Conscious Talks, by James Wadman
Conscious Talks are a series of scientific and philosophical musings that deal predominantly with topics too large to grasp using the scientific method. I believe that it is important to weigh in on ideas that are just out of reach of technology so that we can inspire a collective movement toward the future. I write these posts in a stream of consciousness fashion (hence the name) so that it is like engaging in an actual conversation. In essence, these written thoughts are a great way to understand me and the way I see the world.
By James Wadman
Consciousness is the vital component of human existence. If one day the lights went out in the force that provides us with consciousness, we would cease to be human. What gives us meaning, what makes us human, happy, and fulfilled has been a question shared in fields of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy for as long as we have existed? Why then do we still not technically know what consciousness is?
What we know so far is that consciousness is the consolidation of sensory inputs and the processing of those inputs by a framework of stored experience. When broken down into its basic elements, the tasks that consciousness achieves are quite straightforward. In the simplest of terms, consciousness is how we subjectively observe the universe and our place in it. Consciousness requires an awareness and control of “self,” which is an innate property for survival, but its utility progresses to an understanding that the “self” can be distinguished from “other.” Consciousness must be contrasted in this discussion with sentience, which by definition is the ability to feel. Further discussion on the levels of sentience will come at a later time, but for now we will regard basic sentience as the ability to perceive and feel.
The question that remains here is whether it is the biological mechanisms that provide a structural backbone for consciousness to exist or consciousness is in itself a biological, survival mechanism itself. The former suggests that consciousness is static over the span of one’s life and processes such as synaptic pruning, memory consolidation, localized and/or epigenetic gene expression, and other biological modifications the brain might undergo can enhance how we use consciousness. This is to say that a baby can only use self-awareness because a newborn will not yet have experience with which to distinguish “self” from “other,” and until that baby has learned from observation, the tools provided by consciousness will not be fully available. By this model, consciousness is innate but how we use it can change, and if we search hard enough we might just stumble upon the center of human sentience.
The second model is that consciousness exists because our brains create it. While one can argue in the first model that animals can possess consciousness just not the means for high-order thought because of their biological framework, the second model states that if an animal does not have the correct biological framework, consciousness does not exist at all. In this model, it is possible for consciousness to be capable of plasticity just like the brain. Consciousness can be a learned trait of intelligent animals and can be accessed through years of evolution. Moreover, this model suggests that consciousness is nothing more than our original definition: the consolidation of sensory inputs and the processing of those inputs by a framework of stored experience. Interestingly enough, this simplified definition actually demonstrates why it might be so difficult to pinpoint consciousness in an experimental setting. Searching for consciousness as its own entity or force in the human brain might be impossible if it is not just one “thing.” Consciousness therefore would not exist in a localized region of the brain. Instead, consciousness would be the sum of our brain’s biological components in coordination with our capacity for high order thought.
So here we have seen an Innate Consciousness Model and the Biomechanical Consciousness Model. The key distinctions are innate vs plastic and localized vs delocalized. It is difficult to prove either theory for consciousness, of course, but it is important to search for evidence where ever it is apparent, so let’s turn to one of my favorite subjects for evidence on consciousness: dreams.
Sleep creates an anomaly of human existence. Non-REM stages of sleep are those deep levels of sleep that you achieve in the late night that are mostly forgotten or unobserved. There is a distinction here worth mentioning. If NREM sleep is unobserved, we are not sentient and we are unconscious during this time. If we take the belief that NREM stages of sleep are forgotten, then they are observed and instantaneously processed but the memories are not consolidated into information that can be accessed later. We can take control of the brain’s ability to perceive but not store in things like brain surgery, where it is necessary to track patient response to make the right cut and avoid permanent damage. This is accomplished by anesthesia, but the brain might do a similar task naturally when the lights go out and deep sleep is reached. If we look at our definitions, it would be logical to presume that this suggests basic sentience without consciousness.
In either model, there are stages of sleep that consciousness is not accessed. If consciousness is silenced here it should be easily found by seeing what turns off, right? Unfortunately it is not that simple. There is no evidence that consciousness is actually silenced, or even if it is something that can be turned off and on at all. Therefore, while speculation can be made as to what biological systems are integrated with consciousness by observing the activity of brain regions during sleep, we cannot use this information to distinguish between the aforementioned models of consciousness.
Dream states, which occur throughout sleep but are believed to be most prominently memorable during REM stages, can involve consciousness awareness, known as a lucid dream. More often than this, however, we have the masses of other dreams of which we forget most, we do not control, and can hardly even comprehend. I categorize my dreams in three stages ranging from lucid (full control), to vivid (first person, not in control), to non-vivid (ambiguous perspective, not in control). The question I am positing through these distinctions is whether or not there is a difference in biology or consciousness during these different dreams. Is there a reason why some dreams are in third person and others are in first person? A lucid dream demonstrates full consciousness with biological limits, such as deprived decision-making, sensory input, and motor control. A vivid dream state demonstrates awareness seemingly without complete conscious processing (that is one can experience the awareness and existence of “self”, without the control of “self”). The non-vivid dreams really don’t demonstrate any traces of consciousness but somehow activate the memory system to imprint variations of stored information as manifestations of experiences. When I condense this information into a single, valid idea it is just to say that biological processing and consciousness need not be considered as one thing. Dreams provide a clear representation of experiencing events at different levels of consciousness.
There is an eternity of information left to discuss in these topics and just as much evidence that might stand to refute the points that I suggest here. I hope that my perspective on these topics will change, because that means that convincing evidence will take the place of speculation. It is the objective of every scientist not to confirm one’s beliefs but to see the truth revealed. I look forward to hearing your opinions on this piece and to continue the discussion on sleep, sentience, and consciousness – some of the most dauntingly fascinating topics in the universe.
There exists a fragile balance between science and art, treaded only by the bravest innovators in modern society. The common thread in our society between analytical objectivity and ingenuity is embedded in computation. It seems ironic that I should suggest that the most objective, logical sequences of our technological language should be the one and only force that will launch both the artist and scientist well into the future, but I do so with certainty.
And why? I believe that with computation comes the knowledge of a library interwoven by the subjective analysis of one thousand human minds. What makes code so dazzling, so brilliant– dare I say even so transcending?—is that it incorporates the interactive thought process of the writer of the code over an extended period of time and then relinquishes all the hours of coding into one single computational output. This library is built from the code and all of its data, and the weave is the human mind in the form of functions, classes, and comprehensive data sets.
With modern computation our knowledge will increase exponentially. We can suggest correlations with greater precision based on massive cross-analysis with stored experimental data, leading to greater efficiency in what we choose as our variables in the next experiments. We will create computation-derived variables that were never before considered or bring light to mathematical variables previously existent only in theory. We can continue to improve automation, and we can allow the automatic to experience, to reflect, and ultimate exist among the sentient, conscious minds.
On a political agenda.
To state a cliché, Ghandi told us that “we but mirror the world. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude change towards him.” It is difficult to accept that hatred still exists, and perhaps now it is more difficult to initiate the proper change to a new world. But let us not forget that compassion is what we are perpetually fighting for, and when we riot – or in any way fight fire with fire against opposing political and social ideologies– we silence our message in the loudest way possible. What is more powerful than anger against hatred is a stance in solidarity, together as brothers and sisters in this nation, and only then can we create happiness and unity that cannot be stripped away.
When we are young we think about our passions in terms of dreaming about a career, and it gets locked in us to believe that we are only following our passion if we live up to the expectation that we have to be an astronaut (or a doctor or an engineer or the president…) when we grow up. In reality, and this branches from our maturity as we start to see the world for what it is, our passions can be of a much more sophisticated origin.
I have come to realize recently that in your pursuit of following your dreams you should keep an open mind to venture into other knowns as well as a realistic mind, so as not to abandon a logical expectation of your wellbeing. We are not abandoning our passion if we replace one dream with another, even in the case that an esoteric passion is the replacement for the aforementioned childhood expectation. More specifically, I mean to say that with age it becomes acceptable to replace your dream of being an astronaut with the fulfillment of simple pleasures leading toward genuine happiness. One might abandon the pursuit of becoming a millionaire for the pursuit of a relationship and a family. And believe it or not, this is not a compromise on ambition or your worth to society.
Assume for a moment that you can actually change the world. There is no if, there is only when. How would you live life differently?
The world works out in a funny way, where you can work hard and remain invisible or stumble across great opportunities by chance or good fortune. I have never developed a consolidated opinion on fate, and I see success as a combination of hard work and favorable entropy. And yet I still see incredible value in the statement “things happen for a reason.” When anything in the world happens, whether it is tragedy, catastrophe, or any event of good fortune, we have a choice. We can dwell, we can savor, or we can move on. Things happen for a reason because if you always react positively to life, you are always providing another opportunity to be entropically favored for good fortune.
This is where I want to begin: how I change the world. There are thoughts I need to get out of my head, and June will be filled with Conscious Talks, a new series that focuses on short snippets of what lingers in my mind. As we progress through this series there will be bits of wisdom, motivation, scientific wonder, and conversations centered around my Diamondis project. I am quite excited for the last bit, for I am currently in my fourth (yes, fourth) rewrite of the novel and I really think this might be the version I want to edit for a final draft. I am on my fifth year of working on this project and I have learned a lot along the way. I put the project down when necessary to work on other things and to give myself the time to learn about the scientific concepts I portrayed in the storyline. I want nothing other than to share the last bits of my journey in this project with you all, which means there will be some previews and discussions just around the corner!
If you asked me what I saw, I would have no honest answer. This is not because I saw nothing, but because in pure darkness I saw infinite possibility.
I stepped into the float tank and witnessed the sensorium dissipate, as the pale green light and the ambient music faded away. Left alone with my thoughts, effortlessly floating for sixty minutes, I couldn’t help but to think about the void. At first I was relaxed and any concerns of my day were rendered irrelevant in my own oblivion. But the time ticked on by the seldom splashes made by my movements, and my deeper thoughts crept up higher and higher until they burst over the surface. My mind was clear when I stepped out of my first floatation tank experience: “I am human, the greatest experiment to ever walk this earth.” In an hour of isolation, the modular components of my body disappeared, and I was given the opportunity to understand my perception in the absence of a material world.
The “new-age” nature of sensory deprivation might be a turn off to many people who first hear about it. This makes sense, given the nature of both the practice and the characterization of most of the people who energetically spread the word about floatation tanks. However, it is actually far simpler than this and I would encourage anyone reading this to think of sensory deprivation in a floatation tank as an experiment that we have only just begun. Sensory deprivation by exact definition, as we currently know it, is an extended period of time in which you float in a dense Epsom Salt (magnesium sulfate) solution with a blank sensory environment. Many people float in tanks (some in pitch-black rooms), the temperature outside is equilibrated with the solution and your body temperature, and there is so sound other than your heartbeat and your breath. As time passes your body gets accustomed to feeling the salt solution around you. At this point the experience becomes subjective, but in all cases I have heard, the experience remains pleasant.
Deep into my experiences, I find it common to think that I haven’t truly reached the full potential of what float tanks have to offer. There are stories of intense experiences with psychedelic visuals, epic adventures of the mind, and sometimes even getting completely lost in one’s thoughts. While these experiences could very well be the product of what was ingested before the experience, I do believe it is possible to reach certain semi-dreamlike states through floatation, and with the science it does seem to make sense. When the lights go out, your serotonin will gradually convert to melatonin due to the absence of blue-light radiation to the pineal gland (is it nice to hear the pineal gland in a conversation that does not include discussion of a third-eye?), and neurotransmitters like dopamine are projected to rise. Combined with the lack of external sensorium, your thoughts pervade and these neurotransmitters promote a perspective that could have more in common with a dream than waking perception.
Even with my limited experience and lack of necessarily awe-inspiring trips through oblivion, I believe that it is still incredible to perceive the contrast between the floating experience and reality when the lights come on, the music begins playing, and it is revealed that you are just a human floating in an oversized salt water tank. The incredible relaxation accompanied by a thought-provoking experience gave me the opportunity to feel refreshed and renewed. I recommend to everyone to try experiencing a float tank, even if only to rejuvenate the mind and body.
If you have any experience you would like to share please let me know. I would love to hear what you have felt or seen in the void of a float tank.
Note: my float tank experiences are based on the large sensory deprivation tanks in Austin, Texas at the Zero Gravity Institute. I highly recommend these floatation tanks because of their size and the spa’s great service. To me one of the most important considerations for floating is the size of the tank, which will inevitably determine whether or not you become claustrophobic during the float experience. If you are afraid of this feeling I recommend searching for larger float tanks, such as the ones in Austin!