Sunday 12 April 2015

A Simplified Explanation of Consciousness


I've been hugely intrigued by Aaron Schurger and colleagues' experiments published as "Cortical activity is more stable when sensory stimuli are consciously perceived" ( These use scans to show show that brain activity related to events which enter consciousness is characterised by a lasting steady-state of local activity, rather than the transient burst of activity where consciousness is not apparent.

Which is nice for me as it rather neatly fits in with my pet Simplified Theory of Consciousness. The full 30-minute read of which is here or the quick and simplified-simplified version of which is here ... 

Consciousness. Everybody knows what it is. It is the absolutely easiest thing to understand, because consciousness is simply we ourselves understanding that we're understanding things. But it is a Hard Problem to find any way of explaining OUR consciousness to other people in words they can understand.

Actually, not a just a Hard Problem, but an insoluble problem. Why? Because the essence of consciousness being that it is internal and personal means that there isn't really anything outside itself to compare it with. And, if you can't make a comparison, you can't define a thing. Judgement is the making of comparisons. Everything has to first be like something to be known. That's the comparison nature of mind, forced on us by the way our neurones work

All the same, consciousness seems to be important, so it deserves some sort of explanation.

About the only thing you can say of consciousness with any concord is that it is more than just 'awareness'. A thermostat is aware of the temperature around it. But our experience of consciousness is set apart by a certain reverberance - I'm aware that I'm aware, I know that I'm knowing, I can 'see' that I'm seeing and so on. How does this arise? And why and when?

Thermostats seem to be a popular analogy among philosophers these days (Dennert, Churchland, Chalmers and more).  Here's a Morso DB15, the thermostat unit in which was designed, funnily enough, by me. Please buy one, I need the royalties to pay for all this mind-research stuff..
Which brings us up against the BIG Problem of Consciousness, the problem of trying to explain it when any explanation is likely to be clouded by the assumptions forced on us by consciousness itself - particularity the assumption that consciousness is frequent or even particularity important to the bureaucracy of mind.

The Big problem is that the resonating back-on-itself nature of consciousness means that the only thing we're ever conscious of is always itself an aspect of consciousness. You'll never find yourself 'just conscious', you're only ever conscious of something.

I'll just have to ask you to suspend judgement for a bit. Sort-of try to ditch your consciousness of being conscious for a bit. Which isn't easy.

You will know that the brain just a grand system of comparison. Stuff comes in and only gets accepted if it nicely matches stuff which is already there. If it doesn't match, the search for a match goes on, smoothing-out the route for the next time.

So what happens if the ball-on-a-track doesn't find a match for itself? It just keep going on. And in going on, it can form a loop where it meets itself. Seeing itself, so to speak, in its own mirror. This is how consciousness arises.

This, oddly simple, explanation solves a number of puzzles about consciousness, and leads to a number of conclusions which may, at first, seem rather strange...


Consciousness, according to the Theory of Comparison, only arises where there is not a readily available match. If a new input arrives in the neuronal system which pretty-much exactly matches a thing found before, then the route will have already been 'smoothed out' for it and a match is quickly found. No round-and-round searching is needed, so no consciousness arises.

If that seems difficult to comprehend, then try stopping reading for a moment while you consider precisely how conscious you were about the shape and size and position of every letter and word. Everyday reading by an skilled reader gives rose to consciousness only inasmuch ass it present new stuffs.

Consider the way you can travel a familiar root, perhaps even carrying out very complex tasks of walking, cycling or driving, with absolutely no recollection of having done so. Consider the famous 'cheese-in-the-fridge' problem - the piece of Gouda which has puzzlingly been invisible for a year, until a foul smell or visible fungus calls it to consciousness.

Consider; typing, playing a musical instrument with skill, catching a ball, lying, opening a packet, picking-up a dropped thing.

Or consider the puzzle of prayer. I don't mean the sort of contemplative prayer or communal invocation of sympathy or hope which anyone can rationally join in with. I mean the sort of intercessory prayer where the supplicant petitions a divine being to alter the course of the universe. This just doesn't work, so why do so many people think it does? Especially those who do it a lot, who, you'd have thought, would have the most experience of it not working.

Do the same thing over and again with the same result and it will soon cease to create consciousness, so that the occasional rare instance of, say, a prayer actually matching what does happen becomes the only occasion you're ever aware of it.

Which similar reason is why a person may be entirely oblivious to the glorious spectacle of our astonishing planet, and the amazing theatre of its inhabitants right in front of them, while being highly conscious of, and even distressed, by, a minor change in the bus timetable.

I like breaking the rules! No you don't. You like breaking just a very tiny bit of them - enough to make others conscious of your effort.

Only the unusual creates consciousness. A feature extremely difficult to test, because as soon as you ask about it then you've introduced an unusual input. So the answer to the question "are you currently conscious of..." is pretty much always "yes".


There is no 'conscious mind' and 'unconscious mind'. There is only 'mind', parts of which occasionally flicker with consciousness. But why?

It is a precious achievement to manage to get yourself into a situation where life is secure.
In such a happy circumstance things will tend to be much the same every day, so very little ever rises into consciousness. But any change in the world around - bringing a new set of inputs to the brain - may likely represent a danger. Inputs from such possible risks can't find a straightforward match - they have to do a lot of whizzing around the brain, and in the process give rise to instances of consciousness.

We have big brains, each, hopefully, with a lot of the old stuff we call 'experience' ready and waiting to be found to match new situations. Consciousness is a bit of the procedure of finding out how to cope with change.

It has always seemed obvious that consciousness is something to do with choosing, but never been quite clear what. By the ToC Model, consciousness is neither the absolute cause nor the effect of human decision making. Rather, it is a part of the decision-making process.

Which is great for human adaptation. But terribly depressing for news and gossip, where we discover that the things which get attention do indeed tend to be the dismal and dangerous ones. 'Everything is just normal' isn't noticed, and doesn't make a headline. "No one" as Lord Russell put it, "gossips about other people's secret virtues."

Troublesome, too, for management and administrations where both the everyday ordinariness of the excellent, and the true crap of 'we've always done it that way', can both get forgotten alongside the glow of the new thing.

Consciousness-free Zombies, were they to exist, would behave normally, but have great difficulty adapting to new situations.

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