what is consciousness?

on erock's blog

random musings from someone with a bachelors in neuroscience

In a past life I was studying neuroscience at my university. I've had just enough experience and training to wade in dangerous waters on this topic. Having said that, consciousness was essentially taboo in my undergraduate studies. "The only people working on consciousness are those with tenure." The implication being it's a dead end and purely for the enjoyment of the professor.

I stumbled upon a HN article where someone asked the following:

How is consciousness possible?

Here's my naive explanation for consciousness.


There are some pre-requisites as far as I know. We need:

You need space and time because thinking is a verb. Action is required which needs the passage of time.

You need memory in order to link past events with current ones. I'm not strictly talking about memory from earlier in the year or day, but also working memory from what you perceived a second ago. Continuity seems essential.

Inputs are required because we need a data stream to grapple onto and spark brain activity. The brain can obviously cause its own activity as well.

The decision making models are said to live within the prefrontal cortex. We need those models in order to combine all the inputs from our own brain activity as well as the external world in order to cause us to act.

Attention appears to be important for us, the ability to turn up the volume on certain inputs and maybe most importantly, turn the volume down on other inputs.

Bake a cake

After that it's just a recursive ETL function via the thalamo-cortical loop1. The "self" doesn't necessarily need to live in this loop, but it needs access to the data stream. Inputs trigger neurons/glial that recall past events which all get fed into a bunch of decision making models that spits out new thoughts or decisions which cause us to act.

The loop is happening so quickly and chaotically. Now couple that with randomness, short- and long-term memory and you have the recipe for a system that could explain creativity and "free will".

I love the "Allowed to Think" series on youtube. There's a great clip with John Searle who demystifies consciousness. In the video2, he explains that really, consciousness is just an emergent property of nervous systems.

It doesn't seem nearly as magical through this lens but that's what makes it so convincing to me. Consciousness is not special, we just think it is because we are inescapably biased.

A reply on HN

I pasted this blog post as a reply on a HN thread and received a response about a paper Chalmers wrote.

This doesn't really address the hard problem of consciousness. https://consc.net/papers/facing.html

From the paper, the "hard problem":

The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect.

Subjective experience is just the system I described happening extremely fast. It seems simple and doesn’t explain experience, but when you acknowledge the scale of our computation, what emerges is the self.

Continuity, recursive loop between inputs, cortex responding to those inputs, and being fed through our prefrontal cortical decision making models. Then that feeds back into the system again with even more inputs in the next stack frame. It’s happening millions of times, causing bursts of brain activity. All at the same time our brains are also being molded by all this brain activity. Changing constantly.

It is absolute chaos.

It’s this recursive reduce function that gives rise to what we describe as the self and subjective experience.

We as humans are hopelessly biased here, we put consciousness on a pedestal, but I don’t think there’s a hard problem.

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