? Stay put? Wave your arms? There is now a need for a response complex enough that consciousness is required.
That same sort of pre-conscious intelligence is working when we experience stimuli that may not pose a direct physical threat, but, for us humans, may cause a social threat. Since complex social strategies are part of how we physically survive as we learned when we were children, potential social threats arouse the same sorts of responses in our bodies that physical threats do. And similarly, our bodies are going to try to short circuit slow, plodding, energy consuming conscious thinking processes by pre-precessing as much of the information as possible for speed and efficiency (extra credit, who is the thing that decides which efficiencies are possible — would you consider that to be you, or god, or something else?). So what is passed to our conscious minds is highly pre-chewed based on previous experience, and sent through well worn pathways — no time for neuroplasticity now, we’re in danger! And we end up with a response very similar to responses we’ve used in the past. If those responses are maladaptive, so be it. They’re what we have.
If we do find those responses to be maladaptive, we can try to change them with our conscious thoughts. The problem with that, though, is that we don’t have all of the information. It’s been kept from us by those pre-conscious processes. So we don’t know exactly what to change about the response. If the thing we’re afraid of hasn’t happened yet, this may lead to incessant rumination about the thing that doesn’t lead to any different outcome because our consciousness doesn’t know which levers to pull and buttons to push to adapt the response. If the thing we’re afraid has passed, we can think of theoretical ways we might do differently the next time, and if enough of the data is available to us, we may be able to adapt. But that is more the exception than the rule because the part of our minds we’re using to come up with a better theoretical approach often cannot communicate with or affect the parts that process the actual response. So yeah, I can figure out that if I don’t eat extra cookies every night after dinner, I won’t gain weight, but the part of my mind that figured that out has no pathway to communicate the dopamine reward cycle that will push me to eat cookies again tonight. That cycle is not triggered by what I want. It’s triggered by patterns of how I’ve dealt with homeostatic sensations and the pre-conscious processing that I’ve used thousands of times before, probably from a very young age, to alleviate those sensations.
We’ve talked about what is and is not consciousness, but not the requirements. Here is a non-exhaustive list.
- You must have a drive to retain homeostasis. All living organisms that I know of fit that bill. Check.
- You must have internal stimuli to let you know when homeostasis is in jeopardy. Check.
- You must have a way to manipulate information in the form of images (pictures, language, concepts, etc.), similar to a computer interface over the top of 1s and 0s in order to get information, consciously process it and send information back to the system. These images are not necessarily pictures and are what Antonio Damasio calls the substrate of consciousness. Check.
- You must have a prediction system for determining what to do about changes in homeostasis. Check. It’s sort of accurate.
- In order to have that prediction system, you must have a body of knowledge to draw upon for a stimulus and how that stimulus has affected you, the organism in the past. Check. This is where AI consciousness becomes less feasible. AI would need not just a store of data, but a connection between that data and its own survival. It would have to fear death.
- You must be able to direct attention, to focus more closely on processing some combinations of images related to internal and external stimuli at the expense of others.
Bonus: Mapping the pre-conscious brain
Extremely roughly speaking, the external stimuli come from the bottom and rear of the brain. Our sensory data comes directly from sense organs or through the brain stem in the case of touch and interoceptive sensations (from inside the body). That means the brain stem, cerebellum, medulla oblongata and other areas that below the cortex which is the wrinkly part we think of as the brain. In the cortex proper, the back (occipital lobe) usually begins the sensory processing with the aid of the middle (parietal lobe) and sides (temporal lobe) turns that data into the images (pictures, words, concepts, etc) that we consider thought. The center area below the cortices is the limbic area where we find the thalamus, hippocampus, amygdala and other areas that take many actions to associate and relay information. The cingulate (sometimes called limbic lobe) is the part of the cortex that surrounds the limbic area most closely, and is the shortest distance when responding consciously to stimuli. Then, of course, the prefrontal cortex which we lionize as the executive, but like most executives, it is often the last to know things after information passes through and is processed by the rest of the “organization”.
That’s enough for now. That’s highly simplistic and there are many thousand page books written on the topic.
I’ve done my best, here, to introduce and play with some complex topics. As usual, I implore you not to take what I say as fact, but as a spark for curiosity. In fact, treat the entire internet that way. Maybe all of reality. Reality may be the next topic. We’ve just gone through an exercise which calls into question our concept of objective reality from a neurological perspective, and there is plenty of reason, possibly even imperative to reject the idea of objective reality from a physics perspective. But we’ll leave that go until a future muttering.
Please, be curious and be skeptical.