Counting the Components of My Consciousness

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 20, 2018

When the scientific discipline of artificial intelligence emerged in the 1950’s academics began to seriously believe that someday a computer will become sentient like us, and have consciousness and self-awareness. Science has no idea how humans are conscious of reality, but scientists assume if nature can accidentally give us self-awareness then science should be able to intentionally build it into machines. In the over sixty years since scientists have given computers more and more awareness and abilities. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: What are the components of consciousness needed for sentience? I’ve been trying to answer that by studying my own mind.

Thinking Machine illustration

Of course, science still doesn’t know why we humans are self-aware, but I believe if we meditate on the problem we can visualize the components of awareness. Most people think of themselves as a whole mind, often feeling they are a little person inside their heads driving their body around. If you spend time observing yourself you’ll see you are actually many subcomponents.

Twice in my life, I’ve experienced what it’s like to not have language. It’s a very revealing sensation. The first time was back in the 1960s when I took too large a dose of LSD. The second time was years ago when I experienced a mini-stroke. If you practice meditation you can learn to observe the moments when you’re observing reality without language. It’s then you realize that your thoughts are not you. Thoughts are language and memories, including memories from sensory experiences. If you watch yourself closely, you’ll sense you are an observer separate from your thoughts. A single point that experiences reality. That observer only goes away when you sleep or are knocked by drugs or trauma. Sometimes the observer is aware to a tiny degree during sleep. And if you pay close enough attention, your observer can experience all kinds of states of awareness – each I consider a component of consciousness.

The important thing to learn is the observer is not your thoughts. My two experiences of losing my language component were truly enlightening. Back in the 1960’s gurus of LSD claimed it brought about a state of higher consciousness. I think it does just the opposite, it lets us become more animal-like. I believe in both my acid and mini-stroke experiences I got to see the world more like a dog. Have you ever wondered how an animal sees the reality without language and thoughts?

When I had my mini-stroke it was in the middle of the night. I woke up feeling like lightning had gone off in my dream. I looked at my wife but didn’t know how to talk to her or even knew her name. I wasn’t afraid. I got up and went into the bathroom. I had no trouble walking. I automatically switched on the light. So conditioned reflexes were working. I sat on the commode and just stared around at things. I “knew” something was missing, but I didn’t have words for it, or how to explain it, even mentally to myself. I just saw what my eyes looked at. I felt things without giving them labels. I just existed. I have no idea how long the experience lasted. Finally, the alphabet started coming back to me and I mentally began to recite A, B, C, D, E, F … in my head. Then words started floating into my mind: tile, towel, door, mirror, and so on. I remembered my wife’s name, Susan. I got up and went back to bed.

Lately, as my ability to instantly recall words has begun to fail, and I worry about a possible future with Alzheimer’s, I’ve been thinking about that state of consciousness without language. People with dementia react in all kinds of ways. From various kinds of serenity, calmness to agitation, anger, and violence. I hope I can remain calm like I did in the bathroom at that time. Having Alzheimer’s is like regressing backward towards babyhood. We lose our ability for language, memories, skills, and even conditioned behaviors. But the observer remains.

The interesting question is: How much does the observer know? If you’ve ever been very sick, delirious, or drunk to incapacity, you might remember how the observer hangs in there. The observer can be diminished or damaged. I remember being very drunk, having tunnel vision, and seeing everything in black and white. My cognitive and language abilities were almost nil. But the observer was the last thing to go. I imagine it’s the same with dementia and death.

Creating the observer will be the first stage of true artificial intelligence. Science is already well along on developing an artificial vision, hearing, language recognition, and other components of higher awareness. It’s never discovered how to add the observer. It’s funny how I love to contemplate artificial intelligence while worrying about losing my mental abilities.

I just finished a book, American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee about wolves being reintroduced into Yellowstone. Wolves are highly intelligent and social, and very much like humans. Blakeslee chronicles wolves doing things that amazed me. At one point a hunter shoots a wolf and hikes through the snow to collect his trophy. But as he approaches the body, the dead wolf’s mate shows up. The mate doesn’t threaten the hunter, but just sits next to the body and begins to howl. Then the pack shows up and takes seats around the body, and they howl too. The wolves just ignore the hunter who stands a stone’s throw away and mourns for their leader. Eventually, the hunter backs away to leave them at their vigil. He decides to collect his trophy later, which he does.

I’ve been trying to imagine the mind of the wolf who saw its mate killed by a human. It has an observing mind too, but without language. However, it had vast levels of conditioning living in nature, socializing with other wolves, and experiences with other animals, including humans. Wolves rarely kill humans. Wolves kill all kinds of other animals. They routinely kill each other. Blakeslee’s book shows that wolves love, feel compassion, and even empathy. But other than their own animalistic language they don’t have our levels of language to abstractly explain reality. That wolf saw it’s mate dead in the snow. For some reason, wolves ignore people, even ones with guns. Wolves in Yellowstone are used to being watched by humans. The pack that showed up to mourn their leader were doing what they do from instinct. It’s revealing to try and imagine what their individual observers experienced.

If you meditate, you’ll learn to distinguish all the components of your consciousness. There are many. We are taught we have five senses. Observing them shows how each plays a role in our conscious awareness. However, if you keep observing carefully, you’ll eventually notice we have more than five senses. Which sense organ feels hunger, thirst, lust, pain, and so on. And some senses are really multiple senses, like our ability to taste. Aren’t awareness of sweet and sour two different senses?

Yet, it always comes back to the observer. We can suffer disease or trauma and the observer remains with the last shred of consciousness. We can lose body parts and senses and the observer remains. We can lose words and memories and the observer remains.

This knowledge leaves me contemplating two things. One is how to build an artificial observer. And two, how to prepare my observer for the dissolution of my own mind and body.


13 thoughts on “Counting the Components of My Consciousness”

  1. Fascinating … I think you’d have to ‘grow’ an artificial observer. Our observer grows with us from birth, is influenced/constructed from our experiences, culturally imposed imperatives, etc, so it would stand to reason an AI observer would to have that same body of experiences, awarenesses, conflicts, etc. Well, not the same, but an awareness of itself as a sophont from the moment of it’s ‘birth’ … very interesting points to ponder. 😀
    Your story of how calm you felt through your stroke is amazing. 🙂

    1. That’s an interesting idea, to think about how our observer saw things as a baby. Even if a baby hasn’t acquired language or memory yet, it does go through stages of evolved seeing, learning to distinguish objects in its field of view. Few of us have memories before 3-4 years old. Is that because we can’t form them, or we didn’t understand what we were experiencing?

    2. That moment in time does stick with you. I had the same feeling as a result of a seizure and concussion. Numbers and letters are first to come back, followed by long-term memory and words. If you lose balance, that’s well down the road to recover. Despite all that, as long as you’re awake, you always watch, hear, and process what’s going on. You can hear questions and see things but may not have the mental faculties at the time to respond to them. As long as you’re awake and conscious, the observer stays on.

  2. Our friend, Cindy, just had a stroke yesterday. She had a headache that lasted for hours. Then the vision in her left eye was disrupted. Her doctor told Cindy to get to our local Stroke Center as quickly as she could. Sure enough, tests showed Cindy had a stroke. Your stroke experience was equally as chilling!

  3. Your observations about your ministroke (?) reassured me no end. I’ll be thinking about your calm attitude and hope I default to that when the time comes. Something I think about these days is the connection between our gut microbes, our muscles, and our brains. Research into the interaction of these parts and passengers destroys forever the concept of living inside our brains, that top bit of us that used to get all the credit for consciousness and thought and identity and so forth.

  4. One of my dissatisfactions with life is that I find it so rare that I can “connect” with others on the topic of consciousness and feel as though we are understanding each other.

    While reading your thoughts, I felt as though you “get it” \[LongDash] that you’d be a person I could actually relate to on this topic, and that was a lovely feeling to experience for once! So, thank you for being so introspective about consciousness, and doing a great job rendering your experiences on paper, so to speak.

    I’ll have to sit with your main idea \[LongDash] conceptualizing “the observer” as being separate from “one’s thoughts”.

    Here’s one immediate reaction: I’ve been wondering whether consciousness is somewhat like “recursion”. That is, we have mental machinery that takes in information and perceives it, yes, we’ll call that system P, but that we have a secondary set of machinery that observers system P. We’ll call that system C. That’s why we call it “self-awareness” \[LongDash] it is an observer that isn’t looking upon the stimuli coming from the world directly, but is looking upon that which is looking upon stimuli coming form the world.

    So maybe you’re describing in a certain way what I’ve been pondering.

    But let’s taking this one step further. Imagine that system P isn’t only able to receive input from external stimuli. Imagine that it can also bind to system C and receive input from it. With that ability, you can now be aware of the fact that you’re aware of yourself, because system C can observe the fact that system P has been able to model system C. This can’t go on “forever” in the same way that looking into a mirror with another mirror behind you creates an infinite telescopic nesting, but maybe it can go back and forth between P and C a few times to create that sense.

    If this is true, if “the observer” is like a secondary system that binds to system P, and vice versa, then what might that look like within a physical brain? Would it be like vegetation that scales a fence? Two structures “intertwined” with one another?

    1. Daniel, this is quite interesting. You use two ideas I often use when analyzing consciousness – recursion and the two mirrors reflecting each other. I believe our mind works on pattern recognition. That we have some kind of inner sensorium that’s like the Holodeck in Star Trek The Next Generation. All the sensory input comes into it, and we build a mental recreation of what we think the external reality is like. The observer is what perceives this recreation. Like the two mirrors, our perceiving is highly recursive and it breaks down our recreation of reality and from this comes languages and consciousness. The observer doesn’t have to be conscious of itself in animals or lesser states of consciousness to perceive the recreation of reality. We become conscious as the complexity of the system grows.

      The interesting thing is consciousness isn’t something that can be touched or analyzed. If we tried to measure what two mirrors are doing when they reflect each other, we can measure photons, and why they reflect. We can even photograph the infinite reflections. But the phenomenon is not something we can touch. We can damage consciousness with drugs or physical damage to the brain, but it’s like sticking our hand between the two mirrors, we just stop the effect.

      I believe our consciousness is a bubble of self-awareness in reality. It will pop when of the physical system decays. What’s weird to contemplate is the universe without consciousness. Reality is here whether we’re here to see it or not.

      1. The other intuition I’ve had about consciousness is that it is like a canvas — this idea also seems similar to to your “observer” language. In the last year or so, I saw mention made of the “Higgs field”. This made me curious, so I dug a little deeper and discovered that the notion of fields seems to be one of the most central — and abstract — ideas in physics. Maybe I’m abusing the term, but it seems as though just about everything at its most fundamental level may be composed of fields. These fields, to me, are conceptualized like a surface / a canvas, upon which information can be represented, except that they are 3D canvases rather than 2D ones. When I stumbled upon this field stuff my mind immediately went to my previous thoughts about consciousness as a canvas.

        This leads me to ask the following question: Might the universe, from its very foundations, be imbued with not only fields to represent things like mass, gravity, etc, but also the various dimensions of consciousness. And might the brain, somehow, be able to manipulate the fields of consciousness — to paint upon them, to give rise to our experience?

    1. However, people who believe in souls believe they are eternal. The observer comes and goes with consciousness. It needs a healthy body that’s awake. It’s like a beam of light that comes on when a flashlight is switched on, and disappears when it’s switched off, or won’t come on when the batteries are dead. And generally, the observer meshes with language, the senses, emotions, to form a gestalt sense of being. It couldn’t exist without the body.

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