ART & ORGANISM
DEEP ETHOLOGY of CONSCIOUSNESS
But, Seeking the mind with the mind—is this not the greatest of all mistakes?
–Seng-Tsan (3rd Zen patriarch)[i]
BUT “A failure is not always a mistake.
It may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances.
Reason alone is generally considered to have the necessary qualities that enable us to establish and verify facts and then organize the emergent information in ways that generally (a) meet the mind’s reality-test of “coherence” and (b) can be communicated with minimum ambiguity to others to be corroborated or challenged.
CONSCIOUSNESS can be profitably viewed from the perspectives of DEEP ETHOLOGY: the converging perspectives of DEVELOPMENT, ECOLOGY, EVOLUTION, and PHYSIOLOGY applied in an interdisciplinary, integrative manner. The links that follow are intended as points of departure and exemplars of these perspectives applied.
But PRIOR to any SYSTEMATIC INQUIRY about ANY behavioral trait, we need objective DESCRIPTION, in some ways one of the most challenging parts of productive inquiry. Once we have what at best would be working definitions as free from bias and presumed functions, we can consider the DEEP PERSPECTIVES
FUNCTION of CONSCIOUSNESS
DEVELOPMENT (congenitally programmed and acquired changes in behavior throughout an individual’s life)
- EXAMPLES of DEVELOPMENTAL PERSPECTIVE
- READING: Development of Consciousness in Fetus (Koch 2009)
- LANGUAGE is emphasized not just because humans need to communicate, but arguably thought itself is predicated on internalized communicative behavior. (recent example: The voices within: The power of talking to yourself from New Scientist 03 June 2013 by Charles Fernyhough 2013) Our inner speech turns out to shape our thoughts and decisions in more ways than you might have imagined
- DESCRIPTION: NIH’s speech and language developmental milestones
- EXAMPLE of RESEARCH on DEVELOPMENT: “The disparity was staggering. Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity mattered: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.” (from NY Times commentary, “The Power of Talking to Your Children” by Tina Rosenberg 2013)
- the contexts — abiotic (such as geology and climate) and biotic (such as predators, prey, conspecifics)
- The many levels of organization at which interactions between consciousness and the environment occur creates layers of complexity –as with genes that have pleiotropic effects (affect multiple traits), stimuli from the external and internal environments have many collateral effects: intended response to the environment may have unintended side-effects. Environmental stimuli can have positive and negative effects simultaneously, but what is important to the organism and its ability to meet biological needs is the retention of rekationships that bring more advantage than disadvantage. It becomes an issue of optimality.
- “TO UNDERSTAND , we need to know why it exists in the first place. New experimental evidence suggests it may have evolved to help us learn and adapt to changing circumstances far more rapidly and effectively.
- BUT looking a little more deeply, we know that perception occurs in discrete little chunks, like frames in a motion picture. And like those visual frames, the illusion of flow and continuity is created–what Oliver Sacks calls “a flowing mobile consciousness” (Sacks 1994:44). So, perhaps consciousness originated as a device for bridging perceptual moments, “filling in” (as (e.g., visual scotomas) (see Sacks (River of Consciousness) from NYR 15 Jan 2004) (MORE at Komatsu’s (2006) review, The neural mechanisms of perceptual filling-in, in Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7, 220–231.)
We used to think was a uniquely human trait, but neuroscientists now believe we share it with many other animals, including birds and octopuses. While plants and arguably certain animals like jellyfish seem able to respond to the world around them without conscious awareness, many other animals consciously experience and perceive their environment.
In the 19th century, Thomas Henry Huxley and others argued that such consciousness is an “epiphenomenon” – a mere side effect of the brain’s workings. More recently, it has been suggested that consciousness lets us so that, for example, we experience the sight and sound of a passing car as a unified perception, even though light and sound travel at different speeds.[ii] And we perceive the countless individual frames (like those of a motion picture) as an unbroken stream (if the rate of presentation is above our flicker-fusion threshold). Is there a “flicker fusion of consciousness?”
- “art” once defined may be seen as productive (why do it?) and receptive (how is it perceived?) — some of the issues and vocabulary were outlined in a review of a conference on the evolution of art and
- RITUALIZATION — the evolution of communicative signs
- IN THE RIVER OF CONSCIOUSNESS: Oliver Sacks’ (2004) concise statement and elaboration of the views of current in 2010 resonate nicely with what I believe. All we ever perceive or express is mediated by the systems that maintain the dynamic (always changing) balance of processes that enable our health and prosperity (in every sense). Insights about consciousness must try to includes the system that enables it.
- NEUROSCIENCE is emphasized not just because the INPUTof information, its INTEGRATION within us, and OUTPUT to accommodate the the current and anticipated NEEDS of humans is totally dependent upon the nervous syetem but because our imaginations and creativity are liberated by the awareness that the human brain at the center of this system is arguably one of the most complex structures in the universe*. (see E&S notes on INPUT–INTERGRATION–OUTPUT ; A&O notes on NEEDS, roughly corresponding with “motivation”)
- PHYSIOLOGY EXAMPLES of PHYSIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE:
- CONSCIOUSNESS can be more-or-less evident in our daily lives. The vast amount of processes and activities operate without much awareness of consciousness — I imagine a brain full of circuits representing squirming, intertwined masses of reflexes, habits. biases, and intuitions which ON OCCASION we may be aware of. CONSCIOUS AWARENESS — a state in which activity from several brain networks enables a unified experience of “self in the world” rather than a collection of isolated perceptions of sensations from the outrside world and from the body (“embodied cognition”).
- Entities that outwardly manifest all the properties we associate with an adaptive life but devoid of much or any conscious AWARENESS or INSIGHT are often thought of as zombies .. automatons … somnabules.
- Changes in levels of consciousness occur in response to changes in the external and internal environments. They occur typically in rhythms that echo those of our phsiology and are manifest in various ways such as daily (sleep) as well as in various pathological states. They clearly involve the relative activity of several more-or-less distributed neuronal systems interacting to provide an appropriate level for the circumstances at hand. An apprant “key” structure has recently been identified:
- “Although only tested in one person, the discovery suggests that a single area – the claustrum – might be integral to combining disparate brain activity into a seamless package of thoughts, sensations and emotions. It takes us a step closer to answering a problem that has confounded scientists and philosophers for millennia – namely how our conscious awareness arises. http://www.newscientist.com/special/consciousness]
In 2016: “For the first time, we have found a connection between the brainstem region involved in arousal and regions involved in awareness, two prerequisites for consciousness,” said lead researcher Michael Fox from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre at Harvard Medical School. … Consciousness is generally thought of as being comprised of two critical components – arousal and awareness.”
“Researchers had already shown that arousal is likely regulated by the brainstem – the portion of the brain that links up with the spinal cord – seeing as it regulates when we sleep and wake, and our heart rate and breathing. … Awareness has been more elusive. Researchers have long thought that it resides somewhere in the cortex – the outer layer of the brain – but no one has been able to pinpoint where.
AROUSAL: “Now the Harvard team has identified not only the specific brainstem region linked to arousal, but also two cortex regions, that all appear to work together to form consciousness. … To figure this out, the team analysed 36 patients in hospital with brainstem lesions – 12 of them were in a coma (unconscious) and 24 were defined as being conscious. … The researchers then mapped their brainstems to figure out if there was one particular region that could explain why some patients had maintained consciousness despite their injuries, while others had become comatose. … What they found was one small area of the brainstem – known as the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum – that was significantly associated with coma. Ten out of the 12 unconscious patients had damage in this area, while just one out of the 24 conscious patients did. …
AWARENESS: “To figure out which other parts of the brain were fully connected to this region, the team looked at a brain map – or connectome – of a healthy human brain, which shows all the different connections that we know of so far in our brains (you can see a connectome in the image at the top of this story).
They identified two areas in the cortex that were linked up to the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum, and were most likely to play a role in regulating consciousness. One was in the left, ventral, anterior insula (AI), and the other was in the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC).
Both of these regions have been linked by previous studies to arousal and awareness, but this is the first time they’ve been connected to the brainstem. The team double-checked their work by looking at fMRI scans of 45 patients in comas or vegetative states, and showed that all of them had the network between these three regions disrupted.
It’s a pretty exciting first step, but the researchers acknowledge that they now need to verify their find across a larger group of patients. Independent teams will also need to confirm their results before we can say for sure that these three regions are the physical source of consciousness in our brains. In the meantime, the research will hopefully lead to new treatment options for patients in comas and vegetative states, who might have otherwise healthy brains but simply can’t regain consciousness. “This is most relevant if we can use these networks as a target for brain stimulation for people with disorders of consciousness,” said Fox. “If we zero in on the regions and network involved, can we someday wake someone up who is in a persistent vegetative state? That’s the ultimate question.”
The research has been published in Neurology. ( A human brain network derived from coma-causing brainstem lesions. David B. Fischer, Aaron D. Boes, Athena Demertzi, Henry C. Evrard, Steven Laureys, Brian L. Edlow, Hesheng Liu, Clifford B. Saper, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, Michael D. Fox, Joel C. Geerling
Neurology Nov 2016) (from https://www.sciencealert.com/harvard-scientists-think-they-ve-pinpointed-the-neural-source-of-consciousness)
WHAT MIGHT EPILEPSY REVEAL? “With recent advances in mapping the spread of epileptic seizures, we can now align the unique fractures in consciousness that occur during seizures with the interference that seizures cause in specific cerebral networks.” Read archive copy of The Fractures and Bindings of Consciousness by Holmes & Tucker (Amer Sci 2011)
[ii] Anil Ananthaswamy (2017) Consciousness helps us learn quickly in a changing world. NS 28 June 2017, updated 29 June 2017 This article appeared in print under the headline “The point of consciousness” Article amended on 29 June 2017 Some errors in the details of the experiment have been corrected Want more? Read the extended version of this article. NS Magazine issue 3132, published 1 July 2017