Assembling Consciousness

I propose that there are three steps behind the assembling of consciousness. The first step leads to constructing an account of what happens within the brain when the organism interacts with an object, be it within body boundaries (e.g., pain) or outside of them (e.g., a landscape). The mapped account is a simple narrative without words that allows the sense of self—the feeling of self-knowing—to emerge as the apparent protagonist of the events, as the subject changed by the object in a natural causal relationship. The phenomenon is transient, emerging incessantly for brief periods of time on the order of fractions of a second, for as long as there are objects to provoke the narrative process.

The second step requires the gradual buildup of memories of many instances of a special class of "objects": the objects of the organism's own past experience, reactivated in recall and illuminated by core consciousness. This second step requires conventional memory for facts, in this case the "objects" of one's autobiography. Once autobiographical memories are formed, clusters of those memories can be consistently and continuously activated whenever any object is being processed. Each of those autobiographical memories is treated by the brain as an object, and each becomes an inducer of core consciousness along with the particular nonself object that is being processed. This second step is the basis for extended consciousness, which relies on the same fundamental mechanism—the creation of mapped accounts of relationships between an organism and an object—but applies the mechanism to a consistent set of previously memorized objects pertaining to the organism's history rather than to a single nonself object X. An autobiographical self is created in this process.

The third step in the assembly of consciousness consists of simultaneously holding active, for a substantial amount of time, the many images whose collection defines the autobiographical self and the images that define the object. The reiterated components of the autobiographical self and the object are affected by the feeling of self-knowing that arises in core consciousness. As a consequence, this large compass of mind contents becomes known in an integrated perspective unified around an "owner." A grand unified mental pattern is created.

When an organism such as ours interacts with a given object—for instance, an object that you can see and touch, and that also can make a sound—the brain uses its sensory systems to make neural maps of the object (maps, for short). The maps construct the form, color, sound, and touch of the object in dynamic neural patterns laid out in neuron circuits. Because the neural patterns are immediately related to the object, I shall call them first-order maps. In addition, the organism also makes first-order maps for the movements it must carry out to apprehend the object, such as eye or hand movements, and, no less important, for the obligate emotional reactions we have to any object. As opposed to the maps of the object, these "reaction" maps are constructed in the regions I identified as supporting the protoself, and they map the organism in the process of being changed as a consequence of interacting with the object.

All the first-order maps I have mentioned— those of the object and those of the organism reacting to the object—are the source of mental images whose flow constitutes the thought process. That is not sufficient to generate consciousness. In fact, if this process were all that a brain could do, the organism would not know that it had such images and consciousness would be missing.

Consciousness occurs when an organism can form yet another level of mapping with a particular sort of content and when that content is introduced into mind in imaged form. The higher-level maps describe what goes on in the first-order maps just enumerated, and do so by means of signals received from first-order maps via neuron projections. Because the mapping occurs after the first-order mapping, and relies on signals coming from the first-order maps, I call it second-order mapping.

These second-order maps describe the relationship between the object and the organism— the organism is represented by an integrated pattern of the nonconscious protoself. In that relationship the object causes the organism (i.e., the protoself) to change. Put in other words, the second-order maps represent the organism engaged in the process of making first-order sensory maps related to the apprehension of a given object. Second-order maps are also the source of mental images, as is the case with firstorder maps, and thus they also contribute those images to the thought process. I propose that a significant part of what we call consciousness is constituted by the images that these second-order maps contribute to the mind, in the form of a sense of self knowing. Consciousness consists of newly constructed knowledge about a specific topic— information, if you will, introduced into the natural process of making images.

In short, the presence of an object causes the organism to respond to it and, by so doing, to form first-order sensory maps for the object and for the changes the organism undergoes during object processing (e.g., motor accommodations and emotional reactions). Mental images arise from these first-order sensory maps, and in yet another brain sector—which is interconnected with the first—second-order sensory maps are being formed that "represent" the events which are occurring in the first-order sensory maps. These second-order maps signify without words the organism's relationship with the object, and specifically the fact that an object has caused the organism to change. These second-order maps thus signify to an organism that interacting with a given object or thinking a given thought modifies that organism. The second-order maps achieve this by signaling the modifications that the protoself undergoes and that are caused by the interaction of the organism with the object. And, because both the protoself and the second-order maps are constructed with the vocabulary of body signals, the images that result from such second-order mappings take the form of feelings. Knowing begins as a feeling because its substrate is built from body signals.

The feeling of knowing is the answer to an imaginary and never-posed question: To whom do these thoughts belong? The answer is that the thoughts belong to the organism, as deputized by the protoself. The story of the organism-object relationship is the first of all stories ever told, evolutionarily and individually, a primordial narrative without words. Only as the story is told do sense of self and knowing begin.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment