Keith's Consciousness Page

Consciousness -- a few random thoughts.

Creativity is a subconscious period of increased memory association.

A song incessantly "running through your head" is attempting to correlate/associate/memorize itself. The cure is to hear it again "for real," to get enough input to lay down a good memory track.

"When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

Maybe Spiro Agnew was right. Maybe rock music really does rot the mind. Or, more precisely, music with an incessant rapid rhythm, as well as the rapid cognitive changes of modern-style television, "entrain" the mind into faster cycles of thinking -- just as with "music you can't get out of your head." This may be great for improving reaction times, but may end up with a kind of societal attention-deficit disorder, where none of us can focus our minds on a problem for more than three seconds.

--Keith Conover (a few random thoughts from my past that led me to this point).

One of my major academic interests lies pretty much outside of emergency medicine. It's the neurobiological nature of consciousness. At this point I'm mostly just trying to keep up with what's going on in the field. But once I pay off my medical school loans, and can cut back on the number of hours I work in the ED, I hope to be able to devote a lot of time to the subject. I don't plan to do any research affiliated with a univerisity or anything like that -- I'm unwilling to fritter away time with paperwork and grant proposals and tenure "publish-or-perish" battles. But I should be able to devote time and brainpower to the topic on my own, and who knows, maybe I'll add something to the knowledge stores of humankind. Here is  a quick summary of some of my thoughts related to recent debates on the topic.

At this point, consider these just ramblings -- but maybe with a few interesting ideas. I'll be fleshing this out over the next year or so into a short but coherent overview of a unified theory of consciousness.

A unified theory of consciousness. What a difficult phrase. To define a theory of consciousness, we must delve deeply into the question of what a theory is -- fascinating, and I'd love to bring out some Karl Popper and other quotations and discuss the issue, but not here.

A simple approach to consciousness is as follows:

A theory of consciousness is adequate if it "explains" things in terms acceptable to a six-year-old. (This is a shorthand way of getting around the theory of theories.) It's an entirely empirical test -- go out and find some six-year-olds and see if they think it's a good explanation. And remember, six year old kids don't have a long attention span, so it better be short.

Here is a start of my list of all the things a theory of consciousness must "explain" (remember, in six-year-old terms):

OK, here's the start on the theory:

  1. Consciousness
    1. Thesis: Consciousness is a System-Level Term
      1. When we speak of consciousness, we speak of whole systems -- whole beings are conscious. Ears and eyes are not conscious, the pineal or amygdala are not conscious; human beings are conscious.
      2. Consciousness is a high-level function, which subsumes many lower-level functions: reflexes, habits and other forms of programmed response.
      3. Therefore, speaking about a single function of one's brain as "consciousness" is not meaningful. Let us therefore speak of "awareness" when we are referring to recognition of an action by a higher function of the brain that can communicate this awareness to outside observers. "Awareness" entails much less connotative baggage than "consciousness."
      4. We can become aware of some sensations and then take action on them. We can take action on some sensations and then, after the fact, become aware that we have taken action. This latter is possible only if the action is
        1. an involuntary reflex, or
        2. a "preprogrammed action" of some sort, such as a habit we have developed from repetition (practice), or something that for which we have prepared (e.g., "press the button as soon as you see the red dot")
    2. Consciousness is fuzzy.
      1. Some things are very conscious, some things are unconscious, but most things are somewhere in-between. (Were you really conscious of that mosquito you just slapped?)
        1. Reflexes (Fig. 1, A.) are unconscious. Pulling a hand away from a hot stove is the classic example; deep tendon reflexes are an even more primitive and less-conscious (more unconscious?) example.
        2. We take some actions only after due cogitation (Fig. 1, B.). These are conscious actions. Deciding to write this essay was, for me, such an action.
        3. Some actions we take based on preprogrammed routines (Habits; Fig. 1, D.) Turning on the bathroom light switch is such an example (see below).
        4. Some actions we take based mostly on preprogrammed routines but with some (greater or lesser) modification by cogitation (Semi-conscious actions; Fig. 1, C.) An example is answering the telephone when distracted by writing an essay such as this (Did I really have to think before I picked up the receiver and said "Hello?")
      2. So, not only are their multiple drafts of input to awareness, but some "drafts" are louder than others.
    3. Consciousness can "spin off" processes.
      1. We can then trigger the "spun off" processes without directing every detail. We call these "habits." Due to severe thunderstorms, the power in our house was off for about 24 hours. Every time I went into the bathroom my hand automatically turned on the light-switch even though I knew that the power was off. Why? Because I "triggered" my "going into the bathroom" routine, which included turning on the light. Figure 2 shows my "entering the bathroom" habit being spun off (changing from a conscious action at A. to an unconscious habit at B.)
      2. Notification that a habit has been triggered may occur after the fact.
      3. Processes can be either sensorimotor or just motor. "Press the button when you see a red dot" is sensorimotor. Playing a low B-flat on my French horn is an entirely motor "habit." Though of course some sensory feedback is necessary for me to keep the note steady.
      4. One may choose to believe, as does Nicholas Humphrey in A History of the Mind, that motor nerves include sensory feedback fibers (shown as ? in Fig. 2) and that this is truly what is responsible for the evolution of consciousness.
      5. Spun-off processes can be perfected by practice. That's why when I went into the bathroom, even though it was dark, I was able to (uselessly) hit the light switch every time.
      6. Consciousness can (?) bring back "spun off" processes, or at least control them. By the time the lights came back on 36 hours later, I had learned to enter the bathroom without turning the light on, and had to "relearn" my "going into the bathroom" routine.
    4. Consciousness is narrower than we think.
      1. Our vision gives us the illusion that we can see everything in our visual field clearly. When in reality all we can see clearly is a tiny circle corresponding to the fovea of our retina.
      2. Similarly, we have the illusion that we are conscious of much more than we are -- our consciousness has a very limited grasp.
    5. Consciousness is a Many-Braided Stream
      1. Individual streamlets may take courses apart, then rush together forming a small maelstrom, as when we make a "Freudian slip," or when our tongues become tied and we come out with a garbled sound that is half one word and half another.
      2. Here is an example:  I was typing something on my computer. I had thought "just as with" and was in the process of typing this on the screen, while in the background the radio news was saying "just after the evening news."  I typed "just after. . . " Here the input and output got shortcircuited and some of the input went into the output.

Thanks to Daniel Dennett and Marcel Kinsbourne for their article Time and the observer: The where and when of consciousness in the brain [Behavioral and Brain Sciences (1992) 15, 183-247] for stimulating me to write much of this down.

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