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Understanding consciousness: our future may depend on it
Dick Pelletier   Nov 4, 2013   Ethical Technology  

In his latest book, “Self Comes to Mind,” Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, defines consciousness as, “the ability that we have to look out on the world and grasp it. It is a way evolution found to increase our effectiveness in dealing with life and its struggles.”

    "Imagine, for example birds." Damasio says, "When they look out at the world, they have a sense that they are alive. If they are in pain, they can do something about it. If they have hunger or thirst, they can satisfy that. It's this basic feeling that there is life ticking away inside you." video.

    What consciousness is, and why and how it exists, are some of the oldest questions in philosophy. Many religious and spiritual believers explain consciousness in terms of a "soul", separate from the physical body; a state of mind that lives on after the body dies, or reincarnates into another life. It has been described as everything we are aware of when we are awake, and central to what makes us human.

    My personal understanding of humanity's most mysterious trait goes something like this: all my experiences seem tied to a self, the "I" behind my eyes. I am responsible for my thoughts and actions, as well as how I perceive the future unfolding in such radically-positive ways.

    For example, stem cell and genetic engineering breakthroughs could help me survive into an ageless era of 2030s nanorobots. Will I be included in this bright future? Stay tuned.

    Growing numbers of neuroscientists feel we may soon be able to explain consciousness by discovering how trillions of neuron connections initiate thoughts and direct emotions and actions.

    Though the keys to understanding this unique trait may lie in the 100 trillion connections our neurons make as they communicate with each other, how a mind emerges from this neuronal noise remains a mystery. However, Henry Markram, director of the Swiss Blue Brain Project believes his research will one day succeed in unraveling many of the brain's mysteries by building a silicon copy of the brain. video.

    Markram predicts that by 2023, his project will simulate the brain's trillions of synapses. To accomplish this, we'll need to process 500 petabytes of data, he says, which will require faster computers, predicted by Moore's Law to become available as the future unfolds.

    The most impressive part of the Blue Brain research is that Markram is building a simulated mind in a machine that could include self-consciousness. Many neuroscientists are convinced that no matter how much we know about our neurons, we still won't be able to explain how a twitch of ions in the frontal cortex becomes the Technicolor cinema of consciousness.

    Nevertheless, Markram argues that Blue Brain will transcend the limits of conventional neuroscience. Once we can model a brain, he says, we should be able to model what every brain makes. We should be able to experience the experiences of another mind.

    Blue Brain scientists are convinced that consciousness is just a massive amount of information being exchanged by trillions of brain cell communications. One objective of this research is to discover how neurons give rise to our identity, but the scientists also hope to learn how the mind controls cell activities that cause disease. How thoughts affect health explained here.

    Unraveling consciousness also holds the potential to alter thoughts that allow people to commit violence and other harmful acts. See this National Institutes of Justice article. Positive futurists believe that a crime/violence-free world could one day be ours to enjoy as this research matures.

    Changing human nature through a better understanding of consciousness holds great promise in the decades ahead, to produce a peaceful global village more intent on solving economic and environment issues than arguing over religious and ethnic interests. Will this cutting-edge research produce such an optimistic future? We certainly hope that it will. Comments welcome on this most controversial topic.

Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.



COMMENTS

A note of caution:

We know a lot about something simpler than the brain like the weather, enough to even roughly simulate and predict what the weather will do, but we still can’t reliably make it rain.

Consciousness: the state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings.

There is software now available that gives the platform situational awareness, which in my opinion would (at least) give the illusion of consciousness.  Add visual and natural language IQ (both of which are now available), and you are most of the way there.

While interacting in our day-to-day life, we may need to act or react to bodily processes and the happenings in the world, sometimes instantly, to provide us beneficial outcomes.

Consciousness is designed by the evolutionary process to allow data from such interactions that requires judgmental power to become available for making decisions, thereby benefiting from the capability of making free will decisions (If there were no free will, there was no requirement of consciousness). To know how interactions are continuously scrutinized if they require judgmental power and how free will decisions are made.

Two thoughts:

1. ” Blue Brain scientists are convinced that consciousness is just a massive amount of information being exchanged by trillions of brain cell communications.”

This is also Tononi’s proposal. I have to wonder though what “information exchange” really means. Does it mean causal complexity? If we consider every molecule of water in the ocean, and their impact on one another, we have a very complex system where causality “exchanges” information. Yes there is a lot of damping that effectively limits the propagation of information, but if we also consider the atmosphere as part of the same system, its quite clear that there is a lot of interaction. We may even consider circular currents and ocean-atmosphere interactions as examples of feedback.

Part of the reason we consider the brain so complex is because we estimate the number of connections between neurons as a benchmark. There is an apparent massive complexity increase beyond just the number of neurons. Actually, there are likely many more water molecules in the ocean than there are neurons in the human brain. Additionally, the interactions between molecules are not limited to specific communication channels; a molecule can influence all its immediate neighbours, which can influence all their immediate neighbours on so on. Perhaps what is special about the brain is actually this constraint on how neurons influence each other. Of course I’m ignoring all the complexity of neurotransmitters that are diffused through the whole brain (not just at synapses), gap-junctions, etc. I do expect that causality in brains is much more fluid and continuous that just neuron spiking.

So if an informational conception of consciousness is to be taken seriously, we have to know the answer the relation between brains and the ocean. Are they both conscious? Are neither? Do they both have degrees of consciousness, as Tononi may say? The real answer to this seems to be all bound up in the relation between information transfer and causality. How this relation is defined and validated has a huge impact on informational theories of consciousness.

2. @dobermanmac: Consciousness, self-awareness and awareness are all bound up and hard to separate. I agree with your definition of consciousness, except for the awake part: dreaming is a class of consciousness that is much more similar to waking than we often consider. So we have left the awareness of one’s surroundings. What does this awareness mean? If it just means there is a causal relation between internal representations and the external environment, then even cameras are conscious. They are causally impacted on by the world, which causes a cascade of operations that results in an encoded representation of the surroundings. I think consciousness requires more than a causal impact from external forces. In your own definition you put your finger on it directly: “one’s”, a reference to one’s self. We can say a camera is not conscious because it does not have a “self”. Those representations of the surroundings have no value for the camera itself.

So while we spend a lot of time thinking about consciousness, I think we should also be thinking a lot more about self in parallel. I don’t think consciousness has any meaning outside of a theory of self. This is not to confuse self-awareness and awareness because self-awareness is an abstraction: the concept of one’s self as an object. Awareness without self-awareness is quite plausible and matches the definition above: the awareness of the self’s surroundings.

It is pleasing to see such perceptive comments here.

Rick Searle’s observation regarding the Blue Brain project underlines the lack of appreciation of the enormous complexity of the human brain. And, for that matter, of biological systems in general.
For instance we have not even come close to reverse engineering a single bacterium.

Furthermore, it is almost certain that a higher level of consciousness will be attained within decades by the continued evolution of what is now the Internet and its ramifications.

B. is quite correct, of course, in pointing out that interactions, in themselves,  are not sufficient to allow of consciousness.
The interactions must be structured and directed. Most importantly,
both sensory inputs and a suitable level of feedback are prerequisites.
Neither of which are possessed by a body of water!

I am particularly impressed by ignoramus’s remarks which strongly reflect my own views on the subject, which I have expressed elsewhere previously, viz:

The intractability of drawing a circuit/flow diagram to map the biochemistry and geometry of an organ evolved over the course of billions of years is unquestioned.  The same applies even to such organs as the liver or the pancreas. The level of complexity of a single cell alone is prodigious! 
But that is no justification to resort to metaphysical interpretations of these mechanisms. 
Furthermore, within a quite different context, that of biological evolution by natural selection, the nature of consciousness (self-awareness) is certainly a mystery no more!

So, to sensibly get a handle on consciousness, we must look not to neurology, but elsewhere, and find that we have at our disposal today conceptual tools that provide a full empirical understanding of the general nature of consciousness.

Firstly, and most importantly, from our understanding of biological evolution by natural selection it becomes quite clear that the provision of a navigational feature that involves some degree of self awareness is required for an organism to interact optimally with its environment.

It is a measure of its fitness for the prevailing environment and subject to selection pressure accordingly. There is, of course, a great gulf between the level of consciousness exhibited by our species in comparison to any other.  Simply because the level of interaction with the environment required by our particular ecological niche is incomparably higher.  As evidenced by the billions of artifacts and systems that have resulted from human activities,

Secondly, we can be sure that biological consciousness has a purely chemical basis by virtue of the fact that it can be “turned off” chemically by anesthetics. What’s more, the state (and perception) of consciousness can be modified at sub-anesthetic levels by such substances as diethyl ether, and nitrous oxide. Not to mention the wide variety of altered states of consciousness induced, again chemically, by substances such as alcohol, cannabis, amphetamines, cocaine, LSD and so forth.

Thirdly, from computer science, we now have a good understanding of how information processing systems work. While, of course, neural mechanisms are very different from the digital electronic circuitry of our computers, there are sound functional comparisons to be made and to help our understanding at a general level.

We must always bear in mind that, most of the activity of our central nervous system performs its multitudinous complex tasks without any awareness on our part.  The consciousness is merely a tiny window on the world of which we are part.  Essentially just a navigational facility.  Albeit a rather nifty and important one.

That may, of course, offend anthropocentric conceits.

If you are game to bite the bullet and have them further offended then check out my books, which are free downloads in ebook formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website.

 

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