Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the MindBy Annaka Harris
July 22, 2023 ⋅ 5 min read ⋅ Books
Chapter 1: A Mystery Hiding in Plain Sight
- Consciousness is experience itself.
- Why would any collection of matter in the universe be conscious?
- The most basic definition of consciousness is given by Thomas Nagel.
- Consciousness: an organism is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that organism.
- Is there like something to be you in this moment? Is there like something to be a rock?
- It’s the difference between whether there’s an experienced present or not.
- At some point in the development of a baby’s brain, your intuition tells you that the baby now has an experience, the mystery lies in the transition.
- The moment matter becomes conscious is as mysterious as the moment matter and energy were created.
- Why do certain configurations of matter cause it to light up with awareness?
Chapter 2: Intuitions and Illusions
- Our intuitions can be helpful but deceiving.
- E.g. Some of our intuitions don’t match science and statistics.
- Intuition: a powerful sense that something is true without our awareness or understanding.
- Two questions that appear deceptively simple
- In a system that we know has conscious experience, what evidence of consciousness can we detect from the outside?
- Is consciousness essential to our behavior?
- Let’s consider that it’s possible for conscious experience to exist without an outward expression of it in the brain; cases of a conscious mind lacking a mode of expression.
- E.g. Locked-in syndrome and anesthesia awareness.
- But it could also be the case that we lack the tools necessary to detect that expression from the outside.
- We normally determine whether an organism is conscious or not by examining their behavior.
- E.g. People are conscious but plants aren’t conscious.
- We assume that consciousness doesn’t exist in the absence of a brain or central nervous system, but what evidence or behavior can we observe to support this claim?
- Some behaviors of people and plants are so alike that this challenges our belief of using behavior as evidence of consciousness.
- However, these behaviors may also be confounded by the processes required to support life and evolution.
- We can explore our intuitions about behavior and consciousness by instead asking “Does a system need consciousness to exhibit certain behaviors?”
- It seems that both conscious and nonconscious states are both compatible with any behavior, so a behavior itself doesn’t necessarily signal the presence of consciousness.
Chapter 3: Is Consciousness Free?
- As we’re conscious, we experience a continuous stream of present-moment events and yet, we actually become conscious of physical events slightly after they’ve occurred.
- Visual, auditory, and other sensory information moves through the world at different rates.
- E.g. The light and sound of a gun shot don’t arrive at your eyes and ears simultaneously, and yet both are experienced simultaneously.
- The brain hides the difference in sensory signal arrival times.
- To synchronize the incoming information from the senses, the cost is that our conscious awareness lags behind reality.
- Our intuition that consciousness is behind certain behaviors is informed by our experience of freely making choices in the world.
- Consciousness isn’t necessarily controlling the system, but we know that consciousness is experiencing the system.
- It seems clear that we can’t decide what to think or feel any more than we can decide what to see or hear.
Chapter 4: Along for the Ride
- No notes on behavioral changes caused by parasites and bacterial infections.
- These examples show how blind we are to the complex array of forces influencing and controlling the behaviors around us.
- It seems that consciousness is along for the ride, watching the show rather than creating or controlling it.
- An interesting exception is when we think about consciousness.
- Consciousness plays a role in behavior when we think and talk about the mystery of consciousness.
- It doesn’t make sense for an unconscious entity (or philosophical zombie) to contemplate conscious experience without having it in the first place.
- Without having experienced consciousness, there’s no difference that a unconscious entity could be referring to because it doesn’t know and can’t know.
- It seems impossible for a system to make a distinction between a conscious and unconscious experience without having an actual conscious experience as a reference point.
- Presumably, the brain can only think about consciousness after experiencing it.
Chapter 5: Who Are We?
- The conscious self is the subject of everything we experience.
- All that we’re aware of happens to or around this self in what feels like a unified experience.
- That experience appears simultaneous because of binding processes.
- There’s binding across space and time.
- E.g. Binding color to objects or sounds to movements.
- Imagine if binding didn’t take place at all.
- E.g. Hearing your voice after your mouth moved.
- Without binding processes, you might not even feel yourself to be a self at all.
- Consciousness would be more like a flow of disconnected experiences.
- The self we seem to inhabit, localized in space and time, unchanging, a solid center of consciousness, is an illusion that can be short-circuited with meditation, disorders, and drugs.
- We assume that consciousness and the sense of self are the same, but it’s clear that they’re different.
- E.g. A person can experience the world but also experience their sense of self dissolving and floating in space.
- Since the bodily self can be tampered with using psychedelic drugs, stroke, or a neurological disorder, then it follows that the bodily self isn’t special and no soul exists.
- When Thomas Nagel asks us to imagine what it’s like to be a bat, he’s pointing out that we already know there are modes of consciousness vastly different from our own.
- Umwelt: the experience a particular animal has based on the senses and muscles used by that organism to navigate its environment.
Chapter 6: Is Consciousness Everywhere?
- Panpsychism: the view that all matter is imbued with consciousness.
- E.g. Consciousness is embedded in the reaction of plants to light, the spin of electrons, or black holes.
- One modern panpsychism proposal is that consciousness is intrinsic to all forms of information processing.
- The author argues that the simplest explanation of consciousness is a panpsychism one, but I don’t agree that the simplest is the most accurate or useful explanation.
- Consciousness can’t be an illusion because an illusion can only appear within consciousness. You are either experiencing something or you’re not.
- It’s hard for us to drop the intuition that consciousness equals complex thought.
Chapter 7: Beyond Panpsychism
- Imagine being a brain without any sense organs connected.
- Then imagine your senses being connected one at a time.
- E.g. First vision, then sound, then touch.
- We’re trying to imagine a simple flow of first experiences and we realize that something like this is possible.
- An experience of consciousness doesn’t need to be accompanied by thoughts.
- It seems possible to be aware of one’s subjective experience in the absence of thoughts, sights, sounds, or any other perception.
- Would two brains wired together produce a new integrated mind? This is analogous to the corpus callosum for the two brain hemispheres but for two entire brains instead.
- Is it possible that alongside the conscious experience of “me”, there’s a much dimmer experience of each individual neuron, or a collection of neurons?
Chapter 8: Consciousness and Time
- Review of time ideas from Dean Buonomano’s book “Your Brain Is a Time Machine”.