The First Minds: Caterpillars, Karyotes, and Consciousness

The book by Arthur Reber that I mentioned in my last post arrived from Amazon. I’ve read it and would like to provide some additional thoughts on my previous post. I won’t repeat ground covered in the previous post so take a look at that if you haven’t read it before reading this.

The book itself is short but it covers a lot of ground in its discussion of consciousness. At various points Searle’s Chinese room and Chalmer’s hard problem put in an appearance. Its main goal is to introduce the author’s Cellular Basis of Consciousness (CBC) theory but it places the theory in the context of the many contemporary issues and views about consciousness. CBC is quite hypothetical in that it doesn’t really have a clearly defined mechanism for sentience. It does offer the suggestion that excitable membranes that permit the flow of ions in cells might be a place to look. It also offers a possible way that the capabilities might have developed in the earliest organisms. Aside from that, CBC is mostly a proposal for how to proceed with future research on the question of consciousness. That way would be to look at the simplest organisms with a critical anthropomorphism for the indications of sentience, try to explain how those capabilities work, then examine how they have evolved in increasingly complex organisms until we end up with humans. This can be contrasted with the reverse approach, which Reber faults, of looking at the most complex brain – the human one – and trying to understand how its structures produce consciousness, then looking for analogs in simpler organisms.

As a research proposal, I think the idea is great. I have thought for a time that insects would be a great place to start to understand consciousness. Reber wants to go even simpler, back to protozoa and amoeba. The Catch-22 problem, however, is how do we know one celled creatures can be sentient if we don’t actually know what is the mechanism. Reber returns to this issue more than once responding to comments in private communication with Daniel Dennett. The issue undercuts his argument in chapter one for why robots or machines cannot be conscious. The argument essentially is that consciousness is an attribute of living beings – all living beings from simplest and earliest to the most complex – because sentience is required for surviving and thriving in complex world with ever changing conditions. Hard wiring of inflexible repertoires of responses in genes wouldn’t be sufficient or optimal. Consciousness is highly conserved as we move up in evolutionary complexity (he does, however, think that plants went down a path that might have dropped it) and it a property built directly into the wetware of the organic molecules of life. Algorithms running on silicon and copper aren’t sufficient. Metal doesn’t feel. It’s an argument I agree with but I’m not one hundred percent dogmatic about. Without a good theory of how living organisms become conscious, I can’t be sure that a robot couldn’t be conscious. I also’ can’t be persuaded a robot, even if it reproduced human behavior without flaw, is conscious without somebody providing a general mechanism for consciousness and how the robot implements the mechanism to produce its behaviors.

Reber does present some remarkable behaviors found in one celled organisms that I found surprising. They can learn. They have memories that can persist for long periods of time relative to their lifespan. They can exhibit remarkably complex behaviors that look like decision-making. They can communicate among themselves and even across species to control growth rates of collective groups. The evidence isn’t just in isolated one-off studies but across multiple studies. Is it conscious, sentient behavior, or complex fixed repertoire? We could be easily fooled.

I have generally thought to look for the first hints of consciousness in the first nervous systems. Neurons and sensory cells are the specialized cells that have evolved in many celled organisms that exhibit that same reactivity Reber identifies as sentience in single celled organisms. They do it with similar excitable membranes based on ion flows that Reber may have identified as the mechanism for the remarkable behaviors of single cell organisms. The difference is that this is the primary role of the neuron, the task it is specialized to do. Their job is to react to external stimuli in the case of sensory cells and to other neurons in case of neurons in the nervous system and the brain. They do it in groups, communicating among themselves. And that may make a big difference in whether there is sufficient critical mass to achieve sentience.

Still I’m intrigued by Reber’s idea but also wonder why not take another step with it. If sentience arose with the first life then could it be a key to understanding the origin of life? If excitable membranes are the source of sentience, might they be the critical feature that binds together the bag of chemicals that is the cell?

Posted in Consciousness, Human Evolution, Mysteries, Origin of Life | 34 Comments

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 | 15 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