Cellular Basis of Consciousness

Arthur S. Reber is an interesting character. He is best known in academic circles for theories of implicit learning. He has also written several books on gambling with a view to maximizing gains and minimizing losses. He has written one of the most concise and direct refutations of parapsychology which argues that we don’t even need to look at the studies or the data of parapsychologists to know the field is worthless. He has written a novel. He has also put forward a novel theory of consciousness called the Cellular Basis of Consciousness (CBC). While he has presented this at length in a book (which I currently have on order), I will talk here about a short paper that presents a more abbreviated version of the theory and is also accessible to anyone.

The paper Sentience and Consciousness in Single Cells: How the First Minds Emerged in Unicellular Species argues that the “cellular nature of life is inherently linked with consciousness”. The argument echoes Rodolfo Llinás’s position in I of the Vortex that I wrote about a few months ago. To quote from the paper:

From the CBC perspective, awareness of self and the capacity to detect, interpret, and experience the valenced characteristics of the environment is essential for survival and evolution. Environments are in constant flux. The concentration of the nutrients in the surrounding medium shifts; temperature gradients change; there is an unrelenting assault from viruses, toxins, predators – and, furthermore, these conditions are continuously changing. Without an internal, subjective awareness of these changes, without being able to make decisions about where to move, how to modify gene-expression adaptively for shifts in nutrient levels, how to match the ambient temperature with a memory of what it was in a previous location for adaptive movement, a prokaryote would be a Darwinian dead-end. Moreover, all cellular life, starting with unicellular organisms, is sensitive to anesthetics and, importantly in this respect, plants and several unicellular organisms generate endogenous anesthetics when they are wounded or stressed. In the classic model, a nonsentient agent, one lacking sensations and awareness of its environment should not be responsive to anesthetics.

Reber and his co-author Frantisek Baluska doesn’t leave the argument at that. Instead, they identify the actual biomechanisms that might be responsible for sentience that “operate at the level of prokaryotes” and “will carry on their functions in eukaryotes and multicellular organisms”. Sentience arose as a adaptive function with the first cellular life and has been conserved and elaborated as more complex organisms have evolved.

The mechanisms they identify are excitable membranes; excitable and vibrating microtubules and actin; and biological quasicrystals with the five-fold symmetry. Text below are quotes from paper.

Excitable membranes

These structural characteristics of cells are general and ubiquitous and emerging as the most likely sources of cellular awareness. Their relevance is emphasized by noting that diverse anaesthetics, ones that produce loss of consciousness in humans, also cause loss of responsiveness in all animals and plants.

Vibrating and excitable cytoskeletal polymers

A second possible source of sentience and consciousness at the cellular level is the dynamic cytoskeleton. Microtubules are regarded as important in this respect, and terahertz oscillations in tubulin have also been found to be affected by exposure to anesthetics Besides microtubules, the actin filaments behave as an excitable medium that, in addition to transporting vesicles and organelles, also transports ionic waves. Dynamic actin cytoskeleton also supports lipid rafts, which are highly ordered domains of excitable membranes that are particularly sensitive to diverse anesthetics.

Biological quasicrystals with the five-fold symmetry

Finally, there are indications that special proteins, in particular those having five-fold symmetries and quasicrystal properties, are relevant for the cellular and subcellular levels of sentience. In this respect, it is important to recognize that the three-dimensional structure of proteins is not dictated solely by the sequence of amino acids; proteins dynamically select one of several possible conformations according to physico-chemical conditions. This flexible behaviour of proteins suggests that proteins also contribute to subjectivity within single cells.

A key question would be how these components join together in larger forms to create the more complex consciousness we associate with multicellular organisms. The authors point out that these amalgamation of components actually begins quite far back in evolutionary history. Indeed, the “eukaryotic cell… is, in fact, a consortium of several prokaryotic cells transformed into the cytoplasm, mitochondria, plastids and perhaps also nuclei”. I might add that neurons themselves seem to represent a specialized sort of reactive cell. They are, however, one step removed from direct reaction to the environment. They react, instead, to sensor cells or other neurons. Their structures consist largely of excitable membranes and microtubules. The central nervous system with its brain is mass of cells is a sort of ecosystem of its own that reacts to the cells that react to the environment or its own cells.

Reber’s approach is to view consciousness on a continuum, characterized by ability to react in an adaptive manner to the environment. In a sense, the most straightforward definition of consciousness applies: ability to sense, move, and react. The fact that anesthetics affect organisms from the simplest to the most complex in the same fashion becomes the key indicator of their consciousness. The approach is also a corrective against the Homo sapiens orientation of much research which is described below.

It invited two lines of research that yielded fascinating insights into the cognitive functions of a variety of species but have had little impact on the core issue. One approach attempted to identify the neural correlates in humans responsible for consciousness and examine the evolutionary tree for evidence of those structures or homologues of them. The other sought to identify the cognitive and/or behavioural functions that were deemed diagnostic of consciousness and then look for the point(s) in the evolutionary scheme of things where species with the appropriate behaviours first appeared. We have no problems with either branch of research, but it is unlikely in the extreme that either strategy is going to get at the underlying issues: the co-terminous nature of life endowed with sentience and a theory of the initial emergence of consciousness on this planet. As one of us outlined, the field is awash with squabbles over which species have the right biological structures to support consciousness, which behavioural functions are diagnostic of awareness, where in the great panoply of life an unambiguous sentience emerged – and little progress has been made.

Posted in Consciousness, Human Evolution | 11 Comments

EM Field Integrates Information Spatially in Brain

Johnjoe McFadden has a new paper Integrating information in the brain’s EM field: the cemi field theory of consciousness. In it he writes : “that consciousness implements algorithms in space, rather than time, within the brain’s EM field. I describe how the cemi field theory accounts for most observed features of consciousness and describe recent experimental support for the theory. I also describe several untested predictions of the theory and discuss its implications for the design of artificial consciousness. The cemi field theory proposes a scientific dualism that is rooted in the difference between matter and energy, rather than matter and spirit”.

In large part the paper is a summation of other papers and arguments by McFadden so it serves as a great overview of his cemi theory. His arguments about information integration are somewhat new. He specifically distinguishes two types of information integration:

  1. Temporal integration via a causal chain of operations in time.
  2. Spatial integration over space at a single moment in time.

McFadden claims most of what the brain does is temporal integration but it is unconscious. Consciousness itself is produced by the brain’s EM field that occurs at single points in time. Temporal integration is similar to Turing machine computing where instructions are executed serially (although instructions could be executing serially in multiple threads in parallel) to arrive at a result. Fields in contrast can integrate information at a single moment in time. He writes:

Force fields physically integrate complex information that may be simultaneously downloaded from any point in the field. This is apparent to anyone who views a TV show that has been transmitted from a single transmitter to their smartphone, alongside a thousand other people who may simultaneously view the same program on their phones in a thousand different locations. Moreover, an EM field can, like an integrated circuit, compute.

The view that emerges for me is that consciousness proceeding in frames from moment to moment with calculations occurring in multiple worksheets in the background with the final result updated from the background worksheets synchronously at single moments in the foreground via the brain’s EM field. This seems broadly compatible with global workplace theory with the brain’s EM field constituting the substrate for the workplace itself.

Especially notable is the expressed dualism which seems to preserve our intuitive sense about the world – that it is composed of matter and mind – without appealing to the supernatural. By replacing the Cartesian mind with energy and force, we remain rooted in physics and the physical.

Update: The paper by McFadden has a broken link to the youtube video of the artist creating the Robert Downey drawing. The correct link is:

Posted in Consciousness, Electromagnetism, Information | 19 Comments

Time Loops

Somebody on the Metaphysical Speculations forum recommended to me Time Loops: Precognition, Retrocausation, and the Unconscious by Eric Wargo. I committed to reading it but wasn’t optimistic that reading it would make me agree any more with some of their contentions about precognition that we were debating. Actually, however, I enjoyed the book much more than I had expected. Although I still can’t say I support the book’s premise, I can say that Wargo presents an idea worthy of consideration and one of the few ideas on precognition I’ve read that explains it in a way that potentially doesn’t violate what we understand from current physics, although it necessarily does rely on some extensions to current science that aren’t accepted or maybe even provable.

The idea simply is that precognition does exist and happens regularly but it doesn’t involve direct knowledge of things that will happen in the future. Rather precognition is a memory of an experience in the future. It is a future memory. If I dream of an airplane crash and the next day an airplane somewhat like the one of my dream actually crashes, the dream was the product of the future experience of my seeing the television coverage of the airplane that crashed. Reality is actually like a Phillip Dick novel where the causation of an experience can come from the past or the future. The mind contains past experiences as memories but it also has access to future experiences. Of course, the future experiences are usually disregarded because we have no context for them. We abort our future memories routinely so they must manifest to us in dreams, during hypnogogic revelry and altered states, and during psychoanalytic free association.

The first hurdle to overcome in any argument about precognition or other extrasensory perception is whether the phenomenon exists.

Memory itself is somewhat problematic in that increasingly we understand that experiences we remember are frequently inaccurate, distorted, or sometimes completely false. People who were not even at a school on the day of a tragic mass shooting sometimes can recall in detail what the shooter wore and the weapons he carried. Under suggestion, people have made themselves victims of crimes or sometimes perpetrators of crimes often describing in detail the circumstances of the crime. We recontextualize past experience with new experiences. Did I really dream of an airplane like the one that crashed? Or did I dream perhaps of something quite different, like a bus crashing, that I remembered as an airplane crashing when I saw the television coverage of the airplane crash. Memory distortion could be mitigated perhaps if I kept a dream diary into which I had written of an airplane described in some detail that crashed the morning after the dream.

The other problem is a law of large numbers. Given enough people dreaming and enough airplanes crashing, the odds that somebody somewhere will dream of an airplane crashing the day before an airplane actually crashes are high. There are enough complex interactions in the world that the improbable routinely occurs. Precognitive events are routinely debunked as coincidence and there is hardly any way of disproving they are not. Or hardly any way of proving that they all are just coincidence. Fundamentally the probabilities can’t be calculated.

I don’t think Wargo actually ever vanquishes either of these two arguments but the twists and turns he takes in his analysis are interesting. He spends a good deal of time on the Titanic, the novel Futility, and its author Morgan Robertson, who apparently had some kind of belief in predestination. Wargo’s treatment of this, however, isn’t naïve and he is completely aware of critiques of the story as precognitive including Martin Gardner’s. There is also a full chapter and some ongoing discussion on Phillip Dick that chronicles some of amazing coincidences in Dick’s novels and stories. A good amount of the book is taken up with discussions of Freud and Jung.

The psychoanalytic couch with its emphasis on free association and dream analysis would be fertile ground for finding examples of precognition. Wargo seemingly finds examples in Freud’s own dreams even though Freud himself completely rejected any notion that precognition was possible. Jung’s famous scarab story illustrates Wargo’s approach to the question. Jung was analyzing a woman, who was reporting a dream from the night before that involved a piece of golden scarab jewelry, when Jung heard a tapping on the window. Opening the window, Jung captured a scarab-like beetle and handed it to the woman. The story became the basis for Jung’s alternative to causality – the notion of synchronicity. Wargo’s interpretation was that this was an example of time loop as in the “time loops” of the title. The woman dreamed of a scarab because she accessed in her dream her experience in analysis with Jung the next day. During the session with Jung, he completed the loop and fulfilled the prophecy of the dream. Wargo writes that the patient’s “dream simply oriented her toward a highly meaningful moment, a reward, in her near future. That moment was partly brought about by her own actions, informed by that dream. The effect was its own cause”.

The rewards and experiences that are more likely to become ones of precognition are emotional and sexual ones. That is, in part, what makes psychoanalytic techniques useful for investigating the phenomenon. That also helps to explain, in Wargo’s view, why tragedies that invoke horror like the Titanic disaster tend to show up in precognitive accounts. Going beyond the anecdotal, Wargo calls attention also to Daryl Bem’s controversial priming studies. In his Feeling the Future study, Bem seemed to find that people could predict the appearance of erotic images prior to their appearance at a level significantly greater than chance. The same effect was not found for non-erotic images. Attempts to replicate the study haven’t gone well and others have reanalyzed the data and criticized the statistical techniques employed. On the other hand, Bem and others did a metanalysis of 90 studies and claimed the effect was real. Given the somewhat problematic situation with statistical results in sciences where relationships are presumed weak. it is hard to know how much of current social and medical science would fail with the same level of scrutiny provided to Bem’s studies.

In Wargo’s understanding of precognition predestination is real. We live in a block universe and our experiences are caused not just by the past but also by the future. The arrow of causality does not go just one way. Our present is determined by our past and our future coming together in a loop. Occasionally in obscure and muddled ways we are given access to that future in our dreams and thoughts. The world is the world of the movie Arrival with heptapods and their circular language. Past, present, and future coexist and can influence each other. Wargo, I don’t think, ever makes it clear whether our fate is totally predetermined or only partially so. If the block universe describes how the world is, I find it slightly plausible that mind might extend somewhat into the future as we feel it does with the past in our memories. I don’t find pleasant the idea, however, the idea that what we might learn of the future provides us no opportunity to change it. That is a vision I have had once before and it was horrible.

Posted in Consciousness, Mysteries, Randomness, Time | 8 Comments