Consciousness (Biological) Update – Of Stephen Hawking And Art

What exactly is consciousness?

There is a bonobo (a near relative of chimpanzees and our own close cousin) that in his lifetime learned the meaning of 3000 spoken English words and could say things in squeaks and trills that his human trainer understands. Kanzi could also communicate ideas via a keyboard. When a visitor performed a Maori war dance, beating his chest and so on, in front of the extended family, all except Kanzi responded in chimp fashion, excited and beating about, ready for war. Kanzi calmly communicated to the trainer to take the visitor to the back, away from the crowd, to perform for him alone, which the visitor did. And Kanzi joined in the dance from inside the cage, having a grand time. See story in the Smithsonian.

So, we humans cannot claim exclusivity to language, which some linguists consider a pre-condition for consciousness and unique to humans. Consciousness is variously defined as awareness, wakefulness, understanding, volition, intention, attention, or a super-self that is able to survey the self and others. And it is difficult to separate from language in humans. I have written on this complex subject here & here.

One general agreement now, even among philosophers, is that consciousness is not possible without the brain—or the body—and that it arises from a neural substrate that is common to many animals. New research on live humans, chimps and other lower animals have shown, I think, a clearer way to understanding consciousness; or actually to dismantle its façade of mystery.  The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness  concludes:

Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

It was signed jointly in 2012 in England by a group of international cognitive scientists from the fields of neurobiology to computational neuroscience—each one with a bit of philosopher in him—in the presence of the celebrated theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, whose newest biopic is in contest for the Oscars this spring.

It is important when we talk about consciousness that we are referring to the same thing—and biology and anatomy are the only ways we can do so. Any speculation or philosophical elaboration can only be strictly personal, unless it’s based on known biological phenomena. However, one learns in Biology 1 at university that the discipline has no tools of its own to measure or record any observations. It depends on physics, chemistry, and mathematics – and of course no small amount of description—as Darwin did. And speaking of Darwin, yes, evolution is all important: Consciousness is not a uniquely human attribute; it evolved from simpler forms, traces of which are still deep in our genes and body-brain chemistry. And as the evolution of life on earth may not be unique, note that for good measure, the 2012 signing in Cambridge was witnessed by Stephen Hawking the cosmologist, who had speculated that life (or consciousness) on earth had likely been an accident, not a planned event.

Why is it important that we understand consciousness?

It is more than academic curiosity—consciousness is linked closely with our perception of pain (besides everything else). As baby boomers age with increasing medical problems, pain is the most common complaint. Unless we understand and manage it ourselves, individually, no medical care system can help us, or bear the cost. Many pain perceptions have no organic cause and can be alleviated with placebos. See here  my piece on Understanding Pain for Leonardo Reviews.

There are also the problems of Advance Directive for end of life care, or VSED (voluntarily stopping eating and drinking). For the terminally ill or those with advanced dementia, many now (while they are still cognizant) prefer the quality of life rather than prolonged pain and confusion, not to mention burden to the family. But ethicists argue that for an ill patient who no longer remembers or understands the directive he signed, if he swallows while food is placed in his mouth, it constitutes consent. Of course, swallowing is an animal reflex; but consciously not swallowing would indicate intention. On the other hand placing food in his mouth could constitute forced feeding. These are complicated problems and understanding clearly the biological wirings for our consciousness would no doubt help. See Complexities of Choosing an End Game for Dementia here.

But beyond the practical and immediate needs, there is that circular question of Can our consciousness understand our own consciousness? We all love a mystery and the magic of our own consciousness will never go away whatever the scientists say. I think of a comment by Einstein: The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science…

So what is new?

Besides the chimp studies, Robert Desimone of MIT has recorded the action potential of a group of brain neurons in live subjects while they were looking at the picture of a house. When the subjects were told to pay attention to it, these neurons fired in synchrony. They fired too when the subject merely looked but paid attention to something else—except  in uncoordinated fashion, like when the orchestra musicians are all each tuning their own instruments before a concert.  He said, “As we learn more about the detailed mechanisms in the brain, the question of ‘What is consciousness?’ will fade away into irrelevancy and abstraction,” …”consciousness is just a vague word for the mental experience of attending, which we are slowly dissecting in terms of the electrical and chemical activity of individual neurons. *

This is very important – we now have measurable evidence that one aspect of consciousness is paying attention (See article from the New Yorker).  Attention, or attending to something is part of working memory which can handle only a very small number of items at any one time. Furthermore, all conscious events arise from unconscious ones (nothing comes from outer space). The first .2 seconds when we see something is unconscious.

Why is consciousness important to art?

Conscious attention is limited but focused, and can generate actions that get results. By contrast, the unconscious can handle parallel processing of multiple items simultaneously – holistically – but is not concerned with results. In other words, conscious attention involves an awareness of the self (vs. others) so we can respond to our environment – it is explicit, and mostly linear, entailing action (speech, sigh, dance, run…etc.). But the unconscious is where art comes from: the loss of self-awareness or sense of time; an overall feeling that is often contradictory and paradoxical, implicit and undefinable, definitely non-linear. It is a way to gain knowledge, not win a war. And it is best expressed by immediate visual images, not long words.

Understanding our total consciousness in our body-brain, with its self-conscious and unconscious parts is thus important in detecting good art, or real art vs. made-to-order art. Many artists like to explore and experience the transition between the two states.

But will this rob us of the mystery of art?

On the contrary, it will deepen the mystery and take us on a new trajectory to a fresh world of imagination and creativity. Knowing that the earth was not flat and not the center of the universe, or why the apple did not fall upward, or why nothing can travel faster than the speed of light have only raised our artistic horizon in the last four centuries. And knowing that our consciousness is the result of billions of years of evolution in living cells and is still evolving, without divine intervention, is even more freeing. Freud, whose writing on the unconscious was inspired by Darwin’s evolution theory, in turn inspired Surrealist art. Understanding our own living processes is the ultimate ticket to freedom and possibility. Surmounting the physical confines of our body is the final triumph of consciousness – it enables Stephen Hawking not to walk, but to fly.

 *    This essential view of human consciousness had been predicted almost 50 years ago (1966) by Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule. He said, in response to a British geneticist who chided him for his position that consciousness could be explained by chemistry and physics:

“I think that consciousness or awareness will cease to be mysterious when we can describe the patterns of nervous impulse, in particular parts of our brain, and can show in a detailed way that certain patterns are associated with certain thoughts.” 


3/1/2015     Here is my review of The Conscious Mind by the late Hungarian-Australian clinical psychologist Zoltan Torey. It shows a common approach to the subject from the viewpoints of linguistics and psychology.

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