Thinking about thinking and vice versa

“A human being might be more a verb than a noun” a friend said, discussing consciousness. A great line, that. There may not be a mind as much as a process, he explained. I’d been reading that theory too. What we think of as us is just the result of a lot of various brain processes. There was an air of mystery to it.  There is no there there, someone else chimed in. I liked that line, too. But neither it nor the verb line quite did it for me. But it got me to thinking, and then to writing, and writing, and writing. Rather than sleeping, sleeping, and sleeping, which would have been a much better idea, running on fumes as I am.

But when discussing the nature of consciousness, I just don’t think there’s a difference between it being a process or a thing. It’s still all neurology, which is just a way of saying physiology. Except we can’t say physiology until we actually know to a fairly definitive degree what neurons are doing what that allows for consciousness–aka the human mind–to happen.  But you can say the same thing about climate. There’s a whole bunch of things that combine in all kinds of varied ways to create what we call “climate”. But very few are a complete mystery to us anymore. They can all be explained and modelled. Debated, yes, and various models drawn up, but they are all models based on data. We’re not there with the mind yet.  We know that it’s all neurology, we just don’t know exactly what does what in order to make us conscious. But once we do, we will no longer think of it as a verb. We’ll call it a process, a thing. It’ll be a noun.

But as I said, we aren’t there yet. And since we aren’t there yet, we tend to ascribe it a sense of mystery  that makes it more than a mere thing. But that sense of mystery is just a state of ignorance. That is, we don’t know how it works yet.  Once we do, it’ll no longer be a philosopher’s quandary, a mysterious unknowable thing, a process that can’t be reduced to a noun…it’ll no longer be anything other than a process that can be described like any other process. Nothing metaphysical about it.

Neurology and cognitive science have advanced at such an incredibly prodigious rate since the 1980’s that its difficult for non-specialists to even conceive of what all the new knowledge means. There is so much known about us now, about what our neural networks do, about how so much of our behavior can be located in places in the brain that can literally be seen and touched…and yet we still don’t even have ways to understand it except in neurological terms. yet we really are the result of patterns of electro-chemical responses in our neurons and glia. If your electrolytes run low, a neuron can’t carry the charge its receiving from another neuron to the next. No potassium, no thought. My wife’s heart stopped that way, and with it, her brain. (Both were revived, thankfully.) Or too much potassium and the neuron begins firing too many adjacent neurons and you can have epilepsy (which is why I have to be very careful with bananas and high potassium foods.) And while these very simple chemical processes are at the root of human consciousness, it’s the astonishingly complex lattice of interactions across the 100 million neurons and hundreds of billions of possible synaptic connections that create the thing we call consciousness…a process that as of now is simply too vast and complex and variable for us to really understand as a whole.

Which is a shame, because until we can conceptualize that whole, consciousness–what we are–will be an unfathomable mystery. But we couldn’t discuss the universe a century ago like we do now. Today it’s not only the subject of documentary series, where physicists describe cosmology and even theoretical physics for laymen, but those laymen, millions of them, are able to understand what is being explained to them. They can conceive it. The human brain can, by now, turn all that physics into a model it can see in its mind’s eye. We can’t yet do that with the neurology of consciousness. I like to think we are at the same stage now with our own neurology as we were a hundred years ago with conceptualizing evolution. People then knew that there was such a thing, but they had to think of it as a mysterious process called “evolution”. Now we know how it works, and evolution isn’t a mysterious process at all. It’s something we can conceptualize so readily that unless we’re religious, there’s no mystery to it at all. It’s a wikipedia entry.

We’re a couple decades away from that as far as human consciousness goes. But it too will stop being a mystery, will stop being so difficult to conceive of. I’m not saying it will be figured out yet, but it will be seen as a noun, a thing, something that can be explained as a physiological process. By then there will no longer be philosophers involved in the discussions, any more than philosophers are involved in oncology or genetics or climate science now. At some point science becomes mechanics, a study of process.

As far as the mind and consciousness goes, we’re not at the point yet where the process has been defined or even discovered. It’s like a 16th century map with big empty spaces unhelpfully labeled terra incognita.  And for laymen like us, several steps removed from the state of the science, we’re left in the dark, and almost always a couple years–even a few years–behind the research.  And then the competing theories are still being battled out in the journals, consensus is far off. But I think that in a generation at most we’ll be working with a model of human consciousness just like we have a working model of evolution today.

By then we’ll no longer asking if there’s a there there, or think that there might not even be a source of consciousness, or debating whether consciousness is a noun or a verb. All our discussions, and certainly an essay like this, will seem terribly quaint. Consciousness will be understood as a process, we’ll know to a much greater degree just where in the brain it’s located and how it happens, and it won’t ruin anything. I think there’s a fear that if we discover the actual mechanics of consciousness it’ll ruin everything somehow. That we need the mystery. But understanding evolution didn’t ruin everything, nor did the discovery of our tiny insignificant place in the universe. What we are, what makes us people, makes us cognitive beings is based on much more than theories of mind, universe or genetics. And none of that will be changing soon. After all, we invented the Internet (the only human creation that comes anywhere near the complexity of the human brain) and then filled it with porn. If baboons invented the internet they would have filled it with porn, too. And if baboons could they’d have TMZ. We’re all primates. Knowing exactly what consciousness is won’t change that a bit.

It’s now 6 am and I’ve spent the whole night writing about thinking. I began the night thinking about sleeping. Which I’d better try to do a little bit before it’s too late.

Neurons of the neocortex–your consciousness is in there somewhere. Photograph by Benjamin Bollmann, from Sebastian Seung’s connectomethebook.com

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