Saturday, February 2, 2013

Why do we have consciousness at all?

In the section of Chapter 5 of Incognito called "Why do we have consciousness at all?" Eagleman lists a couple of references. On p. 140 he said:

"Crick & Koch's answer, like mine in previous chapters, is that consciousness exists to control and to distribute control over the automated alien systems. A system of automated subroutines that reaches a certain level of complexity (and human brains certainly quality) requires a high-level mechanism to allow the parts to communicate, dispense resources and allocate control." 

Checking the notes and bibliography this seems to refer to the following highly technical paper: Crick and Koch (1998). "Constraints on cortical and thalamic projections: the no-strong loops hypothesis." Nature 391 (6664), 245-50 (see link for the paper). After scanning it with glazed eyes I cannot find the connection with Eagleman's statement.

However I did find another of Crick and Koch's papers that does make sense in that regard: "A framework for consciousness," nature neuroscience, 6:2, 2003 (at this link). This paper contextualizes the first paper in terms of what Eagleman was discussing in the above quote. For example, on p. 120 he discussed the zombie modes and consciousness, nothing the former rapid, transient and unconscious, whereas the latter is a much slower process that "takes time to decide on appropriate thoughts and responses."  They also frame it like Eagleman on p. 124 as "competing coalitions." However this paper too limits the research to visual systems in primates, and leaves "on one side some of the more difficult aspects of consciousness, such as emotion and self consciousness" (p. 119). (Along that last line this is exactly the focus of Damasio's research in Self Comes to Mind.)

The other of Eagleman's references from this section is on p. 141, when he discussed how Jeff Hawkins claimed we only consciously notice our automated programs when something violates our expectations. In the bibliography Hawkins only reference is to his book On Intelligence. NY: Henry Holt, 2005. One can see a free Google preview of it at this link. One can get his bio from wikipedia. He also has a website for further exploration of the book here.

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