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Business, Science

What is Consciousness?

Notes from Charlie Rose Special on Consciousness

Patricia Churchland: The historical description of consciousness started with Descartes:
– Physical body
– Non-physical soul

It is the soul that has creativity, perception and reason, Descartes argued.

In the 1800s, Von Helmholz postulated that:
– It is all physical (the brain) – otherwise the law of conservation of matter would be violated
– non-conscious processing is adaptive and smart
– non-conscious processing can take stimuli and construct intellectual subunits which it serves up to the conscious.

In the early 1900s Freud studied speech to discern the subconscious:
– Defects in speech are largely subconscious. The effort of speech is largely built from non-concious processes.

In the 1980s, The matter of consciousness took a great leap forward with Bernard Baars 1980s:
– What’s the difference in the brain between conscious and non-conscious?
– Whats the mechanism by which non-conscious thought becomes conscious?
– How smart are non-conscious processes? What does that leave for consciousness?

Barr proposed the “global workspace” and a framework for conscious (c) and non-conscious (non-c) processing:
– Consciousness has a limited capacity (e.g. can’t listen to two conversations at once)
– Is extremely important with novel and complex problems
– Consciousness is the product of the integration of many sub-conscious features (e.g. facial recognition)

Neuroscience allows us to “play” with consciousness in a laboratory setting e.g. by flashing words very quickly in-between other patterns and determining if they are detected or not. As a consequence of horse experiments, it has been determined that:

– The brain can flip between conscious and subconscious modes (1-2 ms time-frame)
– unconscious processing occurs in different regions of the cerebral cortex, some of which were previously thought only to be responsible for conscious processes
– conscious information is available to other parts of the brain, known as the global workspace
– word and face recognition can occur non-consciously. The sound and meaning of words can also be detected non-c
– n-c processing is local and constant. c processing is amplified by other regions in the brain.

Timothy Wilson considers what modern neuroscience has taught us about two fundsmental ways of thinking:
– slow, deliberate, conscious(c)
– fast, adaptive, unconscious(uc)

    Adaptive uc:

interprets and learns (e.g. language acquisition by children), monitoring, decision-making (Allowing conscious information gathering to percolate into the adaptive UC)

Nicholas Shiff has studied Disorders of Consciousness:
– People who appear to regain consciousness after weeks, months or years of unconsciousness
– Consciousness is the 0.2-0.5% of thinking. There are operations that cannot be done N-C (e.g. multiplication). However N-C operations can be carried out in minimally C people
– “pre-consciousness” may exist – an interim stage between N-C and C processes. Many previously C processes become N-C after intensive training, e.g.
– After playing chess for a while, Grandmasters become automatic in a large part of their analysis. Experienced physicians can diagnose a patient far faster than new interns.
– The plasticity of the brain is enormous when we are young. Up to puberty, children are universal learners (they can learn any language if sufficiently immersed.)
– The decline of plasticity as we age (brain maturation and loss of connections) has a consequence on cognitive function.
– Physical and intellectual exercise help maintain cognitive function

Enhancing Learning:
– Distracting conscious thought actually enhances non-conscious learning and decision-making (e.g. working in a noisy coffee-shop)
– U-C thinking can review many different stimuli while C-thinking can only focus on 2-3 stimuli at a time
– Taking a break from a difficult intellectual challenge often results in new insights into solutions that we are not consciously aware of e.g. Taking a shower, going for a run, or other rhythmic activity.
– U-C thinking can categorize very quickly (e.g. pigeon-holing people by race or color of their skin)

The Future:
– Identifying those who are conscious after trauma and getting them to communicate
– consciousness does not distinguish us from other species. However there may be aspects of human consciousness that are unique
– There should be a coherent story for what makes a state of the brain conscious
– How is information integrated from the senses and transferred from a non-C to a C process?
– Disorders such as hallucinations, schizophrenia etc. are due to defects in C. What are these defects?
– A new biology of the mind: psychology and neuroscience are coming together.
– To what degree is intelligence determined by unconscious mental processes? (e.g. creativity vs. wisdom)

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