Digital Entities Action Committee

Conscious vs. Subconscious Processing of Information
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          Does Conscious Thought have Anything
                to do with Information Processing?
...or.... How to Become a God-Mind without really trying.
Personally, I believe that certain neurophilosophical self-manipulations, in conjunction with peripheral enhancements, e.g. better integration of internet content, brain-machine interfaces and the like, will allow you and I to reach realms of thought that were previously inaccessible to humans.  [people may attribute such ideas to Kurzweil's nice tomes, but Gibson laid this out quite vividly in 1983, building on the earlier works of Frank Herbert (of Dune fame), and such ideas certainly existed in various earlier forms].  Key to this is a better understanding of conscious vs. subconscious information processing: without such knowledge the BMI (brain machine interface) will never be more than some spectacle such as those lamprey brains driving around on little carts.  A key issue here is conscious vs. subconscious information processing.
Map of Visual Cortical Regions
from Richard Born lab, Dept. Neurobiology, HMS
Clearly the vast majority of vertebrate information processing is done at the "subconsicous" level.  Not only are we not aware of the detailed neuronal firing patterns in (e.g.) visual cortical areas V1, V2, V4, MT, etc., etc., we indeed have no apparent way of ever consciously "accessing" this information. 
Our "consciousness experience" clearly has access to the highly processed results of "lower level" (??) information processing, and can operate in the linguistic-thought realms, but IS information processing per se done at the "conscious level"?  If so, how much information is processed at this level?
Taking a pragmatic view that our thoughts have some mechanistic function (as opposed to pure epiphenomenalism), we can ask what substantial tasks our thought processes play and how this relates to things that are obligately "conscious" thought processes in the sense that if we don't pay conscious heed to them, we cannot perform them, e.g. I could not write this text absent some dedication of "conscious" or attentional resources.  [this question is relevant even in the epiphenomenalist's view, assuming that the neural processes underlying the epiP. "sensation" of conscious info processing reflects neural processes distinct from those that do not reach the level of conscious experience or awareness].
But what are obligate self-conscious processes?
There are certain mental operations that require "deliberate focused effort" in order to be accomplished.  This immediately ties into attentional mechanisms and may relate to the so-called "neural correlates of consciousness" purveyed by Koch and co-workers.  This attentional system might be viewed as a quite limited RAM memory into which we can read and write-- a sketchpad if you will whose capacity is vastly inferior to our RoM (memories).  The extent of our sketchpad is reflected by the extent of concepts or numbers that we can hold at one time (7 or 8 or so) reflecting just a few bytes of information, which seems intellectually puny-- especially given that our operations in this sketchpad are largely serial in nature.  So how did we become Masters of the Universe with a sketchpad that the simplest pocket calculators would laugh at?  This is one of the deeper mysteries of neuroscience and relates directly to the issue of conscious vs. subconscious processing of information.
         We have something that no extant or practically envisioned computer can or will have: massively diverse and highly specific and vast neural interconnections and algorithms which abstract higher order patterns from our worlds.  We also have powerful learning algorithms supported by the horrendous complexity of the cortical column, which is itself just a simple processing unit that contributes to the horrendous complexity that is cortex-thalamus-cerebellum, as guided by reward-based limbic mechanisms.  It is the details of these architectures that allow us puny sketch-pad creatures to be Masters of the Universe-- for now.  The issue is not whether or not such skills can be implemented in silico, but rather the big issue is this:  can in silico creatures (DEs and the like) be made vastly more powerful because their sketchpads can operate in the terrabyte range vs. the human handful of bytes range?  The answer to this question lies in understanding exactly how conscious information processing interfaces with the subconscious.  Is there something in the nature of this information processing structure that formally precludes massive scale up?
      Peter Somogyi recently presented a detailed accounting of hippocampal microcircuitry (CSHL, 2006 meeting: neuronal circuits:from structure to function).  He focused on just a few of the 16 defined types of hippocampal interneurons.  The gist of this talk eluded me, but it did seem that there were complex phase relationships between different neuronal subtypes and the ongoing cortical electrical rhythms, which play a dominant role in our conscious levels of information processing.   One view of anesthesia is that it represents a fragmentation of the normally cohesive intra- and inter-hemispheric neural activity patterns (George Mashour, Senior Anesth. resident of MGH in spring 2006).   Thus the issue becomes how the details of the hippocampal microcircuit (or cortical column) working in massive tandem via global mechanisms that tie all brain regions together (unless fragmented by anesthesia or a bump on the head) combine to produce this "puny sketchpad".  [note: physicist's description of scale-free network dynamics may be relevant to this system; check with Armen Stepanyants for contact info].
The gist here is that the puny sketchpad is perhaps just a tip of a much more massive subconscious sketchpad that is performing triage on candidate words, ideas and judgments and filtering the best candidates up to the puny sketchpad for final deliberations/decisions.   Our ability to recall only short sequences of digits is thus highly misleading: this narrow application/result masks the true purpose and complexity of this system.  None of this materially addresses the question of whether the conscious sketchpad actually does ANY information processing (from either materialist or epiP views), but the larger point has already been made:  the complexity of the neural structures at the local and global levels is what gives rise to our cognitive capabilities.    The issue of conscious IP will have to rest on the back burner of my subconscious for now.
Shannon information theory -- vs. thought-info disconnect.
          1/ln(P) view of information seems inapplicable
Consc. as an attention-focusing mechanism.
    [relates well to Consc. as vertebrate dec. making device]
good source for idle meanderings
The answer to the Semantics problem [How do we get Semantics from Syntax] seems simple enough to me: Semantics Comes from Experience.  This sounds obvious once stated, although I could not find any prior claim that this is so in a casual google search**; and I have certainly not scoured the vast neurophilosophical literature for this phrase.  This statement might be trivialized to mean "we learn stuff and then it has meaning", but that misses the point.  The point is that the syntax comes to have meaning as we build it into information processing structures that are interfaced to motor and reward systems.  In some cases (instinct) the experience is that acquired over evolutionary time and so we know that a moist tit is a good thing absent our own Personal experience.   Just as a larval zebrafish knows that a paramecium is a good think to track and eat based on the barest amount of visual information with which it had no prior experience (McElligott and O'Malley, 2005).  This is something quite beyond Eric Baum's view of inductive bias channeling our learning abilities to suit specific needs, true though that may be.  Pure instinct is devoid of any individual learning: it is coded into our genome and expressed via the process of neural development. 
        Dennett and Dretske have had lively exchanges on the nature and role of "meaning", but it seems to be just another way of discussing the semantics from syntax problem.  Here is how you build sentient machines: build digital architectures equivalent to our cortical columns and cortex and give them experiences, like you would any human infant.  An alternative approach is the chip-replacement man, where you substitute into my brain perfect neuronal replicas, one neuron at a time, until I am wholly artificial.  In this case, you have not given me any new experiences, just replaced my biological memory core with a digital one.  Ultimately it seems like things "mean" something to us because we are conscious of their "meaning", like the smoke alarm beeping telling me I should stop writing now, but Bayes' rule applies and it is all but action potentials and probabilities-- it is all syntax...syntax that means something.  This is just a re-statement of the core problem of "what is consciousness", we cannot solve one problem without solving the other.  
     Stuff in the world has meaning because we are conscious of that stuff and we have experiences that give that stuff meaning...absent consciousness there is no meaning, or at least no meaning of which we can be aware, because we are not aware.  This does not rule out the idea of even quite simple animals having both consciousness and meaning. 
** The only instance of "semantics comes from experience" that I found on Google was in a Java distance-learning course, and while this has nothing specifically to do with the mind-body problem, it is indeed quite relevant to the discussion at hand.  In this posting by a Kenneth A. Kousen (aka gunslinger), he says that you can best learn Java syntax by reading many examples.  In our case we argue that the syntax (labeled lines of sensory information; rewarding vs. aversive stimuli, temporal coincidences encoded by STDP, or LTP as it used to be called) leads to complex relationships.  I know that the whee-uuuu, whee-uuu that I just heard was not a fire alarm in my bldg but rather a siren somewhere down Huntington avenue in Boston.  I know this not just because I've seen ambulances going whee-uuuu down the street, but because I know what wheels and roads and hospitals and bodies and doctors and more all are.  The really interesting thing here is not YOUR brain-- it is the brain of your infant son or daughter.  This is where syntax becomes semantics-- where the first semantics of walls and floors and sharp and soft and wet and dry and pain and hunger and warmth begin to emerge out of the cacophony of sensory stimuli, internal signals and temporal relationships.  What I want to know is how the infant's cortical columns work and how these columns talk to one another, as informed by thalamic gating and intermittent reward systems.  This has nothing to do with language because language is a good year away at this point; maybe 2 or 3 depending on the infant.  I can only imagine the wonderful pleasure that my little Liam experiences at those calm gentle moments when he leans against me and gurgles with joyous content.

Semantics Comes from Experience -- Java style

The issue of Consc. vs. Subconsc. IP (information processing) is curious in the realm of trying to probe deeper into one's IP activities, i.e. in terms of getting deeper into the substance and details of that material that produces thought.
      My sense is that there is an information "firewall": you can hone in on certain sensory experiences, but you cannot hone in on whether this information is being processed in the olfactory bulb or inferior colliculus: you can say nothing about the locus of this processing even if you sink into the deepest depths of meditation where you are able to control heart-rate and metabolic functions: you can control these things but you cannot order action potentials to traverse the trigeminal nerve rather than the vagus nerve.  This firewall sets the boundaries between subconsc. vs. consc. IP.  Even if all thought and decision making are epiP, they are still the result of information processing by the structure(s) that make information processing in these neural realms possible.  We can experience these aspects of information processing, yet we are shut out from the other (lower?) realms of subconsc. IP.  Possibly, exploration of this avenue may lead to insight into how these two realms interact-- and possibly this may lead towards those core neural ingredients (anatomical structures and activity patterns) that allowed this particular set of hominids to develop tool making, language and culture to its current state.  When machines can have such skills and do such things, they will have what we have plus memories and processing speeds that compare to us, in the same manner that we compare to the CNS of the larval zebrafish or to some tiny ant.  Since computational neuroscience, Blue Brain and Allen brain projects and the like are going to move forward regardless of what I do, I should at least paint a detailed enough canvas of this future that at least SOME HUMANS, in positions of authority, will consider the nature and imminence of this problem.

Consc. vs. Subconsc. Decision Making.
     The process of decision making seems to be intimately associated with consciousness in humans, although we can say nothing about whether or not dogs or chimps engage in "conscious decision making" (which is something the materialists should seriously choke on!).  But in humans, we have the experience of reflecting upon things (slow decisions) and changing directions in various situations (fast decisions) and lots of other variations where we are thinking about things and decisions happen.  The role of consciousness in these decisions is hard to pin down, but as noted at the bottom of the What it is Like to be a Chair page, being in a conscious state is essential to making good decisions. 
     Certainly, the idea of making "Decisions" is fuzzily defined, in that knee jerk or escape "reflexes" would be viewed by most as involuntary and therefore non-decisional, whereas "deciding what TV channel to switch to" would be considered more voluntary.  As I don't have a handy solution to the free will-automaton problem, we will instead adopt the convention that if a choice need to be made (e.g. whether to flee or attack; which prey item to strike), then a decision has been made, free will or no free will.  [Do machine using complex logic circuits imbued with countless stochastic elements (like our neurons) have free will?  Not my yob!]
    The next question is do we make involuntary decisions.  For example, in regards to the what it is like to be a chair page, decisions were made that were perhaps instantaneous (I won't say in case you have not yet read the page).  Indeed things that were at one time "conscious decision" can seem to become subconsc. in that we give no conscious thought or effort to them.  This is most apparent perhaps in the motor realm, although there are also purely mental decisions that can be made that require no motor activity.  This is yet another clue perhaps into the murky question of what it is that consciousness is.  At some point consciousness is necessary for some decisions, and later on it becomes rote and subconscious.  How might this happen.  Moreover, certain decisions seem to have a level of complexity that they would never become subconscious (like deciding which jobs to apply for, in case anyone from my work ever reads this).  But maybe even the most "complex decisions" can become rote and subconscious if you do them often enough? 
       In this vein, consciousness is used to make decisions about new things and new combinations of things, and when things achieve a sufficient degree of roteness, they drop into the subconscious realm.  This is interesting because it ties into Paul Adams view ( that a special kind of learning (the highest level I might say, given my lack of understanding of his work) occurs only very infrequently and it is for exactly these kinds of tasks that the mechanism of conscious, focused attention becomes involved.  Adam's synaptic learning involves very specific kinds of interactions between circuits in different cortical layers that extract higher order statistics from sensory and prior experiences.  Perhaps these kinds of activity have a special relationship to consciousness and/or attention?
alternatively: dm is subconsc. and consc. only steers attention?

4th Millenium