Thursday, January 26, 2006

The I is not dreaming As I am falling asleep, I c...

The I is not dreaming

As I am falling asleep, I can feel my consciousness dissolving. The thoughts of the moment - pondered memories, considered ideas - start to fade in clarity. I can feel myself trying to shape them back, give them form, but its useless. Soon, the memories of only five seconds ago have dissappered. Fighting against sleep is protesting against a suffocating current.

I've always thought that dreams are inventions that we create at the moment of waking, and not before. We, the "we" that thinks and ponders, does not exist at the moment of dreaming. A sleeper, with her eyes shaking wildly is not dreaming at that moment. The remembered dream comes later, as we are waking, as our consciousness is being assembled, and as this flood of nonsense from the play of the nighttime brain comes flooding in. The conscious brain assembles all of it into a story and shoves it into the past to try to convince itself (as it is so good at doing) that it has always existed.

The neuroscientist Giulio Tononi has been exploring a theory which fits in well with this. Here is an excerpt from an article which discusses his work:

Consciousness, his theory holds, emerges when a system integrates information, such as when the different parts of the brain talk to each other. As sleep sets in, those parts stop talking among themselves, thereby dissolving the state of consciousness that emerged from that communication network.

Scientists used to think that consciousness vanishes during non-dreaming sleep because the brain rests and stops working. Researchers showed that was wrong when they discovered that during slumber the brain is still electrically and chemically as active as during wakefulness.

Consciousness fades away not because the brain takes a nap, Tononi speculated, but because its different parts stop communicating. To test his prediction, he and his colleagues performed an ingenious experiment: When they electrically stimulated an area of the awake brain, that part quickly sent out conference calls to many other parts. But in the sleeping, non-dreaming brain, stimulation produced no conference calls. The area of the brain that was dialed up by the small jolt of electricity sat on the message.

"It fit exactly the key prediction of the information-integration theory," Tononi says. "The effect was very clear-cut."

Consciousness, then, the "I", is not something which sits, like a ruling tyrant, at some central place in the brain, dispensing orders. It does not sit anywhere at all. In the network of communication inside the brain's different parts, we are the network itself. When the network shuts down, as it does during sleep, we cease to exist. just as Yourcenar's Hadrian observes.

The idea of consciousness as an abstraction, as the network itself, is something I first encountered in Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach. There, the conscious brain is presented as something much greater than the sum of its parts and Hofstatder illustrates this by an anteater whose best friend is an ant hill - not ants, he eats them of course, but the ant hill itself who as a larger entity sometimes even allows the anteater to have some of its ants.

Hofstadter also conjectures that the Mind is a consequence of introducing recursion in the universe. Imagine this: Minds have always tried to understand and make sense of the outside world. But what happens when a Mind tries to think about how Mind itself works? We may have crossed this threshold when we developed the survival ability to model the minds of others ("What are the intentions of my enemy? What would I do in his place?") and then took the drastic turn of looking back into ourselves. The result perhaps was consciousness. Arguably we went too far and became so enraptured with this new ability and tried to assign human motives to everything - The rain has been so strong and persistent that He who controls the rain does not regard me well.

Finally, there is Julian Jaynes and his radical theory of consciousness: The development of consciousness took place in historical times. The men in Homer's Illiad, for example, were pre-conscious beings. And the voices of the Gods were the voices in their own brains. We call it having a conversation with ourselves but for them this experience of internal voices was new - the early stirrings of the communications network, of the Mind.

If so, we should be reading Hesiod's Theogony as a neurology textbook.

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