Edit: First paragraph removed and small changes made to the rest.


I am putting forth a hypothesis is about the nature of consciousness. First I will have to tell you how I am using certain words because they are generally used in a number of ways.  'Brain' is an biological organ and it has a function, 'mind'. Mind is not an object; it is what brains do. It is not a property of the brain, let alone an emergent property, whatever that is. It is a function - so mind-is-to-brain as circulation-is-to-heart or digestion-is-to- intestine. There is one brain in any head and there is one mind being produced by that brain – not two. (Assuming sanity) The different parts of the cortex work together; the two hemispheres work together; the fore-brain structures work together with the mid-brain structures. The mind includes at least: perception, cognition, learning, intention, motor control, remembering, and most importantly, the forming a model of the environment and the person in that environment. The division between 'conscious mind' and 'unconscious mind' is meaningless. The brain does its mind-function which maintains the model. Some but not all of this model is made globally accessible to all of the brain and remembered. That edit of the model is what we experience as conscious experience, in other words, is our 'consciousness'. Consciousness is awareness not thought. Consciousness is not separate but part of a single mind-function. Now that the words are straight, I can describe the hypothesis.


How is the model edited for consciousness?


There is an attention focus that is triggered by the on-going work of the mind and the events that happen in the environment. I may concentrate on some task so that I am not conscious of other parts of the model but a loud noise will cause my attention focus to shift to the source of noise in the model. The level of attention is variable from non-existent (coma) to intense. This level depends on the signals coming from the lower parts of the brain, through the thalamus, into the cortex. A common analogue for attention is a searchlight scanning the mind-model of reality. We cannot be aware of the whole of the model at any instant of time.


How is the model formed?


The fragments for the model are forced together into a best fit global model. The perception of the various senses, inborn constraints, our understanding of the world, our memory of the previous seconds, our expectations etc. together build a cohesive model by constructing a synchronous neural activity. Fragments that cannot be fit into the model are lost from it. This is done by an almost unbelievable number of parallel, slightly overlapping feedback loops, across the cortex and between the cortex and the mid-brain (especially the thalamus). The feedback loops are much more like patch boards then like digital computers. They rattle for an instance until they find a stable synchrony. There is nothing like step-wise processes at this stage of forming a global model.


How is the consciousness edit of the model used?

There is little doubt that consciousness is useful because it is biologically expensive. Evolution will eliminate expensive functions that do not earn their keep. There are three very important processes that are carried on by the consciousness aspect of mind.


1) The working memory that holds the last few frames of consciousness is the source of episodic memory. There is an important link between consciousness and the formation of memory. We could treat working memory as part of consciousness or part of more permanent memory or even the link between them. Consciousness is in effect 'the leading edge of memory'. No conscious experience of something than no memory of it.


2) The working memory allows some cognition and learning that needs to 'juggle' information. I cannot add two digits if I cannot retain one while I perceive the other. So some thought processes are going to be in the edited model so that they are be continued through the use of working memory. This does not constitute a conscious mind that is separate from an unconscious mind. It is only that some types of thinking register bits of their progress in our awareness so they can be retrieved later.


3) Consciousness does mild prediction and therefore can register errors in perception and motor control. It takes a fraction of a second to form the conscious experience of an event. But we do not live our lives a fraction of a second late. Information from time t is used to form a model of what the world will be like a t+x and x being the time it takes to create the model and its conscious edited version, then we will seem to experience t+x at t+x. The difference between the model of t+x and what comes in via our senses at t+x is the actual error in our perception and motor control and is be used to correct the system.


These three functions seem ample to justify the metabolic expense of consciousness and rule out philosophical zombies. The functions also seem to rule out consciousness being uniquely human. 'If it quacks like a duck' logic applies to animal consciousness. If an animal appears to have a good memory of events, learns from its experiences, has smooth motor control in complex changing situations, then it is hard to imagine how this happens without consciousness including self consciousness. There would, of course, be degrees of consciousness and variations in the aspects of environment/self that would be modeled by different animals.


My answers to some problems ahead of their being asked


Most readers of this site are comfortable with the idea of the map and the territory. This post is using a very similar (maybe the same) idea of reality and model of reality. There is nothing surprising about the difference between the physical tree in the garden and an element that stands for that tree in my model of reality. It is the same idea to think about the difference between the reality-now and the model-now. The difference between my physical leg and my model leg is not difficult. We need to extent that comfort to the difference between the reality-me and the model-me. Introspection gives us awareness of our model, it is not our reality-mind but our model-mind we are turning our focus of attention on. There is a difference between reality-decisions and model-decisions. We live in our model and have absolutely, positively no direct knowledge of anything else – none ever.


I have given no evidence for the hypotheses here but for two years I have been collecting evidence on consciousness in my website, Thoughts on thoughts. My hypothesis is not that different from the one that Academian is giving in his series of posts and I do not mean mine to be in opposition to his, but to a large extent supportive. Treating consciousness as a sense is not that different from treating it as as a selective awareness. There is no need to get hung up on the words or analogies we use.


I have side-stepped the 'hard question' of how and why red is experienced as red. I have the feeling that this is a 'wrong question' but I am not sure why. It is certainly not explained by the hypothesis I have given here. All I have to say about the hard question is: “Can you think of a better way to be aware of red then the one you have?, Is there something more efficient or more vivid or more biologically functional?” In other words, “What is the alternative?” Even if you go all spiritual, that still does not explain the experience of red. Dualism does not answer the hard question either and I have not encountered any philosophy that does. If it is answered, I would put my money on a scientific, material answer.


I have not side-stepped the question of how consciousness is reduced to physics. The method is clear: reduce consciousness to biology and biology to physics/chemistry. We accept that biology is in principle reducible to physics/chemistry. We generally assume that the brain is understandable as a biological organ and so if we can assume that consciousness is a function of the brain, it is in principle reducible to physics.






18 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:52 AM
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Janet, I don't know if you're just nervous, or rushed, or what, but the writing quality of your comments is a lot better than the writing quality of this article. In your comments, you number your points, you use a grammatically active voice, and you say what you mean.

In this article, you have long paragraphs, some of which don't have any kind of transition from one to the next. You preface most of your points with disclaimers and generalities, and you use a lot of passive voice.

I suggest you rewrite this article, paying a little more attention to style! You might have something really cool to say here; I just can't tell because it's so hard to read.

For whatever it's worth, I'm not voting your article up or down yet.

I would appreciate some concrete examples. I have not spent much time writing any of my comments but I did re-write the post several times. I may have over done the editing. Indeed I have disclaimers and generalities, probably way too many, and I could remove some. I could make the sentences easier etc. I notice that people are careful about editing - is there a particular way that I should mark the edits?

I'd second the suggestion to re-draft the article; it's not clear what this should mean in term of marking up changes. If it's going to take a while you might want to add a brief notice at the front "I'm rewriting this, please help me in the comments". Or you might prefer to post a "Take 2" later - that gives you a better shot at grabbing people's attention.

The first para has to go, it's way too apologetic and sort of sends "don't read" signals. You want to do the opposite - start by establishing relevance, saying why the reader should be interested in what you have to say. What is wrong with our current understanding of consciousness, that your post proposes to clear up? Be as specific as possible.

(For instance, if I were to post about consciousness, I might start by noting how strong and yet how misleading the feeling of unity of consciousness is, and bring out what I've learned about the patchwork nature of the human mind.)

The discussion of what you mean by certain words is secondary to establishing relevance; if it is absolutely required, make it a footnote. Also, as it is is that second para segues from being about words to being about the objects; the last three sentences appear to start on the main thesis.

I got lost at the sentence that started "That edit of the model..." What is an edit in this context? What does the word "that" in "that edit" refer back to? That was totally unclear to me. (Also, if there is a word that probably wanted defining, it was "model" rather than "brain". And later: what is a "frame" of consciousness?)

Why is writing that post important to you? What, in a nutshell, are you trying to say? (It may take a whole post to support it, but it should take fewer words to get the main point across, or at least to convey that there is a point to be made.)

Thank you for your specific arrows to where I was not explaining myself well - most helpful.

The reason that it is so easy to see movies as smoothly continuous is that consciousness is comprised by a train of frames. I believe there is good evidence for this.

I am using a ordinary meaning of 'model'. As in 'this is a working model of a steam engine' or 'this stimulation models Heath Row airport'. Some researchers call it the 'global workspace', others call it the 'Cartesian theatre'. The mind does maintain a model of the self in its environment. I believe there is also good evidence for this.

By' edit' I mean that the frames of consciousness are derived from the model but are not the whole of it, but rather much smaller chunks. Edit seemed a good word, maybe excerpt would have been better.

I have no firm evident for this, but I believe that there is a great deal of unity in many processes of mind. It is consciousness itself that has a false sense of unity and continuity.

I liked the first paragraph after the first sentence.

I also liked the early defining of words, and wish this was more of a norm here.

Your suggestions about big picture relevance and importance are good. I would put forward that she could do a bit less extensive rewriting, depending on how much she feels like doing.

I think this comment is a bit melodramatic. Janet's writing voice here is different, and she made some specific mistakes, but it's not the end of the world. Perhaps writing this post used a different part of her brain that is less integrated with the practice of writing. (I hope this is not offending, I find in myself that the part of my brain in charge of pulling information is not as good at describing it.) She can easily fix some specific things.

Dear reader, please give me your tolerance, patience and an open mind.

Addressing the reader directly is difficult to pull off properly. I can hunt down the post where someone else did this and find the comments about that. (..sorry, couldn't find it) I think the problem is that it assumes too much intimacy, so it's a reflexive thing for people to then want to be critical.

Now that you've written the post, a summary at the beginning and a little more organization (brief intermediate summaries and possibly bullet points) could bring it together and reduce the apparent choppiness. (Actually, unless you've edited it since I first read it, I just noticed that's it's very organized. There's a couple introductory paragraph, a series of Q&A paragraphs, three processes described, then concluding paragraphs. Simply bolding the questions may be useful to highlight the organization.)

I don't think you need to keep track of all your edits as long as they're just stylistic. I like Morendil's idea of the brief notice that you are working on editing the post.

I'd suggest adding a few comparisons to others' writings on the subject. For example, your discussion of "attention focus" leaves me puzzled, but if you compared your views on the subject to those of Crick and Koch I could probably get it. On other points, perhaps you could link to some posts on Less Wrong that readers might be familiar with. For example, if there is a particular hypothesis of Academician's that supports, or receives support from, one of your points, mention that.

I think your model is very intuitive. In this post, I speculated along a similar vein, though my ideas were less developed and more based on analogies.

I feel convinced that our 'experience of reality' is really the experience of a simulation of reality. (You write, "We live in our model and have absolutely, positively no direct knowledge of anything else – none ever."). This seems to be how I experience reality, but you provide a compelling reason for why:

It takes a fraction of a second to form the conscious experience of an event. But we do not live our lives a fraction of a second late.

We live in simulated moments. We perceive a red object for only a fraction of a second as we scan a room. If we notice the red object, however, we will dwell on this red object for longer than a fraction of a second, perhaps while dwelling on other things simultaneously. What we are dwelling on is not the fractional-second perception of the object itself, but a simulation representation of the object inspired by the fractional perception.

Perhaps the red object is simulated as resting on a table within a room, these contexts are simulated only if we are also aware of them. Being aware of something means we are simulating it. I use the analogy simulation, you use the analogy consciousness edit. Do you think these are analogies for the same thing?

I have side-stepped the 'hard question' of how and why red is experienced as red.

There are many questions one can ask about the experience of red, and I don't understand all of them. However, when I ask myself why 'red' seems to have an independent feeling (like a Platonic existence of some sort), I am satisfied with this explanation: my experience of red isn't the red object itself, and isn't even the perception of the red object (e.g., looking at a photo of something red in my mind's eye), it's the way my brain program simulates red when I dwell on the property red. That is, the qualia RED is red-in-the-simulation. It is certainly distinct from direct perception; it can be evoked independently of a red object but is often inspired by one. It feels more real, more proximate and more red than the immediate experience of looking at a red object.

If I have some time later, I'll add a comment about my experience of feeling like I developed new qualia experiences on Second Life, precisely because I didn't have the correct graphics card and couldn't actually see anything on the screen.

Byrnema, I got through to your post and read it. Yes, your ideas are very similar to mine. We are probably both trying to solve the same problem. I think my approach is somewhat different because I am basically into biology.

An example of this way of thinking is: 1) only animals have nervous systems - Why? 2) only animals intentionally move and therefore need to know where they are, where they want to go and how to get there 3) how does a nervous system give animals this information? and so on and on, asking biological questions and looking at biological research results. Of course I am also interested in philosophy and psychology but not as comfortable with them.

I feel convinced that our 'experience of reality' is really the experience of a simulation of reality. (You write, "We live in our model and have absolutely, positively no direct knowledge of anything else – none ever."). This seems to be how I experience reality, but you provide a compelling reason for why:

This makes perfect sense about external experience, but it's interesting to try to apply it to internal experience. It might be true that what we think we're thinking or feeling is actually simulations of the actual (physical) thoughts and feelings, but it seems like it should ground out at some point-- the experience is a simulation of something else, but it's also a thing in itself.

Is there a short-hand way to distinguish the experience of direct, immediate perception and the experience that is awareness of what you've perceived? I don't suppose the former involves any simulating, and that is where things ground out.

the experience is a simulation of something else, but it's also a thing in itself.

Could you expand on this? I'm not sure what you mean from a couple possibilities.

We perceive our simulation in some way, possibly reusing the same machinery we use to perceive the external world. 'Consciousness' being recursive, and all..

You think you're seeing the color red. It's how your brain passes you wavelengths in your environment, or it's a memory about such an experience, or it's a generalization about red.

You feel happy. This is how your brain (I'm not sure how or if the complex nervous system in your gut is involved) passes you an emotional state.

The thing I'm trying to get at is, are these experiences of redness or happiness simulations of something else, or is a person experiencing them as primary a thing as the red object.

This idea may not be ideally clear at my end. What are the possibilities you're seeing?

You will have to clarify what you mean by 'a person experiencing them'. This sounds like a little homunculus and I assume that you don't mean that. It leads to an infinite series of watchers watching watchers.

I think there may be something wrong with your 'this post' link but I will try again later.

About red:

It seems that qualia have an independent existence. In perception a quale is 'bound' to an object or concept. This is seen more clearing when the binding is inappropriate as in people who bind colours to numbers and the like.

There is also at least three different 'reds' of a red object. There is the shade that is stored in the visual cortex for a second or two. This red distinguishes between very, very fine differences in hue. It appears to be retrieved during a frame of consciousness and accounts for how vivid consciousness is compared to memory. Then there is the shade of red stored in short term memory which is much less accurate. Finally there is the red that we can call up from the concept red and it is very generic.

OK, I would do some editing but I have no edit button or link. It used to be there on the bottom right. Any advice?

Edit: The link had magically appeared (thank you if it was human intervention) and I was able to do some editing.

Click on permalink or the parent.

There is one brain in any head and there is one mind being produced by that brain – not two. (Assuming sanity)

Hey, we're perfectly sane over here.

Please edit your post, and use the button that says "Insert summary break" when you hover over it to insert a break after the introduction.