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Detecting Consciousness (2017) [pdf] (alleninstitute.org)
73 points by marojejian 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments



"...when they were deeply asleep and therefore unconscious."

Advanced meditators are able to be vividly conscious in deep sleep. Though it's probably impossible to describe, the closest might be "consciousness without content." It's subtle enough that most of us overlook it.

Even something as common as lucid dreaming took centuries to be taken seriously. The community at large insisted that it was a delusion. We are probably years away from being able to make sense of the claim that we can be profoundly conscious in deep sleep. Perhaps that can only happen when more of us are trained well enough to experience it for ourselves.

I'll be eager to see how society integrates these kinds of understandings into end-of-life issues, if I'm still around.


> Advanced meditators are able to be vividly conscious in dep sleep.

How can that be known except through self-reporting? At least with lucid dreaming, experiments have shown communication from the subject via eye signals[1]. Has a similar thing being done with meditators?

[1] http://www.historydisclosure.com/scientific-experiment-prove...


Great question. I'm not sure the mind has control of the body in that state. But there's an even more fundamental problem: intention is a form of content, so one would by definition be out of the state by expressing intention.

I'm sure to some this sounds bogus or like a cop-out. But experiencing it (or similar states, as can happen with psychedelics) can impact our waking lives in meaningful ways, so I hope it's not brushed under the rug for much longer.


> How can that be known except through self-reporting?

If meditators remember it then it probably has physical manifestation in whatever mechanisms brains use to remember stuff. Maybe some day it will be possible to observe this being stored in the brain.


I have discussed these techniques with a monk who went trough the Tibetan 3 year, 3 month, 3 days retreat.

Their lucid dreaming techniques is basically similar as how non-mediators train to do it and the training happens towards the end of the several year long isolated retreat. The only difference is the extensive amount of preparation. For example, when you learn to sleep in sitting posture (in a wooden box that supports the posture) sleep becomes naturally more light.

Even then, being able to keep lucid dream constantly is not necessarily easy and the ability do it can disappear quickly. The guy I talked with said that while he learned to wake into lucid dreaming in most nights, he never learned to fall asleep while conscious.

ps. It's interesting how many classical Buddhist 'psycic abilities' can be explained by yogis training in lucid dreaming states. Walking trough walls is classical ability described in Buddhist texts and that's one thing they trained during lucid dreaming.


> It's interesting how many classical Buddhist 'psycic abilities' can be explained by yogis training in lucid dreaming states. Walking trough walls is classical ability described in Buddhist texts and that's one thing they trained during lucid dreaming.

I don't think I see your connection - walking through walls was seemingly possible because yogis dreamed they could do it?


Yes. You can learn to walk trough walls during lucid dreaming and break all physics while dreaming. Then you read from the sutra or hear that some monks long time ago was so advanced that he could do it in real life. It's not so hard to jump into conclusions. Lucid dreaming itself is kind of magic virtual reality.


> Even something as common as lucid dreaming took centuries to be taken seriously.

Umm, what? It was a common belief in bronze-age Greek society; is referred to in the Torah/Old Testament (Pharao's dreams) and of course is a fundamental belief of a number of Australia's aboriginal cultures. I would be shocked if it were not fundamental in many many other cultures (east Asia, the Americas etc) as well. It's not like the experience is not widespread.


What techniques does this involve?


Various traditions have their own systems of meditation. But broadly speaking, sitting practice involves not interfering with the contents of consciousness, while still being vividly awake to them. Then something we might call "the sheer fact of consciousness" becomes more salient, first during meditation sessions, then even in the midst of Times Square, and later even in sleep. Normally, we have such a tight association with the particulars of conscious experience that we cannot help but overlook the primary sense of being common to all of them.

I'm sorry if this all sounds like mystical mumbo-jumbo. Language is admittedly a big barrier here.


I find the wording "detecting consciousness" problematic. They are not detecting consciousness as if they were detecting subatomic particles in a cloud chamber, or pollutants in the water; they are just measuring some neural fireworks that they believe coincide in time with the reported subjective experiences of the patients.

Then there's this:

> The current most promising scientific theory of consciousness [...] is Integrated Information Theory (IIT). [...] IIT emphasizes the differentiated and integrated aspect of any subjective experience and postulates that the mechanism supporting conscious experience in the human brain’s neocortex must likewise incorporate these two attributes.

I don't see any reason why the presumed features of our subjective experience should be "reflected" in the physical working of our brains.


There are two very different things both commonly referred to as consciousness. The first can easily be seen as a 'system' like any other one might study—it's basically the part of our brain that does self-awareness (monitors and reacts to 'lower-level' brain activity). The second usage is about accounting for the existence of qualia/immediate experience (the 'hard problem' of consciousness is reconciling what immediate experience is like with the fact that when we look in brains we only find neurons [basically a restatement of the classic mind-body problem in philosophy, but now with a more narrow/specific aspect of mind deemed problematic]).

I assume the authors are aware of both definitions, but 'consciousness' sounds even more impressive than self-awareness, so...


> I don't see any reason why the presumed features of our subjective experience should be "reflected" in the physical working of our brains.

If subjective experience has absolutely no physical correlates then wouldn't that make it strictly supernatural?

It's a coherent position, but it turns consciousness into an article of religious faith.


Consciousness is supernatural and metaphysical by virtue of it existing outside the natural and physical world. This is true even if we could prove that some formations of matter correlated or even had a one-to-one relationship to consciousness. It's easy to see that the experience of, say, reading this post exists nowhere in this physical universe. In fact, consciousness is the only supernatural phenomenon that we know of, and we even have first-hand, moment-to-moment proof of it.


>It's easy to see that the experience of, say, reading this post exists nowhere in this physical universe.

Never mind easy, I can't see the truth of your proposition at all. Why wouldn't my experience exist in this physical universe? Everything else does and we've never found evidence of a single thing that doesn't. That I experience a feeling of existing in no way at all implies it's not based in physics.


> Everything else does and we've never found evidence of a single thing that doesn't.

Right, consciousness seems to be in its own, unique realm in some way.

> That I experience a feeling of existing in no way at all implies it's not based in physics.

That must be some trippy physics. It's probably safest to be agnostic about it, but it just seems absurd to me to imply that a mathematical formula can produce feeling or experience. How can you describe the experience of qualia mathematically? I think this is the Materialist view gone a step too far. Still, can't rule out any possibility if we're searching for the truth.


They said the same thing about flesh. It cannot simply be made of the same material the makes up rocks and sand. But it is. They said the same thing about thoughts, that they are the domain of the soul. But we've now seen that they're entirely physical and measurable constructs. Same was said about mental disorders. Turns out they're physical deficiencies.

Wouldn't we learn at some point to stop presuming complicated things to be non-physical?


Let’s assume it is a physical process. We can then recreate it away from a body. We run the experiment. Something is now experienced. Who is it that experiences?


Consciousness is as supernatural as natural numbers. Have you heard about philosophical zombie calculator? It looks and operates exactly like a calculator, but it doesn't perform operations on a subset of natural numbers. Your usual calculator experiences natural numbers and tells you about it by displaying them. In zombie calculator there's darkness inside, it doesn't experience anything.

Yes, I'm mocking some philosophers' views. But I haven't seen strong rebuttals.

To be precise I'm mocking the idea that existence of consciousness can depend on some non-physical condition.


Either this is begging the question, or you're defining consciousness explicitly as something that doesn't actually exist.


Of course it exists, I am conscious right now and I presume you are, too. But where are our experiences located? Clearly nowhere in the physical universe. It's a really simple thing to grasp if you're not a dogmatic Materialist.


I was thinking in a naturalist way, it's just that the hypothesis seems naive to me. As I read it, it says more than simply "minds are products of brains": it says that certain characteristics of our subjective conscious experience must have "implementations" that mirror those characteristics quite directly.

I suppose computer analogies are cliché, but consider virtual memory: it gives the illusion of a huge contiguous memory space, when in reality the machine has nothing of the sort. Our brains are much more complex than computers and I suspect extrapolating between "abstraction levels" will be even more risky there.

I also don't see why "Integrated Information Theory" with its "formal calculus" is really required for the methodology of studying patterns of neural activity and trying to match them with self-reported states of consciousness.


Forget religion and consider that the only thing you know for sure is that you exist, because your subjective experience is occurring right now.

The tendency of science is towards naturalism, to the point that anything else is considered nonsense, but who knows what's really happening?


Consciousness connects the symbols with real world, it’s the awareness by understanding abstract concepts and maintaining some model of reality. Without that you wouldn’t be more conscious than a thermometer. So maybe it’s just some self-referring logical model that is totally independent of physical world but at the same time needs the physical world to provide some hosting hardware


You’re describing solipsism.


> I don't see any reason why the presumed features of our subjective experience should be "reflected" in the physical working of our brains.

Except for our entire body of scientific knowledge, and the long, long history of presumption of human uniqueness that were repeatedly refuted. In 50 years, the specialness of human consciousness will join vitalism in the history of quaint ideas.


> I find the wording "detecting light" problematic. They are not detecting light, they are just measuring some pigment changes on a metal plate that they believe coincide in time with the reported subjective experiences of light.


But in the case of light, we are detecting a physical thing that is related by causal chains to the change in pigments.

The relationship between the subjective feeling of consciousness and the measured neural patterns doesn't seem to be of the same nature. When I see the color blue, does that "cause" anything in my brain?


Light is not physical, it is a subjective experience. It doesn't exist except in the mind.

Photons, other various kinds of radiation, do seem to exist outside of minds.


For those who missed it, erikpukinskis is demonstrating that danidiaz's argument proves too much: that is, it works just as well to prove that we can't detect light as consciousness.

http://slatestarcodex.com/2013/04/13/proving-too-much/


Should it be reflected in our soul?


Our what now? How would you tell?


The existence of true unconsciousness is clouded by a seemingly-impenetrable self-reporting problem:

From the perspective of recall, unconsciousness is indistinguishable from a gap in memory.

There is no way for a person to determine whether they were truly unconscious or just conscious at a sub-memory level.

(This is why I personally doubt the existence of true unconsciousness. I think it’s entirely possible that consciousness is uninterruptible, at least during the lifetime of a conscious organism.)


I used to worry about this a lot, especially in the context of anesthesia and whether I was conscious during my surgery and just blocking all memory of it. Does it even matter if we don't remember it? It's an interesting question. Can we form lasting traumas and phobias without any memory, conscious or unconscious, of the event? Who knows. The brain is incredibly complicated and, to my knowledge at least, we still don't even know how anesthesia works.


I know this is going to sound bullshit but hear me out. I agree with you, because when I took DMT it really felt like for the first time in my life, my brain had been completely reset. I had to re-remember absolutely everything, including the fact that i existed. This doesn't happen when you wake up, instead it feels like you just appeared in the real world, having just recently experienced things in dreams that you may or may not remember.

DMT was not fun, also


It can also feel like one is not exactly re-remembering the world, but re-creating it. As if one is recalling the trick of creating the world.


This is fantastic research about detecting consciousness in the human brain specifically, but I haven't come across much discussion about detecting consciousness in general, in arbitrary arrangements of matter, and by simple inspection (by poking it and seeing how it reacts) Poking it is the traditional way (eg behavioral tests), but that limits detection to only those conscious phenomenon we succeed at poking, and simultaneously succeed at detecting a reaction from (eg it doesn't take 10,000 years to react, or emits chemical pheromone signals that aren't detected/recognized, or communicates via micro-range RF, or something).

I call this the "intelligent lifeform sensor" problem, after the implementation from Star Trek.

Consciousness is clearly an information theoretical phenomenon that occurs in matter. There should be some sort of general information-theoretical description that applies to matter (be it cephalopods, or rocks, or fungal networks, or exploding stars, or....)


This is about a new technique for detecting consciousness that borrows from computer science. I found the article to be approachable by a layman.




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