Sunday, May 3, 2015

Consciousness Explained - Part One

Consciousness Explained
Part One

Okay, one of my favourite subjects about the brain – consciousness! There are a couple of reasons I want to talk about consciousness.

Firstly, and most importantly, I would like my dear readers to at least somewhat understand what consciousness is because understanding that is important for understanding the subconscious and I strongly believe that better understanding the subconscious is very useful (actually, I think it's critical but it's okay if you just find it useful) to understanding “you”. When I write “you” in quotation marks like that, by the way, I am indicating the “consciousness” you experience during your waking hours. But I'll come back to this later. I think sleeping hours are at least somewhat significant as well, but not in the sense most people do (the meaning of dreaming and dream content) but that falls outside of what I want to talk about in this series.

Furthermore, understanding consciousness is very useful for understanding the mind which again is very useful (critical, I believe) to understanding “you”.

Now there is much to be said and explored about dualism and free will but I'm going to leave those aside as well today. For now I just want to establish the model I use for consciousness and subconscious so that my regular readers can better understand where I'm coming from when I talk about these two concepts.

Furthermore, when it comes to understanding who “we” are, it is important to understand our various mental states and any given mental state of mind is generated by the brain so the better we understand the brain, the better we understand the mind, and thus the better we can understand what's going on in “us” To clarify and establish my meaning of “mind”, I actually use “mind” and “conscious experience” more or less interchangeably because it is my position that they are more or less referring to the same mental experience.

To study conscious experience and subconscious it is now necessary to study neuroscience (anyone who does not study neuroscience and understand it at a high level does not belong in the discussion on understanding and defining consciousness and subconscious, in my not so humble opinion). I don't say this to be exclusionary, it's just that whatever consciousness is, it exists in the brain or is manufactured by the brain (I am of the latter school of thought), and it is necessary to study, understand and keep abreast of the latest neuroscience in order to understand the latest understandings of the consciousness/subconscious conundrum.

The question of consciousness and how to define it is not a new question of course. It's plagued science and philosophy since the dawn of those two disciplines. Many theories and models have been proposed, none of them providing any kind of basis for satisfactory consensus. Whatever you know about it, I'm going to ask you to put that aside and look at it differently. The reason I ask you to do this is because I strongly believe (and the road to this conclusion is too long and winding to briefly recount here, but it is based on very high understanding of neuroscience and discussions held within that field) that past models are a large part of the problem as to why we have so much trouble understanding “us” - we homo sapiens – and all of our various (generally hard to understand and deal with) behaviours. The various disciplines charged with our brain health (psychiatry, psychology and medical practitioners) simply have outdated and outmoded understandings of elementary concepts such as consciousness and the subconscious and since we generally turn to those fields if we seek to understand what's going on with ourselves, this would appear to me to be a bit of a problem. So please, set aside all other models that form the basis for your understanding of consciousness/subconscious.

This is what I refer to as the subconscious -

That is the human brain and all of it, everything you see there – and that represents all the hundred billion neurons and tens of thousands of kilometers of axon circuitry and countless glia cells as presented here in the introductory Neuroscience 101 post - operates below our “conscious” awareness or control. All that biological matter hums away without any conscious effort on our part at all. We – our “conscious selves” - have virtually no control over anything that goes on in there. There's a modicum of control that can be attained and there are times we can give it certain “commands” that certain parts will respond to to some degree, but I'll get to that as we go along in the series. I'd hate to try put an exact percentage of control we have over what goes on in that three pound mass you see pictured above but it'd certainly be well below 1%.

Once I studied neuroscience and understood it to a certain level, I understood that all the old Freudian and psychological models for subconscious and all those subsequently bootstrapped off of them – are inaccurate and muddy. They flail around in the dark because those that make them don't understand neuroscience (nor want to – because that would threaten their models, and thus careers, reputation, etc). It is only through the study of neuroscience and neuroanatomy and neurobiology and everything else involved in processes of the brain that one can even begin to approach the problem.

So it is this kind of model and approach to it that I firmly believe needs to be jettisoned:

So when I use the term “subconscious”, I am not using the term in the sense most people are used to thinking about it but am instead referring to the biological brain that hums away 24/7 from the latter states of fetal development till the day your vital organs shut down and the screen of your consciousness permanently fades to black.

The question of consciousness is one of the Holy Grails of all of science. The brain has been poked, prodded, scanned, dissected, sliced, diced and examined to the nth degree with some of the most technically advanced tools in human history. The brain has been mapped and its wiring laid out and the centres identified for all kinds of functions and circuits involved in various actions, thoughts and reactions. Amazing progress has been made in just the last five years to a decade in understanding how the brain works.

But nobody – and I do mean nobody – who studies the brain (as opposed to those philosophical theorists and psychology sorts) can say where – or even what – consciousness is. When science pokes into the brain – and as I said, this has been done to astonishingly minute detail – you cannot see where “consciousness” is. There's no “thing” or part to point to and go “ah-haa! That's where consciousness is!”. It's generally considered to be in the frontal lobes as that's where the neuronal centres for our higher executive commands and higher human functions are based but defining consciousness as being “there” runs into problems as well.

So there appears to be no physical basis or seat of “consciousness”. The brain just seems to somehow produce it and we somehow experience it. Therefore, you'll hear a lot of flailing away on theories of consciousness and it drives scientists batty because they like to be able to see something before they declare anything as “proven” or “factual”. And so far nobody has been able to do that, to “see” or detect with instruments where it is (it's such an enticingly intriguing Holy Grail of a scientific endeavor that even the quantum mechanics physicist folks have jumped into the fray with great enthusiasm).

So I'm certainly not going to claim that I've discovered the secret to defining consciousness. But I do think we need at least a common understanding and basic working model for our purposes in this blog and that's what I'm going to do here. The ideas I present here may not be “the answer”, but they are based on the latest and most advanced – not to mention the elementary basic - neuroscience I could find. So I didn't arrive at my model blindly or without solid basis.

When I use the term “consciousness”, then, I refer to the phenomenon we experience when we awaken each day and that screen we “see” in our “mind's eye” flashes to life. I don't view finding a “hard” definition that stands up to scientific rigor that important. I mean it's nice for the brain nerds who have to put food on their tables chasing grants to do that kind of neuronal navel gazing but it really makes no difference to us regular folks in the real world. On the other hand, I do believe it's important to understand what the most up to date knowledge of what the subconscious is so I just want to to split our understanding of consciousness and subconscious for the sake of understanding how much control we have over what's going on in “us” once our mind's 'eye' goes to work each day and that stream of thoughts inner dialog starts to assault us.

And just to further clarify what I mean by “consciousness”, we can think of “unconscious” states. “Unconscious” refers to something quite different than subconscious. Unconscious refers to times when we are having no conscious experience at all. This may be while we're in deep sleep, or when we've suffered a concussion and are “blacked out” or when we've become inebriated enough by substances (usually alcohol) to lose consciousness for various periods of time or when we've been rendered unconscious by an anesthetic. In these states we are not aware of anything around us and we do not form memories during these states (there may be some but very likely they'd be a) very difficult to recall and b) they'd be very unreliable).

Conscious awareness then is how much, and how, we understand what we're seeing on that “inner screen” when we are a fully awake, fully aware state. I think understanding this is very useful for understanding what we experience when we're trying to understand others' or our own behaviours, actions, decisions and so on.

So here is how I'll present consciousness to you, which I hope you'll start to use as your own working model for understanding your conscious experience, how to define it and – it is my hope – give you a better basis for working to improve your daily conscious experience and moving it towards something that works better for you. I am adamant that knowing where you have control and where you don't have control over your mental functions, levels of cognition and your “conscious experience” is critical to optimizing your life outcomes with the brain you have.

To present the model I wish to use I'm going to revert to a tried and true model for explaining the brain and consciousness/subconscious divide – the computer. And the Internet.

When you fire up your computer and the screen comes to life and starts to present you with information brought to you through a cable (or wifi but even that gets its signal from a cable), three basic components are involved in creating your experience.

  • The Internet cable or wifi connection

  • the computer hardware and software programs and stored data (IE: memory)

  • the screen

- the cable brings in data, just raw data as represented in digital code. This code, in the raw, means nothing. You could open up a live data cable and you'd see nothing. It's meaningless. Even if you could see all the “bytes” of the data, it'd mean nothing to you. It's just a meaningless string of zeros and ones. To make sense of blizzard of meaningless incoming data you need:

- the computer hardware. The hardware makes sense of all this input data. It runs the data through various bits of hardware and software within the hardware and assembles the raw data into something you can understand on:

- the screen/speakers. It is here where you can experience all the data as represented in zeros and ones in something you can understand and see and/or hear. It is here where all that incompressible raw data comes to life in words, pictures, sounds, movies and so on.

Take any three of these basic legs away and the experience dies (yes, I know, there are still speakers/headphones for the auditory experience but I'm going to take the liberty of putting sight and sound together as one experience so when I say take away the screen, I mean the speakers/headphones as well).

Now, to further my computer metaphor of our conscious experience, I'm going to break down and define these three basic legs further. We'll start with the computing hardware and software.

The computing hardware and software is your biological brain and all the “nuts and bolts” that make that up. We'll further break that down into the actual hardware and software.

The hardware is all the brain components that have been identified (and again refer to Neuroscience 101 for a primer on these). This is all the “hard” material that modern science can look at and identify.

Software starts to get harder to define because, like consciousness itself, the "software" - the "programs" in our brains - is not exactly something that can be seen with the naked eye or instruments. But it can be inferred from what happens between the hardware so we “know” it's there even if it's difficult to actually “see”. We'll come back to further understanding software in later segments of this series.

The Internet is going to represent the environment (when I use the word “environment”, I am referring to everything and everyone that you deal with on a day to day basis. Your living conditions and social world, in other words) and our sensory experience of it. The Internet signal is all the sensory information that's brought in by your five (presuming you have all five) sense organs – eyes for sight, ears for sound, skin for tactile touch, nose for smells and tongue for taste.

I'm going to abandon the internet cable metaphor and just use the wifi receiver in your computer. Just as your wifi receiver senses signals in the air and converts them to electronic signals your computer can understand, your various sensing organs do the same with light waves, sound waves, scent molecules, taste molecules and tactile sensations – they convert these into electronic impulses that are sent to various brain regions to be analyzed and “assembled” into something that will become part of your conscious experience.

In the computer, there is hardware responsible for processing different “senses” and there are only two – visual and auditory signals, which are processed by a graphics card and a sound card respectively. And these two processes are routed through other bits of hardware and wiring, along with various software differently used at various times to assemble the final picture and sound on the screen.

While vastly, vastly more complicated of course, our brains do essentially the exact same thing. Our “signal receivers”, our five senses, take in sensory data in the atmosphere around us at any one time. Just like your computer has a sound card for audio and a graphics card for visual, there are specific brain regions for processing each of the five senses. For example, your eye takes in light waves, converts these to electrical impulses which then travel along the optic nerve to the occipital lobe which will go through enormously complicated and various processing programs to assemble all those electrical signals that represent the light photons bouncing around all around you into what you consciously experience as “vision”.

Simultaneously, your auditory signal receptors – your ears – are converting sound waves into electrical signals and sending those along to various parts of the brain which assemble this “data” into what you perceive as voices, music, and innumerable other sounds. The visual and auditory centres work closely together to assemble both the final picture and what to “filter out” (IE: reduce the onslaught of sensory data down to what's most important at a given moment).

Now, among its hardware, your computer also has two kinds of memory – Random Access Memory, or RAM, which is a card, and long term memory on the hard drive(s). And the brain is remarkably similar – it too has two kinds of memory; a short term memory called your working memory and long term memory. They operate quite differently and separately in the brain and what makes it from working memory to long term memory is part of what's a major struggle for a lot of people. How your short term memory works ties in very closely to our “conscious” experience so we're going to come back to that in more detail later. It's VERY important.

Another computer metaphor for your conscious experience I'd like to introduce now is cloud computing. Cloud computing is when a number of computers work together for a single purpose or goal. I'm going to use it to represent our social worlds, or in other words, our relationships with other “brains”. We – or our brains to be more accurate – do not work by themselves or on their own. Some hermits do that but for most of us our brains must “interface” with other brains (or people).

In cloud computing, several or many computers must work in close concert with one another and to do that they have to be “on the same page”, or in other words, they must have very close and agreed upon working protocols. For computers, this is relatively easy if they're all running the same or similar software and responding to similar commands. But even with computers it's not so simple.

As in cloud computing, we humans must also work with many other “computers” - brains – (I have this habit now of seldom referring to people as people or individuals and referring to them as “brains”. This is because our thoughts, spoken dialog, and inner and outer behaviours are nothing more than the products of what our brains are capable of and do at any one moment in time). And just like in cloud computing, to properly succeed in any kind of cooperative effort, we have to “be on the same page” or have similar working/behavioural protocols to make that happen. How well we operate in life depends a great, great deal on how our brains interface and cooperate with other brains.

That's the end of Part One. In Part Two, I'll further explain and establish our working model for the understanding of your conscious experience and further use the computer metaphors for better understanding both your conscious experience and what's going on in the “hardware” and “programs” when your conscious experience is producing something like a bipolar episode or depressive episode or a crisis point meltdown and even the delusions of schizophrenia and so on.

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