The Coding of ConsciousnessPosted: July 11, 2011
Is Consciousness Search?
Search is all the rage in apps and the internet. What if search is consciousness as well?
After reading Antonio Damasio’s book “Self comes to mind”, about consciousness, I am little wiser than before. One of its few significant points is to reiterate that explicit memory is a matter of replaying data stored entirely unconsciously in certain areas of the brain (like the frontal lobes) in other areas regularly involved in presenting sensory information. Thus, if we remember a day at the ocean, a brain scanner would see our visual, hearing, and smell processing areas light up with a muted version of the actual experience, presumably transmitted there as a pattern from memory storage areas that, as we learned, basically dump out in reverse what previously played into them.The book’s second significant point is that consciousness is largely about learning, by using long-term, large scale context drawn from unconscious sources to train unconscious modules elsewhere in the brain. Consciousness doesn’t directly execute anything, as anyone learning a new skill can attest. If we are learning to play a musical instrument, a very painful process of setting a conscious goal alternates with halting execution as we consciously try to get our body to adopt new actions and habits. Then we consciously perceive the woeful result, and the learning cycle continues. Once the relevant unconscious processes form, conscious direction can be devoted to ever-greater levels of abstraction and indirect control.
“In the words of William James, ‘‘consciousness’’ appears as ‘‘an organ added for the sake of steering a nervous system grown too complex to regulate itself’’ (James, 1890, chapter 5).” (All quotes taken from this article, not from Damasio)
Third and last is that Damasio is convinced that consciousness involves very low levels of the brain- the stem and thalamus, in addition to higher cortical regions. In one of the few items of data presented, he claims that hydrancephalic patients, born with with no cortex at all, (and who can live into their 20’s), still have a rudimentary and responsive form of consciousness. They like some people and not others, like some foods and not others, etc. He also notes that only very few lesions, such as some in the higher brain stem, can radically impair consciousness, indicating that consciousness is a rather broad and evolutionarily primitive function.