I’m still working my way through Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka’s tome: The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul. This is the second post of a series on their book. I’m actually on the last chapter, but that last chapter is close to a hundred pages long, and the book’s prose is dense. Light reading it isn’t.
Still, it includes a vast overview of the study of consciousness and the mind, not just in contemporary times, but going back to the 19th century and beyond. For anyone looking for a broad historical overview of the scientific study of the mind, and is willing to put in some work to parse the prose, it’s worth checking out.
As I noted in the first post, G&J aren’t focusing on human level consciousness, that is, higher order metacognitive self awareness and symbolic thought, the “rational soul.” Similar to the work by Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallatt, their focus is on minimal consciousness, often called “primary consciousness”. They equate this minimal consciousness with sentience, the ability to have subjective experiencing (they prefer “experiencing” to just “experience”), which they relate to Aristotle’s “sensitive soul.”
Even having defined this scope however, there remains lots of room for different interpretations. In an attempt to more precisely define the target of their investigation, they marshal information from contemporary neurobiology and cognitive scientists, along with their theories, to describe seven attributes of minimal consciousness.
- Global activity and accessibility. It’s widely agreed that consciousness is not localized in narrow brain regions. Although the core ignition and distribution mechanisms might be localized to particular networks, it involves content widely available from disparate brain regions broadcast or made available to the other specialty processes that otherwise work in isolation.
- Binding and unification. The unified nature of conscious perception, such as experiencing the sight of a dog rather than all the constituent sensory components. Many theories see this being associated with the synchronized firing of neurons in various brain regions, built with recurrent connections between those regions.
- Selection, plasticity, learning, and attention. We are generally conscious of only one thing at a time, or one group of related things. This involves competition and selection of the winner with the losers inhibited. It also involves plasticity, which enables learning.
- Intentionality (aboutness). Conscious states are about something, which may be something in the world or the body. The notion of mental representation is tightly related to this attribute.
- Temporal “thickness”. Neural processing that is quick and fleeting is not conscious. To be conscious of something requires that the activity be sustained through recurrent feedback loops, both locally and globally.
- Values, emotions, goals. Experience is felt, that is, it has a valence, a sense of good or bad, pleasure or pain, satisfaction or frustration. These are the attributes that provide motivations, impetus, to a conscious system, that propel it toward certain “attractor” states and away from others.
- Embodiment, agency, and a notion of “self”. The brain is constantly receiving feedback from the body, providing a constant “buzz”, the feeling of existence. This gives the system a feeling of bodily self. (Not to be confused with the notion of metacognitive self in human level consciousness.)
G&J refer to this as “the emergentist consensus.” It seems to pull ideas from global workspace theory, various recurrent loop theories, Damasio’s theories of self and embodiment, and a host of other sources.
It’s important to note that these attributes aren’t free standing independent things. They interact with and depend on each other. For example, for a sensory image to be consciously perceived (4), it must achieve (1) global availability by winning (3) selective attention by (2) binding, which results in (5) temporal thickness and strengthens the plasticity aspect of (3). This process may trigger a reaction which goes through a similar process to achieve (6) value. All with (7) as a constant underlying hum, subtly (or not so subtly) stacking the deck of what wins (3).
So that’s G&J’s target. Their goal is to identify functionality, capabilities which demonstrate these attributes in particular species. Their focus is on learning capabilities, which I’ll go into in the next post.
What do you think about these attributes? Do they strike you as necessary and sufficient for minimal consciousness, the “sensitive soul”? Or are they too much, bringing in inessential mechanisms?