The Enlightened Caveman


What Is Consciousness? A Trip Into The Mind
February 3, 2005, 4:35 pm
Filed under: My Theories, Philosophy, Science

Original Post (with comments)
I’m not trying to be a scientist. I’m really not. I’ve just read a wide variety of scientific topics, particularly those related to evolution, the brain, and thinking, and over the years and I’ve come to my own interpretation of, you might say, the gestalt of the mind. It’s sort of a general feel for the the physicality of it and how layers of abstraction are built upon that, a feel for its evolutionary history and the infrastructure it begat, and a feel for how all that translates into a wide swath of common behavior patterns. The probably sounds as arrogant and sure as possible. We’re inside my head right now, so bear with me. I’ll admit that if there are original ideas in my vision, they are the kind of originality you attribute to an editor. Nevertheless, if I’m being honest, my aim here is prove that my intuition is right. I really want it to be.

But I know that about myself. I’m conscious of it, and because of that, I’ve taken steps to insulate my curiosity from my bias. That’s why I’ve chosen critical rationalism as my method. I recognize up front that I can’t prove that I’m right, that I don’t have all the facts, and that my emotions could be, try as I might, confounding my conclusions. So I write; I throw out hypotheses and the evidence, shoddy as it may be at times, that I have for them. As time goes on, this gestalt is becoming clearer and clearer, which only means that I understand it enough to articulate it. I write more. The whole time, I’m hoping that people will come along and adjudicate my accuracy. (Of course, I’m hoping with arms drawn to my chest and clinched fists that it works out for me. That’d be great. I’d feel smart, or better yet, smarter.) Nevertheless, I have committed myself to finding out, one way or another, if I’m right. I figure the worst that can happen is that I’ll make a few adjustments and still end up with the satisfaction of feeling like I have a holistic, almost unifying, understanding of something seriously elusive.

The preceding two paragraphs just played out on a giant movie screen in my mind. And, as if experiencing a good movie, I was engrossed. I still am. And, like a movie, a lot of other things were and are going on that were and are escaping my attention. Interestingly, in thinking about the things that have been escaping my attention, I all of a sudden start noticing them. The sound of the heater. The visual flicker of the TV on mute. The sighs of my dog as he makes one of his countless tiny adjustments. The smell of the fireplace that still hasn’t been used this winter. My attention is flittering back and forth between the thoughts flowing from my fingertips and the surroundings I am still writing about. Scene after scene on a giant movie screen in my head. And this movie screen is, in my view, the key to consciousness.

I feel intrepid in this domain of consciousness, mainly because no one knows for sure what’s going on. In short, I like my chances on this. If I apply the knowledge I’ve gleaned from Stuart Kauffman’s work in, At Home In The Universe (self-organization theory), and apply it to the physical function of neural networks, and to the structural organization of the brain, and then I infuse all that into Daniel Dennett’s, Consciousness Explained, I come up with the following explanation.

Neural networks are the building blocks of mental organs. Some mental organs we share with other animals. They operate in the lower, simpler levels of abstraction, near our brain stem, serving to facilitate our basic survival and reproductive success. Examples would be autonomic body functions and basic emotions, such as love, fear, anger, sadness, and jealousy. These emotions are not feelings in the usual sense. They are physiological responses that elicit particular behaviors. Imagine that the mind is in a steady state when it is calm and nothing out of ordinary is perturbing it. Then, when something happens that requires a physical response, like say a tiger is approaching, these simple programs, these emotions induce physiological reactions, which prompt the impulse to assuage them, to get back to a steady state. Each physiological reaction elicits its own physical response. The collection of these programs is sufficient to keep us alive and reproducing.

They’re instinctive. Over eons of time, however, these survival programs have been co-opted and abstracted (via self-organization) into higher and higher levels of complexity, levels that call upon more and more information in their execution processes. The higher level networks are larger, more distributed, both vertically (in and out of lower levels and higher levels) and horizontally (pulling from a wider and wider body of data). They contain our cognitive programs and our complex emotions, and they store vast networks of information. The complex programs make it possible to override the basic programs, sometimes temporarily, just long enough to deliberate for a bit, sometimes permanently, allowing us to adopt a different course of action all together. The networks at this level also enable the use of logic and rationality. Then, and this is the best part, at the very top (figuratively speaking), all of these networks of networks self-assemble into the giant movie screen. Consciousness is upon us.

The movie, however, is really a gigantic closed-circuit TV. It’s as if a wide angle camera is mounted at the very top of this vast sea of neural networks in our brain, some of which are tightly coupled so as to resemble distinct entities (organs, you might say), while others, the majority, are stretched across multiple organs, serving as organs themselves. Interspersed throughout are countless relational and hierarchical databases of information. But the camera can only see so deep.

It doesn’t have access to the lowest levels, to the simplest of programs. It’s view is limited to the upper reaches of abstraction, where complex thought and emotions reside. Of course, the lower levels can manifest themselves in the upper levels (such as when we notice a loud sound), seeing as how they’re all connected, but the low-level data is edited at that point. The important thing is that where the camera is pointed is the result of a contest between competing information networks and the organs that exploit them.

Hordes of the complex programs below are shouting for their chance to be on camera. They’re always shouting. They’re always executing their programs at their highest voice. These mental organs are yelling out the input they’re receiving and the conclusions they’ve reached, which are often perceived as recommended courses of action. The heater is vying for my attention, and it has just gotten it. “The heater makes a low hum: think about my body temperature, think about the temp in the baby’s room, do nothing.” Before this, it was my concern for the words ahead that dominated the camera’s lens. It’s recommendation: read back over the last paragraph…

I’m back.

As I was saying, as the camera scans the networks below, it is drawn to the loudest network, and an interesting thing happens when the camera focuses on a particular network or set of networks – the shouting there intensifies. That means that when it latches onto it, it is held captive, if you will, staying on the screen until something distracts it off. That something might be a cognitive program that is ruminating over some past memories, or it might be the reverberations of a low-level emotional program that has perceived an itch on the arm. Whatever wins the competition gets screen time and the consideration of its conclusions and recommendations. It is the existence of the screen, the camera, and what passes through it that constitutes consciousness.

The beautiful thing is what happens when an amazing idea flashes across the screen – I can control the camera. I can control the camera! Free will is born. Now the conscious awareness, the camera, has turned to a remote spot in the data grid, that which corresponds to the concept of the self. High level programs instantly begin connecting to this new network, factoring the notion of self (including its newly discovered ability to control what appears on the screen) into their routines, into their conclusions, and into their recommendations for action. Suddenly, with free will at the helm, and a mind imbued with the awareness of self, the camera comes off of auto-pilot. The content on the movie screen becomes a matter of choice. But even then, the recommendations on the screen may not control the actions taken.

There are still low-level programs at work. They’re there all the time, perceiving, processing, and executing, just as they have in humans for countless centuries. And a key attribute of them is that they work very fast, so fast that they regularly spur us into action long before we realize why we’re acting or exactly what we’re doing. If a beautiful, sexy girl walks past a straight 16-year old boy, his eyes will saccade their way over her time and again before he ever actually thinks to stare at her. His low-level programs are doing their job. If he’s absorbed in a conversation, he may not even notice her, at least not consciously. His mind, however, knows she’s there. Similarly, if an intruder crashes through my door, it will not be free will driving my bus. Before the shape of his face ever passes over my movie screen, my body will be reacting. I will effectively be on auto-pilot, at least for a few seconds. But as the situation resolves, free will will once again take the helm, slowly but surely.

This is my conceptualization of the human mind, from neural network to consciousness. This is what pushes me insistently away from dualism. This is what makes me believe that understanding our lowest level emotions, by aiming the camera wherever they manifest themselves, is the key to harnessing and managing them. This is why I believe that enlightening the caveman is both necessary and possible. Our basic emotions – our fear, our quest for status, our affinity for cooperation (read: concurrence), and our sex strategies – have the advantage. They spur us to action while they’re below the level of consciousness, under the radar of awareness, unless we either inadvertantly develop high-level programs that override their recommendations or we deliberately scan the visible networks for evidence of their influences and we deliberately override them.

An example of the former would be a priest taking a vow of chastity. Even if he has no concept of human evolution and the sexual programming that resides down near his brain stem, the high-level programming that corresponds to his commitment to the cloth could easily suppress his response to a lovely female parishioner. (Unless he’s a…nevermind.) An example of the latter would be a sky-diver standing in the door of a plane. He realizes that it is perfectly rational to be afraid. He is aware of his elevated heart rate and sweaty palms, and he knows why they’re there. But he reasons that his parachute is safe and his training has prepared him, so he jumps. He deliberately overrides his lower-level survival programming.

There are two takeaways from this.

The first is that culture can tune our high-level programming, even if we never know it’s happening. School for young children does exactly this. There is no reason for this tuning to ever pass across a child’s movie screen. The more “cultured” the child becomes, the less the basic survival programs govern his or her actions. The reverse is also true. Children who are not instructed on how to be human beings in a modern world become an almost cartoon-like caricature of our cave-dwelling ancestors. You can see it on any busy playground.

The second thing, the important thing, is that the conscious intent to override basic emotional programming is extremely powerful. If we turn our camera upon our concept of self, and it includes an understanding of what is happening down below, on our screen flashes the idea that we can control much more than we ever knew – thus bringing more detail to the picture and a longer list of available options- regarding action and inaction. This is a good news story. Nothing is determined. We’re in charge. If we do not exercise this power, we leave our fate in the hands of our genetic heritage. But if we do, our genetic heritage becomes irrelevant.

The clock just passed across my movie screen. Recommendation: publish and crash.

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