Just Seven Things

Exploring why and how we do what we do, and how we can do it better

Archive for the category “Neuroscience”

The Unfathomable Depth of Our Phenomenal-state Space

I’m nearing the end of an epic nine month consumption of Thomas Metzinger’s ‘The Ego Tunnel’:

‘The mathematical theory of neural networks has revealed the enormous number of possible neuronal configurations in our brains and the vastness of different types of subjective experience. Most of us are completely unaware of the potential and depth of our experiential space. The amount of possible neurophenomenological configurations of an individual human brain, the variety of possible tunnels, is so large that you can explore only a tiny fraction of them in your lifetime. Nevertheless, your individuality, the uniqueness of your mental life, has much to do with which trajectory through phenomenal-state space you choose.

Nobody will ever live this conscious life again. Your ego tunnel is a unicum, one of a kind’

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What is Consciousness?

Is consciousness capable of definition by anything other than pulling together a list of its potential functions? And keeping ‘in mind’ that the tool ‘we’ are using to compile the list is the subject of the list, does this call into question mankind’s definitive ability to define itself as a conscious entity in any sophisticated way?

In The Ego Tunnel, Metzinger considers current prime candidate functions of consciousness:

The emergence of intrinsically motivating states, the enhancement of social coordination, a strategy for improving the internal selection and resource allocation in brains that got too complex to regulate themselves, the modification and interrogation of goal hierarchies and long-term plans, retrieval of episodes from long-term memory, construction of storable representations, flexibility and sophistiation of behavioural control, mind reading and behavioural prediction in social interaction, conflict resolution and troubleshooting, creating a densely integrated representation of reality as a whole, setting a context, learning in a single step and making information “globally available” to an organism.

For me, I look to my own experience of my consciousness to start to sort through and prioritize this list.

My ‘brain chatter’ – the near constant commentary/ questioning/ planning/ worrying little me that feels like it’s in my head – seems to be busy in two main areas, with an increasingly important third area.

The first area is a lot about modelling, planning, trouble-shooting and conflict resolution. The conceptualisation of future scenarios and the plotting of courses to enable their achievement to my own set objectives or goals. These things at both mundane (‘when am I going to be able to pick up a present for my wife? What would she love?’) and more sophisticated levels (‘how am I going to achieve my life vision?’)

This area automatically seeps into the second area: the social interaction/ co-ordination/ people-response modelling piece. The present for my wife example above reflects this: my choice of present is heavily influenced by me going through a process of imagining what she’d love. From the psychometric profiles I undertake, I know I am heavily biased to this area in my ‘operating systems’. In a goal-driven context I constantly think about the impact actions will have on others. Their responses. Counter-responses. Different outcomes and planned scenarios. I endeavour to influence as many of the semi-controllable variables in the pursuit of my stated goal as possible.

The third, and increasingly important, area for me is a space I’m carving out from the energy dedicated to the other two functions. The pursuit of, and dedication to, attention. The presenteeism in the passing moments of my life. Whatever I can do to enhance this area at the (prioritized) expense of the other two areas is currently a very valid overriding objective.

The fascinating, and in some ways disconcerting, aspect of this latter area for us sophisticated, conscious human animals is how little ‘we’ are actually needed in being present and attentive. The absence of chatter and modelling and worrying and second-guessing is notable. In fact, the organ at the culmination of a very sophisticated nervous system becomes a far more dominant view of ‘me’ vs. a constructed self with intrinsic wants, desires and flavours.

Metzinger again puts everything into context: ‘let’s not forget that evolution is driven by chance, does not pursue a goal, and achieved what we now consider to be the continuous optimization of nervous systems in a blind process of hereditary variation and selection. It is incorrect to assume that evolution had to invent consciousness – in principle it could have been a useless by-product.’

Imagining is a Human Core Competence

The phenomenal self model (PSM) is ‘the conscious model of the organism as a whole that is activated by the brain’. Thomas Metzinger’s ‘The Ego Tunnel – the Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self’ refers to it as ‘probably one of nature’s best inventions’

‘Whenever our brains successfully pursue the ingenious strategy of creating a unified and dynamic inner portrait of reality, we become conscious’

‘First, our brains generate a world-simulation, so perfect that we do not recognise it as an image in our minds. Then, they generate an inner image of ourselves as a whole. This image includes not only our body and our psychological states but also our relationship to the past and the future, as well as to other conscious beings’

My marginalia at this point in my first reading of the book explodes. One of my long-term passions (and the core objective of this blog) is to investigate the relationship between the conscious mind and other-than-consciousness in relation to vision and goal-setting. I was immediately struck by Metzinger’s words above because of the sophistication that it infers the brain must have in the areas of image creation, belief and subsequent thoughts and actions reliant on the images and vision created. Some inter-linked areas I’ve explored:

What Could You Do in the Future With Your Imagination Now? illustrates the MRI scans from a brain remembering and imagining: the same areas are used.

How The Different Parts of The Brain Help Vision and Goal-Setting is my earlier, formative attempt to start to pull the findings of neuroscience into the vision area.

NLP, Modelling and Scenario Planning looked at the area from a business planning perspective following a great article by Ram Charan.

In Seth Godin’s compilation ebook, What Matters Now, Michael Hyatt writes about vision: ‘Leadership is more than influence. It is about reminding people of what it is we are trying to build—and why it matters. It is about painting a picture of a better future.

So, one conclusion to draw is that one of our core competences as Homo sapiens is the ability to imagine – to become conscious by creating a ‘inner portrait of reality’ – and then to project forward future realities.

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