The Way Consciousness Is

Thinking about the United States plumbing the depths of kakistocracy (rule by the worst) is all well and good, but back to consciousness.

The human brain is the most complex object anyone has ever tried to understand. It might be the most complex object in the universe. We might never understand how it works. Robert Burton, a neurologist, writes about being surprised by a patient with a paranoid fear of the FBI that was apparently caused by a mutation in his brain:

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had run headlong into the “hard problem of consciousness,” the enigma of how physical brain mechanisms create purely subjective mental states. In the subsequent 50 years, what was once fodder for neurologists’ late night speculations has mushroomed into the preeminent question in the philosophy of mind. As an intellectual challenge, there is no equal to wondering how subatomic particles, mindless cells, synapses, and neurotransmitters create the experience of red, the beauty of a sunset, the euphoria of lust, the transcendence of music, or in this case, intractable paranoia.

Neuroscientists have long known which general areas of the brain and their connections are necessary for the state of consciousness. By observing both the effects of localized and generalized brain insults such as anoxia [total lack of oxygen] and anesthesia, none of us seriously doubt that consciousness arises from discrete brain mechanisms. Because these mechanisms are consistent with general biological principles, it’s likely that, with further technical advances, we will uncover how the brain generates consciousness.

However, such knowledge doesn’t translate into an explanation for the what of consciousness—that state of awareness of one’s surroundings and self, the experience of one’s feelings and thoughts. Imagine a hypothetical where you could mix nine parts oxytocin, 17 parts serotonin, and 11 parts dopamine into a solution that would make 100 percent of people feel a sense of infatuation 100 percent of the time. Knowing the precise chemical trigger for the sensation of infatuation (the how) tells you little about the nature of the resulting feeling (the what).

But why should we expect that knowing what chemicals cause the feeling of infatuation would tell us anything about what infatuation feels like? Aren’t those two different questions?

Suppose, however, that we keep improving our techniques for studying the brain, as Burton suggests, and eventually figure out how certain kinds of brain activity become consciousness. It doesn’t seem impossible that one day (maybe 1,000 years in the future) that we will fully understand how “subatomic particles, mindless cells, synapses, and neurotransmitters” allow us to be conscious, just as well as we understand how lungs allow us to breathe (although lungs are a lot less complicated than brains). Suppose we discover how one kind of brain activity becomes a feeling of infatuation and another kind becomes a feeling of resentment. 

Burton implies that we would still be left with what he calls the “what” question, although it might be better to call it the “why” question. Why does our consciousness have the specific properties it does? Why does a note on a violin sound just the way it does? Why does red look like this and not like this or this? In the case of color, scientists might understand perfectly well the relationship between different wavelengths of light, the physiology of our eyes and nervous system, and the colors we see. They would understand that such and such conditions, structures and processes are correlated with seeing red and others are correlated with seeing blue. All of our “how does this happen?” questions would have been answered. So would it still make sense to ask why a particular kind of light looks the way it does or a particular feeling feels the way it does?

I’m not sure it would. Once we understood what leads to colors looking the way they do, or what makes feelings feel the way they do, any “why” questions might disappear. Once we understand the “how” of consciousness, maybe there won’t be anything more to figure out. If there are any neurologists or philosophers still asking “why”, the best answer will be “that’s just the way it is” or “stop asking questions and go to sleep”.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. After all, in science, we sometimes arrive at what appear to be “brute” facts. Why is the speed of light in a vacuum 186,282 miles per second instead of 186,300 miles per second? We may never know. That’s just the way the universe works. No further explanation is available. If you have a problem with our speed of light, go live in another universe. If you don’t like the particular colors you see, keep your eyes closed. Or become a cat.

Next up on this subject, assuming I stay conscious: What does it mean to say consciousness is a physical phenomenon? It’s obviously a mental phenomenon, so how can it be a physical one too?

What We Have In Mind (Consciousness Again)

Last week, I suggested that consciousness is a type of brain activity, the kind that consists in having a phenomenal field that includes sights, sounds, pains and the internal monologue depicted by authors as the “stream of consciousness”.

I also recommended that we reserve the phrase “conscious of” for the most important things we’re conscious of, things like our everyday surroundings, our feelings and our thoughts, not consciousness itself. This approach would rule out questions like “Are you conscious of consciousness?” that to me seem misguided and misleading. I don’t think we’re conscious of consciousness, but rather conscious of other things.

To say that we’re conscious “of” other things is to say that the components of consciousness represent other things. Thus, some of the brain activity that is consciousness represents things outside our bodies (e.g. trees falling in the forest). Some of it represents things inside our bodies (e.g. heartburn). And some represents things that exist neither inside nor outside our bodies: abstract things like possibilities (e.g. sanity in Washington), fictional characters (Wonder Woman) and ideas (justice or the number twelve).

From an article about dreaming, which is usually considered a kind of consciousness:

One of the main functions of our brain is to constantly create a model of the world around us, a sort of virtual reality that helps us interact with our environment.

When we’re awake, that model is heavily influenced by what we are seeing and hearing and feeling. But during sleep, when there’s not much input from our senses, the brain’s model of the world is more likely to rely on internal information, like memories or expectations.

I’d add that the model is also a model of the world within us and the abstract world of memory, intention and imagination. But thinking of the model our brains create as “a sort of virtual reality” is what I have in mind (that’s a pun). It’s the “sort” of virtual reality that isn’t virtual, however. Patterns of neural activation in the brain (what the model is made of) are quite real. And it’s a model or representation of other things that are quite real too, like falling trees and sprained ankles.

One of the things that makes our conscious model interesting is that it includes events and processes that are strictly or primarily mental, like having a premonition. I don’t know if such things are representations of unconscious mental events and processes. Maybe they aren’t representations at all; maybe they’re patterns of neural activation that don’t refer to or represent anything else. But the evidence suggests that we all have a lot of unconscious brain activity that plays a very large role in what we think and how we feel.

So it would be consistent with the view I’m trying to explain that when you have something like a premonition, what you’re conscious of is a representation of the underlying brain activity (the unconscious premonition processing), as well as any related events in your body (like chills).

To sum up, the position I’ve arrived at seems to be a strange, possibly ridiculous mixture of ideas associated with two great philosophers who are generally seen as opponents: the idealist George Berkeley and the materialist Thomas Hobbes.

Berkeley (1685-1753) argued that nothing exists independently of minds: “To be is to be perceived (or to perceive)”. A person is an immaterial mind or soul. The physical world (the Earth, for example) doesn’t exist independently of our minds. Fortunately, our individual minds are able to get along because God (a kind of super-mind) synchronizes our perceptions. He makes sure that when I perceive a red apple (in my mind), you do too.

Hobbes (1588-1679) argued that nothing exists except physical stuff. We human beings, including our minds, are material things. Even God may be a kind of material being. When I see a red apple, and you see a red apple, therefore, it’s because there’s an apple out there and it’s red. That’s the whole story. 

Where I’ve ended up is to agree with Berkeley that our consciousness has the various elements in it that he called “perceptions” and “ideas”. But I agree with Hobbes that consciousness is a physical phenomenon, a very cool physical phenomenon, but a physical one just the same. And the reason my perceptions usually line up with yours so nicely is because our perceptions represent the same physical world, albeit observed from our individual perspectives. 

I Did the Reading, So Now I’m Sharing

I read too many articles on the internet about politics. Instead of having one subscription to a high-quality newspaper that used to land on our driveway every morning, I now subscribe to three quality newspapers that I read online. I also visit a number of websites that offer interesting political news and commentary. All you need to give them is your time (although that, of course, is more precious than your money).

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t spend so much time reading about politics, but I want to understand what the hell is going on, i.e., why America is so screwed up. And after I read something, I sometimes feel the need to share. This reading and sharing might be a big waste of time, but it feels like something I should do.  

This explains why I read three long-ish articles in the past few days that I’m now going to mention and very briefly describe. Then I’m going to share a funny video. And then I’m going to share a little good news for a change.

The first article I read was “Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology”. The title isn’t quite accurate, because epistemology is the philosophical theory or study of knowledge. The title should really be something like “Trump and the Rise of Right-Wing Propaganda as a Source of Supposed News for Millions of Americans and the Ill Effects Thereof”. Another title might be “Here’s Why Our Country Is So Screwed Up: Many Americans Don’t Trust the Only Institutions We Have That Do a Fairly Decent Job of Describing Reality, and Is There Anything We Can Do About It?”. I recommend reading the whole thing, which isn’t really seven million words long, despite what the author says.

A link in that article led me to a 2016, pre-election article called “The Rise of American Authoritarianism”. It’s about people with authoritarian personalities, and how they aren’t necessarily bigots or stupid, but how they tend to be afraid of strangers and change, and when they’re especially afraid, they look for “strong” leaders who will protect them by building walls, putting people in jail and blowing things up. There are more of these authoritarians than you might expect and they’re the strongest supporters of the current President, for obvious reasons (“I alone can fix it”).

An interesting point is that the social scientists cited in the article don’t identify people with authoritarian tendencies by asking them about politics. They ask them about child-rearing, posing questions like these:

  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  • Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

Authoritarians tend to answer these questions differently than the rest of us. Furthermore, they supposedly tell the truth when asked about raising children, which they might not do if asked about politics.

Another point made in the article is that many people have authoritarian tendencies, but those tendencies only come into play when these potential authoritarians are sufficiently scared, and sufficiently scared by people whom they think are dangerous in some way, either dangerous to their physical persons or to their preferred way of life. 

The importance of the fear factor leads to the third article, “How Fox News Changed American Media and Political Dynamics”. I confess I didn’t read the whole thing, because it was too depressing. It was written two years ago by a former Republican and is mostly historical. It describes the undoing of the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine, the rise of right-wing talk radio and the amazing success of Fox News, the result being that your authoritarian cousin and your potentially authoritarian plumber are convinced that liberals, scientists, the “mainstream media” and other lowlifes are out to destroy America. That makes your cousin and your plumber very angry and/or very, very afraid. 

So here’s the funny video: Randy Rainbow singing “Covfefe: The Broadway Medley”! If nothing else, watching it will mean that, for four glorious minutes, you won’t be reading about politics on the internet. 

I’ve watched this video many times, because, aside from the pleasure of watching and listening to Mr. Rainbow, and hearing those wonderful melodies again, if you do anything for four minutes, over and over again, it does add up. 

Lastly, the good news:  “Nevada Is Considering a Revolutionary Healthcare Experiment”. The Nevada legislature has passed a bill that would allow anyone in the state who doesn’t have health insurance to buy in to the state’s Medicaid program. Details need to be worked out and the Governor might not sign the bill, but it’s an encouraging sign that America might turn the corner one day.

“Covfefe, I just met a girl named Covfefe…”

Glowing Mouse Heads and How Our Brains Get Washed

Herewith, edited excerpts from a Washington Post article of special interest to people with brains:

The lymph network carries immune cells throughout the body and removes waste and toxins. It was accepted wisdom for more than 300 years that the network didn’t extend into the brain. 

Three years ago, scientists trying to develop a more precise map of the lymphatic system used genetically-modified mice whose lymphatic vessels glowed when illuminated by a particular wavelength of light. The mice had been given a gene from a species of glowing jellyfish.

Seeing that the mouse’s heads glowed, the researchers realized that the lymphatic vessels extended into the brain after all. This was surprising, to say the least: In the 21st century, major findings involving basic human anatomy are rare. “These days, you don’t make discoveries like this”, one of the scientists said.

Since the lymph network also extends into human brains, this discovery has major implications for a wide variety of brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, stroke and traumatic brain injury.

Researchers have identified two networks: the vessels that lead into and surround the brain, and those within the brain itself. The latter is called the “glymphatic” system for the glia, the kind of neuron that makes up the lymphatic vessels in the brain. The glymphatic vessels carry cerebrospinal fluid and immune cells into the brain and remove cellular trash from it.

There is evidence that when the systems malfunction, the brain can become clogged with toxins and suffused with inflammatory immune cells. Over decades, this process may play a key role in Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other degenerative illnesses. 

“This is a revolutionary finding,” one researcher says. “This system plays a huge role in the health of the brain.” She describes the glymphatic system as like a dishwasher for the brain. “The brain is very active and so it produces a lot of junk that needs to be cleaned out.”

In hindsight, the system should have been noticed long ago. When the skull and head are dissected, the vessels are visible to the naked eye. But no one bothered to really look.

The vessels have also been implicated in autoimmune disease, such as multiple sclerosis. Researchers knew that the immune system has limited access to the brain. But at the same time, the immune system kept tabs on the brain’s status; no one knew exactly how. Some researchers theorize that the glymphatic system could be the conduit. In diseases like multiple sclerosis — where the body’s immune system attacks certain brain cells — the communication may go awry.

Recently, Harvard University researchers reported that glymphatic flow is significantly decreased in the period just before a migraine. The intense pain in these headaches is caused largely by inflamed nerves in the tissue that surrounds the brain. The authors of the study theorize that faulty clearance of molecular waste from the brain could trigger inflammation in these pain fibers.

One key to glymphatic performance seems to be sleep. At least in mice, the system processes twice as much fluid during sleep as it does during wakefulness. It’s possible that sleep dysfunction may contribute to Alzheimer’s and perhaps other brain illnesses: “You only clean your brain when you’re sleeping. This is probably an important reason that we sleep. You need time off from consciousness to do the housekeeping”.

It also appears that sleep position is crucial. In an upright position — someone who is sitting or standing — waste is removed much less efficiently. Sleeping on your stomach is also not very effective; sleeping on your back is somewhat better, while lying on your side appears to produce the best results. The reason for these differences might be related to the mechanical engineering of the lymphatic vessels and valves; the healthiest approach may be to move periodically while you sleep.

Sleep is probably not the only way to improve glymphatic flow. Omega-3 fatty acids and deep breathing may also improve glymphatic functioning. 

Not being a scientist, I can’t evaluate these studies, but it makes sense that brains produce a lot of junk that needs to be cleaned out. (And you didn’t think the President would come up in this post.)

The Real Building Blocks of the Universe (So Far)

Thales of Miletus is generally credited with being “the first philosopher in the Greek tradition [and] as the first individual in Western civilization known to have entertained and engaged in scientific philosophy” (Wikipedia). Less formally, he’s known as the ancient Greek who thought everything is made of water.

But that wasn’t a crazy idea at the time:

Thales [c. 624 – c. 546 BC] is recognized for breaking from the use of mythology to explain the world and the universe, and instead explaining natural objects and phenomena by theories and hypothesis, i.e. science. Almost all the other Pre-Socratic philosophers followed him in explaining nature as deriving from a unity of everything based on the existence of a single ultimate substance, instead of using mythological explanations. Aristotle reported Thales’ hypothesis that the originating principle of nature and the nature of matter was a single material: water (Wikipedia).

Jumping forward around 2,500 years, we’re still trying to figure out what everything is made of. If you’d asked me a few days ago, and given me a few seconds to think about it, I’d probably have said everything is made of very tiny particles like quarks and photons:

Standard_Model_of_Elementary_Particles.svg.0

Fortunately, however, the scales have been lifted from my eyes. All it took was watching a lecture by a physicist named David Tong. It’s called “Quantum Fields: The Real Building Blocks of the Universe”. Here’s how he explains the situation on his University of Cambridge webpage:

Fields

We learn in school that the basic building blocks of matter are particles. In fact, we often continue to teach this in universities where we explain that quarks and electrons form the lego-bricks from which all matter is made.

But this statement hides a deeper truth. According to our best laws of physics, the fundamental building blocks of Nature are not discrete particles at all. Instead they are continuous fluid-like substances, spread throughout all of space. We call these objects fields.

The most familiar examples of fields are the electric and magnetic field. The ripples in these fields give rise to what we call light or, more generally, electromagnetic waves. The field [relating to a magnet is shown here].

mfield

From Fields to Particles

If you look closely enough at electromagnetic waves, you’ll find that they are made out of particles called photons. The ripples of the electric and magnetic fields get turned into particles when we include the effects of quantum mechanics.

But this same process is at play for all other particles that we know of. There exists, spread thinly throughout space, something called an electron field. Ripples of the electron field get tied up into a bundle of energy by quantum mechanics. And this bundle of energy is what we call an electron. Similarly, there is a quark field, and a gluon field, and Higgs boson field. Every particle your body — indeed, every particle in the Universe — is a tiny ripple of the underlying field, moulded into a particle by the machinery of quantum mechanics.

qfields

These fields fill the universe, even what seems to be empty space. All of the particles the physicists have identified are manifestations of these fields. In some sense, apparently, so are we. 

Prof. Tong gave his lecture at the Royal Institution in London in November. It’s an hour-long introduction to Quantum Field Theory for the general public. He’s an entertaining speaker and, as an added bonus, he looks and sounds a lot like the comedian John Oliver.

If you want to jump ahead a little, it’s about nine minutes in when he announces that:

The best theories we have tell us that the fundamental building blocks of nature are not particles but something much more nebulous and abstract. The fundamental building blocks of nature are fluid-like substances which are spread throughout the entire universe and ripple in strange and interesting ways. That’s the fundamental reality in which we live. These fluid-like substances, we have a name for, we call them “fields”.

Have fun. After this, you may never see the world in the same way.

 

(Hmm, notice how I didn’t mention You Know Who once? This should not suggest that anything is back to normal yet. Far from it.)

Good News: The 25th Amendment Can Be Invoked in 23 Days

Bad news: A man with a serious personality disorder will be sworn in as President on January 20th, only 23 days from now.

But as noted above, the new President will immediately become subject to the provisions of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. That’s the amendment that allows the Vice-President to become President when the President dies or becomes “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” (unfortunately, of course, it’s still “his”).

Here’s the first paragraph of Section 4:

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

There is more to it than that, because the President can object to the Vice-President’s declaration. Congress would then decide the issue.

Granted, given the fact that the new President is being extremely careful to appoint people he trusts to his cabinet, it might be difficult for Vice President Pence to get the necessary signatures right away. He’d probably need to wait until at least one of the President’s appointments had been confirmed, but I’m sure the details could be worked out.

Next question: Will the new President be unable to perform his duties as required? That’s an easy one. The man is clearly suffering from a severe psychological disorder. (I mean, seriously.)

It didn’t get much attention, but three professors of psychiatry sent a letter to President Obama last month. They called for the next President to undergo “a full medical and neuropsychiatric evaluation” in order to see if he suffers from an incurable (!) illness called “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”. Professional ethics demand that psychiatrists not diagnose patients from afar, but is there any doubt that the President-elect is not a well person? From their letter:

Here … are the 9 criteria for “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”. If an individual has 5 out of the 9 they have a confirmed diagnosis of this illness…

“Summary : A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

3. Believe that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with other special or high-status people (or institutions)

4. Requires excessive admiration

5. Has a sense of entitlement

6. Is interpersonally exploitative

7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.

9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”

Opinions may vary, but I give him roughly nine out of nine. 

The professors continue:

1. People with NPD are extremely sensitive and insecure. They psychologically require constant compliments and acknowledgement because they do not have their own internal self-esteem. They need to get it from others.

2. If someone does criticize them, … it triggers this deep and painful lack of self-esteem and they MUST lash out to relieve the pain of the criticism.

3. They have only two modes: They are either fully your friend and love you or you are their enemy and they will do everything to discredit you or humiliate you. They can’t help it. The pain of having someone in their circle who does not approve of them or acknowledge them, almost constantly, is too great.

4. There are only two ways to deal with someone with NPD, and they are both dangerous. There is no healthy way of interacting with someone with this affliction. If you criticize them they will lash out at you and if they have a great deal of power, that can be consequential. If you compliment them it only acts to increase the delusional and grandiose reality the sufferer has created, causing him to be even more reliant on constant and endless compliments and unwavering support.

5. Because they crave the attention and approval of others they develop great capacity to engage and entertain and can be quite charismatic, even to the point of developing a cult-like following.

6. Someone with NPD will NEVER get along with any member of the press or any media outlet that criticizes him.

7. Someone with NPD will NEVER hire (and will fire) anyone who criticizes him. Therefore, and because they believe they know better than almost everyone else, they have a very hard time listening and taking any advice.

In other words, the President of the United States will be psychologically armed and extremely dangerous as of high noon on January 20th. That’s when the Vice-President of the United States needs to begin the process of saving us from the Electoral College. Never put off until tomorrow what needs to be done today.

PS:

Bad news: Mike Pence, a rock-ribbed Republican jerk, would become President.

Good news: We’ve survived bastards like him before.

More good news: If Pence doesn’t immediately get the 25th Amendment rolling, see Article 2, Section 4, Impeachment. Even Congressional Republicans do their jobs sometimes.

Water, Water Everywhere? A Highly Surprising Graphic

If all the water in the world were collected and put next to the planet Earth, it would look like this:

waterlessearth_woodshole_960

After seeing this, it seems much more plausible that all our water came from comets and asteroids. It also makes our planet’s water seem even more precious.

There’s more here at NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day.