Quest for Consciousness

sunset chaos

“The working hypothesis of this book is that consciousness emerges from neuronal features of the brain. Understanding the material basis of consciousness is unlikely to require any exotic new physics, but rather a much deeper appreciation of how highly interconnected networks of a large number of heterogeneous neurons work. The abilities of coalitions of neurons to learn from interactions with the environment and from their own internal activities are routinely underestimated. Individual neurons themselves are complex entities with unique morphologies (form and structure) and thousands of inputs and outputs. Their interconnections, the synapses, are molecular machines that come equipped with learning algorithms that modify the strength and dynamics of synapses across many timescales. Humans have no real experience with such a vast organization. Hence, even biologists struggle to appreciate the properties and power of the nervous system.”

– Christof Koch from his book, “The Quest for Consciousness; A Neurobiological Approach”

“Given the centrality of subjective feelings to everyday life, it would require extraordinary factual evidence before concluding that qualia and feelings are illusory. Philosophical arguments, based on logical analysis coupled to introspection, are not powerful enough to deal with the real world with all of its subtleties in a decisive manner. The philosophical method is at its best when formulating questions, but does not have much of a track record at answering them. The provisional approach I take in this book is to consider first-person accounts as brute facts of life and seek to explain them.”

– Christof Koch from his book, “The Quest for Consciousness; A Neurobiological Approach”

In spite of my great admiration for Christof Koch, and for many of those like him, who approach the subject of human consciousness from a more materialistic view, for me personally, these explanations are ultimately unsatisfying in a big way. In pondering these materialist viewpoints in my own “quest for consciousness,” I keep coming back to the “brute facts of life,” in the unambiguous appearance of the very first indications of sentience in Homo sapiens – omnivorous (eating both animal and plant foods) mammalian primates – Anthropoids – who finally demonstrated evidence of the beginnings of modern consciousness.

human evolution

Even with all of the “neuronal features of the brain” present in our earliest ancestors who had them; we still really weren’t fully “conscious” right away in the same sense that we are now. With all of our accumulated experience as a hominid species, and hundreds of thousands of years in possession of the basic components of our “modern” brains, it took both an expansion of the cerebral cortex generally and the frontal lobes in particular, as well as the most advantageous structure and proportion in the brains of modern humans, to finally be ABLE to demonstrate conscious awareness of the sort we are reading about in the quotes above. And even AFTER we acquired this capacity in the Upper Paleolithic period in the Aurignacian culture, we didn’t start right off developing mathematics and science. We painted cave walls with astonishing artwork, formulated primitive ideas, and began to teach our young what we learned, but it took almost another 30,000 years of human progress to come up with cuneiform, developed by the Sumerian culture during the third millennium BC, and establish the foundations for various other systems for communication and formal languages. In nearly every one of the various ancient cultural and regional human societies and various groupings in human history, once it was finally possible to record and express their subjective awareness of existing in the world, an acknowledgement of a non-physical component to the experience of being alive eventually appeared.

skulls_3

However, just HAVING the “neuronal features of the brain” didn’t automatically produce philosophy or physics. Like all forms of life throughout the history of the planet, we were evolving physically, intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually. The degree of what we may wish to describe as consciousness in many of our fellow primate and mammalian species, while clearly SIMILAR in certain cases to our own, points to an astonishing degree of variance in RESULTS ACHIEVED with only a relatively small degree of difference in physiology.

I keep getting this nagging “feeling” that brain physiology, as ESSENTIAL as it is, cannot be the cause of consciousness “EMERGING” from the brain. Evolution may have “SELECTED” a species-specific brain structure and subsequent functional prowess, but the results of that selection may not have simply and only produced an advantageous survival strategy, but rather, it may have been that by achieving a sufficient number of “neuronal features,” humans may finally have achieved a level of sophistication that provided a fuller degree and quality of ACCESS to an ever-present and ubiquitous “field or force” of consciousness–a fundamental feature of the nature of life in the universe. With all due respect to Christof Koch, in my view, it does not necessarily follow that consciousness EMERGED only as a result of our specific brain structures and functions.

history of the world

An interesting corollary subject within the discussion surrounding our subjective experience of consciousness is the way in which all of our previous lifelong subjective experiences provide the foundation for our comprehension and apprehension of our current experience in this very moment. Naturally, without having any previous relevant life or learning experiences to draw upon for comparison, any subsequent experience would, by definition, be viewed as a “new experience.” While new experiences are inherent in any circumstance in which we have not been previously familiar in a specific way, as when we travel to a foreign country for the first time, or when we take our first trip on an airplane, even as the specifics of those circumstances provide a degree of subjective experience that could not have been part of our previous existence, there are other foundational experiences that we use to compare against those which are specifically new. Depending on the extent and variety of prior experiences, the assimilation of those which are “new,” may require a great deal more effort to come to terms with them.

IMG_0037

The real issue, though, is in the accumulation of subjective knowledge of our existence in the first place. As all human adults are aware, each of us arrives in the world as newborn babies, with only a very limited unconscious experience of life in the womb. Sensory data acquired during that time, while fairly universal in nature, depending on the health and lifestyle of the mother, have a clear but limited effect on our eventually conscious subjective experience. Our early life as an infant, also subject to the subtleties and specific conditions of the environment in which it takes place, are in large part unconscious for a number of years after birth. There are rare exceptions to the general flow of conscious memory accumulation, which generally begins in the third or fourth year of childhood, but for most of us, our early childhood memories most often transmit only a vague sense of those experiences, and are often characterized by episodic “bits and pieces” or “snippets” of conscious recollection.

IMG_0780

Once a child achieves a rudimentary functional level of conscious subjective awareness, somewhere around five to seven years along, more lasting and significant memories begin to accumulate, and a broader range of foundational subjective experiences allow the young child to begin to interpret the world with a degree of perspective commensurate with whatever experiences were available during their early development. An experience of deprivation or limited nurturing during the early years can profoundly and adversely affect the development of the child, and providing a richer and more stimulating environment can produce a commensurate increase in the quality and character of their development, along with a substantially increased range of productive subjective experiences with which to interpret and understand the world around them.

In combination with our inherited genetic makeup and a host of other mitigating factors in our specific familial and human lineage, as well as whatever degree of cultural orientation or psychological conditioning that may take place, we often navigate through later childhood and adolescence as much unconsciously as consciously, eventually acquiring a more independently achieved view of the world, based many times on which opportunities are either present and utilized, withheld, or unavailable. While there are no guarantees of a specifically positive or negative outcome in spite of any and all of these mitigating factors, the contributions which they potentially represent can affect our ability to assimilate new experiences significantly.

Evolution of Cognition

IMG_12795596808649

The evolution of life on our planet has produced an extraordinary variety and diversity of species, and the paths followed by many of the branches on the tree of life have held sway for millions of years before ending completely or splitting off into whole new species. The ability of each branch to continue into the future has depended on the ability of each particular organism to adapt to changing circumstances, or to develop capacities, talents, or skills which conferred some increased survival advantage. Those organisms which acquired the necessary advantages were able to pass them along to the next generation of offspring through a combination of genetic inheritance and by demonstrating useful survival strategies through their specific nurturing behaviors.

2 brains

Anyone who spends time reviewing the recent publications in neuroscientific and cognitive studies is bound to come across the persistent urge of scientists and reductionists to equate “being conscious”–i.e. being awake, alert, and alive–with “consciousness,” which is more correctly viewed as a unified, subjective, and integrated whole phenomena, composed of and supported by a great deal more than that. This disparity within the ranks of those who investigate brain functioning leads many of them to conclude that consciousness is “generated” by the brain alone.

To be fair, every investigation into the subjective nature of human consciousness clearly must address the role of our complex cognitive apparatus in facilitating access to our subjective experience of it. Without a nominally functional brain, educated through a basic selection of life experiences, supported by a rich variety of sensory stimulation, a minimal degree of specific learning activities, access to the storage and retrieval of memories, and some proficiency with language, access to our subjective experience–the “what-it’s-like” character of being would still be taking place, but would be far less useful and be of a wholly different quality.

early humans2

Our early hominid ancestors, the earliest versions of Homo sapiens, and perhaps even Homo erectus and Homo habilis, must have possessed some degree of access to consciousness, in spite of having developed only a limited capacity for cognitive awareness. When we examine what is known about the early history of humanity, and compare the progress through the millennia from the earlier versions of “modern” humans who painted images on cave walls some 35,000 years ago, to that of our 21st century human experience, it becomes clear that simply possessing the same requisite brain structure as those previous ancestors was not sufficient to allow them the immediate acquisition of sophisticated and comprehensive appreciation of our subjective experience of consciousness.

The unfolding of human consciousness, the gradual sophistication of human activities, the evolution of the human body and brain structures, and the subsequent increases in cognitive talent, eventually provided the first modern humans with an adequate foundation for apprehending the “what-it’s-like” subjective awareness of being alive, and initiated a coordination of the gradually improving array of brain functions to make use of the more unified subjective awareness of existing as a physical being in the physical universe. In order for these early humans to achieve a penetrating and subjective self-awareness required them to possess not only a nominally functional brain, supported by an equally functional central nervous system, enhanced by each of the sensory systems which provided the necessary neural stimulation for the developing brain, but also to have a reasonably healthy body that was ambulatory with basic cardiovascular and digestive functionality as well. The sustained integration of all these bodily and cognitive functions over tens of thousands of years eventually became sufficient to bring subjective awareness into fullness, which established the groundwork for the development of language, and the subsequent ability to express that awareness in a meaningful way.

lr003722

Clearly, even before the arrival of Homo sapiens, some previous and more limited versions of this basic awareness, which might have been present in the hominid populations as the threshold for our more comprehensive cognitive awareness approached a minimal level, may have provided the seeds for the blossoming of our ability to more fully access consciousness as we do in our 21st century world. Many of the advantages and advances along the way for human beings socially, culturally, and cognitively have been enriched and expanded by our subsequent evolution since humans first began to demonstrate their capacity for intelligence and self-awareness, and became more evident as a fuller and more comprehensive human subjective awareness became commonplace.

As with most other human capacities, cognition is absolutely essential to our survival, and while we need our miraculous brains to make sense of experiences, to retain memories, and to advance our understanding of ourselves and our universe, each of our capacities provides a vital component, and our bodies and each of our sensory and biological systems contribute essential elements that make experiential functionality useful. While our brain represents the central locus of our mental activity, and acts as the coordinator of both bodily and cognitive functions, simply “being conscious,”–alert and awake–does not describe the comprehensive phenomena of consciousness, and to suggest that the brain alone “generates” consciousness reduces this profoundly important aspect of our humanity to merely being another bodily function like respiration and digestion.

Enormously important contributions are being made all the time in neuroscience and cognitive studies, and pursuing the goals of these endeavors helps us to more fully appreciate the astonishing array of important discoveries that often result from attention to them. Surely, in the interest of scientific curiosity and advancement in all areas of human understanding DEMANDS that we remain open to other possible areas of contribution to such a complex and profoundly important phenomena as our subjective experience of consciousness.