Just Seven Things

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

Archive for the tag “Consciousness”

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.’

Why Do We Really Have a Brain?

A human’s answer to this question will, I think, always naturally bias towards more ‘intelligent’ or sophisticated interpretations. Like an onion with many layers, I’m sure that most things we come up with as explanations have a place and play a part in the overall picture.

Arguments about how early human’s brains developed further within a social/ community context to help them interact, plan and understand the mental worlds of others (and thereby understand intentions) feel like a solid layer toward the centre of the onion.

So too is our ability to plan for future needs, fantasising about future scenarios and creating an ‘inner world (which) develops into a ‘mirror of the future’ in which we can simulate the consequences of alternative paths of action instead of proceeding by trial-and-error, which is far less effective.’ [Eva Krutmeijer text in an article about philosopher Peter Gärdenfors on the Carl Linnaeus website]

I have sometimes marvelled personally at the gap between my own personal plans and intentions and the actual physical action to make them real. The role of energy and physical movement or action to catalyse a planned process is obvious, but I think telling; I can remember times in the past when I’ve sat in a comfy chair or lain in bed, with the act of standing up and doing all the things I need to do to leave the house and enact the day’s plans seeming like an insurmountable mountain of activity. There is an interesting correlation between mental health, the symptoms of depression and tell-tale signs in prolonged periods doing nothing/ staying in bed, as well as reduced social interaction.

I had stalled in reading Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell’s book, Human Givens. Reviewing my notes before restarting the other night, I came upon my early highlighting of ‘movement is fundamental to the very existence of brains, which developed primarily to control movement, to predict the outcome of movement and remember the result of past movements’. They use the example of the tiny marine sea creature, the sea quirt, which early in its life swims like a tadpole with a brain and nerve cord to control its movements. When mature it attaches to a rock, stays in one place, and digests its own brain and nerve cord because it no longer has a use for them.

Over the last 3-4 years the amount of physical activity I do has increased significantly. So too have my levels of happiness and contentment. I find myself structuring my days to front load physical exercise and activity as a real kick-start to the day. Even without physical sport, I now find that what feels like an internal binary switch of satisfied/ not satisfied with my day is directly connected with being out and about and active.

Energy, and the food intake to fuel it, obviously plays an important supporting role in this whole discussion, but I wanted to leave this piece with the following couple of areas of thought:

  • ‘The mental faculty for controlling movement is crucial to daily life. It is involved in conceiving and idea of what to do, planning a response, and then carrying it out. (Literally, when we think about getting a book down from the shelf, our brains stimulate the movement’ [Griffin/Tyrell, Human Givens]. This highlights two things: first, when we mentally plan and visualise something that we create as a goal, we prime the same areas of the brain to engage in the activity to deliver into reality: ‘the primary motor cortex and the premotor cortex are both located in the frontal lobe…..which…determines where we direct our attention. It also appears to direct our consciousness itself’ [Griffin/Tyrell, Human Givens]. The second is that, arguably, we have the ability to kickstart our journey towards our plans and goals by just starting. The very act of movement and action should very quickly overcome any mental resistance to the enormity of any task
  • The above isn’t rocket science. And that’s kind of the point that ties me back to my opening line. We are endowed with a higher level of consciousness that bestows many benefits, but I would argue a tendency to overassess the complexity of what’s really going on in our brains, and under-estimate how easy it is to ‘hot-wire’ or hack ourselves to achieve our desired results. Movement is increasingly feeling like a universal ‘backdoor’ or master override key or code to ourselves.

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