What neuroscience has to say about consciousness:

Do we have free will or we are a bunch of neuronal circuits?

The complexity of our biology is greater than our ability to understand it, it doesn’t seem to be intuitive and we need to use experimental resources to achieve any fragment of this vast knowledge. Each person’s brain has 86 billion of neurons and trillions of synapses and we are trying to figure it out where is consciousness or, at least, any biological place to dictate it existence. Do we know what is consciousness? This is the first problem in this journey. How can we investigate something so difficult to describe and so obvious to us at the same time?

Psychology and neuroscience share a common definition talking about consciousness, it is our ability to focus attentional processes in the environment and within ourselves. Like a system which principal function is to guide our behavior to survive and reproduce.  Like the Attention Schema Theory (AST) said, consciousness arises in our evolution as a solution of one of the most complicated problem that face any high capacity computational system “too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed”.

Antonio Damasio, who is a Portuguese-American neuroscientist and university professor, consider it as a divide experience but a whole one. If an organism is capable of mental representations and it has neuronal pathways it will experience “something” about itself, if this organism can recognize its feelings, thoughts, and the differences between environment and other creatures, we can start talking about the core of consciousness. Damasio also described a higher level called extended consciousness which gives evidence of attention over a large domain of information that is present, not just in the external environment but also internally, in the environment of its mind. This organism becomes consciously aware of feelings associated with changes occurring to its internal bodily state and it can recognize that his thoughts are his own.

The first philosophical problem we experienced reading this academic division is that we hardly recognize more than one consciousness, in a daily life we watch it fading or getting clear as a spectrum. We cannot separate it “one from another” we just experience one way to be here in the world. Sometimes things seem obscure, blurred when you are falling asleep; clear and sparkly when you drink coffee or melted and fuzzy while drinking alcohol. It is the same consciousness being exposed to different states and moments but we cannot divide it, at least in a common day without a strong introspection. However, we can easily describe the feeling of being conscious and unconscious “it’s like I just stop existing and then I open my eyes” “I don’t know where I am and then I am fully aware of myself again”. Being unconscious is related to seeing everything black, numb and cold, we can describe the very beginning and the very end of it and we are certain that there is a moment where we stop receiving information.

Activation of specific neural circuits triggers sleep and wakefulness and it was tested in cats. Doing an electrical stimulation of the cholinergic neurons near the junction of pons and midbrain (the reticular activating system) causes a sleeping cat to awaken. Meanwhile, slow electrical stimulation of the thalamus causes an awake cat to fall asleep. Is this where consciousness is located? Trying to find a spot in the brain is a really challenging task, we need to consider that everything is connected and related to another areas, because being awake is not necessary being aware. People with strokes and other illness like Alzheimer can illustrate all the mixed possibilities which interact this philosophical and empirical problem.

How can we find a place inside the brain that brings the ability of seeing ourselves as the carrier of all our memories, feelings and experiences? If we practice a moment of introspection, for example watching our hands right now, we experience the awareness of our bodies at the first stage of it, legs, neck and arms, we start knowing what is the posture I am using, how are my arms positioned, my legs, the temperature, the intensity of the light. Then we realize we have thoughts, some random ideas that jump and steal our attention, if we keep tracking them, we notice that they are running in circles, repeating, creating and mixing with other thoughts, then we can be aware of the feelings those thoughts are bringing back, also our imagination, pictures and memories from events back in the past and desires from the future; changing moving on like they are made of nothing and you can replace any thought with another one, like a river that is crossing through your head which you just cannot stop. Once you realize you are more than those thoughts, once you have realized that you can observe your own river, you are not anymore what you think. You can observe your hands as you can observe your thoughts, your identity, your life and all the information you consider represent yourself. You are now aware that the information inside you is processed as that, as information, but the ability to observe is pure and unique. This ability is consciousness.

Do we choose freely? Is consciousness letting us to choose once we can be aware about everything inside and around us? As it seems this is not a necessary correlation. We can be aware about everything is caching our attention but there are some processes in the brain that are away from consciousness, we cannot be aware of everything what is happening in the brain. Following this idea, we can be aware about the decision our brain is making for us. John-Dylan Haynes found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 seconds before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness. There is the Libert experiment where found that the unconscious brain activity leading up to the conscious decision by the subject to flick his wrist began approximately half a second before the subject consciously felt that he had decided to move. This is not the full story, and some others have some problems about these findings because we cannot be sure about if this brain activity is about free will or just the demonstration of an attentional processes.

There are so many detail in this story that is impossible to grab by one side and we hope this problem would be solved one day. It could be, we are aware about how our brain takes our decisions, likewise our consciousness itself is an epiphenomenon and it is just a background noise of the total functioning system. There is the possibility that our consciousness is something more that our biological system and It gives us the utterly gift from the universe: to observe.

 More to explore

Libet, Benjamin; Gleason, Curtis A.; Wright, Elwood W.; Pearl, Dennis K. (1983). “Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential)”. Brain. 106 (3): 623–42. doi:10.1093/brain/106.3.623

Libet, Benjamin (1993). “Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action”. Neurophysiology of Consciousness. Contemporary Neuroscientists. pp. 269–306. doi:10.1007/978-1-4612-0355-1_16     

Soon, Chun Siong; Brass, Marcel; Heinze, Hans-Jochen; Haynes, John-Dylan (2008). “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain”. Nature Neuroscience. 11 (5): 543–5. doi:10.1038/nn.2112



Why Super-intelligent computers are not the right way to replicate consciousness

This is a time when we have seen people trying to figure out how to conceive, create, build a sort of machinery capable to be conscious, and between all the theoretical misunderstandings, the only fact which everybody agrees and almost sings together is «we do not fully understand consciousness». Although, this is not an excuse to renounce to this wonderful dream about birth, somehow, a conscious artificial intelligence. However, how is intelligence related to consciousness? Do we need an artifact to be super intelligence to be conscious? Is consciousness a state originated when intelligence go through a threshold, just like action potential within the neuron needs to overpass a certain amount of electrical potential to fire it? Can we conceive consciousness without intelligence? Can we unbind consciousness and the mechanical process that our brain does in order to solve a problem?

Philosophy of mind solved this logical problem dividing the conscious experience in two” categories,  phenomenal consciousness and psychological consciousness, which the second one talks about the content and processing labor that occurs inside the mind: thought, feelings, ideas, intuitions, knowledge, self-consciousness, reportability, awakeness, voluntary control, attention, etc. Despite this psychological experience, phenomenal consciousness is related to the experience per se, for instance, when you see the color red and you know what it is like to see a red color and you can be sure that is different from a green color; it is that sense or state within you at the moment you experience the world. For this reason, it prohibits a functionalist analysis of its roll inside the mind machinery because we can abstract this experience from the information processing and output behavior. In other words, we do not need to experience the abstraction that the brain does with the information that receives from the environment. If evolution is right and tries to be functional and economical, the group of cells that made us will process the information just as efficient as they work today without giving a conscious experience of the world whatsoever.

To process information is not logically necessary to be conscious; being smart is not a reason to experience more vivid or less vivid the greenish on those morning trees. If you consider yourself smarter than your undergraduate friend it will not change the fact that knowledge, memory capacity, process velocity, etc. will not make a difference between which one of you experience better the outdoor life, both of you will have almost the same experience about the red color. The difference will be in the background: thoughts, feelings, concepts, information of each one, etc., but the experience of experiencing a red color will be almost the same. Making clear this logical thread is contingent on our imaginary friends do not have any physical damage.

Currently people are trying to build super intelligence computers expecting a threshold or a singularity in their software. The popular opinion around computer science is if they build a machine sufficiently intelligent there will be a moment when this machine will realize being conscious, something like Deep Blue will be tired of playing chess and decide other thing to do by itself. This statement throws more questions than the theoretical flaws it makes. First of all, we need to accept that integrated information theory (IIT) is right which implies the organization’s level of information will bring a conscious experience and it does not matter how many bits it contains. However, according to IIT, computers cannot be conscious because they do not have a feedback system in the way it integrates information. And this is actually not the main problem, because some of you can find really compelling this theory, the real problem is that computers itself are smartest than us right now, thus, computers must be conscious by now or we just need to wait for the singularity kicks in. Perhaps if we wait long enough our cell phones will be conscious about how many times we check our social media and they will turn off for good.

This is a classical remembrance of The sorites paradox, when a heap of sand is still a heap of sand if we remove just one grain of sand, if we continue with this task at some point there will not be a heap of sand because we already removed almost all grain of sand from the heap, so, at which point the heap of sand stopped being a heap of sand? How intelligent needs to be a computer to be conscious of itself?

The mysterious path to solve how to replicate consciousness is not building a super intelligent computer able to process huge amount of information, for the reason that we can logically and phenomenally separate consciousness from intelligence. We cannot deny that kids with a genetic disorder as Down syndrome do not have a conscious experience whether their IQ scores. The ability of experience has a different value than simply how much information you can process, we can build systems that “learn” as AlphaGo which already beat humans playing this traditional game, but the substance of a conscious experience is way different and truly misunderstood than the way how our brain and mind process and integrate information. This is the reason David Chalmers say this is the hard problem of consciousness.

Can super-intelligent computers cross the singularity threshold and waking up as conscious entities? Time will say, and with time I mean a huge effort of a multidisciplinary community of researchers, neuroscientists and philosophers working together in order to solve this mystery, one of the greatest ones.


Integrated information theory of consciousness: An update account. G. Tononi in Archives italiennes de biologie, vol. 150, n°4, p. 293-329, December 2012

David Chalmers. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Animals, are they conscious?

Consciousness is the biggest mystery in science right now, how can it be possible? Certainly we are aware of ourselves right now, if we put our attention on our hands, the way our legs are placed in the chair that we are using to read this essay, we are able to capture that information and be aware of it. So, what is the reason for the lack of knowledge that we have about consciousness right now in science? The question about consciousness is as old as the approach that ancient philosophy had tried to understand it, around two thousand years ago, and we cannot figure it out yet.  Why does conscious experience exist? Does it depend on our physical system or any other animal can experience the same way we do? Why is all this processing accompanied by an experienced inner life? Can animals have an inner life?

It is really difficult for us to dictate that non-humans animals have an inner life if we cannot even understand what consciousness is. The term itself is ambiguous, something it is used to refer to a cognitive capacity, like the ability of recall or to report a mental state such as I am happy, I am thinking about this thing. Some other times it is used synonymously with awakeness, the ability to focus attention or being conscious of something. Therefore, when we are conscious we certainly know about something.

Is your dog aware about being a dog? We already know that your dog must be aware of being hungry and that is the reason you can see it searching for food around the house, and you already know that your dog recognize you when it hears your voice from the distance. Thus, your dog is aware. Your dog understands the information that it is receiving and it can process that data and make a response with it. If we go further with this idea we will see ourselves at the boundaries of our definition of consciousness.

Nobody can deny that your dog process and analyze information. However, nobody can be sure if our dog is having an inner life, have you ever been a dog before to be sure that it thinks? That is a common question that people ask you when you affirm that animal must have a sort of consciousness. Though they are not wrong remembering a common problem we have in Comparative Psychology, anthropomorphism.  The study of the behavior and mental processes of non-human animals can be biased by our own conscious’ experience.

Nevertheless, science needs to develop and clarify the facts around consciousness to comprehend it in other non-humans animals. We already know their behavior and the possibility of recognize some qualities that we share with them. Yet, we cannot settle completely what is happening inside their heads, and this is not the end of this story, neuroscience and philosophy of mind are working together to bring to light this mystery.