Saturday, February 11, 2012


There are a couple of excellent problems in the theory of evolution.  One is how life began (the topic of an early blog) and another, which I scratched my head over in another entry, is the strange phenomena of speciation, particularly hybrid infertility.  And there is morality.

But one of the most interesting is consciousness itself.  I’ve found it easy to accept that there is an advantage to being conscious in terms of the flexibility it provides when faced with complex situations.  But that just begs the question.  Even if we could process our environment very well – if we were supercomputers – why would we need a sense of self?

According to Steven Pinker, in How the Mind Works, many cognitive scientists consider short-term memory (which, counter to popular belief, refers to just the last few seconds), is a lot like consciousness. Just a handfull of things can be held in the short term memory at a time, so objects, models and concepts are particularly efficient use of that space.  "When we are aware of a piece of information, many parts of the mind can act on it.  ...  Conscious information is inferentially promiscuous; it makes itself available to a large number of information-processing agents rather than committing itself to one alone."  He argued that consciousness has four components: 1) the perceptual field of sights, smells etc., 2) a "spotlight of attention" which creates a model from raw perception, 3) a range of emotions which color the objects, and 4) a sense of self, an "I" who has executive control.  And each of these is groomed by evolution.

This still leaves a lot of questions unanswered.  So when I read great reviews for a recent book specifically on the topic of consciousness -- and then it was recommended by a friend -- I put the Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self on my wish list and received it for the winter holiday.

I haven't become a great fan of the book, because I think the author, a philosopher, was unable or unwilling to write clearly.  But I’m still very interested in the topic and I’d like to lay down my own naïve musings, and some items I gleaned from The Tunnel.

I feel certain that consciousness, like the other aspects of higher organisms, was assembled piece by piece, usually for an advantage and sometimes as a side effect of something else that was advantageous.  I think we can understand it and we eventually will.  I’m suspicious of free will, as it seems obvious to me that both nature and nurture are fundamentally given.  But there is much of consciousness I just can’t easily see, probably because I am swimming – maybe drowning – in it.

Most of my life I have had bizarre and lucid dreams, and friends have encouraged me to look closely at them.  The more mystical friends think the dreams might be information from beyond, and the Freudian ones say they reveal something fundamental from myself, things I repress in my waking state.  I’ve always considered both prospects nonsense, and I decided a couple of decades ago to dismiss the stupid dreams altogether and I’ve made no effort on their behalf since.

But this book suggests that dreams are interesting in a way I hadn't considered.  They are a subset of processes, he said.  You see part of consciousness in the dream.  Dreams, then, may be a way to parse out how the mind works because parts are missing.  In particular, one is rarely able to “look around” as in an awakened state.  Metzinger calls this a lack of "attentional agency."  Places, time, people’s identities, pain, temperature, smell and taste .. these are often missing in dreams.  Fear, elation, and anger are often exaggerated but the emotions shame, guilt, and sadness are rare.  I know my dreams.  This is pretty true.  I've taken a new interest not in the content of dreams, but in their elements.

Metzinger also makes an interesting argument that our sense of a seen object involves a “first order process” of integrating visual information into an entity (book, tree etc.), followed by a “second order process”: directing ones’ attention to the book or tree.  Because the first order process occurs faster than the second order process we are not aware of it.  We think the book simply exists; we don't imagine we created from patches of light waves because that part happens so fast.  “It makes your brain invisible to itself.  You are in contact only with its content.”  I find this fascinating.

I read myself to sleep.  Then, I had a lucid dream; these are the dreams where you are aware that you’re dreaming and have memory of waking life and the dream simultaneously.  In the dream I was reading The Ego Tunnel, but the paragraphs were forming on the page before my eyes, six lines or so in advance.  Although the words were nonsense I was actually gaining insight from them; I was having “aha” moments.  This was so interesting that I paused to dream-explain it to a constructed not-identifiable person who was standing beside my bed – and I went back to dream reading.  It lasted I’d guess about 10 minutes.

I wonder if my brain was confirming not only the first order visual perception – the appearance of the paragraphs on the page – but also the construction of meaning from even random patterns.  As for the insights themselves, this itself is the only one I can recall.  What makes this most interesting to me is that there was no illusion of an existing paragraph to begin with.

Or maybe it was just more nonsense.  The author, who has studied this very carefully, said he could find no evolutionary advantage to dreaming except the heat regulation in mammals – idling of the engine, so to speak, to run the heater.

Another insight from the book, if I might paraphrase, is that consciousness evolved so that we can imagine and at the same time know we're imagining. This allows us to work out various if/then scenarios safely: thought experiments without the risk, which would be a clear evolutionary advantage.

And then there is the possible influence of mirror neurons in early development. These neurons, recently found in both monkeys and humans, match the body behavior we witness in others with our internal motor vocabulary.  In other words, when I see a see a batter swing and miss, I feel some of the same twisting.  And when I see someone laughing, or weeping, I feel the humor and the sorrow too.  Metzinger’s idea is that these neurons were form of communication which predated language (and maybe contributed to language too -- as they are found in the same regions of the brain.)  He says they are still active in learning and a source of permanent, instinctive empathy.  Perhaps the mirror neurons underlie our partnerships, attachments, socialization, empathy, altruism, and community.  Our brains are connected with wireless: mirror neurons.

Before you run out and buy the book, let me warn you.  Most of it is written in a convoluted and rambling prose which is difficult to follow unless (I suppose) you're both a philosopher and cognitive scientist.  I gave it three stars on Amazon, with the title “Obfuscation blurs the insight.”  At times I found the lack of clarity not only annoying but suspicious, and I had to put on my waders to get through some particularly swampy parts. 

Here’s a sample, taken almost at random:
"On this foundational level, which forms the preconditions of knowing something, truth and falsity do not yet exist, nor is there an entity who could have the illusion of a self. In this ongoing process on the subpersonal level, there is no agent - no evil demon that could count as the creator of an illusion. And there is no entity that could count as the subject of the illusion, either. There is nobody in the system who could be mistaken or confused about anything - the homunculus does not exist. We have only the dynamical self-organization of a new coherent structure - namely, the transparent self-model in the brain - and this is what it means to be no one and an Ego Machine at the same time. In sum and on the level of phenomenology as well as on the level of neurobiology, the conscious self is neither a form of knowledge nor an illusion. It just is what it is."
I kind of sort of know what that might mean. Maybe.  I made something of it, anyway -- like I did in my lucid dream, but I'm not confident it was exactly what the author intended.  But, like my dream, it is interesting, anyway.

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