Most great recipes have a secret ingredient. This is the spice that your grandmother leaves out of the recipe when she writes it down. The secret ingredients of Coca-Cola supposedly are only known to two people who are not allowed to travel together, but they have also been written down and stored in a vault. I listened to a cook on the radio swear that a single bay leaf made all the difference in the flavor of a particular recipe.
Does consciousness have a secret ingredient? If you think I’m talking about EM fields, not this time. Actually it may be something more obvious, not really all that secret, but something that actually gives us some insight on the evolution of consciousness, its nature, and how Friston’s theories fit into all of it.
In my comments on my last post, I mentioned there seemed to be a lack of clarity about how Friston’s free energy principle (FEP) related to consciousness. Since it seemed to be a theory as much or more about life itself, what made consciousness something unique in it? He didn’t seem to be claiming all life was conscious but he did seem to be claiming all life followed FEP. So, there must be something more than FEP by itself to explain consciousness. Both Friston and Solms called attention to learning but how do learning and consciousness connect? What is it about learning that needs consciousness or would create it? In a separate comment, I called attention to the yet previous post on electrical low frequency oscillations primarily in the Hydra but also in life in general. The paper discussed in that post does call out Friston as well as Buszáki in discussing low-frequency oscillations in the brain.
Let me speculate some and try to put some of the pieces together:
If the main goal of life is to maintain a stable internal state in the face of a changing external environment (part of FEP per my understanding), then maybe the best way of doing this is with electrical low-frequency oscillations. Think of a spinning top as a rough analogy. (Note: I understand the physics is not the same. This is an analogy.) The spinning top is stable but also in a slow motion of precession. If the top is tipped slightly, the top will adjust to account for change in gravity. There is also a rotational inertia that keeps the top stable when perturbed by outside bumps. Think now of an organism trying to maintain its form by using electrical oscillations to coordinate its different parts. There may be slow changes in form analogous to precession in the top and larger changes in response to external forces, but there is also a general resistance to change. The oscillations provide stability and structure to what might otherwise disintegrate into a dead, motionless mass. Hanson in the paper I referenced earlier conjectures that electrical low-frequency oscillations “may be the ultimate organism-wide electrical information integrators and communicators in all biological systems at all levels of scale, making them critical for maintenance of organism unity and coherent, adaptive behavior”.
As more complex organisms evolve, the same mechanisms are used resulting eventually in the development of brains and nervous systems with highly specialized cells involved in the low-frequency oscillations. These cells not provide for coordination in the body (basic things like heart and respiration rates), but also allow for movement and primitive reflexes in simple animals. According to the view of Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka, as consciousness appears in more complex organisms, it correlates with complex learning.
Let me repeat a question I asked earlier: What is it about learning that needs consciousness or would create it? Or, to put it another way, what do we need to add to oscillating neurons to make complex learning possible?
Let me answer that it is simply memory that is the missing ingredient.
Solms makes his consciousness and feelings argument by saying (debatably) that feelings are always conscious. Let me make a similar statement. Consciousness does not exist when there is no ability to recall or create memories. When we are sound asleep and not dreaming, we cannot create memories. When we are completely anesthetized (assuming no resistance), we cannot create memories. Learning is impossible without an ability to store the results of the learning, and storing representations of sensual impressions, associations, motor actions is exactly what memory is.
Consciousness may be all about recalling memories, matching memories to current experience, and adjusting the internal memories to match the current experience. The matching of internal models with the external world is what FEP is all about. To be clear I am not talking about episodic memory (which does play a role with humans and maybe some other animals) but about more fundamental memory like memory we accumulated when we learned to see, walk, and ride a bicycle. I am also not suggesting that we might not be born with certain memories. Buszáki thinks that our brains come pre-wired with patterns of firing and consciousness is involved with matching and refining these patterns with experience of the real world. It is the same or similar process in either case. We are recalling patterns, matching them with the world, and refining them.
Consciousness exists to recall memories, match them with current experience, adjust them if necessary, and create new ones when required. The prediction and interference engine that is the brain could not do what it does with an ability to recall and store information. For some reason, consciousness is critical, maybe identical, to this process.