No voters

There is an interesting post by J. Lehrer in Frontal Cortex (here). He examines the metaphor of consciousness being the result of a ‘vote’.

Like Crick and Koch, I believe our head holds a raucous parliament of cells that endlessly debate what sensations and feelings should become conscious. These neurons are distributed all across the brain, and their firing unfolds over time. This means that we are not a place: we are a process. As the influential philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote, our mind is made up “of multiple channels in which specialist circuits try, in parallel pandemoniums, to do their various things, creating Multiple Drafts as they go.” What we call reality is merely the final draft. (Of course, the very next moment requires a whole new manuscript.)

And yet, and yet…There is the problem of the election. If this blink of conscious perception is a vote, then where is the voter? We can disguise the mystery with euphemisms (top-down attention, executive control, etc.) but the mystery still exists, as mysterious as ever. We deny the ghost, but still rely on models, metaphors and analogies in which the ghost controls the machine.

The problem as I see it is that the mechanism of the election is not the right metaphor. If things are visualized in a sequential way, it is difficult to lose the ghost. First we imagine two areas of neurons and that they are organized in similar maps, like the map of the retina in the thalamus and the one or more maps of the retina in the cortex and enlarge the number of maps to cover all the things that might be in the content of consciousness. This we suspect exists. Then we imagine that the neurons in one area communicate with those with similar map positions in the other area, and vice versa, to give feedback loops. This also we suspect to exist between the thalamus and the cortex and between separate areas of the cortex. And further we imagine that these parallel loops between two versions of the same map type are a bit sloppy so that there is a good deal of overlap. Now we have a massive set of parallel overlapping feedback loops. This resembles, not a digital computer, but an enormous analogue computer. When the input to such a network changes, there would be a short period of instability and then it would settle down to a stable state. This would be the ‘best fit scenario’, ‘the lowest energy configuration’, the ‘consistent perception’, etc. As a general idea, this could be thought of as an ‘election’ without the need for ‘voters’.

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