Friday, 5 October 2012


The “hard problem of consciousness was formulated by David J Chalmers in 1996. Simply stated it concerns the issues; what is consciousness; why do we have it and how do patterns of neuronal firing in the brain generate the subjective experience of being conscious?

I think of consciousness quite simply as our subjective awareness of ourselves, our surroundings and the relationship between these two entities. I believe that consciousness evolved because it provided an adaptive integrated model of reality from the, individually evolved, sensory inputs we are able to receive from outside the body and from the body itself. Such a model is adaptive since it speeds up our evaluation of confirmatory/ contradictory evidence when making conscious decisions about the actions we need to take in response to the state of world and/or our physical needs. It is also an essential tool in making adaptive moral judgements. See Marc D Hauser, ‘Moral Minds’, p29.

In a moving, talking picture, the fact that the dynamic visual image is synchronized with the sound results in consilience between the words heard and the lip movements produced by the actors. This results in an emergent subjective experience that seems to the viewer to be an acceptable model of our usual real-life subjective model of reality. My hypothesis is that there is a similar relationship between our sensory inputs, which are, to all intents and purposes, also experienced in a synchronized fashion, and objective reality.

This emergent model of reality that we call ‘consciousness’ also enables us to take ‘snapshots’ of states of the world associated with emotionally charged experiences. These may then be stored in long-term memory and used, unconsciously, to pattern-match to real-time experiences and thus enable very fast, unconsciously mediated and adaptive actions to be generated when similar states of the world are encountered.

But how do we explain our subjective experience of being conscious in terms of its neurological basis? In other words, how do we explain the translation from a pattern of electro-chemical pulses in neural brain tissue to the subjective model of reality that we call our consciousness?  I have described consciousness as an integrated model of reality based on our sensory inputs. Since our experience of each of these inputs (sight, for example) is understood by science in terms of specific neuronal activity and the physiology of the sensory organs, the ‘hard problem’ seems to disappear when described in this way.

So, what is consciousness? It is a subjective model of reality. Why do we have it? We have it because it proved to be an adaptive facility that emerged spontaneously with the phylogenic development of the senses. How does neuronal activity generate subjective experience? Sensory input, the functionality of the sensory organs combined with appropriate neural activity generate synchronized sensory experiences that result in the subjective, integrated, emergent model of reality that we call ‘consciousness’. Where does this analysis leave the concept “unconsciousness”?

If one accepts the notion that neural activity mediates both my conscious processes such as deciding to write this note, and my unconscious processes, such as those controlling my somatic-homeostatic functions, I see no problem in hypothesizing that consciousness is a sub-set of brain processes. There appears to be constant movement, however, between the conscious sub-set and the unconscious sub-set; as when we suddenly become conscious that someone within ear-shot has mentioned our name. I accept that the explanation of consciousness I am putting forward in these notes leaves the neuronal source of ‘attention’, as yet, unexplained.

The question arises, “What distinguishes the conscious sub-set of neuronal activity from the unconscious sub-set?” I would hypothesize that the conscious sub-set is a logically distributed module within neuronal architecture that contains the results of synchronized sensory processing as previously described which has access to long-term memory/ reasoning and which allows input from emotional circuits. The unconscious sub-set also has access to emotional circuits in order to produce fast responses by pattern-matching. Any particular emotional event may, unconsciously, trigger a match with previous emotionally-laden memories. These memories will there-by be etched deeper. The emotion generated by the event will also be consciously experienced as ‘feeling’ thus allowing later reflection on the event, any action/inaction taken in response and the result.

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