The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'consciousness'
Blogging ambulanceman Tom Reynolds on how to tell if someone's faking unconsciousness:
The easiest, and quickest way to see if someone is faking unconsciousness is to lightly brush your finger against their eyelashes. If their eyes flicker, then they are almost certainly faking it. Also if they try to keep their eyes closed when you try to open them, they are definitely faking it. Another way of checking is to hold their hand over their face, and let it drop. People tend to be reluctant to let their hand hit them on the nose, and so the hand will instead magically drop to one side.
My favourite tale of how to uncover a pretender in a hospital setting was a doctor, who would loudly ask for the 'brain needle', to draw off some brain fluid from the unconscious patient via the ear. Of course, he would continue, the patient needed to be unconscious because otherwise they might flinch and the needle go into the brain itself. This was normally followed by the patient 'waking up' and asking, "Doctor, where am I?".
Psychologists are now looking at magic tricks for answers to how the mind works. Developed and refined over centuries, such tricks and techniques are now being recognised as containing a lot of folk knowledge about the low-level workings of consciousness and perception:
A card trick that lasts four or five minutes, for example, might have 20 pages of detailed text to describe exactly where to look, what to say, what to do and so on. And a lot of the understanding of a trick has to be from the perspective of the audience.
Our brains filter out a huge amount of the mass of sensory input flooding in from our environment. Kuhn explains that we see what we expect to see and what our brains are interested in. "Our visual representation of the world is much more impoverished than we would assume. People can be looking at something without being aware of it. Perception doesn't just involve looking at an object but attending to it."
Consciousness researcher Christof Koch claims that we are almost zombies, or rather, that the vast majority of our lives are spent unconsciously, on autopilot: (via bOING bOING)
You drive to work on autopilot, move your eyes, brush your teeth, tie your shoelaces, talk, and all the other myriad chores that constitute daily life. Indeed, he says, Any sufficiently well-rehearsed activity is best performed without conscious, deliberate thought. Reflecting too much about any one action is likely to interfere with its seamless execution.
Given the range and effectiveness of these zombie agents, Koch believes the great mystery is why we are not complete zombies. Or to put it another way: What purpose does consciousness serve? Why does it exist at all?
Consciousness, Koch argues, is a local phenomenon, residing in a specific part of the brain, and serving a specific purpose, and not an emergent property of a complex system, as some have claimed:
In principle, Koch says, there is no reason why consciousness is necessary to life. With enough input sensors and output effectors, it is conceivable that A zombie could pretty much do anything. But since every zombie behavior must be hard-wired, the more situations it must respond to, the more complex its internal mechanism must become. Instead, Evolution has chosen a different path, synthesizing a much more powerful and flexible system that we call consciousness. The main function of this innovation, he and Crick propose, is to enable organisms to deal rapidly with unexpected events and to plan for the future. As Koch likes to say, consciousness puts us online, allowing us to override our instinctual offline programming.
Which lends itself to a possible test for detecting consciousness, and thus differentiating between humans and zombies and other unconscious life:
Since zombie agents operate purely according to preprogrammed rules, a zombie would have no need for short-term memory, and hence Koch believes the absence of this feature would serve as an indication that consciousness was also missing. Consider the following situation: You see an outstretched hand, but instead of shaking it immediately, which instinct would dictate, you are required to close your eyes and wait several seconds before doing so. Koch and Crick suspect that without a short-term memory, a zombie could not do this task, or any other in which an artificial delay was imposed between an input and the associated motor output.
For the moment, he is concentrating not on humans but on biologys most common test subject, the mouse. He and his colleagues are trying to develop a mouse model of consciousness, a rigorous way of determining if and when a mouse is aware. Over the past decade, biologists have learned how to turn individual genes on and off in the developing rodent fetus. With a mouse model of consciousness, Koch could begin to explore what genes are essential for this phenomenon. One question he would like to pursue is whether it is possible to genetically engineer an animal without conscious awareness -- a zombie mouse.
Research in neuroscience suggests that conscious free will may be an illusion, with decisions being made in the brain before they reach the conscious mind.
What Libet did was to measure electrical changes in people's brains as they flicked their wrists. And what he found was that a subject's ''readiness potential'' - the brain signal that precedes voluntary actions - showed up about one-third of a second before the subject felt the conscious urge to act. The result was so surprising that it still had the power to elicit an exclamation point from him in a 1999 paper: ''The initiation of the freely voluntary act appears to begin in the brain unconsciously, well before the person consciously knows he wants to act!''
Then the experimenters would use magnetic stimulation in certain parts of the brain just at the moment when the subject was prompted to make the choice. They found that the magnets, which influence electrical activity in the brain, had an enormous effect: On average, subjects whose brains were stimulated on their right-hand side started choosing their left hands 80 percent of the time. And, in the spookiest aspect of the experiment, the subjects still felt as if they were choosing freely.
Which makes sense; if cognition is a physical process, then so would be decision-making. And it could be that the conscious mind is a very small part of the processes of the brain.
I've suspected for a while that our conscious minds don't so much do the thinking as weave together a coherent internal narrative from the myriad of subconscious processes in our heads, providing a serial stream of consciousness essential to having the sense of self and the ability to introspection. So it could be that we don't consciously make any decisions, only rationalise what the physical processes in our brains do.
Is consciousness (or, precisely, the integration of dispersed neurological phenomena into a central awareness) the product of the brain's electromagnetic field? Two researchers put forward an interesting argument for why this may be the case.
Anyone learning to drive a car will have experienced how the first (very conscious) fumblings are transformed through constant practice into automatic actions. The neural networks driving those first uncertain fumblings are precisely where we would expect to find nerves in the undecided state when a small nudge from the brain's em field can topple them towards or away from firing. The field will "fine tune" the neural pathway towards the desired goal. But neurons are connected so that when they fire together, they wire together, to form stronger connections. After practice, the influence of the field will become dispensable. The activity will be learnt and may thereafter be performed unconsciously.