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Consciousness and Structure

There are no absolute boundaries in our current understanding of physical reality. The fundamental particles of physics are as much or more diffuse fields7 then point like entities. This is reflected in the nebulous nature of conscious experience. The simplest assumption is that the focus and intensity of consciousness is a reflection of the focus and intensity of physical structure. The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, said it well.

It is part of the Cartesian mode to think of consciousness as being something peculiar to the head, that the head is the organ originating consciousness. It isn't. The head is an organ that inflects consciousness in a certain direction or to a certain set of purposes. But there is consciousness here in the body. The whole living world is informed by consciousness. [3, 18]

Consciousness can be focused or diffuse. It is focused when many structures in the brain act in a highly coordinated way. The depth and subtlety of this coordination is the depth and subtlety of immediate experience.

Human consciousness is like an intense beam of light in a faintly glowing background. The development of an embryo into a baby is a gradual build up in intensity and focus that continues as the child develops. The light returns to a dim background in death. With extreme trauma to the brain, there is a nearly instantaneous shift away from intense focus that continues to diffuse as the remaining intact neural connections cease to function. In death from Alzheimer's the dimming is gradual over many years.

This shifting of focus and intensity is a physical process that we can measure, record and directly influence. Progress in neural science suggests that all structural aspects of consciousness will, in time, fall into the domain of science. Structural aspects are everything we can model mathematically, including shapes, relationships like larger, brighter or louder etc. Also included are relationships that are hard to understand analytically, but that artificial neural networks8 can be trained to recognize.

Eventually we should be able to model all structural aspects of immediate experience as neural correlates of consciousness (NCC). By this I mean we will have discovered dynamic neural structures that are isomorphic to everything we experience. Direct manipulation of these structures will directly alter conscious experience in a predictable way. One example is research on phantom limbs[22, 1608]. We will have mapped all the structures that contribute to consciousness. This will go far to bridge the gap between mental state and external reality but a seemingly unbridgeable chasm will remain.

The secret to bridging this remaining gap is to understand that it is a matter of perspective. Structures in the brain directly connected to memory and languages are indirectly affected by external reality through sense organs and complex neural processing that occurs prior to conscious experience. It is the indirectness of these external connections, and the way external information is manipulated by our nervous system before entering consciousness, that distinguishes our relationship to our internal stream of consciousness from our relationship to the external world.

The distinction between internal and external reality is not absolute. It exists on a continuum. Consider the difference between visual perception of color and spatial relationships. The experiences of red, green and blue have no structural correspondence to what is detected in the eye, i. e., light of specific frequencies. Rather the structure of those sensations, evolved because of the relevance of objects with those colors to our survival. For example red stands out probably in part because it is important to pay attention to blood. This contrasts with our perception of spatial relationships (left, right, above and below) where our conscious experience is isomorphic to a two dimensional projection of what exists physically in three dimensions. There is a close structural relationship between external spatial relationships and our visual experience of them. We experience spatial relationships more directly than we experience the frequency of light. Sound is an intermediate case. We hear the relationship between sound frequencies (higher and lower notes), but not as distinctly (at least for most of us) as we visually perceive spatial relationships.

Our sense of self is an evolved feature of the mind with enormous practical value but there is no absolute boundary between external and internal structure or between self and not self. There is only a single enormously complex evolving universe that we are an integral part of.


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