Spaceship Consciousness: What Drives Us?

Cartoon alien spaceship flying through the brain’s neuronal network in shades of blue.

Route includes the mind-body problem, neural correlates of consciousness, and integrated information theory.

Section divider that uses tiny spaceship in center of horizontal lines.
Section divider that uses tiny spaceship in center of horizontal lines.

I used to think my mind was like the engine of a car. Climb into the driver’s seat every morning and steer my life to one adventure, or one mishap, after another.

But now it seems like I’m getting into an alien spaceship.

With hundreds of monitors like they have at NASA. Maybe it’s thousands or millions. I can switch to any one of them in an instant.

I can travel to past events. I can see many of them clearly. Some pop into focus at random. Sometimes I can see around curves, into the future.

Our ships can go into warp (and sometimes warped) speed with different kinds of fuel. Pharmaceuticals. Psychedelics. Alcohol.

A health problem in my late 20s convinced me to give up alcohol, junk food, and pesticides as often as I could. Then, about seven years later, I found myself going on a trip that was completely unreal.*

It made wonder: Did my mind completely renew itself? After seven years did all of the cells regenerate, giving it a kind of tune up that I never dreamed I’d experience?

It’s been a wild ride ever since.

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Section divider that uses tiny spaceship in center of horizontal lines.

A book and a conversation brought me to this particular place. You know how it is when you read a book and one or two things stand out. Then you start talking to a friend about them, and your mind takes a turn and pulls something out of the vast recesses of that space that never occurred to you before?

Section divider that uses tiny spaceship in center of horizontal lines.
Section divider that uses tiny spaceship in center of horizontal lines.

It was the online book, Mind-Body Problems, by John Horgan. Nine scientists share their perspectives about the question: How do minds arise from the material nature of the brain? One really nice thing about Horgan’s book was that he also posted corresponding YouTube interviews.

Chapter One focused on the life and work of Christof Koch, a neuroscientist who is currently the president and chief scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, not far from where I live. Koch mentioned a couple of concepts that caught my attention: neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) and integrated information theory (IIT).

Horgan said that in 1990, Koch and molecular biologist/neuroscientist, Francis Crick, issued a manifesto called, “Toward a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness.” [1] “They announced that ‘the time is now ripe for an attack’ on consciousness, the core of the mind-body problem. Science could ‘solve’ consciousness by finding its ‘neural correlates,’ that is, processes in the brain corresponding to conscious states.” [2]

Chapter One of Mind-Body Problems didn’t include much about Koch’s research. Horgan focused primarily on his life path, so I skimmed the last part of the chapter and watched the YouTube interview to see if they talked about NCC and IIT in more depth.

Koch explained that in the late 80s understanding about how the mind works began to shift as brain scanners were being used routinely. Then shortly after 2000, he explained that on rare occasions, neurosurgeons began to put electrodes into the brains of people who experience epileptic seizures to locate the areas causing problems.

“Sometimes you can see these things from outside imaging,” Koch said, “but in many cases you can’t, and then what you do is you lower electrodes into the brain, and the patient stays in the hospital for a week or two.” [3]

Koch continued, “…what we discovered, serendipitously, is… when you show (the patient) images of loved ones, family, celebrities, and television shows, it turns out that individual neurons respond very selectively, but only to Jennifer Anniston or only to Bill Clinton…. It could be different pictures of Clinton, but it wouldn’t respond to…Anniston. Another responds to…a cartoon of Anniston or Anniston in one of her shows. Some neurons respond to the text. Some responded to pictures, voices, and text. Individual neurons seemed to respond in an amazingly selective way to the things that we perceive.” [4]

Horgan posed a question: Could a particular neuron be encoded with something like the Platonic ideal — a concept that can take on an infinite variety of forms?

Koch said that further research has shown that the brain has roughly a hundred billion neurons and probably at least 100 different types of neurons. “It’s not just important to know that this (particular) neuron spiked and this one didn’t, you also need to know which of the 100 different types it is…,” which makes it a whole lot more complicated. [5]

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Section divider that uses tiny spaceship in center of horizontal lines.

Horgan then said that all of the discussion so far had been a build-up to talking about integrated information theory. [6]

Koch explained that the concept of IIT was developed by Dr. Giulio Tononi. “IIT makes this very highfalutin claim that ultimately consciousness is… intrinsic causal power…the ability of a system to be affected by its past and to influence its future. You have a complicated system in a state, and depending on the exact state, the system has lots of different possibilities of what it could be in the next fraction of a millisecond.” [7]

He said that IIT helps us understand what is wrong with the concept of panpsychism, or the idea that there is consciousness in everything, even though it shares certain intuitions. Koch said, “IIT is not about the bits of information you have in (something like) a CD rom. It’s how much difference a system can make to itself.” [8] “That doesn’t mean every strange theory is true…” he said, “and this may be the case with IIT…. It could all be wrong. Ultimately it’s an empirical question.” [9]

Koch added, “IIT predicts that consciousness may be much more widespread than you think…. It’s a system property that emerged. Ultimately, it’s just physics…. IIT says it’s part and parcel of the universe.” [10]

“I believe because science has shown me, at least in physics and biology,” Koch said, “…(that) there are relatively simple universal laws that explain everything including consciousness, and my mission is…to try to drive such a description.” [11]

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Section divider that uses tiny spaceship in center of horizontal lines.

The idea of neural correlates of consciousness stuck with me. I mentioned it to a friend a couple of days later, but as we were talking, I wondered how it would apply to dreams.

I said something like, “My dreams seem to pull random elements from my experiences, like it’s picking up information and images from all kinds of different places in my brain. It can even manufacture places I’ve never seen.”

As if our spaceships take us to never-before-seen worlds every night.

I remembered a dream where I was lying on top of a concrete slab. There was a man to my left, someone I didn’t recognize. Then I was walking along a path, which I knew was on the right side of a place I wasn’t able to see clearly. After a few steps, I reached a pile of fractured rock, a dike-like structure 15- to 20-feet high. It extended both directions as far as I could see, and a woman was standing in the middle of it.

Then I remembered another dream with a similar setting. I was sitting on the edge of a concrete wall that dropped down about ten feet to a lower level where there were rows of machines in a vast open space. I was trying to get up the courage to jump.

My conversation with my friend continued. “It’s weird that our dreams don’t just draw from reality. I look at the surroundings in my living room and kitchen hundreds of times a day, thousands of times a month. It seems like it would be a lot easier for our minds to use those images, to create dreams that put me in those spaces.”

My friend said, “That’s one of the ways people identify mental illness. When those boundaries begin to fail.”

I said, “That makes sense. How would we know what was real if our dreams occurred in spaces that looked like our homes and workplaces?”

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Section divider that uses tiny spaceship in center of horizontal lines.

We can even talk to people in our dreams, but because we’re asleep, which suggests no one is at the helm, most of us don’t expect to gain anything.

But some people believe dreams offer meaning through metaphorical messages, so they try to interpret them.

Others believe there is even more, like Carl Jung. I now understand why he’s often dismissed. Once that boundary “supposedly” breaks down, and you start to think your subconscious is communicating directly with you, people wonder about your ability to be rational.

However, subconscious mental activity occurs in other ways that are normal, perhaps even rational, like intuition and instinct. We are capable of reacting quickly to subtle stimuli that can help us make important decisions about people around us and our environment.

We accept these phenomena and understand that we can’t directly control them.

Our subconscious can also generate new ideas by bringing together disparate concepts. They are often the result of the hard work of intense analysis, but sometimes they appear effortlessly. We have various kinds of language to describe it. For example:

It was a stroke of luck that Sir Alexander Fleming accidentally contaminated a culture plate, then took a two-week vacation. Then, when he returned, he happened to notice the effect the mold had on the virus, which allowed him to revolutionize medicine. [12]

Why didn’t he just think, Gross. There’s mold in my culture, and quickly sling it into the trash like most of us would have done?

Koch uses similar language when he says, “Then what we discovered serendipitously is… that individual neurons respond very selectively….” [13]

We don’t control many aspects of the creative process.

Some people report events like premonitions, guidance, even hearing the word of God.

They report being directed to the location of someone in a burning building. They tell friends and family that they’re aware of a tragic incident in a town far away. People talk about an “inner voice.” We hear remarkable stories like this all of the time.

They don’t control any of that.

Over the years, I’ve heard conflicting messages:

“Only people who are mentally ill listen to inner voices. It’s not normal to take them seriously.”

“Listen to your inner voice. It will offer you guidance.”

Doesn’t everyone make decisions by listening to an inner voice? Doesn’t everyone find themselves in the position where they can’t make a decision and they go back and forth with arguments about why they should or shouldn’t?

We assume the other side is part of ourselves, but how do we know?

In a number of events over the course of my life, I’ve had a list of reasons why I should make a particular decision. Then, an inner voice provided one “reason” after another about why I should do the opposite. I “changed my mind” and moved forward in a state that was uncomfortable, but still, it seemed like what was happening was normal. Then I watched as utterly profound events unfolded.

I wasn’t alone. Other people were involved, and they were just as astonished, without even knowing what had happened in my mind.

Was that inner voice me? It seems so unlikely given the nature of the events. I had no idea what was coming.

A couple of years ago I found a quote by Carl Jung that describes what he was experiencing. Some of the language he used matched my experiences exactly.

But no one will ever be able to measure any of those events.

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Section divider that uses tiny spaceship in center of horizontal lines.

Since Horgan focused so much on Koch’s personal experience in Chapter One, I had skimmed the ending, but I knew I had to read the chapter again in its entirety if I was going to write about the ideas Horgan and Koch presented.

The conclusion referred to a book Koch had urged Horgan to read, Solaris, which is a story by Stanislaw Lem about encountering a sentient, oceanic mind on another planet.

I thought, How did I miss that? The phrase — encountering a sentient, oceanic mind — is another way to describe what I’ve been experiencing.

Horgan went on to say that Kelvin, the narrator, became as bewildered by his own mind as he was about Solaris. “He’s not sure what is real or unreal, whether he is dreaming, imagining, perceiving. He’s not sure what he wants or doesn’t want.” [14]

It took a little time, but one afternoon I realized that Lem’s description of the encounter is similar to what someone would expect from a bad drug trip. I have heard that those kinds of experiences can be disorienting and scary, but that’s not what I’ve been experiencing. In every situation, my perception was simply one of a participant/observer watching a phenomenal event unfold, and while the other people involved were also astonished, I had even more information than they had.

In the book and in his interview with Koch, Horgan said things like:

1) Everyone should be “free to invent mind-body stories that console and exalt us….” [15]

2) No theory should ever be “the final, definitive solution to the mind-body problem.” [16]

3)I’m beginning to think that it’s wrong, it’s dangerous, for us to think there is a single solution to the mind-body problem…. If we think that, we might foreclose other possibilities that will inhibit our creativity and our freedom, our discovery of new ways to be human….” [17]

Koch said he had to fundamentally disagree.

He said, “We are looking for the one (theory) that explains the most diverse set of facts in the most parsimonious manner possible….And so there will be one. I claim there is one. IIT may be one of the candidates. The other good candidate is global neuronal workspace. Then, once we have that, there isn’t any inherent diversity…. In science, ultimately you want the best explanation. And talking about magic and mysticism and all these other things, that’s fine as a political thing if people want to believe that, they are free to believe that as long as they don’t hurt anybody. But if we really want to help people with schizophrenia, if we want to detect consciousness in patients in an unresponsive wakeful state where you don’t know if there is anybody there or not, we…need a true theory of consciousness that actually tells us something about real brains — why are they wrong and how we can fix them — and for that we need a scientific theory.” [18]

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Section divider that uses tiny spaceship in center of horizontal lines.

Horgan clearly understands that there are mysteries in life. He referred to his feelings about them as “a strange confusion,” a phrase that dates back to Socrates. [19]

In his conclusion, he says, “This book, to be honest, feels incomplete.” [20]

I’ve never studied science in any depth, but still I had questions about Koch’s work. I wondered, What are the odds that a neurosurgeon could place an electrode on the exact neuron, out of a hundred billion, that would recognize the photos they chose that day?

I thought, Something else seems to be going on. Maybe they connected to neurons that process short-term versus long-term memories.

I was also surprised to see Horgan, a science writer, using the word, invent, because I don’t believe that is what anyone is doing when they share stories about the mysteries of life. Their stories reflect their experiences.

Then I thought, What if Koch’s beliefs hurt people?

Consciousness isn’t just a blip on a screen.

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Section divider that uses tiny spaceship in center of horizontal lines.

I know that Horgan meant well when he chose the content he shared from Solaris, but it presents a fictional perspective that is misleading.

My experiences have been uncomfortable, but it seems like it was only in a way to make me turn my attention that direction, to make me notice details that seemed unusual and impress them into my memory. They weren’t threatening in any way.

While I was working on this essay, I took a break and watched a couple of videos by David Chalmers, which covered more current thinking about IIT.

Then, the next video that popped into my feed was “Hypnogogic Consciousness with Adam Crabtree.” I’ve never heard of the word, hynogogic, but it appeared to be related to hypnosis, which has never interested me.

Still, my spaceship seemed driven somehow to turn that way. I hit “Play.”

Then I watched as Crabtree outlined a broader definition of the term, hypnogogic, using yet another type of language “to divide human experience…” between “…the practical, measurable, and countable on one hand, and the meaningful, purposeful, and unfathomable on the other.” [21]

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Section divider that uses tiny spaceship in center of horizontal lines.

FOOTNOTES

1) Horgan, John. “The Neuroscientist: Beyond the Brain.” Mindbodyproblems.com, Horgan.
2) Ibid.
3) Horgan, John. “Neuroscientist Christof Koch | Mind-Body Problems with John Horgan.” MeaningofLife.tv, 24 Dec. 2018, meaningoflife.tv/, 24:00.
4) Ibid., 25:00.
5) Ibid., 25:00 to 31:00.
6) Ibid., 31:00.
7) Ibid., 32:00.
8) Ibid., 33:00.
9) Ibid., 40:00.
10) Ibid., 41:00, 46:00 to 47:00.
11) Ibid., 55:00.
12) “Alexander Fleming.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Nov. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Fleming.
13) Horgan, John. “Neuroscientist Christof Koch | Mind-Body Problems with John Horgan.” MeaningofLife.tv, 24 Dec. 2018, meaningoflife.tv/, 25:00.
14) Horgan, John. “The Neuroscientist: Beyond the Brain.” Mindbodyproblems.com, Horgan.
15) Ibid.
16) Ibid.
17) Horgan, John. “Neuroscientist Christof Koch | Mind-Body Problems with John Horgan.” MeaningofLife.tv, 24 Dec. 2018, meaningoflife.tv/, 53:00.
18) Ibid., 58:00 to 1:00:00.
19) Horgan, John. “The Neuroscientist: Beyond the Brain.” Mindbodyproblems.com, Horgan.
20) Horgan, John. “Wrap-Up: So What?” Mindbodyproblems.com, Horgan.
21) Mishlove, Jeffrey, and Adam Crabtree. “Hypnogogic Consciousness with Adam Crabtree.” Newthinkingallowed.org, www.newthinkingallowed.org/hypnogogic-consciousness-with-adam-crabtree/ and Crabtree, Adam. “Part Two: The Enchanted Boundary.” The Land of Hypnagogia. 2020.

*For clarification, it was a boating trip, a fossil-hunting expedition, where I experienced what I now describe as the amplification of three words in my mind that manifested in an object I found the next day.

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