01 November 2012

Consciousness as 'display only' UI?

This post is not a review, but was triggered as a looked through the recent book "The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking" by Matthew Hutson (2012).  On page 2, in the Introduction, Hutson reviews some types of 'magical thinking':  "Do you believe that certain events were meant to happen?  Magical thinking.  Or that you can lift your arm through the power of your conscious thoughts?  Magical thinking, even that."

As many popular books do, Hutson uses the 1983 study by Benjamin Libet which compared the timing of a readiness potential in the brain to the subject's report of a conscious decision to move their arm.  His finding was that there was a readiness potential prior to the report of a conscious decision (about a third of a second).  There have been followups that report further findings along these lines.  Hutson writes:
Libet refused to interpret his own findings as conclusive evidence against free will.  He held on to the possibility of some kind of conscious veto power that could halt or redirect an act in progress - so called free won't.  But no available evidence supports such a magical intervention.
So this led me to a few thoughts on the subject.  If one accepts the notion that consciousness is produced by the brain, then surely it must be the case that any conscious 'activity' is either preceded by or accompanied by activity in the brain.  It's not as if one's brain is an independent actor - the brain and the conscious activity is all bundled into a person, and the person makes decisions.  The decision path must involve the brain.

And we know that there is plenty going on in a person's body which is not actively controlled via consciousness - like breathing and digesting and keeping the heart beating and so forth.  Likewise we don't really consciously control ourselves when making simple movements - what muscles will be involved if I move my arm?

Is it possible that consciousness is simply like a software user interface that does not allow any action or update?  Consciousness in this model would simply register activity (thoughts) in the brain, and perhaps like moving a mouse around we can shift the focus but in fact not actually alter anything via conscious decision.  And thus any notion that consciousness can 'do something' is an illusion or 'magical intervention'?  That is certainly not my personal experience, though I recognize that plenty of consciousness can be consumed by simply going around in circles, worrying about something, or churning over possibilities.  Note also that I've never seen a brain (on its own) do much of anything.  The brain is a key organ in a person!

My personal take is that this view of consciousness as 'inactive' cannot be correct, but it's hard to really get a handle on the mechanism that conscious activity can use.  I think the area of attention and learning is the most promising place to look - since to learn something we typically have to focus attention, and we go through a period where we don't fully grasp a concept or action.  In this period we have to think carefully about each step or movement, and if we are successful at learning then finally there is a breakthrough, and we 'internalize' the learning - which makes it largely unconscious.  As an example, once we know how to serve a tennis ball, we don't have to think consciously about how to move our arms and body to do it.  But while we are learning we need all sorts of mental attention to try to get it right.  If you have no mental focus, it seems unlikely that you'll ever learn much of anything.  So what is happening when we apply mental focus - it must involve some sort of shifting of brain resources away from mechanisms that support our own churning thoughts to the area of interest.

Is the idea that we have conscious control and decision-making power somehow magical?  I would say no - a person uses consciousness to direct focus and attention, and behind the scenes all sorts of things are happening in the brain, some of which we are aware in some sense, and other things we have no awareness of.

I decided the book was not worth reading in full, but my quick skim did provoke some thinking!

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