Copyright © 2013 by Steve Perrin   [with 1 diagram]

I’ve been working on my new book on introspective consciousness, so to give you a taste of what’s coming up, I offer this revised version of Toward a theory of consciousness to serve as a kind of summary of the eight chapters. I include Figure 5 to illustrate what I am talking about in pictorial form. Y’r friend, –Steve

TOWARD A THEORY OF CONSCIOUSNESS

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1. Subjectivity. By definition, consciousness is subjective; it cannot be fit into a framework that insists on objectivity. The locus of the unconscious may be the brain, but the locus of consciousness is the mind, enabled by the brain, but not identical to it in part or in whole, as an electrical circuit is not identical to the copper wire it is made of. Such circuits acquire characteristics by being turned on, as consciousness must be turned on or aroused. Such effects as resistance, inductance and capacitance arise from the existential flow of electrons within circuits, specifically, from interactions within that flow itself that affect how electrical energy is received, stored, and distributed. They arise from emergent and kinetic (not static) properties of electrons moving through closed circuits under particular conditions. Consciousness is somewhat similar in not being predetermined by the brain. Instead, as I see it, it rises above neural circuitry to interact through consonance and dissonance between its several parts.

Quantum physics incorporates minds into the observations they are likely to make. That is a huge step in the right direction. Insisting that subjective observers remain essentially pure and aloof from their personal observations is an exercise in ideology. Each observer is a multidimensional set of mental variables engaging the world in a variety of ways simultaneously. Results depend on what he or she had for lunch, whether he or she is well-rested, when he or she last had sex, and so on. When two or more scientists gather together, it only gets worse, that is, more complicated and less objective, because of the chemistry within and between them. I think a new branch of science allowing self-reflection as a productive and honorable profession based on first-person experience is due to emerge. This will compensate for deficiencies in the practice of neuroscience, allowing a more complete accounting for what consciousness is—and how it arises from the brain—to appear at last.

2. Three questions. In everyday practice, consciousness addresses three tacit questions: 1) What’s happening?; 2) What does that mean to me in my present situation?; and, 3) What should I do in response? Perception fields the first question, the situated self takes the second, and action resolves the third. At the risk of oversimplifying, I visualize the mind as being divided into interconnected departments or modules corresponding to this tripartite model. The perceptual department of mind extends between sensory receptors and the hippocampus, which facilitates the formation and recall of memories. What I call the situated self is at the heart of consciousness, with access to sensory impressions, understanding, memory, comparison, dreams, values, feelings, and imagination. And both of these departments connect to motor areas of mind and brain. The situated self connects via the planning areas of the brain, the province of judgment, decision, goals, projects, and relationships. The sensory department, too, can fire directly (and unconsciously) to the motor area, where impulse and habit can direct personal effort and force toward the world beyond.

But the story doesn’t end there, for by being caught up in a program of action, perception is set to gauge what happens next in order to follow-through on its commitment to effective and appropriate action, revising or even countering its initial assessment. Few actions are ends in themselves; most are stages in an ongoing progression of continuous activity. As in tennis, the game isn’t over once you serve the ball; you immediately position yourself to hit it again as it whizzes back over the net, and then again, and again. If you want to eat, you provision your pantry, decide what to have, prepare it, cook it, serve it, eat it, and wash up afterwards—and repeat the performance a few hours later.

I visualize personal consciousness as a process of ongoing activity which modifies our felt situation as we go, morphing time and again into a wholly new situation, which we fail to address at our peril. Survival is somewhat like tennis: we’ve got to keep our eye on the ball at all times. A rhinoceros could rumble out of the bushes any moment or, more likely, a child could chase a ball into the road ahead. The prize goes to the ever vigilant, not merely the fast, strong, smart, or beautiful.

3. Loops of engagement. The succession of perception-situation-action never ceases. I picture consciousness in terms of never-ending looping engagements by which any given action immediately initiates a subsequent round of perception-situation-action until the situation itself is no longer relevant, stopping the clock, inviting other situations to take over and start a new round, spiral, or helix of engagement. This spiraling (because never coinciding with its exact beginning) series is far more than a succession of working memories or hand-eye coordinations; this is how we make ourselves happen in the process of continually reinventing ourselves and our worlds.

4. Organ systems. Humans did not create consciousness all by themselves; they inherited it from their distinguished ancestors who, even on the cellular level, discovered that the membrane setting an organism off from its immediate environment had to be permeable in both directions, in and out. Exchange (interaction, give-and-take) was the rule, not the brilliant exception. At every scale, metabolisms need to be fed from the outside, and the buildup of waste products simultaneously eliminated. Voilà: the loop of engagement. The same basic principle applies to our pulmonary, cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive, immune, integumentary, and nervous systems. Looping engagements do not exist apart from the organic world; they are the heart of that world. So it should be no surprise that they are at the heart of consciousness as well.

5. Polarity. Consciousness is bipolar in nature, having both an interior and exterior pole. The situated self is the inner pole, the virtual or conjectural world being the outer. When we are born, we have no idea what we are getting into. We consist of an inner pole that has only its discomforts and satisfactions to go on as driven by the life force, but other than by crying or sucking, we have yet to learn how to engage in order to get more of what we want, and less of what we don’t want. Mother holds us in her arms, sharing her bodily warmth, her milk, her love, whispering softly, “Don’t cry little baby, stick with me and all will be revealed.” We do, and it is. Since conception, she has become the primal “other,” the outer pole of our existence, the first world we engage with. Our lives are the histories of the engagements that follow.

6. Trial and error. Every new life is an experiment to see what is effective and what not within the particular niche we occupy by means of our perceptions and actions. No one else shares those exact perspectival coordinates; we are in this life to discover how far we can travel via this singular point of being. On our deathbeds we realize our journey is done; the next leg is up to those who survive us via their own points of being. The experiment never comes to an end; it is what we share with all others of our kind to see if we can’t figure out what will work to keep us going, and what won’t. We have only our passionate beliefs to go by, there are no universal directions, guidebooks, gurus, recipes, magic potions to help us. We are condemned to a life of learning by doing and believing, hoping our subjective awareness will prove sufficient to the task. Through our parents, the universe hands us our bodily makeup and says, “See what you can do with this.” The rest is up to us.

7. Memory. Memory is the backbone of consciousness. Strong emotion and frequent repetition build stable connections within neural networks shaped by personal experience. Connections that aren’t used don’t persist. Memory gives us hope, dread, expectancy, recognition, sameness, familiarity, and a sense of the future, among other aspects of awareness. Memory allows us to look for more of the same, as well as for what is new, novel, different, and mind-expanding.

Consulting my own experience, I recognize three primary types of memory: 1) Spontaneous (or working) memory is fleeting, typically lasting only a few seconds; 2) autobiographical memory can preserve personal episodes for a lifetime as a result of long-term potentiation; 3) conceptual (or semantic) memory is abstracted from the flow of experience to represent persisting types or categories of sensory patterns as based on repeated presentations within a limited range of similarity, facilitating the convenient labeling of specific impressions as concepts approximating one familiar pattern or another.

8. Inputs to consciousness. Three very different inputs support consciousness: 1) materials delivered by bloodflow to fuel the metabolism of body and brain; 2) energy imparted to sensory organs that kindle impressions to be interpreted in light of prior experience as one’s proprietary awareness; and 3) the life force we inherit with our particular genome, the urge to eat, drink, breathe, laugh or cry, heal, rest, have sex, and keep going against all odds. Ambient energy and adequate nutrition are basic substrates of consciousness; reducing availability of either one results in mental impairment and degradation. Consciousness itself flows from the life force, the need to engage, to know what’s happening, to make meaning, to plan and then act, and then to discover what happens next. We call this yearning to engage “soul” or “spirit,” but it doesn’t belong to us as individuals. Rather, it is the endowment we receive by being born as organic beings to an energy-rich planet that gives us a toehold in the universe.

9. Levels of consciousness. Within the brain, two basic routes are available for passage from sensory impressions to appropriate actions: the first is a direct and unconscious route of reflex-mimicry-habit-routine-custom-belief that prompts immediate action on appearance of particular sensory cues; the second is a longer and slower route of conscious consideration that entails reflection, judgment, and decision in arriving at a plan of action situated in subjective life experience. Both impulsivity and consideration are available to us in every situation. We choose between them on the basis of our self-awareness as actors in a world largely of our own making. If we size-up our situation incorrectly, that is our call and our error. If we want to be sure of doing the right thing, we must examine the situation carefully to increase the probability that what we do is appropriate to the specific set of circumstances we are in. I refer to these two options as being on different mental levels, the unconscious and the conscious, what I have elsewhere referred to as the high road and low road.

10. Animal consciousness. Other kinds of consciousness become apparent from observation of animal behavior. In many species, individuals are apt to be differentially affected by sensory stimulation (depending on genetic, dietary, experiential, physical, developmental, and social variables, among others), and to exhibit idiosyncratic behaviors as a result. Speaking more generally, different species live in different sensory worlds, and appear to be conscious in a variety of ways. Humans lack the lateral-line receptors of fish that detect the relative motion of water against the two sides of their bodies, allowing them to orient themselves in a current, and to detect unmoving objects at a distance. We don’t have the hearing sensitivity of bats, scenting ability of dogs, sensitivity to heat of pit vipers, directional hearing of deer, scanning ability of electric fishes, magnetic sensibility of eels, sharks, and birds. We may be fellow creatures, but our respective sensibilities situate us in very different niches in parallel worlds of consciousness on the planet we share.

11. Comparison. Change, difference, motion, and comparison are other basic principles underlying consciousness. Memory not only allows us to categorize sensory patterns, but also to notice what has changed or is different in respect to their former makeup or to a set standard pattern. Comparison of neural signals in, say, adjacent or reciprocating cortical columns creates a sense of relationship (depth perception, symmetry, consonance, dissonance, extension, expansion, proportion, opposition, elaboration, and so on) in consciousness. I view comparison between current and prior impressions as firing up consciousness itself in proportion to the disparity detected. If nothing has changed, there’s no need to pay attention and we can get by on habit and routine. But if changes are noted, are they for better or worse? We spend much of our mental energy evaluating implications of situations that change and develop.

This suggests to me that consciousness is a form of memory, or, more accurately, a way of remembering in a current situation so that past and present impressions are compared, and any disparity directs attention to discover what if anything can be told by the difference. And, further, how such a difference might bear on our behavior. In other words, discrepancy is viewed within a framework of subjective meaning, enabling evaluation of what difference it makes.

12. Meaning. Each individual stream of consciousness is unique and available to only one specific animal or person. In that sense, each conscious being has a proprietary interest in its ongoing experience within its experiential niche, and is personally responsible for actions based on that experience. Meaning is another fundamental principle of consciousness, evaluating the new in reference to the expected or commonplace. Each of us survives on the strength of how well we interpret the flow of energy through our sensory portals in light of our prior experience. The meaning of a sensory pattern is not conveyed by the pattern itself but by how we subjectively construe it. It is invented on the spot, not given by others. Meaning is a product of assimilating sensory impressions to the existing order of subjective understanding, or if that doesn’t work, of expanding that order in such a way to accommodate novel impressions.

13. Time and space. Comparisons resulting from our ways of believing and remembering lead to detection of discrepancies, which are changes since we last looked (listened, touched, tasted, sniffed). Perceptual changes noted by a passive observer (as when sitting still listening to music) are changes in time; by a moving observer (riding along in a car or bus) are changes in space; by an active and moving observer (dancing, climbing a tree, bushwhacking through woods), changes in space-time. Time and space aren’t out there coursing through the universe, they are in us as a sense of calibrated change. Our culture provides the calibration; we provide the awareness of detecting and enacting change. When the cultural calibrators die off, only change will remain, and when individual memory dies, awareness of change itself will wink out.

14. Phenomena. The aim and purpose of consciousness is to achieve behaviors appropriate to one’s actual situation in a world that cannot be known in itself—a logically impossible task, but one we attempt at every waking moment. Mind is an emergent property of the brain, but the workings of the brain in terms of the electro-chemical traffic flow through idiosyncratic neural networks are very different from the workings of the world outside our bodies, so sensory impressions are not simply representations of the world but point-for-point creative renditions in what amounts to a singular universe within consciousness. In practice if not in convincement, we all are dedicated phenomenologist because phenomena (appearances, impressions) as rendered by our sensory apparatus are what we have to go on, not things in themselves. Since each being is unique, its stream of consciousness is unique, and the world it construes for itself is unique—its actual situation being a matter of conjecture and imagination based on the evidence of its senses in light of its situated understanding.

15. Dreams. Dreams and reveries are variations of consciousness in which we are shut off from the world of conventional action and stimulation, but can nonetheless simulate sensory impressions courtesy of random eye movements and fixations that activate neural pathways to stir up fleeting images from memory as if we were fully awake. Our dreamselves cannot engage, for they can neither perceive nor act, so we must make do with memory, letting our dreams themselves illuminate the journey of the self we are, without being situated other than in our personal histories. As potential perceiver and potential actor, the dreamself is at the core of the waking self. We do well to pay close attention to our dreams as informants about the history of our core selves all the way back to infancy when, indeed, our deeds and impressions lie ahead of us. This latent, so-called theory of consciousness is the narrative told to me in my dream-like reflections, and I am sharing with you as a gesture of neighborliness.

16. Introspection. Science, I think, traditionally underplays the value of introspection as a message from the interior of one person. The art of introspection is in accepting whatever appears, not judging or dismissing it beforehand because it does not meet designated research criteria. The arts, on the other hand, along with the humanities, diverse human cultures, sports, business, and military engagements, and other factual or fictional endeavors celebrate individual differences, and play them up as valuable in themselves for distinguishing us one from another in admirable ways. If we were all the same, we would be zombies, and life would progress from dull to duller to dullest. Any unique being cannot be a zombie because one-of-a-kind zombies are oxymorons, contradictions unto themselves. Zombies have surrendered whatever it is that makes them individually distinct. In a world composed of unique individuals, insisting on consensual agreement on the nature of individuality and uniform behavior is a forlorn hope dependent on excessive abstraction and generalization.

17. A tale of two selves. The upshot of this narrative is that we are heavily invested in our subjective consciousness as the lived edition of our personal survival—that tale of two centers—subjective and virtual—facing off against each other at opposite poles of our engagements, separated by the membrane that serves as our skin. This is a tale of two selves, for the virtual world we imagine is largely fleshed out by our own experience as we remember it, so is an extension of our situated perspective as a kind of alter ego accompanying and complementing us in our experiment to see if we can’t get some things, at least, right. Which we all manage to do as demonstrated by our ever spiraling engagement in the streaming adventure of mental life, giving others the impression we are present and accounted-for. To those others, we serve as the virtual poles complementing their subjective selves as situated in the shadows of their own impressions, dreams, life force, and actions.

That’s it for now. Hang in there, and focus on your issues, not the world’s (which are too much for any of us). –Steve

 

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