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20181118 – The Consciousness Instinct



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The main idea of this book is to demonstrate validity of author’s understanding of consciousness that he developed during decades of working with mental patients, specifically with individuals who had brain hemispheres disconnected. This understanding denies not only some immaterial mind, but also some centralized organ or functionality of the brain that creates consciousness. Instead author sees human brain as complex combination of multilayered modules, which are activated in response to external and/or internal signals and temporary take control, supplying symbolic representations of its activity that we perceive as consciousness.



Author starts with clear statement what he means by consciousness: ”Plainly stated, I believe consciousness is an instinct. Many organisms, not just humans, come with it, ready-made. That is what instincts are, something organisms come with. Living things have an organization that allows life and ultimately consciousness to exist, even though they are made from the same materials as the non-living natural world that surrounds them. And instincts envelop organisms from bacteria to humans. Survival, sex, resilience, and walking are commonly thought to be instincts, but so, too, are more complex capacities such as language and sociality— all are instincts.“He also states that consciousness is not property of some central mechanism in the brain, but rather property of local brain circuits. After historical review of the notion of consciousness and thinking about it in part I, author presents his understanding of technical architecture of the brain and it’s functionality. The part III moves in two directions – one, being somewhat philosophical, discussing animate vs. inanimate matter, and somewhat practical, discussing processes in the brain that typically linked to notion of consciousness. At the end of introduction author provides a wonderful analogy that very clearly presents his believe about work of consciousness: “Conscious linear thinking is hard work. I’m sweating it right now. It is as if our mind is a bubbling pot of water. Which bubble will make it up to the top at any given moment is hard to predict. The top bubble ultimately bursts into an idea, only to be replaced by more bubbles. The surface is forever energized with activity, endless activity, until the bubbles go to sleep.“

Part I: Getting Ready for Modern Thought

  1. History’s Rigid, Rocky, and Goofy Way of Thinking about consciousness

This starts as detour to history, discussing ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians who assigned consciousness pretty much to all natural forces. Greeks where the first who separated “It” and “Thou”, creating philosophical foundation for scientific approach when “It” (Nature) has no intentionality, only naturally existing sets of rules – natural laws that work always the same and therefore could be understood and used in human action without fear that these rules could change. Author illustrates this point by looking at thinkers from Aristotle to Descartes. Especially interesting is approach dividing human consciousness into “It” of brain and “Thou” of mind.

  1. The Dawn of Empirical Thinking in Philosophy

This is retelling of appearance of contemporary scientific approach to everything, including consciousness, in mid-seventeen century England. Author looks at thinking of several individuals who developed philosophical approach based on more or less scientific method, all the way until XX century: Hobbes, Petty, Willis, John Locke, David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer, Franciscus Donders, Francis Galton, and Wilhelm Wundt. The chapter ends with discussion of Darwin’s evolution and Freud’ unconscious mind.

  1. Twentieth-Century Strides and Openings to Modern Thought

The chapter for XX century starts with recognition of two camps: the rationalists and the empiricists and author presents position of each camp. Author also specifies positions of pragmatists who believed that action could be caused by mental state and behaviorists who assumed that mental state could not be known and therefore only action-reaction analysis is meaningful. The behaviorist’s ideas were quite dominant in America until late 1950s when attacks from psychology, language, communication, and improving technology that provided validity for neuroscience, pretty much moved these ideas to irrelevance. Author then reviews modern philosophical approach to mind/body from Vatican supported research to works of atheist philosophers like Dennett. Finally author discusses research pioneered by Francis Crick of DNA fame, looking to establish direct correspondence between any given mental state and correlate condition of neural network in the brain. This is pretty much author’s position and he formulates it in such way: “I will argue that consciousness is not a thing. “Consciousness” is the word we use to describe the subjective feeling of a number of instincts and/ or memories playing out in time in an organism. That is why “consciousness” is a proxy word for how a complex living organism operates. And, to understand how complex organisms work, we need to know how brains’ parts are organized to deliver conscious experience, as we know it.”

Part II: The Physical System

  1. Making Brains One Module at a Time

The main thrust of this chapter is that the brain is not one integrated whole, but really a multitude of loosely related modules that were evolutionary developed to fulfill different functions beneficial for survival and what we call consciousness is really sequential activation of various modules, which in any given point more important for organisms’ survival with other modules working in somewhat subdued mode as long as their functionality does not acquire higher priority. Author supports this point by demonstrating examples when loss of some functionality of brain follows by complete removal of knowledge of this functionality’s previous existence. Similarly brain is quite susceptible to creating fictional reality if it is necessary. Based on his research with divided brain, author proposes a model of unconscious brain and autobiographical brain with main function of former being to keep organism going, while main function of latter being to give some order and make sense of perceived signals in order to construct picture of future, design survival plan, and consequently activate subconscious modules to start implementation of this plan. Author discusses in some details this modularity and its advantages. Author also compares humans and animals and concludes that based on multitude of research data there is no clearly defined qualitative difference between them. The difference is rather quantitative – amount of neurons and especially connections defined as Neuropil volume is much higher in humans.    The final point here is: “We are on the road to realizing that consciousness is not a “thing.” It is the result of a process embedded in architecture, just as a democracy is not a thing but the result of a process.”

  1. The Beginnings of Understanding Brain Architecture

Here author uses human created complex machinery like Boeing 777 to demonstrate how complex is this machine with some 150,000 modules that actually designed to do a very simple thing – move people from one place to another. This follows by discussion about “The robust, the complex, and fragile” and tradeoffs necessary to make it all work and notion and exemplars of the Layered Architecture that allows such complex system to work effectively. This feat achieved by providing some autonomy to multitude of modules at multitude of layers, consequently providing for a multiple realizability of organism’s functions.

  1. Gramps Is Demented but Conscious

In this chapter author demonstrates that conscious is deeply ingrained and practically indestructible quality of organism, which would not be possible if it was some centralized functional organ or combination of organs. Author’s extensive experience in neurological wards demonstrated that regardless, of which part of brain is destroyed by disease, and author saw just about every part destroyed in one patient or another, the consciousness still survives albeit in all kinds of perverse form often depending on which modules still work and which are not. This relates on only modules in frontal lobe that differentiate humans from others, but throughout all modules of the brain. The conclusion here is: “The incessant interplay between cognition and feelings, which is to say between cortical and subcortical modules, produces what we call consciousness.”

Part Ill: Consciousness Comes

  1. The Concept of Complementarity: The Gift from Physics

Here author moves away from his specialty into more philosophical direction discussing development of Physics from Newtonian determinism to Quantum mechanics and Statistical view of causation. Author discusses complementarity between wave and particle representations of reality, consequently declaring his believe that this principle similarly applies to mental representation of human via duality of mind and brain.

  1. Non-Living to Living and Neurons to Mind

This is about differentiation between living and non-living matter. Author again brings in Quantum Mechanics with reference to Howard Pattee and notion of die Schnitt, meaning separation of subject (the measurer) and object (the measured). Then author discusses work of von Newman on symbolic representation of replication and evolution, which is basically anti-entropy process of increase in complexity – the key characteristics of living matter.   Pattee extended it to DNA as true code. Author also discusses Semiotic closure, the link that spans the gap between living and non-living matter.

  1. Bubbling Brooks and Personal

Here author moves to the notion of personal consciousness and starts it with reference to his experience with separated brain hemispheres, the surgery that creates two personalities from one. Author describes in details how it was discovered via observation of disconnect in division of work between left and right parts. From this he makes interesting conclusion that there is no specific mechanism of consciousness neither for the whole brain nor for 2 separate for each hemisphere. It is rather consciousness works as cognitive bubbles with different system popping up to the front with each being capable to evoke consciousness. The author describes experiments that demonstrate this process in more details.

  1. Consciousness is an Instinct

The final chapter summarizes presented information and formulates the main conclusion that consciousness is an instinct. Author discusses various understandings of the very notion of instinct and concludes that it is just faculty of producing certain ends without foresight, which could be inborn or developed via experience or, most probably, resulting from combination of both. Author refers to article by William James some 125 years ago defining meaning of instinct and links this to his understanding of consciousness. At the end he presents his understanding of future development in such way: ”What will the neuroscience of tomorrow look like? In my opinion, the hunt for enduring answers will have to include neuroengineers, with their ability to eke out the deep principles of the design of things. Such a revolution is in its early days, but the perspective it offers is clear. A layered architecture, which allows the option of adding supplemental layers, offers a framework to explain how brains became increasingly complex through the process of natural selection while conserving successful basic features. One challenge is to identify what the various processing layers do, and the bigger challenge is to crack the protocols that allow one layer to interpret the processing results of its neighbor layers. That will involve crossing the Schnitt, that epistemic gap that links subjective experience with objective processing, which has been around since the first living cell. Capturing how the physical side of the gap, the neurons, works with the symbolic side, the mental dimensions, will be achieved through the language of complementarity.”


Interestingly enough, this book somewhat connects two arias of my interest: complex systems working in groups of individuals and psychology of individual based on complex system working inside the brain into one philosophically consistent model: successfully functioning complex systems that could not possibly be build as top down centralized system, but rather had to be build as multilayered networks of modules that are taking control of the system on time limited basis in response to external and or internal signals. These signals either by instincts or experiences makes it necessary for organism or group to transfer from the less preferred condition to the more preferred. In the case of individual it makes sense if, as author suggests, the consciousness of individual in possession of the brain is part of this module functionality, only loosely connected with all others.  Similarly for the group role of functional module is played by subgroup of individuals capable effectively coordinate their actions to convince or force enough individuals to move in direction of new condition. In both cases the new condition may or may not be truly preferable, creating condition for evolutionary selection or removal of individual or group.

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