A request

Recently I received two of those rare communications – comments. What a nice feeling it is to have this feedback. Please consider commenting when you read a posting that interests you. Say if you agree, disagree, have something to add, have a question, have an answer. I will appreciate it.

I don’t know why I get so few comments. I have posted about 380 posts and have had almost 300,000 visits but in the three years that the blog has existed I have had only about a 100 comments. I don’t know if this is unusually low or not, but I suspect it is.

So that you know where I am coming from:

I have struggled with dyslexia since I started school in 1945. I have wondered about my left-handedness most of my life. Over the years I have read what I could find on the brain and until about 20 years ago there was so much of it that was not credible to me. It certainly was not my mind or brain that was being described.

My stubborn intuition about the mind has changed some over the years but the science has changed much more, even beyond recognition. Recent science does fit with my intuition.

Consciousness is only now coming under scientific investigation. It is especially intriguing. I am reading the thinking about it for my own satisfaction. I make notes on what I read for myself. It was noticeable that there was a high fraction of people who were having real problems with the new theories – the same theories that I found so natural, comforting and convincing. It seemed to me that some friends might be helped to understand consciousness by reading my notes. The easiest way to make them available to friends and anyone else who wanted them, was to blog. I thought that I might have a couple of hundred people, at most, following me, but the number has grown way past that.

Unlike many other bloggers I am not trying to make a name for myself and not a professional doing original work or university teaching. I am retired with no career ambitions in science or writing. I live away from city and university and have very few peers to chat with about consciousness. I read the web and what I find interesting I note in the blog.

So again, if you are at all inclined, please comment when you read my postings – I will appreciate it.

Blog answers

If you are a blogger on anything to do with the brain, take a look at this invitation to answer a questionnaire for the research of Alice Bell. (here) If you are interested in my answers, they are below.

Blog URL: http://charbonniers.org
Thoughts on thoughts: a blog on consciousness by Janet Kwasniak

What do you blog about?

The subject is consciousness but in the widest scientific sense so it includes attention, working memory, dreams, evolutionary reasons for consciousness and other aspects that are linked to consciousness and/or part of it. I try to avoid the temptation to expand into other areas. Absolutely no woo allowed, just science, philosophy or common sense.

Do you feel as if you fit into any particular community, network or genre if science blogging? (e.g. neuroscience, bad science, ex-sbling)

I fit into neuroscience. However I am not part of a blog group like Scienceblogs, Scientopia, Neuroscience blogs etc. I do put postings into ResearchBlogging under Neuroscience. I take part in the Encephalon carnival.

If so, what does that community give you?

(1) I don’t feel alone. (2) Reading the other bloggers gives me sources, ideas and a feel for what the general opinion is on questions. (3) Carnivals and ResearchBlogging give me exposure and alert me to new bloggers.

Are you paid to blog?

No. Nor do I have ads or ask for donations. And I don’t need to be paid because it costs me so little. I pay for my domain & service suppliers etc. and it totals less than a couple hundred dollars/pounds/euros a year; I use open software with no cost. Most people have hobbies that cost them more.

What do you do professionally (other than blog)?

I am retired and have been for about 10 years and live on a small pension with no work, paid or voluntary.

How long have you been blogging at this site?

The blog started June 2008 – two and a half years ago.

Have/ do you blogged elsewhere? When? Where?

No, this is my only blog. I do have a personal site started in 2006 (http://janetsplace.charbonniers.org) and one section of it (called views) could be thought of as a blog. It has a bit of science but it is rarely about the brain except in some items about language and about Alzheimers.

Would you describe yourself as a scientist, or as a member of the scientific community? Do you have any formal/ informal training in science? (if so, what area?)

I have never been a scientist but I have always been involved in science. I have been a medical technician, biological research technician, computer programmer, manager of laboratories and manager of computer systems. I have followed scientific developments for 50 years and have a Bachelors degree in Chemistry and Biology from the OU as well as an much earlier 2 year diploma in Medical Technology. I am a co-author on 4 peer-reviewed papers.

Note: Nothing above explains my interest in neuroscience. This interest stems from having been dyslexic (and left handed) in the days before it was a recognized condition in rural Canada. I have in effect taught myself to read and write with help from one teacher when I was 12 and my husband from the time I was 19 onwards. I got myself through school and tech training and only then learnt that my problem had a name. I have read everything about the brain that I could understand and get my hands on since then. Until recently, I could believe very little of what I found. Freud and similar, behaviorism, philosophical dualism: all were unconvincing. Now that neurobiology and cognitive science are blooming, I find that my general idea of how the brain works was vaguely on the right track and I am following the developments with great interest.

Do you have any formal training in journalism, science communication, or similar?

No formal training in either – but about 16 years in Toastmasters. I am excellent at oral communication and have a lot of practice at it. Written communication is difficult for me – I have to work at it. I think I am only average at written communication and I would have to be better than average to be published.

Do you write in other platforms? (e.g. in a print magazine?)

No.

Can you remember why you started blogging?

It occurred to me that I would probably be dead in 10 years and that I had things to say so I had better start now. I would never get a book published or even articles. If I tried to get published, all the work would go on the writing and not on the ideas. I would hate it and never actually get it done before I was senile. With blogging there was no pressure on the writing – people could take it as they found it or leave it. It is not that I don’t try to write well, it is just that I don’t succeed in writing to ‘publication’ standard.

I thought about Utube and doing talks in series on it but found blogging easy to set up.

What keeps you blogging?

(1) I enjoy it most of the time. (2) There is a routine so even if I find I am short of time or have other things I want to do, the routine gets the posts done. (3) Because I live in France and my French is not up to making interesting conversation, blogging gives me an English language outlet. Otherwise I would be suffering from ‘cabin fever’. (4) It feels like a worthy mission. (5) I keep learning and modifying my ideas.

Do you have any idea of the size or character if your audience? How?

I look at stats provided for my domain provider. I am currently running at about 18000 visits and about 30000 page views per month for the blog. The stats have risen steadily and not yet leveled off.

I put some postings (approximately half) on Research Blogging and they get about the same hits as other neuroscience posting there.

My blog rarely comes up on the early pages of a Google search and so is very far from a standout in popularity.

A couple of bloggers have put my link on their blog role, so at least some neuroscience bloggers follow my blog. Generally I have very little idea of the character of the audience.

What’s your attitude to/ relationship with people who comment on your blog?

I don’t get many comments and so I value those I get; I don’t pick fights; I try to respond in a positive way.

What do you think are the advantages of blogging? What are its disadvantages/ limitations?

For me blogging has very little disadvantages. Before the internet and blogging there was no way for someone like me to put ideas forward to the general public.

Do you tell people you know offline that you’re a blogger? (e.g. your grandmother, your boss)

Yes, everyone I can. But I don’t nag anyone to look at it.

Is there anything else you want to tell me about I haven’t asked?

(1) I post to the blog about every 3 days. (The personal site is updated monthly and a genealogical site is updated approximately yearly). This is between the daily output of some bloggers and the weekly or monthy output of others. (2) The postings are short compared to those of many other bloggers. They often have links to other blogs or papers, quotes from them and comments on the ideas in the source. No attempt at a chatty format is made. From time to time there are posting that summarize all or a number of previous postings. (3) I do not use a fancy layout or pictures (although I like this in the blogs I read) (4) I find pay walls to original papers and magazine articles very annoying. I don’t pay; don’t have access to a university library; therefore must rely on abstracts and other bloggers for the gist of many interesting developments. I wish everyone published on open access sites.

History of the quest


The time has come to put forward the ideas that I (tentatively) favour. Tentativeness is important for me in the current state of knowledge. We cannot say, with any sort of completeness, what the cells in the brain actually do, especially the glia cells – maybe something to do with calcium movements and voltages that are not action potentials. Our picture of synapses is also somewhat foggy, especially the mechanics of how the number and strength of synapses changes as the brain forms memories and learns. The connections of neurons has only started being mapped. Some of the main highways are known but not the details. And so it goes. A wholly new aspect of the brain could appear out of left field any day and change the understanding of the brain overnight. So I must be tentative. Nevertheless it is constructive to speculate, and fun as long as it is not taken too seriously. In the next post, I will speculate, but first I give some history.

Every once in a while, we can experience a culture shock within our own culture. We find that some idea that we took to be a vague and sloppy metaphor, is a literal truth to many others. In my late teens (in the 1950s) I took a psychology course in high school. The material was not always believable but like a good student I learned it and gave it back in exams. That did not mean I had to accept it. Being a good student, I usually accepted what I was taught. However, I just could not believe 1950’s psychology. I became aware that the other students had no trouble accepting the material. It fit with their world. That was a culture shock. Shortly after this I first heard about dyslexia and realized that it explained my reading and writing difficulties. I made the assumption that the reason I had no feeling of comfort with Freud’s ideas was because I was ‘made differently’. The thing that was most unbelievable was that there was a ‘conscious mind’ and a separate ‘unconscious mind’ or ‘subconscious mind’. It was inconceivable to me that I had two separate minds. I had one and what was more, if I had to choose between a conscious or an unconscious mind then I would have to choose unconscious. This attitude on my part was because I thought of mind as the thing that thinks. As there was no trace of any mechanisms of thought in my consciousness, my thinking must happen elsewhere. I could not feel any metaphorical gears or levers or other mechanisms doing any thinking work in my consciousness, the only conscious awareness was of the finished final products. Pop, there’s another thought, nicely related to the last one. Even some puzzles done in a fixed stepwise fashion had no feeling of ‘how’ each step was accomplished. I had consciousness and I had a mind but not a conscious mind.

I became less sure that I was made so differently from everyone else when I questioned them and found that others did not see anything odd about what I said or did. They also could not describe any conscious thought processes either but just finished thoughts. I might be made different in terms of dyslexia but probably not in terms of conscious experience.

Sometime, about 40 years ago, in the 1970s, I sat on the top step of the stairs and tried to figure out how I knew when I was conscious. I realized that the answer was memory. If I could remember being conscious, I believed I was conscious at that time. If there was a gap in my memory, I believed I had been unconscious during that gap. If I was conscious, I had a memory and if I had a memory, I had been conscious. Introspection did not show me consciousness, memory of introspection did. I formed the tentative belief that consciousness was like the leading edge of memory and not really separate from memory. This is not particularly helpful because memory is almost as mysterious as consciousness, maybe more.

I took ‘Biological Basis of Behavior’ from the Open University and began reading papers and books on the subject of consciousness.

About 30 years ago, in the 1980s, I had an argument with a friend about whether it would be possible to draw a one-to-one mapping between a biological account of the brain, a psychological account of behavior, and a philosophical account of the mind. I thought that if you had the right three accounts, they would fit together and I tried to produce such a mapping. It had a lot of holes but I felt it showed that the enterprise would someday be possible. I have re-read it a couple of times since I wrote it and noted where more reading or thinking was required. The mapping is a sort of on-going project.

What started me creating this blog was the explosion in material on functioning of the brain. I thought of my friends who were not aware that a revolution as big as the Copernican revolution, or the Darwinian one or the quantum mechanical one, was just about to happen in neuroscience. It was going to be hard for people to change the way they thought about their minds. I could try to give them (and me) a head start in little incremental posts. I was already following the science and therefore just needed to write the posts.

The next post will be on my tentative model and then a summary of the first 100 posts.

Summary of posts to the end of 2008


This blog has been going for a little over 6 months; it is coming to a new year; so I intend to do a little housekeeping. The object is a make it easier for my visitors to find what they want among the posts. I have made a list of general ideas/questions that I am trying to investigate, and then, for each heading, I list the posts that apply to that idea.

 

Purpose of the blog

The aim of this blog is to prepare people for the revolution that is going to happen soon in neuroscience. The very first post (1 Jun aims ) outlined the scope of the blog. The aims are enlarged on later in (10 Aug scientific shocks). To give an indication of the type of material that was intended in the blog an early post gave a list (12 Jun what do we know about consciousness) and another gave probable functions (2 Jul does sconsciousness have a function). Putting consciousness in context was the purpose of  (9 Oct one way to look at consciousness).

 

A different way to look at consciousness

Some posts have been specifically written to help people come to grips with a different way of viewing their mental life. These posts hardly contain any quotes or links to scientific material. I have used some descriptions of my own way of seeing myself: (6 Jun living without a conscious mind) (10 Jul decisions) (15 Aug who is watching) (18 Oct why make problems) (15 Nov metaphors for consciousness) (30 Nov metaphor) (15 Dec a few definitions)   

 

Some posts look at more specific problems in understanding consciousness

·        The question of how qualia or the quality of our experience is produced has been a problem, especially for philosophers. (13 Jun why not) (21 Sep the wrong questions)  

·        Consciousness includes awareness of fringe events. (25 Oct a certain feeling) (12 Nov fringe consciousness) (3 Dec confidence)  

·        There is also a problem of what to do about free will. M Gassaniga has put forward the idea of an interpreter that makes sense of our actions. (26 Jul the interpreter) Other posts on this subject:  (17 Sep the problem of free will) (15 Oct a feeling of will) (31 Oct virtual agency) (3 Nov Llinas) (6 Nov more Llinas) (18 Nov decisions without frontal lobe activity)  

·        A spatial construction is basic to consciousness. (19 Aug  the 3D world) (30 Sep built-in sat-nav)

·        There is one is probably one mechanism for various types of awareness. (4 Sep shared workspace) (8 Sep what goes on in dreams) (3 Oct consciousness in Zen meditation) (21 Nov default network) (9 Dec hypnosis) Thinking can be different when it does not have to be tied to awareness of the thinking. (27 Sep eureka)  

·        An important question is how we live in the present when it takes time for the brain to process information and render it part of consciousness. (24 Jun living in the present) Changizi explains some visual illusions by projection into future (26 Aug living in the present 2) It affects tennis refs (9 Nov prediction).  Not only does it take time to produce conscious experience, the process is like frames of a movie, so it is discontinuous rather than being continuous. (19 Jul watching the movie)

Old ideas that get in the way

There are ways of thinking that interfere with understanding the brain. (12 Dec a different angle)  

·        Some people take the metaphor between computers and brains a little too seriously. (19 Jun brain-computer metaphor)

·        Many people are resistance to there being a continuity between our brains and those of other animals. (4 Aug are animals conscious?) (23 Aug a birds eye view) (28 Oct dogs) (24 Nov Occams razor and rules of thumb) (12 Dec hangover from the Great Chain of Beings)  (27 Dec not just a few animals)

·        I have encountered a strict identification of language with consciousness that I think is counterproductive. (7 Aug the inner voice) (24 Sep unconscious meaning).

·        A leftover from Freudian theories is a distrust of unconscious thinking. (6 Oct bad press for unconscious)

·        The idea that the neo-cortex is the only part of the brain involved in producing consciousness is counter production. The thalamus as well as the cortex is important in producing consciousness (11 Sep Grand Central Station)  (21 Dec thalamus waves)

 

Some ‘how’ hypotheses

There are some hypotheses that seem very convincing. So far we have taken a quick look at the following:

·        Bayesian calculations create consciousness. (2 Jun is the brain bayesian) (24 Dec  Friston’s law ) looked at the possibility put forward by K Friston.

·        R Rensink has a hypothesis that there are two aspects of consciousness, the big picture without detail and the focus with a few items in detail. (29 Jul change)

·        R Llinas puts forward a hypothesis that the thalamus controls consciousness (6 Dec yet more Llinas)   

·        My own hypothesis for many years has been massively parallel overlapping feed back loops within the cortex and between the cortex and the thalamus. (4 Jul ambiguous perceptions) (14 Sep feedback)

 

Miscellaneous bits and pieces

(23 Jul smell is different),  (30 Aug do grandmother cells fly?), (12 Oct metaphor to embodiment), (22 Oct the homunculus problem), (27 Nov not inside us)  

A different angle


Many people come to look at the brain from some variation on a particular set of preconceived attitudes.

  1. Most and all important thinking happens in the neo-cortex.
  2. There are two independent thinking systems: unconscious and conscious.
  3. There is a big divide between how humans think and how animals think.
  4. Introspection is a trustworthy means to understand ‘conscious thought’.
  5. Without human language it is not possible to have concepts.
  6. It is impossible to have morality and responsibility without free will and impossible to have free will without a ‘conscious mind’.

 

All of these notions are probably false. They may not be but they certainly can be mistaken. The important thing is to keep an open mind when interpreting research results. It hampers us to carry Freud, Descartes, Chomsky and others like millstones around our necks.

 

The more reasonable way to look at things can be laid out.

  1. The whole of the forebrain and parts of the midbrain are important in normal thinking. In particular the cortex does not work without the thalamus and vice versa. The more ancient parts of the cortex, such as the hippocampus, are extremely important to thought and memory, not just the neo-cortex.
  2. Being conscious of thoughts should not be confused with the actual thinking any more than being conscious of a tree should be confused with the actual tree. It may be that there is one undivided thinking process and that we are aware of some of the process but not all of it (or even most of it).
  3. In evolutionary history, we have only recently, diverged from our sister species. There is no reason our brains differ in kind, rather than degree, from other animals.
  4. Introspection may be largely an exercise in spin or self deception. We would not know if it was from within introspection.
  5. There is non-verbal thinking even though some people resist and downplay the idea. You can think something and not be able to find words to express the idea.  
  6. We make decisions and that should be sufficient for owning our actions and accepting responsibility for them. What that means morally and legally needs to be decided as it has been in the past. Conscious free will is a red herring.

Scientific Shocks


The world is in for another great scientific shock.

 

There was the Copernican revolution that gave us a new meaning for the word ‘revolution’. It took a while but people started feeling that they really were on the surface of a sphere, spinning around and orbiting a star. At first, the very thought made people dizzy and fearful. They might believe that the earth was round but they did not feel it. Now it is just how we think.

 

Then there was Darwin. Not everyone has digested that theory yet, but many people can now be comfortable with the feeling that we are one of the animals, not the opposite of animals, and feel a long, shared history with them. Darwinism along with plate tectonics has made us accustomed to the idea that the earth, and its life, has been slowly changing for an extremely long time rather than created as we see it now, in a short time. Now it is just how many of us think.

 

Next Newton’s universe of simple matter and energy, action and reaction, unfolding in a rigid, continuous space and time, was shattered by Einstein’s relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Most of us have not only failed to internalize these theories, we have not even managed to understand or really ‘believe’ them. There is an understanding gap between physicists and broadly well educated members of the public who cannot feel ‘they are living in’ the universe that the physicists describe.

 

It is time to get ready for the next shock. Science is shortly going to illuminate how the brain works and it is not going to be easy to assimilate. We will have to learn to see ourselves in a different way.

I hope this blog will help you prepare for the shock. That is why I am doing the blog.

What do we know about consciousness?

Any hypothesis of the nature of consciousness has to address several facts – at least these facts, as a minimum, and there probably are other constraints as well as these.

  1. There is an intimate connection between memory and consciousness. We remember what we have been conscious of. We know we have been unconscious if there is a discontinuity in our memory of events. Memories ‘package’ experience in a form that closely resembles the conscious experience of events. We feel a flow of future projections to present conscious experience to past memories without any sharp change in the type of awareness.
  2. Consciousness and dreaming have some commonalities but are quite different in their connection to perception and action. Dreams are not about reality and usually not result in action and usually are not remembered.
  3. There is a time delay in the formation of a conscious experience which we do not perceive. It is as if we were automatons who, for no good reason, experience a continuous movie of our immediately past perceptions and actions. We feel our consciousness is a real time event when it is not. The best summary of the experimental evidence for the time delay that I have found so far is Roger Penrose’s review of the evidence.
  4. Consciousness is not a completely faithful model of what is actually happening. Illusions and misinterpretations are frequent and somewhat predictable. We do not even have a completely accurate model of our own minds. For instance: there are blind sight and other knowing-without-awareness-of-knowing; there are phantom limbs and other awareness-of-the-nonexistent.
  5. The way that conscious experience presents itself seems arbitrary and personal. Why is a particular wavelength of light seen as a particular colour? Is my red your red? Qualia (properties of perceptions) are an aspect of consciousness.
  6. Consciousness happens at the same time as some pronounced activities in the brain, particularly reciprocal communication between the cortex and the thalamus, low amplitude but high frequency brain waves, activity in the reticular formation. There is a summary in Scholarpedia but it is fairly technical.
  7. Our consciousness can be affected by various mental illnesses, drugs, stressful situations etc. We can also learn to modify our consciousness (with meditation for example).

We need a picture of consciousness that fits with and helps explain these facts.

Aims

Does the world need another blog? Well, I think so or I would not be starting this one. We need to talk about consciousness from a different angle. So… I will put forward various views that I find worthy of discussion and then I will hope that others comment on my pieces and other comments.

Consciousness is a big subject:

What is it?…..Why do we have it? –or- What is its function?…..How did we get it? –or- How did it evolve?…..Where is it? –or- What is its neurobiology?…..What does it feel like?…..Other questions will, no doubt, follow.

It is also approached in different ways – by scientists, philosophers, therapists and artists.

But there is the hope that consciousness is quite simple to understand and with that hope, I blog.