Origins of Qualia and Self

I have never been a fan of the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. In part, this is probably because I never have considered myself a philosopher. While, like most people, I have some “philosophical” ideas, philosophy itself as a formal, academic discipline always has seemed like an elaborate form of intellectual activity serving no practical purpose. Count me a pragmatist if we must pick a philosophical word, I am more interested in science and results than elaborately spun arguments which seem to turn back on themselves in the end. I have written previously about the “hard problem” which I consider something of a trap for scientists (armchair or otherwise) since in my opinion it is inherently unanswerable. We cannot answer why red is red or green is green any more than we can answer why there is something rather than nothing. Many neuroscientists seem to suspect the problem is unsolvable and avoid it altogether. This does not seem to stop some physicists and other scientists from trying to solve it with a “just physics and chemistry” answer while omitting almost all of the in-betweens, leaving consciousness almost as much of a mystery as the philosophers.

While I think the exact and rigid form of the “hard problem” is unsolvable (and probably meaningless), that does not mean that I think a weaker form of the problem might not be meaningful. Give me some explanation how qualia, which seem very immaterial, arise from matter. Certainly the “just physics and chemistry” answer is inadequate, even if it is ultimately correct, because we can explain everything the same way. Neuroscientists, for the most part, barely improve on that answer when they answer it is “just neurons firing”. “Just neurons firing”, like “just physics and chemistry”, will likely be ultimately correct but it does not tell me the important thing: how do neurons firing result in something that looks like our experience? It does not do enough to fill the gap between electrochemical activity in a piece of meat to something that looks to us on the inside like what we call mind.

For the most part, neuroscientists have been disappointing in their answers.

Until now. I have now read an interesting explanation that at least provides some plausible “in-betweens” even if it does not have all the answers. What is more, it was written in book published nearly twenty years ago.

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Posted in Consciousness, Electromagnetism, Human Evolution, Intelligence | 42 Comments

Brain As Emulator

I can’t remember how I first came across Robert Pepperell’s Consciousness as a Physical Process Caused by the Organization of Energy in the Brain. At the time, I remember the paper struck me as interesting and made some good points but, at the same time, didn’t actually seem to deliver a lot that was new. It was like looking at a large three dimensional artwork from a different angle. The object of vision wasn’t substantially changed; it just looked a little different.

One idea that did stick with me was the idea of the brain as difference engine.

In light of these mechanisms, the energy-hungry brain might be understood as a kind of ‘difference engine’ that works by actuating complex patterns of motion (action potential propagation) and tension (antagonistic pushes and pulls between forces) at various spatiotemporal scales. Firing rates and electrical potentials vary within neurons, between neurons, between networks of neurons, and between brain regions, so maximizing the differential states the brain undergoes. A decrease in activation, or a reduction in firing rate, can create a differential state just as much as an increase. And, as is indicated by the work of Schölvinck et al. (2008), deactivation may be an energy efficient way for the brain to increase its repertoire of differential states. Maintaining a global E-I balance across spatiotemporal scales, meanwhile, is thought to promote ‘efficient coding’ in sensory and cognitive processing (Zhou and Yu, 2018). All this lends support to the idea, proposed above, that one of the roles of energetic activity in the brain is to efficiently actuate differences of motion and tension that advance the interests of the brain-bearing organism. It is the actualized difference that makes the difference.

The notion of differences in connection with the brain came back to me again when I read recently about the Weber–Fechner law. The law is not quite a law but more like a rule of thumb. Basically it states there is a logarithmic relationship between stimulus and perception. The classic example relates to weight perception. If a weight of 105 g can barely be distinguished from that of 100 g, then if the mass is doubled, the differential threshold needs to be 10 g, so that 210 g can be distinguished from 200 g. The “law” seems to apply to all senses with some minor discrepancies and exceptions.

The oscillatory networks of the brain also seem to act in a similar way to input. Much of the effect of inhibitory neurons is to dampen inputs so that neurons do not fire wildly with each small change in the environment. The result is a brain that mostly is running its own emulation of the world based on its own self-sustaining rhythms that is occasionally incorporating outside input.

Let’s suppose we are walking along a clear, flat, well-paved road with no traffic. Picking up each foot and pushing off into a stride would require almost no input from the outside world or from the brain. A coalescing view of the evolutionary origin of the spinal cord and brain is that they were necessary for locomotion. Central pattern generators are “biological neural circuits that produce rhythmic outputs in the absence of rhythmic input”. The experiments of Thomas Graham Brown in the early twentieth century showed that the basic pattern of stepping can be produced by the spinal cord without the need of descending commands from the cortex. Encountering a stray rock that had been thrown on road might require an adjustment to the stride. At that point the brain would get involved even though the perception of the rock may not rise to the level of awareness.

Back to energy again. It would make sense that evolution would optimally select for lower energy solutions for the brain all else being equal. It requires a lot more energy to take in and assimilate information from the environment than it does to operate with as little information as possible as long the model of the world that the brain is using is good enough for survival. Here we may have the core of what lies behind several different observations.  For one, the idea of Hoffman and others that our model of the world is not likely veridical because it would be too costly energy wise to create a truer model. For another, what Baars and others have pointed out, learning new skills require a lot of energy in the brain because they require the assimilation of a lot of information, but the use of learned skills require less energy and occupies smaller regions of the brain.

The picture that emerges for me is that of a brain that primarily is generating its own model of the world. Into the model, it allows as little information as it needs to function. The brain prefers to operate in a low-energy homeostatic state as much as possible. The brain in effect might prefer to be a zombie. A small rock while we are walking may trigger a small modification of the model. The sudden appearance of large truck coming towards us, however, might require a completely different sort of activity. Quickly attention and resources must be brought to bear on dealing with the truck. Large amounts of information must suddenly be brought into the model. An fMRI of the brain at that time might detect a large spike in nutrient utilization in various parts of the brain as many neurons begin to fire rapidly.

Could we be misunderstanding the spikes in fMRIs that are so often used in neuroscience and consciousness studies? Could the spikes be simply evidence of the attentive process rather than the more low-energy processes that form the foundation of consciousness?

Some would argue the attentive process is consciousness, but then what creates and maintains our model of the world – the visual, auditory, tactile expanse that exists even without attention.


Posted in Brain size, Consciousness, Human Evolution | 14 Comments

Magnetic Universe

Natalie Wolchover at Quanta Magazine has a fascinating article up on the cosmic magnetic field. Over the last twenty years astronomers have increasingly found magnetic filaments that have formed in the vast expanses between galaxy clusters. The question is where did they come from.

One possibility is that cosmic magnetism is primordial, tracing all the way back to the birth of the universe. In that case, weak magnetism should exist everywhere, even in the “voids” of the cosmic web — the very darkest, emptiest regions of the universe. The omnipresent magnetism would have seeded the stronger fields that blossomed in galaxies and clusters.

Some cosmologists are looking to these magnetic fields to explain the discrepancy in how fast the universe seems to be expanding vs. its predicted value.

A number of years ago I wrote an highly speculative post about the alignment of the dating of the time of the accelerating expansion and the estimated timing of appearance of life on earth. Scientists estimate the timing of the accelerated expansion to be about four billion years ago. This is, of course, in the general vicinity of best estimates for appearance of life on earth. Is this pure coincidence?

From the article:

However, once a “seed” magnetic field arises from charged particles in motion, it can become bigger and stronger by aligning weaker fields with it. Magnetism “is a little bit like a living organism,” said Torsten Enßlin, a theoretical astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, “because magnetic fields tap into every free energy source they can hold onto and grow. They can spread and affect other areas with their presence, where they grow as well.”

Ruth Durrer, a theoretical cosmologist at the University of Geneva, explained that magnetism is the only force apart from gravity that can shape the large-scale structure of the cosmos, because only magnetism and gravity can “reach out to you” across vast distances. Electricity, by contrast, is local and short-lived, since the positive and negative charge in any region will neutralize overall. But you can’t cancel out magnetic fields; they tend to add up and survive.

Of course, the astrophysicist is speaking metaphorically in comparing a magnetic field to a living organism, but could there be a more direct, maybe even literal, connection between life and electromagnetism? If the fields have been growing from the early universe, couldn’t the appearance of life at the same time the shift in acceleration occurred be tied to the growing universal magnetic field? Certainly the characteristic of taping into free energy sources could be used to describe life itself as well as magnetic fields. Might there have occurred a sort of phase transition that simultaneously caused the acceleration of the expansion of the universe and enabled life to form?

The idea would be that life itself is an electromagnetic phenomenon that exists as a local perturbation in the universal magnetic field and requires a certain strength of the universal field to come into existence. If consciousness itself is an even more concentrated form of electromagnetic phenomenon, then there might have been required some additional transition or growth in the universal magnetic field for consciousness to appear. This provides an unique explanation for the Fermi Paradox. If life in the galaxy could only come into existence about four billion years ago and conscious life only about a billion years ago, then life on other planets may be roughly at the same point in development as life on earth. Intelligent life elsewhere may have only recently appeared and be struggling with similar issues and challenges as we are.

Anyway, this is interesting speculation, I think, if it is nothing more.


Posted in Consciousness, Electromagnetism, Fermi Paradox, Time | 9 Comments