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The Cinema of the Mind

An investigation into the evolution, function and physiology of consciousness by Max Singer


THE CINEMA OF THE MIND

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The Cinema of the Mind An investigation into the evolution, function and physiology of consciousness by MAX SINGER

PRECIS: Consciousness is an immanent feature of the chordate neural matrix, which enables “directed ambulation.” “Directed ambulation” is enabled through the processing of two bilateral synchronized perceptual streams presented sequentially as “discrete” data, which streams, themselves, are composed of multiple similarly bilateral perceptual steams. Consciousness is nothing more nor less than the sum of all this activity. If these perceptual streams are unidirectional constructs then it follows that consciousness is a unidirectional discrete construct.

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Introduction: an intuition It has been said that artists and poets, operating solely through that faculty of the creative imagination which we call intuition, often presage metaphorically that which is later discovered to be the “actual” case through scientific discovery or investigation. A noted example is the frequently made analogy between the fragmentation of the visual field into “bits” beginning with the Impressionists (reaching its zenith with Cubism and Futurism) and the great scientific discoveries in quantum physics by Einstein, Heisenberg and others. My intuitive moment occurred while listening to a radio interview some 10 years ago with the great American writer, the late Saul Bellow, in the course of which Bellow used the phrase “cinema of the mind.” I cannot recall with any degree of certainty whether he was referring directly to the processes of consciousness or more generally to the act of creative imagination on the part of both the artist/writer and audience/reader, and all subsequent attempts to reference the phrase have proved unsuccessful. Nonetheless, it stuck in my mind: I became convinced that “Cinema of the Mind” was not only an apt metaphor for our experience of consciousness, but also a likely description of its process: a sequence of discontinuous constructs perceived as a continuous reality. What follows then is the record and the results of my attempt to divine the veracity of my intuition, using common sense, logic and scientific fact.

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Preface: The forest and the trees Science, with a capital “s”, as practiced today is a prodigious, highly organized, international enterprise engaged in by hundreds of thousands of brilliant, highly-educated people working to decipher small pieces of a puzzle which puzzle is itself, in turn, a smaller piece of a larger piece of an even larger puzzle. This incrementalist approach— necessary for the accrual of verifiable knowledge—is what is largely responsible for the success of the “Scientific Project.” However, it may be the case that, as they say, one cannot see the forest for the trees. Indeed, at times, the molecular biologists, neuroscientists, physicists, information theorists, computer scientists and philosophers, whose pioneering competitive spirit draws them to stake out a claim in the multidisciplinary territory of “consciousness studies”, often seem struggling to agree upon a definition of exactly what it is they are discussing: In response to the question “What is consciousness?” their answers resemble those in the parable of the blind Buddhist monks attempting to deduce the totality of what an elephant “is” from the narrow evidence of their individual examinations of different elephant body parts: trunk (serpentine), tusk (sharp and pointed), ear (thin and papery), foot (round and solid), tail (skinny and twitchy). Similarly, distinctions are made between various kinds or degrees of consciousness arrayed on a continuum ranging from mere awareness to self-awareness to consciousness to self-consciousness to introspection. And discussions and debates take place as to whether consciousness presumes selfconsciousness; awareness presumes consciousness, and so forth and so on.1 This reasoning is a semantic cul-de-sac, the way out of which is to recognize that inasmuch as we are having this conversation, we must somehow have an “intuitive” understanding of what we are talking about. Or, as David Chalmers puts it, the term “consciousness” is self-referential, impossible to define without experiential selfknowledge of what it is.2

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Adam Zeman. Consciousness. A User’s Guide. London: Yale University Press. 2003.Pg.29. also: David J. Chalmers. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford University Press. 1996.Pgs. 28,34. 2 Chalmers. ibid. pg.34.

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The impossibility of consciousness As a starting point for this investigation, I attempted to create a definition of consciousness which expresses as succinctly as possible what I understand to be our experience of consciousness: ...the experience (or perception) of a continuum of being (or existence) at once in an external reality (the world) and an internal reality (the self).

While this definition describes, I believe, how we “perceive” or “experience” consciousness, it is also demonstrably clear that what we perceive or experience consciousness to be, is, in fact, a physiological impossibility.3 We might well experience the world as a continuum and accept this “experience” as “reality,” but both the physiology of our neural system and its processes are discontinuous and the content of our conscious experience—our reality, as it were—is composed of perceptual constructs. Our neural physiology is literally discontinuous: a synaptic cleft, or gap, separates all neurons from one another.4 In addition, while the information we receive about the world—the perceptual streams that flow through our neural network and form the content of our conscious experience are perceived as instantaneous and continuous, they are, likewise, transmitted, received, processed, and acted upon in a series of discrete or discontinuous pulses.5 As to the content of our conscious experience, while we may accept our image of the world as reality, this “reality” is demonstrably a construct made up itself of multiple constructs.6

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As well as a logical impossibility, if one accepts the essence of the “mysterian” position, i.e. that a “system” cannot be aware of itself. 4 Francis Crick. The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Charles Scribner’s Son. Pg.73. 5 As are the signals that activate our responses to the information we receive about the world. 6 One such construct is our experience of dimensionality. A product of our unique binary/binocular visual sensory apparatus. Another construct is the perception of the apparent continuity of the visual world, in image and motion. This construct is created through discontinuities: the firing and recharging of retinal neurons (e.g. rods, cones, etc.) which create a “continuous” image much like discrete pixels construct a digital photograph or the sequential “line-by-line” phosphor activation by a CRT creates the illusion of a moving image. (If the continuity of motion is a construct, then perhaps, as some have suggested, time and its passage are also. This is not to say that we do not move through the world and time in some manner—or, more precisely, perhaps, “change” spatial position in relationship to other entities—but that our interpolation of

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“Any organism has certain ways of perceiving and interpreting the world... a ‘cognitive space’ determined in large part by its specific nature and by the general properties of biological systems...” 7 What we are conscious of is (obviously) no more nor less than what we are presented with by our sensory apparatus.8 What we see is not what is there but what our brain, our cognitive and sensory apparatus, is capable of.9 Our sensory apparatus is unique, specific, and limited. For one thing, human sight and hearing occupy only a tiny portion of the available spectrum of light and sound. For another there is the unique effect that the physical structure of our species’ sensory apparatus has on our perception. Humans have astonishingly different auditory and visual systems from even other mammals: “... bats, like other mammals, have some perceptual experience of the world around them. But their impression of their surroundings is not created visually like ours, but by echolocation, the use of reflected sound to build up an auditory image! What is it like then to be a bat?”10 We must assume that in some significant manner the bat’s experience of reality differs from ours. Likewise the experience of reality which species of migrating birds who build a geo-spatial map of the world based on their ability to perceive lines of magnetic influence must have. The conclusions that must be drawn are that different organisms have different “cognitive spaces” determined largely by their unique sensory apparatus, and that none of these cognitive spaces are “the world”11—merely shadows of it—like Plato’s Cave,12 that

these events is a third-hand interpolation of second-hand events, much like the sonar “image” of a submarine is not a submarine, merely what that sensory apparatus is capable of imaging.) 7 Noam Chomsky. Language and Thought. “Anshen Transdisciplinary Lectureships in Art, Science and the Philosophy of Culture, Monograph 3.” 1993. Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell. Pg. 140. 8 Chomsky. Pg.140. 9 Francis Crick. ibid. Pg.31. 10 Adam Zeman. Consciousness. A User’s Guide. London: Yale University Press. 2003. Pg.236 also: Christof Koch. The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. (California Institute of Technology) 2004. Greenwood Village, CO: Roberts and Company Publishers. Pg.77 11 If, then, there are multiple perceptual realities, what can one make of the concept of Reality itself, which is, by definition, unitary?

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most favored philosophy professor’s allegory, which perhaps is very much less allegory than has been allowed. All this is basically the “astonishing hypothesis” put forth in the book of the same name by Nobel Laureate Sir Francis Crick: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their assorted molecules...”13 This writer, being what might be called a child of science, finds this thinking neither astonishing nor hypothetical and if emboldened might suggest that tome be retitled The Mysterious Axiom. Along that line, I would propose what I shall call The Discomforting Corollary, which corollary is: If the content of consciousness is composed of discontinuities and constructs then so must consciousness itself be a discontinuous construct

Seeing is believing How do you see the world? Can you see your way through to it? Has she seen the light? Much human conversation is peppered with metaphorical references to seeing: In the search for the Neural Correlates of Consciousness (NCC), Crick, as well as other investigators into the nature of consciousness, has focused14 to one degree or another on the physiology and psychology of human vision. This seems to make perfect sense. We are, after all, always being told that we human beings are “predominantly visual beings”, that the greatest single source of our information about the “external world” is filtered through our visual apparatus. (And, as far as it goes, this is true.) Furthermore, the psychological and physiological correlates of vision are areas of study 12

In the context of this investigation, Plato’s allegory seems particularly pertinent as in it we find people sitting in a darkened space watching images of light projected onto a wall. 13 Review of: Francis Crick. The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, in “PSYCHE,” 2(18). July 1995. http://psyche.cs.monash.edu.au/v2/psyche-218-webster.html 14 An example of vision as metaphor.

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in which much basic research exists, creating a great pre-existing store of knowledge available for researchers to sift through and build upon. But focus on the visual apparatus in searching for the NCC should prove to be a dead end for one obvious reason: human beings who are blind from birth are, we assume, fully conscious. Thus consciousness must be based on something other than sight.15 It seems apparent to this writer, however, that while the secrets of consciousness are not to be found in any one sense they must be contained somewhere in the sensory /perceptual apparatus of conscious beings: in the ecology of the sensory/perceptual matrix.16 Since the complete dissection and cataloging of the human anatomy has not revealed any unexplored physical structures out of which consciousness might arise, to suggest it arises outside this neural matrix would be to posit the existence of a uberstructure existing above and beyond the physical/sensory/perceptual matrix. To posit, in essence, that “homunculus” of naive realism discredited by modern neuroscience.

Consciousness and evolution “It is said that consciousness is no doubt just the latest elaboration of a more basic biological phenomenon that evolved a long time ago.”17 If that statement is true, one question we might ask is “What, if anything, do the perceptual/sensory systems of conscious life-forms—their neural matrix—have in common, structurally or functionally—other than, of course, consciousness itself?”

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Certainly not the auditory senses, for what then would we make of a figure like Helen Keller. It is interesting to observe that when we discuss life on the planet, our conversation is matter-of-factly held on a macro- or meta-level: that is because we have become used to framing that sort of discussion in a holistic or, otherwise, ecological context, in the context of a system. But when our conversation turns to the subject of the human body, which is itself a biophysical system, we still tend to compartmentalize our focus on one aspect of it: vision or memory, for example. I believe that to uncover the NCC, we must, as in our larger conversations about Life on Earth, begin to discuss the consciousness as a co-dependent process, a process which takes place in the larger context, the ecology, as it were, of the human body. And when discussing the evolution of consciousness, we must see it in the context of the evolution of the human body and life itself, in turn in the context of the physical and geological evolution of the planet itself. 17 Koch. op.cit. Pg. 30 16

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To answer this question one must of course determine which life forms are indeed conscious (see Rules of Membership. pg. 13). One approach to doing so is to ask, “Upon which branch of the evolutionary tree do such life-forms exists?” For me, one look at the archetypal Tree of Life diagram provides a clear answer: the branch upon which the fruit of conscious hangs is the branch which separates from the trunk of the evolutionary tree at the period which we call the Cambrian radiation—the branch upon which we find the proto-Chordates, Chordates, and Vertebrates. What the sensory/perceptual apparatus of all the life-forms along this branch share is the same neural matrix—or ecology: “...a complex neural system with long-distance sense organs, a neural network of urbanized (functionally and physically centralized) brain ganglia and nerve trunks arranged in a symmetrical [most often bisymmetrical. AE] arrangements.”18

And what these very same life-forms functionally have in common that is not found to exist on other branches of the evolutionary tree is the faculty of “directed ambulation,” the ability to move “at will” as circumstances dictate. This suggests that consciousness itself is an immanent, or inherent, feature of such a neural network or matrix.

An aside To explore the possible nexus between directed ambulation and consciousness in evolutionary terms puts one at risk of falling into the easy trap of asking “Why?” As in, for example, “Why has life developed along certain lines?” But “why” is evolution’s four-letter word. Evolution only seems “purposeful”—i.e. intentional, pre-ordained— when viewed at a far remove. The engine(s) of evolutionary innovation itself however is merely a function of chance interacting with the imperfections of complex biological material. One should rather ask “WHAT evolutionary advantage does any mutational/genetic innovation confer upon a life-form or species, if any?” 18

Richard Dawkins. The Ancestor’s Tale. A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. Mariner Books, NY. (paperback ed.) Pg. 463.

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In looking at any evolutionary history it is easy to draw a causal line from ancestor to survivor when one does not have to take into account the failed experiments, those offshoots which did not succeed in passing on their particular genetic innovation because it offered little or no survival advantage either to the individual, or, more centrally, to the species. And perhaps was even deleterious. Consider a theoretical example: an ancestral bonobo spinster great-great auntie— 10,000 generations removed—carried a mutational innovation which rendered her digits (fingers or toes, it makes no difference) of a perfect design for the playing of the more difficult passages of a Rachmaninoff violin concerto. Given the non-existence of either the great composer, or of violins, such innovation would have been of no advantage— more likely a disadvantage when survival depended upon the ability to brachiolate. All we can say for sure is that if the process of evolution itself were not advantageous, it would not exist, and, in that case, you and I would be two viruses vainly trying to communicate with one another.

Not angels “If humans are part of the natural world, not angels, then...there are problems we might have to solve and mysteries that will be forever beyond our cognitive resources.”19 To choose where to begin an investigation into the evolution of consciousness is of necessity to make an arbitrary choice: if we accept the notion that consciousness is a product (or by-product) of an ongoing, aeons-old evolutionary process, then at least theoretically the origins of consciousness could ultimately be traced back to the evolution of DNA20, of viruses, proteins, to the evolution of the very elements that make up these organic molecules, of atoms, protons, electrons, prions, muons, quarks—the very stuff of 19

Noam Chomsky. Language and Thought. “Anshen Transdisciplinary Lectureships in Art, Science and the Philosophy of Culture, Monograph 3.” 1993. Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell. Pg. 45. 20 One cannot help but take notice that the theme of bilateral symmetry connects both DNA and the Chordate Neural Matrix (CNM)—a connection which perhaps intuitively drew Sir Francis to the study of this subject to begin with.

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matter itself. But whether one accepts the logic of this deep history or not, this is in a sense a “mystical” issue, one which is certainly at this moment in the development of human cognition, and perhaps forever, beyond our ken. A narrower but yet more fruitful approach is to remember that the essential criteria concerning the “success” of an evolutionary innovation is the extent to which such innovation advantages one’s (organism or species) chances of survival.21— And since survival, at its core, primarily requires the acquisition of material sustenance, the avoidance of becoming material sustenance—for another species—and the drive for “uber-mortality” through reproduction, what we might seek to determine is at what point in evolution “consciousness” and/or “directed ambulation” conferred such an advantage, and, in what way.

From a solution of substances to a nourishing sea “The world was a solution of substances where everything was dissolved into everything and the solvent of everything.”22 The evolution of life took place over an unfathomably immense span of time. It began with the formation of the earth and the elements out of a homogenous cosmic gas, continued through the creation of the “primordial soup”—a still relatively homogenous incubator—out of which arose the basic organic molecules, RNA and DNA (as well as the “transitional” viruses.) The processes engendering this evolutionary process were for the most part physical/mechanical/chemical actions and reactions: an entropic process—cooling and heating, distillation, recombination, condensation and separation. Here, of course, there is no “life” as we—perhaps too narrowly— define it, and hence neither “directed ambulation” nor consciousness.

“We felt all this through the layers of our former surface dilated to maintain the most extended possible contact with the nourishing sea,

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Evolution itself being, or so it seems, a process which has lead to the development of life-forms with increasingly complex and "sophisticated” survival mechanisms. 22 Italo Calvino. t-zero. “Crystals.” Collier Books. NYC. 1970. Pg. 36.

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because at every up and down of the waves there was stuff that passed from outside of us to our inside, all sustenance of every sort...”23 The next evolutionary leap was the appearance and proliferation of unicellular life—an explosion of life-forms whose numbers and diversity rivals and perhaps surpasses that of the Cambrian radiation. In these basic organisms we find no evidence of either “directed ambulation” or consciousness. Nor should we have expected to. In this particular evolutionary ecology, the medium in which these life-forms lived and thrived, that primordial soup, contained an abundant sufficiency of all the elements needed to sustain life.24 Here there were no hunters, no hunted, no reproductive strife. Just life-forms existing in constant physical contact with all its means of sustenance. What advantage would “directed ambulation” or consciousness have for this floating, drifting life? Those faculties would be superfluous.25

The mother of invention “Up to the moment when the material necessary for self-repetition shows signs of becoming scarce.”26 The last great leap before the appearance of conscious life is the appearance of multicellular organisms. Since the appearance of unicellular life, the Earth’s entropic processes had continued, and as unicellular organisms grew in mass and volume, capturing and sequestering the nutrients in the “soup”, that incubating medium became less homogenous: it “thinned” in some places, and “thickened” in others, became “lumpy” or 23

Italo Calvino. t-zero. “Blood, Sea.” Collier Books. NYC. 1970. Pg. 47. And would remain so, as long as the medium would be kept relatively homogenous as it was “stirred” by heat, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other cataclysmic macro-events—as well as subtler, more localized micro-events 25 There are of course some single-celled organisms of which it could arguably be said—to stretch a point—have moved beyond mere “floating and drifting.” The pulsing and shape-shifting amoeba’s and protozoan’s engulfing and expelling could be classified as “motion” of a sort. And, perhaps even more so, there are the tail-wagging flagellates. These creatures move about, in a fashion, but certainly not in a “directed” or “conscious” fashion. Are these evolutionary advantages? Yes. But not very great ones. (Although they sufficed for the Amoebae, Protozoans and Flagellates.) 26 Italo Calvino. t-zero. “Death.” Collier Books. NY, 1970. Pg 5. 24

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“granular.” These variations in dispersal, however slight or minimal at first, became, over aeons, more profound and developed into “ecologies” of which some were richer in one form of nutrient and sustenance than in other “ecologies”, some were “cooler” or hotter,” and so forth. Under this evolving condition of discontinuities, of increasing heterogeneity, it would come as no surprise that one might to begin to see the appearance of evolutionary innovations which would enable some organisms to optimize their chances of survival, even though incrementally, through somewhat more complex and sophisticated methods of nutrient acquisition—survival. And with the very first appearance of multi-cellular life, we begin to come upon such “more complex” survival strategies, the kind we encounter, for example, in the Cnidarians—which include the jellyfish. But, while these creatures certainly exhibit “more complex” survival strategies, they certainly cannot be said to exhibit signs of either “directed ambulation” nor of consciousness, ie. jellyfish are in fact “merely” more advanced floaters.

“Jellyfish ride the ocean currents as Jack-sails-by-the-wind. They don’t pursue their prey (but rather) rely on their long, trailing, armed tentacles to trap planktonic creatures that are unlucky enough to bump into them.”27 Then there are the creatures known as Ctenophores—literally “comb-bearers”— whose “combs” are rows of cilia, which propel them about, in a., rather random, fashion. “This serves adequately, not for actively28 chasing prey but for the same kind of undirected29 improvement in capture rate that the jellyfish achieve.”30 Still, while we do not find "directed ambulation” at this stage of evolution, there is, at least, a precursor of things to come, a “missing link,” in the strange being called the sea squirt, a life-form that exists on the cusp of directed ambulation. In its larval stage it is an active swimmer, until it attaches itself to coral and metamorphosizes into an adult 27

Dawkins. op.cit.Pg. 467 Author’s emphasis 29 Author’s emphasis 30 Dawkins. op.cit. Pg. 463. 28

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“...By breaking down the head ganglia which was useful (only) when it was an active swimmer.”31

Rules of membership The last leap—to date—begins at the Cambrian Radiation with an explosion of lifeforms—protochordates, chordates, and vertebrates—who have in common that aforementioned neural matrix: “a complex neural system with long-range sense organs, a neural network of urbanized brain ganglia and nerve trunks arranged in a symmetrical arrangement.” And here, sui generis as it were, we see the emergence of creatures that are “directed ambulators”, and also may be surmised to possess some form of consciousness. This branch of the evolutionary tree is a very long branch indeed. It contains many smaller branches and branchlets populated with creatures ranging from such “lower” creatures as Aplysia to the one creature we can know for a fact to possess the faculty we call consciousness. Us. It is clear that to claim both “directed ambulation” and consciousness arise from these creatures’ common neural network is to claim a certain larger brotherhood amongst them, namely that all these creatures possess some common faculty of consciousness. One must again ask the question: “Which beings are conscious and which are not?” A thousand years ago the answer would be obvious: Man and man alone is “endowed” with that faculty. (Dissenters to be dealt with by The Holy Office.) Yet, in the last few centuries, faced with scientific evidence and insight enabled by the development of new investigative tools and technologies (not the least of which is the scientific discipline of close, rigorous examination and observation of animal behavior) we have been generous enough, if not forced, to admit other creatures into our previously restricted fraternity of the conscious.

31

Dawkins. op.cit. Pg 370. Also discussed in: Arthur Wallace. Creatures of Accident. (Uncorrected proof) Hill & Wang. NY. 2006

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These new pledges include our doppelgangers—fellow primates of course—apes, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and the rest. Must other fellow mammals be admitted? Dolphins, whales, and our four-legged housemates— dogs and cats—whose owners have been lobbying for their admission since time immemorial? What next? Must we open the membership to non-mammals? Squids and octopi? Parrots, eagles, hawks? Bees? Spiders? Ants? Perhaps Dr. Kandel, a normally circumspect scientist, might audaciously propose Aplysia—the California sea hare—his favorite research partner, as a candidate. And why not? After all, Kandel describes it as a ‘friendly, intelligent’ creature. Would we venture to call a rock or a tree—a “mindless” thing—intelligent or friendly? If one compares an abstract schematic of the neural matrix of Aplysia with “higher” chordates, one will discern no important differences. Would we feel more comfortable with Aplysia’s membership application if a more anthropomorphically comforting protoplasm were superimposed on its frame? If only Aplysia could speak on its own behalf!

I report, therefore I am How and where can one draw the line that separates beings who possess the faculty of consciousness from those who do not?” For some “neuro-philosophers” what constitutes a sine qua non proof of the existence of the faculty of consciousness, is the ability of “verbal report” in the being that verbally reports—a kind of Turing Test for consciousness.32 But of what kind of ‘verbal report’ do they speak? Is it to be an “oral” or a “written” report? If “oral”, what of the mute-born? 32

Of course one would expect such a bias from a literate verbal elite.

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And if “written” what of those peoples with no written language? How to rationalize the mutual incomprehensibility of Lakota Sioux and Uighur, of French and Swahili? And what of words as symbolic constructs? What of the symbolic constructs of Whale-speak and Bird-talk? Can languages of “pure sound” be considered “verbal report”? If we allow language of pure sound must we allow language of odor, of smell, of chemicals, of the exchange of coded pheromones: the language of ants? Theoretically we could learn such a language. We would decode the pheromones: analyze their molecular structure, reproduce them in a laboratory, and observe their effects on individual ants and colonies. Ultimately we could communicate with these creatures: a molecule of pheromone #Z19705 means “We come as friends.” And lastly, what of extinct creatures? Dinosaurs, arguably at least, must have been conscious. But they are extinct and thus mute on the subject. Finally, some may argue that humans are the only creatures who “verbally report” and with whom we can truly communicate.33 Share thoughts. Feelings. Discuss beauty. Art. God. But one can also argue that these aspects of what some call a “higher” consciousness do not represent qualitative but rather quantitative differences: Once the chordate neural matrix evolved—and the “optional equipment”, i.e., more neurons (a larger brain) fingers, thumbs, bi-pedalism, etc. thrown in as lagniappe— we became incredibly successful creatures, no longer (seemingly at least) needing to escape predation, chase our dinner across the savannah, or fight off rivals for the right to reproduce. It is rather unlikely that the evolutionary response to such short-term success (millions rather than hundreds of millions of years) once achieved, would be to slough off the now arguably redundant neurons and like the sea squirt revert to an earlier stage? It is more likely that these “redundant” neurons would be put to use in other “higher” functions? But what of these so-called “higher functions?” 33

Unless we are discussing politics or religion.

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It might be instructive for us to take step back and to observe and ponder just how much those “redundant” neurons—are engaged at each and every moment of our existence, individually and collectively, attempting to maximize our chances for survival, for food, safety, and reproduction, in the choice of our careers, our mates, and in constructing, projecting, rehearsing, and rewriting scenarios for our individual and group futures. Is not the oft heard question “What direction is our (city, state, nation, planet) heading?” a revealing metaphor?

Making connections “…a literal encoding would require an implausibly large number of coordinated genetic changes before a viable yet functionally distinct architecture could evolve…”34 While I may believe that the evidence supports the hypothesis that all creatures on the branch of the Cambrian radiation that possess this common neural matrix, must also possess, at least in a basic form, a common faculty of consciousness, this cannot be directly proven. But perhaps the connection between “consciousness” and “directed ambulation” can be demonstrated, by inference, through a closer examination of the processes involved in the latter. Let us begin with two questions. 1. Could “directed ambulation” exist as a pre-programmed action, as “instinct”? 2. If so, what survival benefit would “consciousness” then confer?

“ …the second t0 in which we have the arrow A0 and a bit further on the lion L0 and here the me Q0…and next to is placed t1 with the arrow A1 and the lion L1 and the me Q1…and beside that there is t2…”35 There are those who will argue that “directed ambulation” need not be conscious. That a system as complex as a brain could evolve programmed actions to achieve the same ends. 34

Giulio Tononi. An information integration theory of consciousness. Department of Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA. “BMC Neuroscience 2004, 5:42 doi:10.1186/1471-2202-5-42.” 2004. 35 Calvino. op.cit.. Pg. 114

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This thinking ignores the incredible complexity of directed ambulation. A simple case in point: crossing a room and picking up a book from a bookshelf. Let us parse what is really required in this simple action, one that would seem able to be executed simply and easily. (Complications have been eliminated: the position of the object, the book, is static, it will not suddenly grow wings and fly away, there are no predators lurking behind sofas or hiding under tables.) In reality this “simple” action is a complicated sequence of hundreds of thousands (if not hundreds of millions) of discrete discontinuous actions36 which, because we are either habituated to their complexity and/or their component “micro-events” lay beyond our perceptual thresholds, appear to us to be a smooth, continuous event. Let us examine three components of this action: Standing, locating an object in space, and moving towards that object.

Neither nor Standing is neither inaction nor a static action.37 Standing requires balance. Balance requires a continual comparison of predominantly internal dual/binary unidirectional data streams flowing from the sensory apparatus in our muscles, joints, tendons, inner ear, etc., to the cerebral ganglia, followed by incremental adjustments (via another set of dual/binary data streams) flowing from the [opposite] cerebral ganglia to the musculo-skeletal system, in order to maintain the relative position of self in three dimensions—up and down, left to right, fore and aft, This sequential process of oscillating readings and responses creates an illusion very much like the illusion of “motionless balance” of the Segway vehicle which is created by thousands of discrete forward and backwards adjustments made every second by that vehicle’s “sensory apparatus”: its computerized, gyroscopically controlled servo-mechanisms.

36

Actions that involve all of our sensory and perceptual systems running through and mediated by our cerebral ganglia. 37 Although most of the time it is “second nature,” i.e. learned and habituated, it may at any time require “conscious” attention.

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Then there is an ongoing process of locating the object to approach, or avoid (in this example, the book, in other situations the predator in the bush, the prey at a distance) in relation to the position of self. This “process” involves the processing of another set of dual/binary unidirectional data streams devoted to determining the relative position of self and other—which, in our species, primarily involves the visual apparatus, but in other species involves other sensory apparati, e.g. echolocation in the case of bats. This operation is akin to what in navigation is called triangulation— the comparison of two or more readings to determine position of self and other—and it entails an additional layer of complexity: that “self” must be able determine whether the object is static or in motion relative to the position of self, and if in motion whether towards or away from and whether to the left or right or up or down.

To “acquire” the object requires the “self” to move towards the object. This is not a simple problem in ballistics. We do not “find” an object and launch ourselves at it along a pre-calculated path. This process is one of continual, incremental readings accompanied by continual incremental adjustments. We can describe the temporal sequence of a completed action as:

t0 =p0 + t1=p 0 + t2=p2 + t3=p3…+ tx=nx where t= a“moment in time” t0 and p=the objects position p0 at that moment relative to “self”

Each of these subsequent “moments in time” requires an additional set of “triangulations”, each of which involves the processing of two sets of dual/binary data streams, one emanating from the sensory apparatus to the cerebral ganglia (representing/calculating position of self relative to object) and another flowing to the musculo-skeletal system (representing adjustments to positions of self and object) being presented and processed in sequence.

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Imagine this “self” located at the center of an imaginary group of nested spheres. Each point on one of these spheres describes a potential location of an object in space, which object may move from any point to another, from one point on that imaginary sphere to another point on that sphere, or to the next sphere further out or further in and so forth, in other words to a potentially infinite number of locations, points in space that could potentially be occupied by an object, each of which would require a unique set of programming instructions, which in turn would have to be multiplied by the theoretically infinite total number of spheres. Consider the data that would be required to “preprogram” this “simple” action”. Were that not enough to stagger the “Great Programmer” himself—or herself— let us proffer an even more complex real-world scenario: hunting and tracking, where the object (prey) to be located is moving in an unpredictable manner. The hunter, following over changing and uncertain terrain, must remain aware of and poised to deal with peripheral auditory, olfactory, and other similar sensory inputs such as the crack of falling limbs, he sound made by a larger predator, etc. That “directed ambulation” cannot be preprogrammed and must be “conscious,” seems to me to be an inescapable conclusion.38

On a more philosophical note: if consciousness were to exist outside the neural matrix and “directed ambulation” were preprogrammed, then consciousness would have to exist as an “abstract” faculty, that is, of no survival benefit. That would seem to me to make consciousness a superfluity and nature does not favor superfluities, decorative touches, as it were. Excess, yes. But superfluousness? No! Nature’s excess and extravagance always serves a purpose, from the peacock’s tail to the bowerbird’s architecture. If “directed ambulation” were “literally encoded”, then of what possible use would consciousness be to an organism?

38

Even if one insisted that such a pre-programmed neural system is an evolutionary possibility, it remains that one type of system evolved and the other did not—or did and did not survive.

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One could, of course, posit a benevolent force—a fairy godmother, perhaps—one that grants an organism the abstract faculty of consciousness so that it might ponder Art, Philosophy, the concertos of Bach, and the great issues of the day. But if it is indeed a benevolent force, then why allow that same organism to function on every other level as a mindless automaton?

Consciousness does not exist in a homunculus, an “entity” existing above and beyond a biological context, its matrix, its “ecology”, it is a product of the interaction of the atoms and molecules of that matrix. To suggest that consciousness exists separately from the neural matrix which enables directed ambulation, is merely to substitute one bugaboo for another.39 I suggest again that directed ambulation and consciousness both arise from and are immanent features of this neural matrix, the inseparable yin and yang of it. What is running, operating, flowing, at all “conscious” moments throughout this neural matrix is nothing more than the processes of perception, those discrete binary constructs—vision, hearing, smell, temperature, pain, pressure, proprioception and so forth—of which we have little or no problem imaging as intrinsic features of this neural matrix, as constructs, requiring no “outer” or meta-processes to be functional. The “utility” of all this constant monitoring of external and internal data is to locate self and object in a 4-dimensional sensory universe and to instruct the musculoskeletal system whether to move towards or away from prey or predator, to safety or danger, to survival or death. Consciousness (the experience of a moment in time) can be nothing more than the sum of all this sensory data, these constructs, “presented” and processed into a larger construct, consciousness, the Qualia of Qualia.

To sum up my arguments: 1. Consciousness is an immanent feature of the chordate neural matrix, which enables “directed ambulation.”

39

As it would be to claim that the essence of consciousness is the pattern of neuron firings.

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2. “Directed ambulation” is enabled through the processing of two bilateral synchronized perceptual streams presented sequentially as “discrete” data, which streams, themselves, are composed of multiple similarly bilateral perceptual steams. 3. Consciousness is nothing more nor less than the sum of all this activity, and… 4. If these perceptual streams (as I have discussed earlier in this paper) are unidirectional constructs then it follows that consciousness is a unidirectional discrete construct.

The Mysterian’s conundrum “Perception may well take place in discrete processing epochs, perceptual moments, frames or snapshots.”40 Which brings us to the question of how these perceptual streams combine or interact to form the consciousness construct. To answer that question one must confront that most troublesome question of all posed by the “mysterians”: “How can any system (in particular, a unidirectional system like the neural matrix we have described) be aware of itself?” And the answer, however counterintuitive the concept may be, is: it cannot. However, while a set of neurons, cannot be aware of itself, it can be aware of data presented to it by another set of neurons. And vice-versa. As it happens, we possess those two sets of neurons. They are called the cerebral hemispheres.

Let us look at how these streams may be presented for processing. If “a moment in time”41 is called Tx and the two perceptual streams are called A and B then the simultaneous perception of a continuum of experience can be described as: T1 + T2 + T3 … + Tn Where Tx =(Ax + Bx)

40

Koch. op.cit. Pg. 264.

41

A moment in time being of necessity also a construct.

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And a sequential perception as

ATx + BTx+1 + ATx+2 + BTx+3…

The mechanism of triangulation, the comparison of readings presented sequentially, required for directed ambulation suggests that this latter is indeed the case. Other evidence supports this hypothesis: e.g. what happens when the normal perceptual system breaks down. One such case is that of binocular rivalry where each eye sees a different image but perceives one at a time in “alternating” sequence.42 Another instance is the experience of “cinematographic” vision as reported by Oliver Sacks and related by Koch “ ‘I did not see her movements as continuous but instead as a succession of stills, a succession of different configurations and positions, but without any movement in-between.’ ”43 (A parallel example in the auditory field is the illusion of alternating high and low tones as described by Deutsch.44)

It seems it must be the oscillation of those perceptual streams—essentially snapshots of a moment in time—between the cerebral hemispheres which creates the “construct” of consciousness (for reasons which will be elaborated a bit later the most likely place this “exchange” of snapshots takes place is in the thalamus.) This hypothesis may very well be a clue to the nature of the 40Hz Llinas oscillations that Crick and Koch (and others) believe to be the “fundamental neural feature of conscious experience” as well as suggest what benefit the evolution of two cerebral hemispheres provides.45 Remember that the graphic images displayed by an EEG or other analog electronic devices are only symbols of the underlying processes, just as the blip on a sonar screen is not a submarine. These Llinas oscillations must be a “record” of

42

Koch. op.cit. Pg. 93. Koch. op.cit. Pg. 266. 44 D. Deutsch. (1975) “Musical Illusions”. Scientific American, 233. 92-104 45 Chalmers. op.cit. Pg.238. 43

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something else. And it stands to reason that they are nothing more nor less than the trace pattern of the process which I suggest creates the construct of consciousness.

The other side speaks “If the NCC were localized in both the right and left hemispheres, where would the unity of consciousness come from?”46 Objections to the hypothesis that consciousness is a function of interaction between the two hemispheres will be raised. These include: 1) Split brain patients do not experience loss of consciousness. 2) The two hemispheres have unique specialized functions. 3) Consciousness is a higher function.

1. The split-brain argument: It will be argued that since split-brain patients do not experience a loss of consciousness, consciousness cannot be a function of the interactions between the two hemispheres. However, at the same moment, they will argue, or rather explain, that such patients remain conscious due to “sub-cortical” inputs.47 This seems to me to be a specious and circular argument for if sub-cortical connections remain then the brain is obviously not split

“Brains of split-brain patients are not completely divided in two, the lower [author’s emphasis] brain remains intact.”48 While lesions of the cerebral hemispheres do not abolish conscious experience “lesions of the thalamus (in the lower brain) do indeed seem to abolish consciousness,”49 which suggests the thalamus is the switching station for this process.50

46

Quest for Consciousness. Pg. 287. B. F. Dainton. (2000). Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience. London: Routledge, International Library of Philosophy. 2000. http://psyche.cs.monash.edu.au/symposia/dainton/index.htmlPrecis: Stream of Consciousness 48 Dainton. op.cit. 49 Alex Green. “Intralaminar Nuclei Thalamus.” The Science and Philosophy of Consciousness. 2003. Online 50 Green. op.cit.: “…the thalamic nuclei are interconnected which means that any of them could potentially host activity from anywhere in the body or brain…the thalamus is subdivided into numerous small and medium sized nuclei that between them receive inputs from every process in the nervous system…” 47

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2. The equal but separate hemisphere argument: The second argument against consciousness being a function of the interaction between the two hemispheres is based on the idea of specialized functions which are controlled by different hemispheres, the two hemispheres being so very different from each other that simultaneous—not sequential—inputs from both to a unitary processing point would be required to process any one moment in time. It is, for example, most commonly stated that the left hemisphere controls musical perception and the right, language,51, 52 and it may seem at first glance that music and language are obviously two totally different faculties. I believe this is to be a misperception, or misinterpretation, of the actual processes underlying this supposedly opposite pairing. In fact, music and language, absent the more recent inventions of alphabets and musical notations, both existed as systems of sound. Music is often characterized as being composed of tones or notes while language is composed of words and sentences. This comparison is misleading. For one thing, a note or tone is a unitary element, indivisible. A word is not. The indivisible elements of which words, and language, are composed are sounds or phonemes. A more accurate comparison than comparing notes and words would be to compare words and chords, or notes and phonemes, a comparison of sounds. One might argue that a word means something and a chord does not, a sentence means something and a musical phrase does not. This too is misleading. The individual sounds that make up a word mean no more or less than the notes that make up a chord. It is the cultural context that gives a combination of sounds, a sequence of sounds, its “constructed” meaning. What of sub-Saharan click languages like Xhosa or tonal languages of southern China like Hmong-Mien or Miao-Yao, which utilize such musical attributes as pitch, intonation, and rhythm to create meaning? Here music is language and vice-versa. That we can explain the meaning of a sentence from Aristotle but not be able in the same manner to parse sixteen bars of a Beethoven Sonata does not mean that the underlying structure or processes are fundamentally different. 51

As it is also supposed that the left controls so-called “skilled actions” while the right controls spatial perception. 52 Zeman. op.cit. Pgs. 63, 74, 80.

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I suggest that this same type of analysis applied to other supposedly asymmetrical hemispheric functions—for example, skilled actions versus spatial perception—would lead to similar conclusions, conclusions which tend to support underlying conceptual and behavioral commonalities rather than differences.53

3. The higher function argument: A third argument against this theory stems from the common assumption that consciousness is a “higher” function. This thinking belies a reflexive resistance to the notion that such “higher” functions could arise—be “constructed”—in a lower more primitive part of the brain. But my understanding of the function of consciousness leads me to believe that consciousness is indeed a very much lower function—lower as in “more basic”—in that its evolutionary advantage is nothing other than improving the odds of survival, of acquiring food, finding safety, and reproduction, very basic, “primitive” functions indeed.

Humility To say that we—you and I—are nothing more than the sum of the interaction of the molecules of our bodies may threaten the notion of the divine spark, the soul, yet it still leaves room for man’s place as a unique creation at the pinnacle of creation. To argue that the faculty which we believe most entitles us to that position, consciousness, is a very ancient endowment centered in the primitive limbic areas of the human brain, is in essence to argue that we are brethren to the “creepy-crawlies” of this world. The acceptance of that truth might require a higher degree of humility than that for which our species has been lately known.

53

Mark Jude Tramo. “Enhanced Music of the Hemispheres.” Science 5 January 2001: Vol. 291. no. 5501, pp. 54 – 56, “The popular notion that the right ‘hemisphere’ is the ‘musical hemisphere’ is overstated: both the right and the left hemispheres are involved in musical perception, performance, and recognition.”

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Calvino, Italo. t-zero. Collier Books. NY, 1970. Chalmers, David J. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford University Press. 1996. Chomsky, Noam. Language and Thought. “Anshen Transdisciplinary Lectureships in Art, Science and the Philosophy of Culture, Monograph 3.” 1993. Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell. Crick, Francis. The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Charles Scribner’s Son. ALSO: Crick, Francis. Review of: The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, in “PSYCHE,” 2(18). July 1995. Dainton, B.F. (2000). Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience. London: Routledge, International Library of Philosophy. http://psyche.cs.monash.edu.au/symposia/dainton/index.htmlPrecis: Stream of Consciousness Dawkins, Richard. The Ancestor’s Tale. A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. Mariner Books, NY. (paperback ed.) Green, Alex. “Intralaminar Nuclei Thalamus.” The Science and Philosophy of Consciousness. 2003. Online Koch, Christof. The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. (California Institute of Technology) 2004. Greenwood Village, CO: Roberts and Company Publishers. Tononi, Giulio. An information integration theory of consciousness. Department of Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA. “BMC Neuroscience 2004, 5:42 doi:10.1186/1471-2202-5-42.” 2004. Tramo, Mark Jude. “Enhanced Music of the Hemispheres.” Science 5 January 2001: Vol. 291. no. 5501, pp. 54 – 56 Wallace, Arthur. Creatures of Accident. (Uncorrected proof) Hill & Wang. NY. 2006 Zeman, Adam. Consciousness. A User’s Guide. London: Yale University Press. 2003

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the cinema of the mind  

An investigation into the evolution,function and physiology of consciousness

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