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Neuroscientist Christof Koch on How the “Qualia” of Our Experience Illuminate the Central Mystery of Consciousness

“Without consciousness there is nothing… Consciousness is the central fact of your life.”

Neuroscientist Christof Koch on How the “Qualia” of Our Experience Illuminate the Central Mystery of Consciousness

“I wish you could know what it means to be me,” Nina Simone sang in her 1967 civil rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” — an invitation to empathy at the heart of which is the animating question of consciousness: What does the experience of being feel like from the inside and can that subjective experience ever be fully understood from the outside?

“Everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it,” 28-year-old Albert Camus proclaimed in his meditation on the nature of consciousness just as modern science was beginning to wrest the question from the reposable thumbs of philosophers. Well before Santiago Ramón y Cajal fathered modern neuroscience and set it loose on addressing these questions over the course of the following century, the poet Emily Dickinson captured this elemental paradox of existence in a verse that remains the ultimate ode to — or is it a lamentation of? — consciousness:

How have I peace
Except by subjugating
Consciousness?

And since We’re mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication —
Me — of Me?

A century and a half later, neuroscientist Christof Koch sets out to map this “mutual monarchy” of self and consciousness — or, rather, of the mind’s phenomenal experience and the brain’s neurophysiology — in his excellent book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (public library).

Koch describes himself as a “romantic reductionist” — a reductionist because he seeks “quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses,” and romantic on account of his conviction that “the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky above us and deep within us” — meaning illuminated not within the blink of an individual existence but across the vast cosmic scales of space and time. (Physicist Sean Carroll would later call such an orientation to the quest for meaning “poetic naturalism.”)

Two millennia after Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, Koch writes with an eye to the central inquiry of his life’s work:

Without consciousness there is nothing. The only way you experience your body and the world of mountains and people, trees and dogs, stars and music is through your subjective experiences, thoughts, and memories. You act and move, see and hear, love and hate, remember the past and imagine the future. But ultimately, you only encounter the world in all of its manifestations via consciousness. And when consciousness ceases, this world ceases as well.

[…]

Consciousness is the central fact of your life.

One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s pioneering drawings of how the brain works

In addition to the paradox consciousness presents to the experiencing self, Koch points out that it presents a second paradox to science — on the one hand, it challenges the scientific model of the world by raising the same questions that mystics have been asking for millennia; on the other, it lends itself to being investigated empirically with the very tools of the scientific method and, as Koch puts it, “with both feet firmly planted on the ground.”

Having devoted much of his life to uncovering “how a highly organized piece of matter can possess an interior perspective,” Koch considers one of the most interesting questions of consciousness — that of qualia, the subjective interiority of experiences. (Nina Simone’s moving lyric line brings into sharp relief the grandest quale of all — that of selfhood.) Koch writes:

What it feels like to have a particular experience is the quale of that experience: The quale of the color red is what is common to such disparate percepts as seeing a red sunset, the red flag of China, arterial blood, a ruby gemstone, and Homer’s wine-dark sea. The common denominator of all these subjective states is “redness.” Qualia are the raw feelings, the elements that make up any one conscious experience.

Some qualia are elemental — the color yellow, the abrupt and overpowering pain of a muscle spam in the lower back, or the feeling of familiarity in déjà vu. Others are composites — the smell and feel of my dogs snuggling up against me, the “Aha!” of sudden understanding, or the distinct memory of being utterly transfixed when I first heard the immortal lines: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” To have an experience means to have qualia, and the qualia of an experience are what specifies that experience and makes it different from other experiences.

Qualia, this romantic reductionist asserts, are inherent properties of the natural world rather than manifestations of divinity or the supernatural — they arise from laws yet to be discovered, but decidedly discoverable, belonging to the ultimate frontiers of science which mathematician Marcus du Sautoy has termed “the great unknown.” But they also raise enormous attendant questions about whether elementary particles have qualia or qualia exist only in complex systems like brains, that is, whether consciousness is a binary faculty or it exists on a continuum; questions that echo Alan Turing’s famous puzzlement about whether a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream and even Goethe’s attempt to decipher the psychology of color perception and emotion.

Drawing from Goethe’s theory of color and emotion

Koch follows this train of inquiry further:

Understanding how qualia come about is just the first step toward eliminating the “problem” from the mind-body problem. Next in line is comprehending the particular way that a specific quale feels. Why does red feel the way it does, which is very different from blue? Colors are not abstract, arbitrary symbols: they represent something meaningful. If you ask people whether the color orange is situated between red and yellow or between blue and purple, those with normal eyesight will chose the former. There is an inborn organization to color qualia. Indeed, colors can be arranged in a circle, the color wheel. This arrangement is different from that of other sensations, such as the sense of depth or of pitch, which are arranged in a linear sequence. Why? As a group, color percepts share certain commonalities that make them different from other percepts, such as seeing motion or smelling a rose. Why?

This lovely short film for Janna Levin’s Scientific Controversies salon with Koch and philosopher David Chalmers — whose ideas Koch challenges throughout the book — captures these most fundamental unanswered questions of consciousness, the limitations of our present modes of asking them, and the most fertile frontiers of promise in answering them:

Koch offers four definitions of consciousness — a commonsense one, which equates consciousness with our interior mental life and renders it our constant companion from the moment we wake to the moment we sink into dreamless sleep; a behavioral one, comprising a checklist of actions and reactions that attest an organism is conscious; a neuronal one, identifying the minimum physiological mechanisms necessary for experiencing a conscious sensation; and, finally, a philosophical one, under which “consciousness is what it is like to feel something.”

And yet despite the effort to define what consciousness is, a larger underpinning perplexity is the question of why it must exist at all — after all, Koch points out, there is nothing about the absence of consciousness that would violate the known laws of physics, which means that the laws of physics alone aren’t enough to provide a complete explanation of what consciousness is. A parallel puzzlement is that of locating consciousness, which Koch captures succinctly:

Consciousness does not arise from regions but from highly networked neurons within and across regions.

This interconnectedness, he points out, is embedded in the very nature of qualia:

Informationally speaking, the experience of being sad is a crystal, a fantastically complex shape in a space of a trillion dimensions that is qualitatively different from the brain state that gives rise to sadness. The conscious sensation arises from integrated information; the causality flows from the underlying physics of the brain, but not in any easy-to-understand manner. That is because consciousness depends on the system being more than the sum of its parts.

And yet the system itself, far from some metaphysical mechanism, is very much a physical, material entity. Koch writes:

Without some carrier, some mechanism, integrated information can’t exist. Put succinctly: no matter, never mind.

He considers what decades of studying the neural coordinates of consciousness have taught him about this mesh of interconnected complexity:

I believe that consciousness is a fundamental, an elementary, property of living matter. It can’t be derived from anything else; it is a simple substance, in Leibniz’s words.

My reasoning is analogous to the arguments made by savants studying electrical charge. Charge is not an emergent property of living things, as originally thought when electricity was discovered in the twitching muscles of frogs. There are no uncharged particles that in the aggregate produce an electrical charge. An electron has one negative charge, and a proton — a hydrogen ion — has one positive charge. The total charge associated with a molecule or ion is simply the sum of all the charges of the individual electrons and protons, no matter what their relationship to each other. As far as chemistry and biology are concerned, charge is an intrinsic property of these particles. Electrical charge does not emerge from matter.

And so it is with consciousness. Consciousness comes with organized chunks of matter. It is immanent in the organization of the system. It is a property of complex entities and cannot be further reduced to the action of more elementary properties. We’ve arrived at the ground floor of reductionism.

Ultimately, Koch counters the intellectual defeatism of the popular stance that certain elemental questions of existence — of which consciousness is a crowning curio — are bound to remain unanswerable. Despite its limitations, he reminds us, science is still our mightiest reel for lifting the curtain obscuring reality. With an eye to the founding fathers of science — for he is writing before Neil Gaiman penned his lovely ode to its founding mothers — Koch reflects:

Because science is so good at figuring out the world around us, it should also help us to explain the world within us.

[…]

Francis Bacon, together with Descartes, is the father of the scientific method. Bacon lived and died two decades before Descartes, and he was in many ways his English counterpart. Whereas Descartes is the prototype of the deductive theoretician, driven by an overarching principle to search for general laws, Bacon is the consummate empiricist, examining natural phenomena and going where the data take him in an inductive fashion. Science has done extremely well in the interplay between bottom-up Baconian and top-down Cartesian analysis. Despite the naysayers, science will ultimately understand consciousness by combining empirical and clinical studies with mathematical theories and, increasingly, the engineering of conscious artifacts.

In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, Koch goes on to explore the vital difference between awareness and consciousness, the eternally entrancing paradox of free will, what happens to our consciousness during sleep and dreams, and other leaps in science that have steadily narrowed the gap between the mind, the brain, and our experience of selfhood. Complement it with Walt Whitman on identity and the paradox of the self and Sy Montgomery on how the octopus, earth’s most alien creature, illuminates the wonders of consciousness.

BP

Undersea: Rachel Carson’s Lyrical and Revolutionary 1937 Masterpiece Inviting Humans to Explore Earth from the Perspective of Other Creatures

“Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”

Undersea: Rachel Carson’s Lyrical and Revolutionary 1937 Masterpiece Inviting Humans to Explore Earth from the Perspective of Other Creatures

Pioneering biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) catalyzed the modern environmental movement with the groundbreaking publication of Silent Spring in 1962, but the spark for this slow-burning revolution was kindled a quarter century earlier, while 28-year-old Carson was working for what would later become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When she was tasked with writing a brochure for the Fisheries Bureau, summarizing their annual research findings, Carson transmuted the science into poetry and turned in something so exquisitely lyrical that her supervisor told her they simply couldn’t publish it as their standard government report. But he encouraged her to submit it to The Atlantic Monthly as an essay. She did. It was enthusiastically accepted and published in the September 1937 issue as the trailblazing masterpiece “Undersea” under the byline R.L. Carson — a choice reflective of Carson’s era-calibrated fear that her writing wouldn’t be taken as seriously if her gender was known. Ironically, of the twenty-one contributors in that issue of the magazine, Carson’s name is the only one widely recognized today.

The essay became the backbone of Carson’s first book, Under the Sea-Wind, which remained her favorite piece of writing, and was later included in the excellent Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (public library).

Rachel Carson

Creatively, “Undersea” was unlike anything ever published before — Carson brought a strong literary aesthetic to science, which over the next two decades would establish her as the most celebrated science writer of her time. Conceptually, it accomplished something even Darwin hadn’t — it invited the reader to step beyond our reflexive human hubris and empathically explore this Pale Blue Dot from the vantage point of the innumerable other creatures with which we share it. Decades before philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote his iconic essay “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” and nearly a century before Sy Montgomery’s beautiful inquiry into the soul of an octopus, Carson considered the experience of other consciousnesses. What the nature writer Henry Beston, one of Carson’s great heroes, brought to the land, she brought first to the sea, then to all of Earth — intensely lyrical prose undergirded by a lively reverence for nature and a sympathetic curiosity about the reality of other living beings.

Long before scientists like pioneering oceanographer Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earle plunged into the depths of the ocean, Carson shepherds the human imagination to the mysterious wonderland thriving below the surface of the seas that envelop Earth:

Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere. Nor can we know the vicissitudes of life on the ocean floor, where sunlight, filtering through a hundred feet of water, makes but a fleeting, bluish twilight, in which dwell sponge and mollusk and starfish and coral, where swarms of diminutive fish twinkle through the dusk like a silver rain of meteors, and eels lie in wait among the rocks. Even less is it given to man to descend those six incomprehensible miles into the recesses of the abyss, where reign utter silence and unvarying cold and eternal night.

To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water.

North Pacific Giant Octopus by photographer Mark Laita from his project Sea

After a tour of some of the ocean’s most unusual and dazzling creatures, Carson considers the glorious and inevitable interconnectedness of the natural world, no different from the “inescapable network of mutuality” which Martin Luther King so passionately championed in the human world. She writes:

The ocean is a place of paradoxes. It is the home of the great white shark, two thousand pound killer of the seas. And of the hundred foot blue whale, the largest animal that ever lived. It is also the home of living things so small that your two hands may scoop up as many of them as there are stars in the Milky Way. And it is becoming of the flowering of astronomical numbers of these diminutive plants known as diatoms, that the surface waters of the ocean are in reality boundless pastures.

Every marine animal, from the smallest to the sharks and whales is ultimately dependent for its food upon these microscopic entities of the vegetable life of the ocean. Within their fragile walls, the sea performs a vital alchemy that utilizes the sterile chemical elements dissolved in the water and welds them with the torch of sunlight into the stuff of life. Only through the little-understood synthesis of proteins, fats and carbohydrates by myriad plant “producers” is the mineral wealth of the sea made available to the animal “consumers” that browse as they float with the currents. Drifting endlessly, midway between the sea of air above and the depths of the abyss below, these strange creatures and the marine inflorescence that sustains them are called “plankton” — the wanderers.

Art by Rambharos Jha from Waterlife

Carson continues her marine expedition farther and deeper into the ocean, to return in the final paragraphs to this central interconnectedness of life — perhaps, she poetically suggests, our only real taste of immortality:

While bottoms near the shore are covered with detritus from the land, the remains of the floating and swimming creatures of the sea prevail in the deep waters of the open ocean. Beneath the tropical seas, in depths of 1000 to 1500 fathoms, calcareous oozes cover nearly a third of the ocean floor; while the colder waters of the temperate and polar regions release to the underlying bottom the silicious remains of diatoms and Radiolaria. In the red clay that carpets the great deeps at 5000 fathoms or more, such delicate skeletons are extremely rare. Among the few organic remains not dissolved before they reach these cold and silent depths are the ear bones of whales and the teeth of sharks.

Thus we see parts of the plan fall into place: the water receiving from earth and air the simple materials, storing them up into the gathering energy of the spring wakens the sleeping plants to a burst of dynamic energy, hungry swarms of planktonic animals growing and multiplying upon the abundant plants, and themselves falling prey to the shoals of fish; all, in the end; to be redissolved into their component substances when the inexorable laws of the sea demand it. Individual elements are lost to view, only to repair again and again in different incarnations in a kind material immortality. Kindred forces to those which, in some period inconceivably remote, gave birth to that primeval bit of protoplasm tossing on the ancient seas continue their mighty and incomprehensible work. Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.

Complement the altogether fantastic Lost Woods with Carson courageous and prescient 1953 protest against the government’s assault on science and nature, the story of how she awakened the modern environmental conscience, and her touching farewell to her beloved, then revisit these gorgeous illustrations of sea creatures from Indian folklore and Susan Middleton’s mesmerizing photographs of marine invertebrates.

UPDATE: For more on Carson, her epoch-making cultural contribution, and her unusual private life, she is the crowning figure in my book Figuring.

BP

Albert Camus on Consciousness and the Lacuna Between Truth and Meaning

“From the evening breeze to this hand on my shoulder, everything has its truth. Consciousness illuminates it by paying attention to it.”

Albert Camus on Consciousness and the Lacuna Between Truth and Meaning

“The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning. And truth and meaning are not the same,” Hannah Arendt observed in her brilliant treatise on the life of the mind, adding: “The basic fallacy, taking precedence over all specific metaphysical fallacies, is to interpret meaning on the model of truth.”

The nature of consciousness and its role in both creating and mediating that fallacy is what Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) explored three decades earlier in The Myth of Sisyphus (public library) — the source of his abiding wisdom on the will to live and the most important question of existence.

albertcamus

Noting that “everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it,” 28-year-old Camus considers the nature of consciousness and its supreme object — truth. Fifteen years before he became the second youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded him for the “clear-sighted earnestness” with which he “illuminates the problems of the human conscience,” he writes:

Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable. If in order to elude the anxious question: “What would life be?” one must, like the donkey, feed on the roses of illusion, then the absurd mind, rather than resigning itself to falsehood, prefers to adopt fearlessly Kierkegaard’s reply: “despair.” Everything considered, a determined soul will always manage.

[…]

From the evening breeze to this hand on my shoulder, everything has its truth. Consciousness illuminates it by paying attention to it. Consciousness does not form the object of its understanding, it merely focuses, it is the act of attention, and, to borrow a Bergsonian image, it resembles the projector that suddenly focuses on an image. The difference is that there is no scenario, but a successive and incoherent illustration. In that magic lantern all the pictures are privileged. Consciousness suspends in experience the objects of its attention. Through its miracle it isolates them. Henceforth they are beyond all judgments. This is the “intention” that characterizes consciousness. But the word does not imply any idea of finality; it is taken in its sense of “direction”: its only value is topographical.

And yet the ultimate function of consciousness, Camus suggests, is not the retrieval of truth but the higher-order synthesis of meaning. He writes:

I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me — that is what I understand. And these two certainties — my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle — I also know that I cannot reconcile them. What other truth can I admit without lying, without bringing in a hope I lack and which means nothing within the limits of my condition?

If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I should be this world.

With this, Camus comes full circle to the opening sentence of his treatise, which remains among the most famous in literature and poses one of the most profound questions of philosophy — whether or not life is worth living. With an eye to his first great philosophical preoccupation — the experience of the absurd and the perplexity of how one is to live with it — he writes:

The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.

[…]

I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death — and I refuse suicide.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly indispensable The Myth of Sisyphus with Sy Montgomery on how the octopus illuminates the wonders of consciousness and Israel Rosenfield’s trailblazing exploration of consciousness, memory, and how our sense of self arises, then revisit Camus on the art of awareness, how to bolster our spirit in hard times, what it means to be a rebel, happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, and his moving correspondence with Boris Pasternak.

BP

The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: A Trailblazing Exploration of Consciousness, Memory, and How Our Sense of Self Arises

“This is the very essence of memory: its self-referential base, its self-consciousness, ever evolving and ever changing, intrinsically dynamic and subjective.”

The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: A Trailblazing Exploration of Consciousness, Memory, and How Our Sense of Self Arises

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf lamented. “Looked at, it vanishes.” A century later, we may have rendered the notion of the soul unfashionable — arguably, to our own detriment — but the puzzlement at the heart of Woolf’s observation hasn’t left us. If anything, we’ve recontextualized it as the problem of consciousness and taken it to the neuroscience lab, where it has only grown more perplexing — for, as Marilynne Robinson observed in her magnificent meditation on consciousness, the usefulness of the soul, and the limits of neuroscience, “on scrutiny the physical is as elusive as anything to which a name can be given.”

One of the finest, most dimensional explorations of consciousness comes from mathematician turned physician and writer Israel Rosenfield in his 1992 masterwork The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: An Anatomy of Consciousness (public library) — a trailblazing inquiry into the nature and structure of consciousness, and one of Oliver Sacks’s favorite books.

Israel Rosenfield (Photograph: Catherine Temerson)
Israel Rosenfield (Photograph: Catherine Temerson)

Rosenfield, whom Dr. Sacks rightly celebrated as “a powerful and original thinker,” contextualizes what makes the question of consciousness so alluring yet so mystifying:

What we say and do often hides motives that we keep from others and even from ourselves. Modern psychology began when this observation, as old as the writing of history, was turned into a principle: that our thoughts and actions are to a great extent determined by ideas, memories, and drives that are unconscious and inaccessible to conscious thought; that unknowable forces determine our actions. Thus the study of the unconscious became the cornerstone of twentieth-century psychology. Consciousness itself was ignored, since after all elucidating the unconscious seemed to tell us so much. People came to presume that when they talked of their “memories,” they meant experiences and learning that were carefully stored away in their brains and could be brought into consciousness, or made conscious. But this was to ignore the possibility that memories were in fact part of the very structure of consciousness: not only can there be no such thing as a memory without there being consciousness, but consciousness and memory are in a certain sense inseparable, and understanding one requires understanding the other.

[…]

Human memory may be unlike anything we have thus far imagined or successfully built a model for. And consciousness may be the reason why.

One of the most remarkable aspects of consciousness, Rosenfield points out, is “its utter subjectivity, the uniqueness of each individual human perspective.” This makes our capacity for empathy an extraordinary feat, for it requires that we acknowledge the subjectivity of our own reality and accommodate that of another, and yet we remain by and large entrapped in our subjectivity. As the great physicist David Bohm memorably articulated the problem, “Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.”

Rosenfield captures this paradox:

In this subjectivity, oddly, we nonetheless feel or believe we are experiencing the objective truth about the world, and we call that knowledge; we usually think of knowledge as something that can be understood and also transmitted from one person to another.

Art by Tove Jansson for a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

But this, Rosenfield cautions, seeds one of our gravest misconceptions about consciousness — the expectation that it is contained in specific units of knowledge or records, so to speak, of sensory experience, stored in particular areas of the brain. Although scientists have shown that specific brain tissues do respond to stimuli like shape, color, and motion, and neuroscience has made tremendous strides in the quarter-century since the book was published, Rosenfield’s critique of the broader limitations of such neurophysiological hunts for the seedbed of consciousness remains remarkably astute:

If one thinks about the ordinary human experience of being conscious, of being aware and alert to the meaning of one’s ongoing experiences, it seems unlikely that perceptions become conscious by these re-creations or representations in the brain, however complex they are supposed to be. This notion presupposes a static model of brain function; but consciousness has a temporal flow, a continuity over time, that cannot be accounted for by the neuroscientists’ claim that specific parts of the brain are responding to the presence of particular stimuli at a given moment. Our perceptions are part of a “stream of consciousness,” part of a continuity of experience that the neuroscientific models and descriptions fail to capture; their categories of color, say, or smell, or sound, or motion are discrete entities independent of time. But … a sense of consciousness comes precisely from the flow of perceptions, from the relations among them (both spatial and temporal), from the dynamic but constant relation to them as governed by one unique personal perspective sustained throughout a conscious life; this dynamic sense of consciousness eludes the neuroscientists’ analyses. Compared to it, units of “knowledge” such as we can transmit or record in books or images are but instant snapshots taken in a dynamic flow of uncontainable, unrepeatable, and inexpressible experience. And it is an unwarranted mistake to associate these snapshots with material “stored” in the brain.

This dynamic dimension of consciousness — or what Sarah Manguso has so beautifully termed “ongoingness” — is why our various experiences of time are so integral to our very humanity; it is how we’re able to transmute information into wisdom; it is ultimately what makes us superior to computers. Rosenfield writes:

Conscious perception is temporal: the continuity of consciousness derives from the correspondence which the brain establishes from moment to moment. Without this activity of connecting, we would merely perceive a sequence of unrelated stimuli from moment to unrelated moment, and we would be unable to transform this experience into knowledge and understanding of the world. This is why conscious human knowledge is so different from the “knowledge” that can be stored in a machine or in a computer.

Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz

What powers this continuity of consciousness is memory, that seedbed of our identity, and its dot-connecting capacity (which, lest we forget, is also the seedbed of creativity, perhaps the ultimate faculty that distinguishes us — so far — from machines). Rosenfield explains:

Conscious memory, like all conscious acts, is and has to be relational, and the nature of the relation is different from that in direct perception, although direct perception depends on it. The vital ingredient is self-awareness. My memory emerges from the relation between my body (more specifically, my bodily sensation at a given moment) and my brain’s “image” of my body (an unconscious activity in which the brain creates a constantly changing generalized idea of the body by relating the changes in bodily sensations from moment to moment.) It is this relation that creates a sense of self; over time, my body’s relation to its surroundings becomes even more complex, and, with it, the nature of myself and of my memories of it deepen and widen, too. When I look at myself in a mirror, my recognition of myself is based on a dynamic and complicated awareness of self, a memory-laden sense of who I am. It is not that my memories exist as stored images in my brain, conscious or unconscious; the act of memory is one of my relating to myself, or to others, or to past experiences, or to previously perceived stimuli. This is the very essence of memory: its self-referential base, its self-consciousness, ever evolving and ever changing, intrinsically dynamic and subjective. Indeed, perception in general, conscious awareness of one’s surroundings, is always from a particular point of view, and is only possible when the brain creates a body image, a self, as a frame of reference.

This experience of a cohesive self is also why wee are so profoundly disoriented by inner contradiction and conflict. But however trying such dissonance may be to our understanding of ourselves, the very capacity for it is what makes us human:

Confusion and understanding are aspects of conscious behavior, indeed they are states of consciousness, suggesting very different sets of relations between the individual and the world, and there is no way to grasp what they are without some idea of what we mean by consciousness. Computers, for example, which lack consciousness, do not become confused when they arrive at contradictory conclusions or when part of their “memory” is lost; it might also be said that they never “understand” what they are doing.

Art by Arthur Rackham from his revolutionary 1907 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Rosenfield returns to the central role of memory in our sense of understanding — the world as well as ourselves:

Without memory we could never know what we have learned. The problem is that we have tended to think of memories as unconscious items that one brings to consciousness, not as part of consciousness.

[…]

Nor can we understand the unconscious processes of the brain without understanding consciousness. Our knowledge of the unconscious is derived from observations of conscious behavior, after all. The problem is analogous to the famous discussion in physic as to the nature of light: is it made up of particles or waves? With measuring devices that are sensitive to waves (interference gratings, for example), light manifests itself as waves; with measuring devices sensitive to particles (photoelectric cells), light manifests itself as particles. So is light particle or wave? It is neither; it is simply that we see it as one or the other, depending on the measuring apparatus. So, too, our conscious life suggests that we have memories stored in our brains, but when we try to find where or how they are stored we fail to find the traces of them, and some aspects of our mental life (dreams, for example) suggest that conscious and unconscious forms of memory may be quite different. Actually they are both part of a larger structure, and they manifest themselves in very different ways, depending on our circumstances. An essential part of that larger structure is consciousness.

In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten, Rosenfield goes on to explore how phenomena like time, language, and personality elucidate the mysteries of consciousness. Complement it with philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of identity, naturalist Sy Montgomery on how earth’s most alien creature illuminates the wonders of consciousness, and a beautiful animated short film about memory, inspired by Oliver Sacks.

BP

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