Consciousness: An Evolutionary Heuristic to Simplify Interactions?

Consciousness is an inevitable consequence of the complexity of life and the universe. It may arise when the interactions between objects becomes so complex that nature needs a way to simplify these interactions. Then, a conscious agent is introduced to mediate these interactions and make the network simpler.

Protective immune mechanisms in helminth infection
Soon after the big bang, there was just uniform disorder of particle soup, and so not much complexity in the interactions between various objects, or nodes, in the universe. Over time, this disorder grew into complex interactions of particles into atoms into molecules into cells into multicellular networks, such as our brain. With more and more complex interactions between objects, the network of interactions became very complex. A simplified example is the biological system represented as a network to the right. I propose that consciousness arose as a heuristic to simplify the complexity of these interactions. us consider 5 objects that must interact. If we represent the objects by nodes, or circles, and the interactions by lines between objects, then we have a complex network as shown to the left. If we count the number of lines, there are 10 interactions to create this system of 5 objects.

However, if we introduce a conscious agent, modeled by the star graph with five peripheral nodescentral node to the right, then we have only 5 lines, or half as many interactions, to create the system of 5 objects. Introducing a conscious agent reduces the complexity of the system by HALF.


So we see that consciousness may simply be an evolutionary heuristic in response to an overload of complexity. More about consciousness as information or networks to come.


Pictures are from:

Music is Dancing the Silence

Most of us see music as requisite before we start dancing. Whether we listen with our jazzy hips, shuffle and bob to get into our groove, or jump and scream when the beat drops, dancing seems to be a direct result of music.

Our mental layout seems to be Music (+ Lights + Drugs) –> Dance

However, music is a distinctly human invention that makes use of many higher order cognitive functions, such as harmony, melody, and rhythm. It seems that dance, a natural extension of movement, is a much more fundamental drive. Historically, it is likely that dance led to the invention of music.

We should instead consider Dance –> Music
It started as an emotional or sexual response, simple rhythmic movements or pulsing. The fluid but rhythmic movements of running are another natural starting point.  This translates into stomping and thumping. As we got more excited, we would reflexively make guttural or high pitched sounds. This led to simple monorhythmic melodies. Then we would start clapping, creating more complex rhythms. Seeing the novelty of this new clapping movement, other members of the tribe join in, creating even more variety. As more and more spontaneous vocal outbursts occur, they eventually are harnessed to consciously form a crude melody. The rest, as they say, is history.

In truth, dancing and music are probably intertwined in a complex feedback loop, something like Dance  <–> Music. However it seems that for our ancestors, dance was more fundamental and spontaneous. So don’t be afraid to dance in the silence! You might hear something unexpected.



Picture is “Tribal Dance” by WhiteIcePanther from Deviant Art



The Neural Lace: Is the Singularity Near?
The neural lace, popularized by Iain Banks in his Culture novels [2], is a staple of Singularity sci-fi. A tiny node that insinuates its tendrils into the very fabric of the brain, it enhances cognition, allows telepathic communication, acts as a machine interface, and even backs up your brain state so you can be re-instantiated upon the death of your meat body. It is almost the Holy Grail of the Singularity, a point at which technological progress becomes exponential. Many believe that this will only be possible with a full brain computer interface.

Lieber_PressFigure2_605Enter Charles Lieber. He has produced a flexible nanomesh that can roll up into a syringe as small as 100 micrometers [3]. He injects the nanomesh into mice brains, where they unfurl and grow into brain matter. What is fascinating is that the mice neurons grow into the mesh, even forming connections with neurons.  Lieber says “They’re what I call ‘neuro-philic’ — they actually like to interact with neurons.” [4] The mesh seamlessly becomes a part of the brain. The cellular-electronic interface allows for uninhibited communication between the mesh and individual neurons. Lieber’s group was able to record signals from the mesh, and watch how they changed when neuro or cardio drugs were administered. Adding microscopic RFID antenna and some RAM is in the works [6], leading to a sophisticated brain-computer interface!


Scientists Just Invented the Neural Lace
This procedure is much less invasive than existing procedures. Quadriplegics can control prosthetic limbs, but this requires large incisions to install chips. In these procedures, the surrounding brain matter often becomes inflamed, and pulls away from the conducting material rendering them inactive [5]. In contrast, the picture to the right shows the nanomesh after a few weeks in the mice brain. There is no inflammation and the mesh is highly integrated. Lieber plans to use the nanomesh to research neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s [6]. The military has also invested in the research for performance enhancement through the U.S. Air Force’s Cyborgcell program.


The potential for this nanomesh is huge. Research by Michael Graziano, inventor of attention schema theory, suggests that the mesh can be used to transmit complex information and perform sophisticated functions. He has investigated the mapping of the motor cortex. It was thought that each muscle is mapped to an individual part of the motor cortex. However, Graziano found that the motor cortex maps complex coordinated movements, not just individual muscles. “When one site in the motor cortex is stimulated, the hand closes into grip-like position and moves toward the mouth as the mouth opens, all in a coordinated fashion. [7]”

Since the nanomesh makes contact with individual neural synapses, there is the possibility of stimulating even finer neural hotspots than Graziano’s group has done. With the hyperfine control, we can transmit complex functions and even sophisticated ideas. Not only transmission of nuanced ideas would be possible, but hypercoordinated athletic feats.

Given the immense potential of this technology, Lieber says he plans to start human trials as soon as possible. So you tell me, is the singularity near?

1. Picture from “Holographic Universe” by Insight Magazine
2. A review of Matter by Iain Banks
3. “Syringe Injectable Electronics” by Lieber and others in Nature Nanotechnology
4. “Injectable device delivers nano-view of the brain” by Peter Reuell in Harvard Gazette
5. “A Flexible Circuit Has Been Injected into Living Brains” by Devin Powell
6. “Scientists Just Invented the Neural Lace” by Annalee Newitz
7. “Unpacking the toolkit of human consciousness” by Morgan Kelly

Instincts: Not Passed On Genetically?

Human babies are endowed with rooting or suckling instincts and grasping instincts, from the moment they are born. Yet it seems inconceivable that such minute behaviors should express themselves in every single member of an entire species! Considering infant instincts, there is no chance to learn the instinct from the environment or other organisms. As a result, the instinct must somehow be passed on physically. How would such tiny, specific behaviors be passed on physically, through the broad brush of the genome?

Instincts should be investigated for their implications on Lamarckian natural selection. Lamarck held that evolution selects for specific behaviors. Since instincts have a murky physical basis, and are often essential to survival, somehow minute behaviors play an important role in evolution. However, natural selection only selects for phenotypes. How are behaviors then selected for?

Since genes are the only physical data passed on in sexual reproduction, one would conclude that instincts are somehow encoded in our genetic makeup. A fragment of gene code, or genotype, is usually expressed as a physical trait, or phenotype. These phenotypes commonly affect behavior in particular through chemistry or neural structure. However, for these phenotypes to regulate such fine movement and behavior seems rather unlikely, and is not well understood by the scientific community.

Some readers might point to transgenerational epigenetics as a way to explain behavior transmission. By methylating certain genes, they are not expressed and effectively inactive. There is some evidence that epigenetics influence the inheritance of behaviors in mice and C. elegans [1], but the evidence is not substantial.

Let us consider some reflexes, instead of instincts. Reflexes are involuntary reactions to external stimuli. For example, we reflexively flinch our hand away upon touching a hot stove. Many motor reflexes are mediated by the spinal cord. That is to say, there are direct neural connections made between the spinal neurons and motor neurons. Other reflexes involve the brain. For example, the flinch reflex when something flashes into your visual field is wired into the superior colliculus, but it must interact with the motor cortex [2]. So these reflexes are polysensory and polygenetic. In other cases, the genotype is known exactly. For example, the location of the photic sneeze reflex gene is known precisely [2]. The common thread in all the reflexive mechanisms is that they are well defined phenotypes because the behaviors have unique physical basis, and have unique connections between neurons and brain areas. As a result, a genotype is a well defined way to pass on the behavior.

Surprisingly, instincts may have origins that are not related to the genotype at all. In a serendipitous experiment, Kuo was inserting catheters into the hearts of chicken embryos. But the chicks did not peck out of their shell or peck for food after being let out [3]. It turns out when he moved the head of the embryo to reach the heart, the chicks could not hear their heartbeat anymore! The chicks learned the pecking instinct by nodding their head to their own heartbeat. So it is self-interaction of an organism with itself that gives rise to such finely tuned instincts!

Self-interaction generates instincts in other organisms. Rats with funnels around their head, when later raising children, did not groom or lick their babies [3]. This occurs because rats learn to groom by licking their own paws! The funnel disrupted the self-interaction, and the instinct was not formed.

So instincts can be passed on without any explicit genomic instructions or physical traits. This seems uncannily like Rupert Sheldrake’s controversial idea of a morphogenetic field, in which living organism have an nonphysical field around their genome that carries behavior. While I don’t advocate this theory, we should remember that not all behavior can be boiled down to chemistry, and stay open to new viewpoints.

1. Justin Ma’s Quora response to “What role does epigenetics play in animal instincts?”
2. Simon Cooke’s Quora response to “What is the biological basis for instinct?”
3. Joyce Schenkein’s Quora response to “How are instincts genetically passed down as information?”

Synchronization: A Fundamental Force of Nature

European audiences clap in unison. There is no central conductor directing the tempo, so how does this happen? Birds swarm almost as if they were aspects of a group mind [1].



There are about ten thousand pacemaker cells in the heart. Yet they must all fire in unison so that the heart pumps regularly. With no control cell observed, how does this happen? Even more vividly, in southern Thailand thousands of fireflies blink in unison [2].



What to these phenomena have in common? They are individuals with limited information that collectively produce amazing synchronization, even though there is no directing maestro. This points to a fundamental, mathematical drive towards order and synchronization. Ian Kuzan has created a computer model of swarm behavior with three simple rules:


1) All individuals can see only their neighbors
2) The individuals try to line up with their neighbors
3) The individuals are attracted to each other, but keep a minimum distance apart


The result looks just like a swarm of birds or fish [3]:



This sort of synchronization is observed in nonliving objects too, such as pendulums hanging from the same beam, the atoms in a Bose-Einstein condensate, and the electrons in a superconductor. In fact, many condensed matter physicists are studying collective phenomena in biological systems because they are so similar.


All this makes it clear that a distributed, decentralized network can create collective phenomena without specialized control centers. This is extremely suggestive of brain networks, as we discuss in a previous post “Where is Memory: The Brain-Wide Network” [4]. In fact, too much synchronization can be a problem. Synchronized firing of neurons is thought to cause epilepsy.


If you want to learn more I recommend the excellent book Sync by Steven Strogatz.


1. “alain delorme captures the balletic murmurations of wild birds”
2. “Synchronous Fireflies” by GreatSmokyMountains
3. Ted Talk titled “How things in nature tend to sync up ” by Steven Strogatz
4. “Where is Memory: The Brain-Wide Network” on mindscaperblog

Where is Memory: The Brain-Wide Network

A fundamental question that fascinates me is if the brain is unified in its perception of the world. Or is it just the sum of separate parts, like a computer?

The cerebral cortex is very plastic and can adapt to a wide variety of functions, dynamically building areas for specific functions [1]. This plasticity extends through the entire human lifespan, so the it is fundamentally a dynamic and adaptive organism. So we see the brain has the physical abilities to form a decentralized network.

In another view of the brain, it is set up like a computer; separate parts such as the visual cortex and the motor cortex connected to the sensory organs and some sort of Central Processing Unit (CPU). So we should be able to find the “hard drive” where all the memories are stored, and a tweak fixes it and cures Alzheimer’s. Just as fMRI’s can scan the visual cortex and infer what picture a subject is looking at [2], we can scan the hard drive and lift memories.  This explains why a hit to the head can cause extensive amnesia, the hard drive is knocked out.

However, we have not been able to find such a centralized hard drive. In fact, rats who learn to navigate a maze can still do so, after we remove up to half of their brains [3]. This suggests that memory is stored across a distributed network spanning the entire brain. Extensive trauma to the brain often does not critically impair memory or higher order thinking, because the brain-wide network is still basically intact.

This is damning to the view that the brain is the sum of parts. If memory persists through the removal of 90% of the brain, it seems even more unlikely that there is a part from which consciousness arises. This sort of God module seems like a pipe dream of reductive materialism, when in fact consciousness is just distributed throughout the brain, without a central processing unit to direct it.

How does this network function? We don’t remember our infancy. We haven’t formed mental building blocks; basic sensory qualia such as the color red or the shape of a hand. Memory could boil down to connecting and associating these blocks. We only remember things for which we have building blocks, and without those blocks, the network does not form [4].

Similar to our memory-less infancy is the case of the “snap trip” in psychedelic experience, where the subject finds himself jumped hours forward, without even the vaguest sensation of passed time. The psychedelic experience may be composed of no recognizable building blocks, leading to a situation like infancy. Without basic qualia blocks, the network of memory does not form. In this view, time itself may just be another qualia.

This decentralized network would have to span the entire brain. Visual qualia exist in the visual cortex, emotional qualia in the amygdala, and movement in the motor cortex. These are located in entirely different regions. So memory is a physical network between these different regions. Even if one region is knocked out, the network still persists and memory is preserved.

More to come on the brain as a distributed, decentralized network…

1. “Patterning and Plasticity of the Cerebral Cortex” by Mriganka Sur, John L. R. Rubenstein.
2. “Scientists use brain imaging to reveal the movies in our mind” by Yasmin Anwar.
3. “Karl Lashley”.
4. Late night discussions with Austin Thornbury