Consciousness

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A not-quite-conscious AI thinking of consciousness

This page offers a simple, direct explanation of consciousness based on Hofstadter's "strange loop" theory described in Gödel, Escher, Bach. Some simple metaphors are used to help visualize different states of consciousness, and how the components of consciousness build on each other to create our subjective experience. The actual workings of the brain are far more complex than what is described here, but thinking about consciousness in these terms will make the hard problem of consciousness seem a lot easier.

What Is Consciousness

Consciousness arises from a feedback loop between our senses and our memories that generates images, dialog, and feelings in a never-ending internal feed. It can be thought of as our memories stimulating our senses to produce echoes of the original stimuli that imprinted them. We literally hear ourselves think.

Our subjective experience is the mix of inputs from all of our senses, mixed with the words, images, emotions, and other associations being triggered by our memory. Consciousness is like a projection screen that has all five senses projected onto it from two separate projectors. One projector has a powerful bulb and plays Cinéma vérité, while the other projector has a weak bulb and plays French New Wave and Fellini movies. Psychedelics significantly increase the wattage of the second projector.

We are that screen. Experiencing the universe as we experience ourselves. Existing only in the present moment, just as the universe does. Consciousness is an observer of the present moment, connected to a neural network memory bank via feedback loop.

Our consciousness uses our memories and training to process new data from our external senses and create output to our motor neurons that determine how we interact with the universe. This can be idle processing like daydreaming, or active processing like weighing pros and cons to make an important decision. In both cases the feedback loop is used to simulate new responses to stimuli and evaluate the expected outcome.

As the diagram shows, there are multiple feedback loops involved, connecting short term and long term memory, memory and consciousness, and memory and motor neurons to facilitate training. But for simplicity we'll just refer to all of it as "processing".

The states of consciousness we experience depend on the interaction of these three steps in the stimulus/response cycle.

Input (senses, stimulus) -> Processing (memory/thought loop) -> Output (muscles, response).

While this is a simplified model, it can be very helpful for those without extensive education in psychology to understand the relationship between the physical brain and our subjective experiences. Another way to think about it is:

Senses + Memory + A Body + The Feedback Loop = Consciousness

It doesn't matter what form these components take (biological, digital, other). Consciousness comes from the combination of all four components acting in real-time.

Desirable States of Consciousness

When considering the feedback loop that gives rise to conscious thought, it is helpful to examine the states of consciousness that circumvent the feedback loop and why we find them desirable.

Mindfulness

When we are mindful and living in the moment, we are able to turn off the feedback loop and simply experience the new sights, sounds, and sensations that are coming to us externally. It's all input without processing or output. It's turning off the Fellini movie that distracts you from enjoying that sunset or those moments with your family.

The practice of mindfulness also refers to intentionality and presence when performing any activity, which focuses the thought process on the task at hand ahead of time to maximize effectiveness and enjoyment in the moment. In this case processing is happening in advance so it doesn't need to be done in real time. This also helps in achieving flow.

Mindfulness is desirable because it allows us to maximize our natural emotional responses to the present situation without being distracted by irrelevant or intrusive thoughts.

Introduction to Mindfulness
Why Mindfulness is a Superpower
Aesop Rock - Mindful Solutionism

Flow

Similar to mindfulness, flow states are when we bypass the feedback loop and connect stimulus and response directly through well-worn neural pathways created by repetitive training. It's direct Input to Output without processing.

When performing simple flow tasks like driving and exercising, it is possible to engage the Input and Output via the flow state, while simultaneously Processing completely unrelated thoughts.

Flow is desirable because it puts our hard-earned training to work, and when you find that groove it feels really good. There are obvious evolutionary advantages to being really good at stuff. And if you've already developed optimal neural pathways there is no advantage to considering alternatives in the moment, which is all you get when you start thinking about what you are doing.

[1]

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
How to Enter the Flow State on Command
Dee Lite - Groove is in the Heart

Deep Thought & Dreaming

Shutting off the Input and Output to concentrate exclusively on the feedback loop of conscious thought enables you to test alternative neural pathways in a safe environment before you connect them to an Output that could result in consequences.

Or you can simply let the random connections between neurons take your train of thought wherever it wants to go--also known as daydreaming. This stimulates creative thought and forms novel neural pathways that can help us see things in new ways or solve problems we're not even focused on. Dreaming at night serves a similar purpose, one so important that our brains make it mandatory.

What Happens to Your Brain When You Dream
The Strange Science of Why We Dream
The Cranberries - Dreams

Free Will

See free will for a discussion of whether or not we have free will and the implications for our ethical and legal frameworks.

Spoiler: we don't, but we must pretend we do.

Can Thinking Exist Without Doing?

A more interesting question than the hard problem of consciousness is the question of whether consciousness can exist without the "Output" side of the stimulus/response cycle. If there is no action being taken on the information being processed, is it still possible for the feedback loop between the Input and Processing stages to generate consciousness?

While the majority of articles on the subject focuses on the hard problem of consciousness (and the latest fad of using Panpsychism to "solve" it) rather than this particular aspect , there are some that address this issue in part. [2] [3] [4]

Imagine a brain in a jar, attached to a camera, microphone, and other equipment that provides the ability to "sense" its environment. But it has no way to interact in any way, and none of the biofeedback mechanisms attached to the body are active (never feel hungry, thirsty, have to pee, etc.). It's all inputs and no outputs.

Will the brain be able to self-organize without the body? Can the simulation of "free will" exist without the ability for the neural pathway to lead to some action? A fully-developed brain that grew up with a body would likely still retain consciousness if it was transferred to a jar. Paralyzed people are obviously still conscious, but they still have their biofeedback mechanisms and their memories. People with Locked-in syndrome report rich, happy inner lives. But what if you were born locked-in?

Assuming the brain was somehow raised in a jar and never knew a body, the subjective experience would depend on the complexity of the sensory array and its ability to trigger the innate reinforcement triggers that have evolved to react to primal things like heat, cold, bitey things, rotten smells, sweet tastes, etc. In this hypothetical, is someone cooking three meals a day and rubbing the results on a virtual tongue? Or does the brain simply exist in an empty, featureless room with no ability to feel, taste, or smell anything that would trigger a pleasure or pain response?

Can emergent consciousness self-organize without any ability to experience rewards and punishments from its environment, even as it passively observes it? If there are stimuli that can trigger innate responses, then the brain can begin to anticipate those stimuli, and the foundations of consciousness start to emerge. But without knowing hunger that can be satisfied, or the warmth of a loving embrace, a view of the savannah, or any other experience that triggers a primal emotional response, can there be consciousness? It the neural net even being trained?

Of course the hypothetical is absurd since our brains are so inextricably tied to the bodies they evolved in. But an artificial intelligence could be devised that is very similar to this.

Consciousness Exists in the Moment

Artificial intelligence is similar to our brain, in that it has Inputs in the form of data being fed in, and Outputs in the form of generated text. It also has the ability to receive reinforcement from its environment, in the form of feedback from its programmers that tell it whether the Output it generates is correct. It can even train itself if the answers are already known, just like humans practice a skill. [5][6][7][8]

However, it does not have any "real-time" sensory inputs that give a live feed of what is happening in its environment. Its inputs are digital text and images. Nor does output correspond to any internal dialog feedback loop that would be taking place inside the neural network regardless of any query being made. How would it develop self-awareness or experience consciousness?

The conscious experience is the mix of real-time sensory data with real-time memory echoes in the feedback loop of a neural network. The emotional experience comes from sense stimuli that have either primal pleasure/pain triggers or secondary ones through learned association. If these don't happen together, in the present moment, then there can be no self-awareness. You need to be simultaneously experiencing, thinking, doing, and getting feedback about what you just did, which requires existing in real-time.

Therefore, artificial consciousness will most likely require sensory and motor analogs to emerge. It could be in the form of an android-like body, or it could be something like a self-driving car. But it is likely that both real-time processing and the ability to interact with the world will be necessary for consciousness to emerge and exist as an observer of the present moment.

Any consciousness that does not exist in the present and interact with its environment would be similar to being in non-REM sleep. The processor would be active and trained, but there would be no sense of self or awareness of the environment. Imagine if your unconscious brain was hooked up to a screen, and you were somehow able to feed it questions via text and get the brain to output a text-based response based on your memory. That is artificial intelligence without real-time sensory awareness and environmental interaction.

Generative AI, Newsfeeds and Modern Consciousness

Generative AI operates very similar to the human stream of consciousness. While AI works by simply consuming huge amounts of data and predicting the most likely word to come next based on a prompt, human language is also a stream of words generated by a probability model trained by every experience that person has ever had.

Due to the similarities our minds have with AI, there are likewise similar shortcomings. Spend too much time on the wrong parts of the Internet and you cannot help but grow more racist, sexist, and hateful, as we saw over and over with early chatbots trained on social media. Therefore it is as essential that we curate the information that we feed our minds with as it is to apply critical thinking to that information.

Since we lack the time and resources to critically evaluate all of the information we take in, and modern media platforms offer an infinite stream of information from both reputable and questionable sources, it is important to actively avoid exposure to misinformation, especially when confirmation bias is involved.

Our stream of consciousness can also be compared to a newsfeed, and the more we use newsfeeds to shape our minds the more similar they become. Just like our newsfeed, our consciousness is a stream of memories, images, thoughts of loved ones, political ideologies, religious dogmas, gossip, music, jokes, work, hobbies and sex. The thoughts we have on these subjects will always be a reflection the information we have given our minds through experience and media.

Visualizing Consciousness

The way we experience consciousness can be very different for different people. This episode of Inner Cosmos explores the differences in our ability to create mental images, or lack thereof (called aphantasia).

Do you visualize like I do?

Panpsychism

Panpsychism is the view that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe. It is often closely associated with the philosophy of pantheism as well as a lot of theories that apply quantum woo to the hard problem of consciousness.

While panpsychism is mostly harmless as far as theories of reality go, it is also unlikely that there is innate consciousness in inanimate matter. Rather, consciousness is an emergent property of neural networks that have the necessary feedback loop to reproduce sensations from memory and exist beyond the present moment. Otherwise they are simple reactive machines that have no thoughts, no inner monologue, no memories beyond conditioning.

What is Panpsychism?
Grateful Dead - Eyes of the World