Notes on Consciousness

Some ideas on answering ‘how’ it works.

Following a lengthy discussion on consciousness with a neuroscience researcher today, I decided to note down some ideas that came to mind.

More often than not, research into consciousness triggers murmurings of philosophy, spirituality and religion which quickly de-railing a train of thought far from the neurological bases it should be focusing on. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that this seemingly, inherent-entanglement about the issue of consciousness, has only distanced neuroscientists’ willingness to explore the mind’s unknown frontier. Today, neuroscience finds itself prioritising more ‘realistic’ concerns such as pain-management, eating disorders and Parkinsons/dementia.

This pushback on consciousness from the experts tasked with its unraveling highlights how empty-handed neuroscientists are. Ironically, it would appear that so much of our livelihood, the gravity of meaning that holds so much of our daily attention and the very prompt behind many of the existential questions that everyone has to consider — is too much to consider.

Below are a series of ideas/questions that could be potentially revealing on how consciousness manifests itself.

  1. Approximately 1.8 billion years ago, multi-cellular evolved into jellyfish which 540 million years ago, emerged with skeletal frames and by 390 million years ago, the first tetrapods arrived on land with their descendants including all vertebrates across evolution (frogs, snakes, dinosaurs, humans etc). Across evolution, there appears 8 separate instances of brains developing. From this backdrop, it’s interesting to consider the behaviour of dinosaurs which appear to have hunted in packs, stalked their prey and perhaps females even displayed motherly instincts. With this in mind — did such ‘primitive’ animals even in the Permian Period (pre-252 million years ago) or the Cretaceous Period (up to 66 million years ago) display signs of consciousness? If so, is consciousness a primitive function?
  2. Before we delve further into what creates consciousness, it’s worth defining what it seems to be. In this case, consciousness is latched to our internal attention which focuses exclusively on closed thoughts — that is, ideas that come to mind, are intact and exist as a ‘single’ entity, rather than a transparent system of elements. In this case, the mind prioritises encapsulation that’s driven by emulating that state of being in the real-world. For instance, when we think of a ‘book’, we can mentally conceive of just that concept alone and not the superficial foundations that are associated to it such as the title page, related colours etc. This prioritisation of attention-at-the-apex suggests consciousness is reactive to how our real-world exists (that is, that objects in the real-world doesn’t flutter between different objects like a glitch in a video game — they remain firmly as the object they’re constructed as) and so consciousness is served interpretations. This is important to consider, because consciousness would therefore appear independent to the rest of neural functioning. It is like a camera, with the resulting image served by the camera which received a set of inputs.
  3. Input into consciousness seems to be already established. Firstly it’s a constant stream of information that can arise from any type of neuronal activity. Just as the brain strings a set of neuronal activations as a representation of a particular concept (memories, factual information, skills etc), then it’s this set of activations which are received by consciousness.
  4. Is the quality of consciousness a function of the sophistication of other neural elements eg. vision, olfaction, proprioception, language processing and speaking abilities and so on. This is important to consider because if true, it could suggest that consciousness is a constant ability across all animals and its quality instead rests on other measurements such as the encephalization quotient (ENC-Q). Unsurprisingly, humans have the largest ENC-Q at approximately 7 against other animals such as bottlenose dolphins (~4), orca whales (~3), chimpanzees (~2) etc. Further to this point, if an animal has a lesser-sophisticated neurology, then it’s sensible to assume that any conscious perception is unable to ‘perceive’ a higher quality of insight.
  5. While consciousness as a platform is a binary existence, a major distinction that could exist within humans is a reactive relationship between input-consciousness. That is to say, that rather than input being unilaterally forwarded towards consciousness, there is a relationship more akin to Newtonian mechanics, specifically that F(a) = -F(b). Just as how a wave scatters when it hits a surface because there’s an equal counter-force that transpires from the surface onto the wave, then perhaps it’s this reactionary relationship that enables a ‘higher’ level of consciousness than other types.
  6. This leads to the realisation that a spectrum of consciousness exists. There appears to be plenty of literature describing how various ways of thinking can be affected by the language an individual speaks, the first programming language a student learns etc. In short, thinking is mutable and it’s by directing consciousness that this conscious-energy can be channelled towards other concepts.
  7. Consequently, consciousness appears then to be a reactionary sensation. There’s two elements to the previous sentence, (1) that consciousness is not seemingly controllable like how it’s typically described — like a ‘searchlight that’s controlled by an individual’ and (2), that consciousness is a predictable and programmed function. This prompts a very strange question — how much control do we actually have of our mind?
  8. Some may think that consciousness is seemingly controllable — present a maths question to an individual and they’ll deliberate through the modules necessary to arrive at a solution. Alternatively, perhaps visual perception prompts a recall function that transcribes the maths question into a matter of familiarity. As a thought exercise, consider the times when you’ve faced a question and sat at it blankly for a period of time — only to then suddenly have the answer pop into your mind — without any conscious searching.
  9. Lastly, if consciousness is therefore reactive to a broad spectrum of neural activity — it would seem necessary for it to morphologically exist across the spaces where this neural activity takes place. Such an idea would explain why there’s been no designated ‘consciousness centres’ unlike other cerebral/cerebellar nuclei that manage other neurological modalities. This leads the search for a ‘consciousness centre’ to consider a decentralised system that exists amongst neurons — and as for now, I can only think of glial cells — the ones that outnumber neurons 10:1.

Consciousness. What a mess.

Thanks for reading! Let me know if you have any criticisms/thoughts :)

Written by

Electrical engineering/Neuroscience at University of Sydney. Aspiring neuro-trauma surgeon with a few software/hardware goals.

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