Baggage 4 – Descartes


As Descartes almost invented the idea of consciousness about 400 years ago, it is no wonder that his notion of what consciousness is has become deeply embedded in our culture. He famously said ‘cognito ergo sum’ which is usually translated as ‘I think, therefore I am’ but a better translation, in the context of his philosophy, would be ‘I introspect, therefore I am’. He thought that introspection gave us the only direct knowledge of anything (in this case our own thoughts) because the knowledge did not pass through the error prone sensory processes. This was the bedrock on which he built his philosophy. To Descartes there were two sorts of things: material things that took up space and consciousness that took up no space (was immaterial). This dualism has the problem of interaction between mind and body. Is everything actually mind (idealism) or is everything actually body (materialism) or do both exist and interact or do both exist and not interact? Dualism say both exist and has tried (in vain, I would say) to figure out how they interact or how they correspond if they do not interact. A lot of weird and wonderful philosophy has come out of this problem. G. Ryle called Cartesian Dualism ‘the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine’.

The long standing habit of imagining the mind as a THING as opposed to a process forces the idea that it is an immaterial thing. We, after all, cannot find this thing or the space it occupies etc. But if the mind is not a THING, it can be a process that is carried out by material things and there is no problem.

We have experimental evidence that our knowledge of our own thoughts via introspection is not direct and without error. But the idea of an immaterial mind is so deep in our culture that sometimes the experimental evidence appears paradoxical even to the researchers familiar with it. We are in the middle of a real paradigm shift here – it is not mind verses matter, it is matter doing mind as a physiological function. We do not say ‘where is the digestion?’; can’t find the thing; so digestion must be immaterial. We say digestion is a physiological function of the alimentary canal. Mind is a function like digestion, circulation, immunity etc.

Baggage 3 – Economic Man


There has long been a view of human thought called Economic Man that was developed by economists since the 1800s. People are seen as making rational decisions for their own financial self-interest. The model was distilled into mathematical equations used by economists. The idea of Economic Man as an approximation of the financial behaviour of groups of people is reasonable. However, an ultra-rational, ultra-selfish ideal of human behaviour has, in the later half of the last century, been put forward as something to try to achieve.

A few economists have been critics of the Economic Man model but this is not my concern here. Economists can model people and markets and enterprises as they need and they are not meant to be descriptions of the biological world. It is the use of the ideal Economic Man in other contexts that is the problem, especially assuming it say something about what goes on in the human head. There are a some of problems with Economic Man as an explanation of general human behaviour:

  1. There is no intrinsic motivation and therefore no explanation of why people can be selfless heroes or take pleasure in craftsmanship, humour, goodness etc. The only motivations allowed are greed and other forms of short-term self-interest.

  2. The model does not realistically treat choices made between long and short-term goals or between individual and group goals. These ‘no-right-answer’ choices are the more interesting to many people.

  3. The model only can only deal with people in modern, free-market, money economies and not with primitive economies, such as those based on reciprocal gift giving. Nor does it deal with family dynamics involving the care of children. Sociologists have needed to develop a variation called Homo sociologicus to introduce some of the effects of social environment.

  4. It ignores the deeply cooperative nature of human societies.

  5. Some people confuse morality with the emulating of Economic Man.

  6. The model has a very simplistic notion of cognition – that thinking does not (or should not) be affected by emotions, instincts, feelings etc. Rationality takes on a very restrictive meaning.

How does Economic Man interfere with the understanding of consciousness? For some of the general public, the Economic Man model is the only one they have encountered. They use it far outside the restricted area where it is a valid approximation of human behaviour. This give these people an anti-biological, anti-sociological, anti-psychological, anti-philosophical view of their mental life. The black and white, one dimensional viewpoint that results is a hangup to following the subtleties of neuroscience.

Baggage 2 – Skinner


In the middle of the last century, Skinner’s theory of radical behaviourism ruled psychology. The theory held that mental life was unimportant and only environmental events caused behaviour. The important mechanism was conditioning especially operant conditioning. The theory has now almost gone from the scene but while it was accepted (40s,50s,60s) there were practically no attempts to understand consciousness. The idea still surfaces from time to time. It still lingers in the minds of people who were students in the middle of the century and took a psychology course or two.

Chomsky was a critic who was instrumental in the fall from grace of behaviourism. Here is some of his comments:

Skinner maintains, that “behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences” and that as the consequences contingent on behavior are investigated, more and more “they are taking over the explanatory functions previously assigned to personalities, states of mind, feelings, traits of character, purposes, and intentions”… As a science of behavior adopts the strategy of physics and biology, the autonomous agent to which behavior has traditionally been attributed is replaced by the environment — the environment in which the species evolved and in which the behavior of the individual is shaped and maintained….In support of his belief that science will demonstrate that behavior is entirely a function of antecedent events, Skinner notes that physics advanced only when it “stopped personifying things” and attributing to them “wills, impulses, feelings, purposes,” and so on. Therefore, he concludes, the science of behavior will progress only when it stops personifying people and avoids reference to “internal states.” No doubt physics advanced by rejecting the view that a rock’s wish to fall is a factor in its “behavior,” because in fact a rock has no such wish. For Skinner’s argument to have any force, he must show that people have wills, impulses, feelings, purposes, and the like no more than rocks do. If people do differ from rocks in this respect, then a science of human behavior will have to take account of this fact.

We can hear in this quote that Chomsky’s views have their own problems because of his discomfort with some basic biological concepts like evolution. However, he did end the dominance of behaviourism.

There was little wrong with Skinner’s scientific results. We can think of his work as treating the brain as a ‘black box’ and only concerning himself with the inputs and outputs. The error was to insist that there was no mechanisms within the black box and we should just not even talk about peeking in the box.

Baggage 1 – Freud


In the early 1900s Freud published his influential books; through most of the century his ideas gained influence; but at the end of the century they had been abandoned by psychology. The problem is that Freud’s view of the mind still influences many people in other fields and the general public. His words and concepts are now part of the culture.

He divided each of us into a warring set of actors: ego, id, superego, conscious mind, unconscious mind. As a result, ordinary people have a feeling that they are the result of a struggle within their heads. His theory diminished our trust of rationality and responsibility by claiming that our thoughts and actions were the result of hidden infantile sexual hangups.

J. Kihlstrom says (here):

No empirical evidence indicates that psychoanalysis is more effective, or more efficient, than other forms of psychotherapy, such as systematic desensitization or assertiveness training. No empirical evidence indicates the mechanisms by which psychoanalysis achieves its effects, such as they are, are those specifically predicated on the theory, such as transference and catharsis.

Of course, Freud lived at a particular period of time, and it might be argued that his theories were valid when applied to European culture at the turn of the last century, even if they are no longer apropos today. However, recent historical analyses show that Freud’s construal of his case material was systematically distorted and biased by his theories of unconscious conflict and infantile sexuality, and that he misinterpreted and misrepresented the scientific evidence available to him. Freud’s theories were not just a product of his time: they were misleading and incorrect even when he published them.

Drew Westen, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, agrees that Freud’s theories are archaic and obsolete, but argues that Freud’s legacy lives on in a number of theoretical propositions that are widely accepted by scientists: the existence of unconscious mental processes; the importance of conflict and ambivalence in behavior; the childhood origins of adult personality; mental representations as a mediator of social behavior; and stages of psychological development. However, some of these propositions are debatable. For example, there is no evidence that childrearing practices have any lasting impact on personality. More important, Westen’s argument skirts the question of whether Freud’s view of these matters was correct. It is one thing to say that unconscious motives play a role in behavior. It is something quite different to say that our every thought and deed is driven by repressed sexual and aggressive urges; that children harbor erotic feelings toward the parent of the opposite sex; and that young boys are hostile toward their fathers, who they regard as rivals for their mothers’ affections. This is what Freud believed, and so far as we can tell Freud was wrong in every respect. For example, the unconscious mind revealed in laboratory studies of automaticity and implicit memory bears no resemblance to the unconscious mind of psychoanalytic theory.

This theory, because it permeates common culture, especially literature, hinders the development and acceptance of a satisfactory understanding of consciousness.

Default network gone in coma


There is a article in Brain, Default network connectivity reflects the level of consciousness in non-communicative brain-damaged patients, by A. Vanhaudenhuyse and a large group. (here) The abstract is below:

The ‘default network’ is defined as a set of areas, encompassing posterior-cingulate/precuneus, anterior cingulate/mesiofrontal cortex and temporo-parietal junctions, that show more activity at rest than during attention-demanding tasks. Recent studies have shown that it is possible to reliably identify this network in the absence of any task, by resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging connectivity analyses in healthy volunteers. However, the functional significance of these spontaneous brain activity fluctuations remains unclear. The aim of this study was to test if the integrity of this resting-state connectivity pattern in the default network would differ in different pathological alterations of consciousness. Fourteen non-communicative brain-damaged patients and 14 healthy controls participated in the study. Connectivity was investigated using probabilistic independent component analysis, and an automated template-matching component selection approach. Connectivity in all default network areas was found to be negatively correlated with the degree of clinical consciousness impairment, ranging from healthy controls and locked-in syndrome to minimally conscious, vegetative then coma patients. Furthermore, precuneus connectivity was found to be significantly stronger in minimally conscious patients as compared with unconscious patients. Locked-in syndrome patient’s default network connectivity was not significantly different from controls. Our results show that default network connectivity is decreased in severely brain-damaged patients, in proportion to their degree of consciousness impairment. Future prospective studies in a larger patient population are needed in order to evaluate the prognostic value of the presented methodology.


Definitions of consciousness


I try to be consistent in expressing my ideas about mental activity, but sometimes the wrong word comes through because I do not notice it. I avoid the phrase ‘conscious mind’ because it carries baggage of two distinct minds in one brain, a hangover from the popularity of Freud’s theories. I use the word ‘consciousness’ instead, in the hope that it does not imply two minds. Just to ensure that I am on firm ground, I took the trouble to look up how others use the word. And here is what I found:

Dictionary definition of ‘consciousness’: 1. the state of being conscious (lost consciousness during the fight); 2a. awareness, perception (had no consciousness of being ridiculed); 2b. in combination – awareness of (class consciousness); 3. the totality of a person’s thoughts and feelings, or a class of these (moral consciousness).

Everyday definition of ‘consciousness’: aware of yourself and surroundings; alert cognitive state; awake, responsive, not asleep or comatose.

Everyday definition of ‘being conscious of’: awareness of intent or effort; knowing and perceiving; being aware of.

Political definition of ‘x-consciousness’: a sense of identity with a group based on attitudes, beliefs, sensitivities, and self interest. (examples: class consciousness, Black consciousness).

Religious definitions of ‘consciousness’: used as a word to translate from eastern religions their beliefs and ideas associated with mind, life force, stages along a path of self-development or enlightenment.

Definition of ‘stream of consciousness’: a literary device to illustrate a character’s mental life using an internal narrative; the continuous flow of ideas and feelings that constitute an individual’s experience.

Definition of ‘self-consciousness’: awareness of awareness; embarrassment from being aware of self and other’s awareness of you; introspection.

Scientific definition of ‘consciousness’: a process arising out of one or more types of mind activities that are associated with the brain and that involve awareness; the subjective aspect of neurological activity.

And my definition: A brain function that produces a shared awareness, across various parts of the brain, of some aspects of a model of the self-in-the-world.

This does not seem inconsistent with the scientific use and the everyday use, but is much more restrictive than many of the other definitions.

The purpose of colour


Previously I looked at C. Here is the E in an AtoZ by P. Long in My Brain on My Mind. (here)

Easy Problem. Philosopher’s lingo for the problem in neuroscience of comprehending the neuronal correlates of consciousness. When you see red, what exactly are your neurons doing? When you remember your grandfather’s face, what are your neurons doing? It may be difficult to parse the answer but in principle we can do it. It’s easy. The Hard Problem is the mystery of subjective experience. When long light waves stimulate our neural pathways, why do we experience the color red? And what survival benefit caused our brains to develop, through eons of evolution, an ability to experience a “sense of self,” a self able to see itself as special or heroic or smart or not so smart—as, on occasion, a complete failure?

I am not going to discuss a sense of self here, as it seems self evident that a sense of self is useful.

It is not usually quoted as an example of the hard question. Usually we see colour mentioned. Why does the personal experience of colour seem unexplainable? or at least a different order of mystery from other things?

What is the function of colour? It is definitely not there so that we can know the wavelength of light. We do not need or want to know the wavelength of light and, further more, colour is not a reliable measure of wavelength The colours that we see are ‘corrected’ in so many ways and to such an extent that their mapping to the physical wavelength of light is very approximate. Forget wavelength.

What colour does is to help give us objects. Our experience is of a three-dimensional space that is populated with objects. Objects are created by our perception to have particular locations, sizes and surfaces. We understand the world in terms of its objects and the world at any point in time is just objects in space. We recognize them, remember them, categorize them, name them and so on. Our lives are easier if objects that are not actually shrinking or growing, keep their size no matter how much of our retina they take up. We do not want them to move unless they are mobile even though our eyes are flicking their image around on our retina. We do not want objects to suddenly disappear or appear unless they actually are intermittent. And we do not want the surface of an object to change unless it is actually chemically or physically changing. The light (and sound) that is reflected off (and the feel to touch or smell of) an object is important to recognizing that object – such as noticing the archetypal tiger in the long grass at twilight. What our perception creates is objects and they have surface as important property. Those surfaces have colour as part of their image. So colour is very useful in recognizing and remembering objects.

Why is colour so complex in its nature and so delightful to us? The more complex it is, the more we can differentiate between similar surfaces. As far as delighting us – all the aspects of all our senses delight us or disgust us as appropriate. We build a model of the world; we are aware of parts of that model when we are conscious; we remember that model as we live in it; what is important and memorable in the model at any time is what we attend to and remember.

We do not have an explanation for colour or other aspects of subjective experience, but when put in a biological context, it does not seem any harder than many other questions. When we compare it to other questions in biology, why assume it was somehow different and unsolvable?

An old argument


The question of freewill is an endless philosophical argument. Are our actions completely predetermined or completely free? Each side has painted the other into an impossible corner. I want to forget this argument and just try to understand how we actually act. When we understand how we act then both sides will say, ‘see I told you so!’, and their disagreement will continue. This is because it is fairly predictable that we will find that decisions between courses of action actually are made and on the other hand those decisions have non-random causes. Thus the decisions are both freely made and causally determined.

The place to start is to get rid of dualism. We each have one brain and the functioning (perception, cognition, motor control, memory etc.) of that one brain gives us one mind. That brain creates a model of the world and a model of ourselves in that world. An edited version of that model is created for memory storage, sharing and perhaps other functions. The sharing of this version of the model is what we call consciousness. So lets suppose we have one brain, one mind, one model, one consciousness.

Next let us think about different kinds of decisions. There are decisions that are made without any part of the cognition entering consciousness. They ‘pop’ into consciousness fully decided. Then there are decisions where portions of the cognition enter consciousness. Why the difference? The decision may take longer; it may require sharing within the brain of the conscious kind; it may require memory and predictive modeling using the mental apparatus of consciousness; it may require a particular use of working memory or attention; or perhaps something else. Whatever the reason, we are not ‘making a conscious decision’, we are simply conscious of parts of the decision process as they are modeled by the mind for conscious awareness.

To the extent that our brain/mind recognizes action options, it is free to make decisions between them. To the extent that our brain/mind is a material biological system, its actions have causes. Before a decision is made it is impossible to calculate what the decision with be (just too big a calculation to accomplish in this universe). After the decision is made it is impossible to imagine it as outside causality less you want to introduce magic or the supernatural. This is simply how it is with extremely complex but material systems – you have both freedom and determinism.

The question we should ask about our decisions is not whether they are free or not. We should ask whether they are appropriate and relevant to the situation. Whether they are good decisions.

Here is the abstract from a paper by R. Baumeister, Free Will in Scientific Psychology (here):

Some actions are freer than others, and the difference is palpably important in terms of inner process, subjective perception, and social consequences. Psychology can study the difference between freer and less free actions without making dubious metaphysical commitments. Human evolution seems to have created a relatively new, more complex form of action control that corresponds to popular notions of free will. It is marked by self-control and rational choice, both of which are highly adaptive, especially for functioning within culture. The processes that create these forms of free will may be biologically costly and therefore are only used occasionally, so that people are likely to remain only incompletely self-disciplined, virtuous, and rational.

I would use different words and ideas but he is trying to get past the old and sterile argument of freewill vs determinism.

A decade of neuroscience

There has been an interesting article in PloS One. Mapping Change in Large Netwroks by M. Rosvall and C. Bergstrom. The article is about a method they developed to map network changes and somewhat off the topic of this blog. However, they use the emergence of Neuroscience as a dramatic example of network change.

…In the same diagram, we also highlight the biggest structural change in scientific citation patterns over the past decade: the transformation of neuroscience from interdisciplinary specialty to a mature and stand-alone discipline, comparable to physics or chemistry, economics or law, molecular biology or medicine. In 2001, 102 neuroscience journals, lead by the Journal of Neuroscience, Neuron, and Nature Neuroscience, are assigned with statistical significance to the field of molecular and cell biology. Further, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology, Psychophysiology, and 33 other journals appear with statistical insignificance in psychology and Neurology, Annals of Neurology, Stroke and 77 other journals appear with statistical significance in neurology. In 2003, many of these journals remain in molecular and cell biology, but their assignment to this field is no longer significant. The transformation is underway. In 2005, neuroscience first emerges as an independent discipline. The journals from molecular biology split off completely from their former field and have merged with neurology and a subset of psychology into the significantly stand-alone field of neuroscience.

In their citation behavior, neuroscientists have finally cleaved from their traditional disciplines and united to form what is now the fifth largest field in the sciences (after molecular and cell biology, physics, chemistry, and medicine). Although this interdisciplinary integration has been ongoing since the 1950s, only in the last decade has this change come to dominate the citation structure of the field and overwhelm the intellectual ties along traditional departmental lines.

The diagram that results from their analysis is impressive with its river of neuroscience. ( here ) This research activity has grown over just a decade. Further what is not included is some of the activity in artificial intelligence and robotics that may overlap with neuroscience. It is this revolution in understanding the brain that prompted me to start this blog. I was afraid of how hard it would be for ordinary people to adapt to what the new science was going to show about consciousness.