Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In Search of Consciousness, Part One

There is a mystery at the heart of all research into the human brain, and it is the mystery of consciousness. How, so the question goes, can a lump of non-conscious grey matter give rise to consciousness?

My own interest in this question began about six years ago, when I went through a period of deep introspection, and ultimately, epiphany, over the religion I was raised in. At one point, I ended up feeling like I could "observe", so to speak, parts of my mind in action which I had never before observed. In particular, I felt like I became aware that my subconscious mind had been filtering out certain evidences, questions, conclusions, and even feelings in a way, which would have caused me severe emotional distress. In a way, I felt like I became able, from some sort of detached state, to observe myself deceiving myself.

Becoming aware of this was very disturbing to me. I had no idea, never having read anything about the psyche, that it had been well established that the subconscious parts of the brain routinely filtered out all sorts of things, keeping them from the conscious parts, both for reasons of functional efficiency and to protect us from emotional distress. Thus, it was something of a revelation to read through a big, expensive book I ordered off of Amazon around that time, entitled "Essential Sources in the Study of Consciousness". This book is a compilation of articles written by top consciousness researchers, and a number of them describe studies showing the subconscious in action - including how it filters information (I was particularly struck by articles by Bruce Mangan and John Kihlstrom, psychologists at UC Berkeley).

Even after I gained clarity on the religious questions which had tormented me, I continued to read about consciousness. I was wading into the topic for the first time, but consciousness, to my mind anyway, is surprisingly alluring to novice investigators. The main reason is that no one, not even the most famous consciousness researchers out there, can give any sort of coherent account of how consciousness might arise from non-conscious brain matter. So...it almost seems like even the novice investigator might be able to solve the mystery.

Here is an example. Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote a book almost two decades ago now called "Consciousness Explained", in which he takes 500 pages to essentially argue that what we experience as consciousness is but an illusion, and that therefore, there is nothing to explain (perhaps the most brazen example of a non sequitir in the history of science writing). So clearly, if a famous philosopher can claim to have explained consciousness simply by claiming that consciousness is merely an illusion, which of course does not follow at all (the whole point is that regardless of whether we are merely imagining ourselves to be conscious or not, our capacity to imagine itself is the very thing which needs to be explained), then anyone could take a shot; no proposal could possibly be sillier than Dennett's, even though it was taken seriously by many (UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle is one exception, and has written one of the most astute criticisms of Dennett's silly ideas).

I read through dozens of books and articles over the next few years. Chalmers, Baars, McGinn, the Churchlands, Levine, Koch, Searle...I blew hundreds on Amazon. They were all interesting, but in the end, with one or two semi-exceptions, none of them really made sense. Here is why.

Remember that the question is: How can non-conscious matter give rise to consciousness?

Another way of putting this question is as follows:

How can a pile of rocks become conscious? After all, to hear all the consciousness researchers tell it, the brain was made up of matter no more conscious than rocks.

To me, early on, the answer was obvious...

But I am getting ahead of myself.

To be continued.


WnGrl said...

It sounds like a question about existence itself, it's reality and where it comes from. Like asking, for instance, "how do we come to life"? "How can non-conscious matter give rise to consciousness?"

To say that it can is like saying the ball can roll itself. Something has to occur to "move" it or change it in some way.

What is consciousness though besides awareness? And what are we aware of besides what we've experienced? But then how is it that we could know we've experienced anything without awareness or otherwise? In other words, how do we know anything?

I may have beliefs about "how" but how did I ever reach those conclusions without knowing or at least asking how I became aware of any of it? Really great post, thank you...looking forward to Part Two!


Tam said...

I like the way this thought is developing. It is a question more about definitions and acceptance don't you think?

My mother had a massive stroke two years ago, unknown to me at the time her brain matter had exploded and had been pushed to one side of her head. By definition she was brain dead. I was holding her hand and talking to her, her fingers curled around my hand similar to what a baby does when you place your finger near their hands. The pressure changing. The doctor came to me and told me what had happened. He told me that it was instinct (some medical he used) to explain why her grip changed.

I believe she was aware, I believe that all cell matter has a degree of consciousness that can't be explained. Maybe because the definition changes.

rachael chatoor said...

Awesome topic! Most of me thinks it is merely electricity bouncing around in our grey/white matter allowing for awareness of our experience, the capacity to imagine being just a part of the process of evolution. The other part of me 'wants' to think, or at least entertains the thought that the root of conciousness comes from some great collective energy, so widely felt that it is nearly undeniable yet at the same time appears to be universally undefineable.
Looking forward the next post.

Tim said...

Consciousness is a perfect example of something real and non-material.

Tim said...

To put it a different way, your brain is different than your mind.

zalia said...

Very interesting subject to me...anxiously awaiting Part Two. The connection between existence and consciousness is fascinating. Do we exist, if we are not conscious of it?

Anonymous said...

You might enjoy the following book:

Change Your Brain Change Your Life by Daniel Amen M.D.
It's a NY Times bestseller and can be bought at Chapters and suchlike.

Anonymous said...

Anxiously awaiting PART 2!


Jewelz said...

Great post. I have often struggled with the notion of repressed memories. It is puzzling to me that some who have suffered a traumatic event, such as molestation, can repress such a memory for decades and have that memory suddenly reappear in the form of glimpses triggered by another event (or a probing therapist). It seems (to me) that such a horrible experience would never be forgotten- or filtered from our consciousness. If our subconscious brain is *protecting* us from emotional distress, that would explain this, correct? I would like to learn more, and look forward to Part 2.

Tal said...

Jewelz - Good comment...

That I know of, there is no evidence that "repressed memories" as described in the early 90's exist. The claims then were that one could suffer, say, repeated molestation, and have absolutely NO memory of it at all for years, even decades; but then one day (almost always, suspiciously, under *hypnosis*, where the brain is extremely vulnerable to manipulation) suddenly *have* them again.

This is different than a claim that the brain is constantly making calculations about what to pay attention to, and what not to pay attention to. "Repressed memories" would require that something has gone dreadfully, bewilderingly wrong with our memory capacity (again, there is no evidence that the brain can make itself entirely forget about traumatic experiences); but simple filtration is necessary for healthy brain function, and this includes the brain shielding us from awareness of things in the first place.

So, the difference would be this. Let's say we're in a housefire and we burn our leg. Can we make ourselves entirely forget that experience, i.e., render it impervious to recall? There is no evidence that we can.

But is there evidence that as we were trying to escape from the housefire, we were not aware that Jimmy had left his galoshes by the front door, even though the galoshes were in our field of vision? Yes - that sort of filtration can be demonstrated over and over again in test situations.

If you are interested in this, Elizabeth Loftus, now I think at the University of Washington, has done a lot of work debunking standard repressed memory claims.

Kelly said...


Okay, I'm hooked, as are many who have responded. You have the appeal of being a good writer with a likable, easily accessible style AND you're brilliant. When you combine those two factors with perhaps one of the most significant questions or QUESTS we grapple with ~ all I can say is this... you'd BETTER follow up with Part Two mister!! I/We will anxiously await it's installment... I LIKE this!

Anonymous said...

I have done work with supressed memory and it is very easy to come up with fake ones.Our imagination gives us what we are looking for and the repressed memories about childhood abuse that were so popular in the nineties were often not true.Having said this, the mind will block out what it needs to to survive emotionally.

IlĂ­on said...

Rachael Chatoor: "... The other part of me 'wants' to think, or at least entertains the thought that the root of conciousness comes from some great collective energy ... "

But that's just another way of sayinf that minds don't exist.