what is consciousness?

October 15, 2022 on Eric Bower's blog

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 people with tenure and in later stages of their career.” 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?

There are some “business requirements” 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 require because we need a data stream to grapple onto and spark brain activity. The brain can obviously cause its own activity as well.

After that it’s just a recursive ETL function via the thalamo-cortical loop[1]. 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 that coupled with randomness, short term and long term memory … you’ve essentially got a system to 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 video[2], 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.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cortico-basal_ganglia-thalamo-cortical_loop#Research [2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0XTDLq34M18

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