How do we think, and how much of how we think is understood by contemporary science? What is consciousness
, anyway? Machio Kaku, in his Future of the Mind (2014), covers a lot of ground. I draw out three things: .
- A history of neuroscience which has important lessons for people who listen to science-backed advice.
- Kaku’s model of consciousness, which places the ability to simulate and predict the future at the center of what makes us human.
- The corporation as an analogy for how we think. Our conscious mind is only the CEO, nearly all of the action in our brain happens beneath.
Want to know more?
This blog post is part of a series I am making called Reading For The Aspirational Self. Don’t think of this as book summaries – I’m not doing that. Instead, I’m drawing out specific lessons that I find particularly interesting. And which I think could act, together, to help people who share my aspirations. If you, too, want to be present, family-centric, intrinsically motivated and polymathic, I can help.
- The most distilled version of what I’m offering is a free mailing list designed for learning, “Think On Thursday” – each e-mail will include a lesson designed around the content. Click here for some information on that.
- The series is also on YouTube in the form of 7-12 minute videos. Here’s the channel link – the video and transcript are below.
- I’m tweeting excerpts from the videos, as well as some of the story of this project, how we’re doing it, and where it is going, on Twitter. @DaveCBeck
If you want to know more about Reader, Come Home take a look at Kaku’s website here.
This week’s video:-
How do we think? To what extent does our science understand our brain? What is consciousness anyway? These are some of the questions tackled by Michio Kaku and his Future Of The Mind
In this video, I’ll firstly, give an overview of the history of neuroscience and what our technology does allow us to understand of the brains operation, as well as what it doesn’t. Secondly, I’ll explore Kaku’s model of consciousness, which places the ability to simulate and to predict the future at its center.
And, finally, a short discussion of the analogies that we use to describe the mind from clocks to computers, to corporations.
(section – on neuroscience)
Neuroscience, the understanding of the physical basis of the way that the brain operates really began in the late 19th century. With the understanding that the frontal lobe was linked to personality, the temporal lobe to communication, and then other locally-based injuries on the brain had specific effects on how people behaved afterwards.
In the 1930s, Wilder Penfield, who was performing surgery to try and help epileptic patients, discovered something very interesting. Specific parts of the cortex corresponded in a one-to-one way with specific parts of the body, shocking them would produce reactions in specific parts of the body and that further localized this idea of the brain.
And he also found that by stimulating an area of the brain called the temporal lobe, you could stimulate patients long-term memories. You could bring back memories that they thought they’d forgotten, which again, shows that even things that, were assumed to be permanent, like forgetting, are maybe not.
In the 1960s, an overall model of the brain was proposed based on evolutionary history, dividing the brain into three component parts. Firstly have the reptilian brain, which I always remember with the four Fs. So flight, fight, food and fornicating, the four Fs.
Secondly, the mammalian brain, which is developed around the reptilian brain. And this is most of your body’s homeostasis. Most of how your body self regulates a lot of this stuff you’re not conscious of. This is where your emotions mainly originate from. This is where lots of the sensory processing occurs. Things that all mammals have, you have as well. And the brain structures are very similar, really.
And thirdly is the human brain. So this is the cerebral and the neocortex, which is itself sub-divided into four component parts in the 1960s as well. And the human brain is what enables our language skills, our more advanced reasoning skills and particularly emotional regulation, which is more developed in humans than in other creatures.
Over time, this subdivision has become ever more accurate. So now, you will have seen evidence from things called F MRI scans, brain imaging, which divides the brain into up to 400,000 voxels. And that can either be focused in 400,000 voxels of this part of the brain or across the whole brain?
That’s an incredible spatial resolution that is achievable now. But the temporal resolution, so that the time precision of FMR eye scans, isn’t wonderful. It’s an average over two or three seconds because it’s based on the way that blood flows through the brain, specifically oxygenated blood, which indicates energy usage in different parts of the brain.
There are other types of scans and you might be familiar with the acronyms EEG and MEG. And these scans allow better temporal resolution in many ways, but while losing some spatial resolution. But our understanding of the brain has advanced hugely. You will have seen neuroscience in the news, an incredible amount over the last 10 years.
And to a degree that’s a justified prominence. The steps that are being made in our understanding of the brain are quite phenomenal. However, we still can’t predict how a nematode worms brain works and a nematode worm has about 300 or so neurons as compared to your brain, which has a hundred billion.
Even with a full connectome of a nematode worms brain and the connectome is a map of how all of the 302neurons connected to each other and interact in theory. Even with that fully developed connectome. And we’ve had that for a few years now, we can’t predict what a real nematode worm will do. We can simulate a nematode worm’s brain and play with it and kind of offer it different stimuli and see what the simulated version does.
But we can’t accurately predict what the real nematode worm does. And that shows one of the many limits of the way that neuroscience works, even understanding neurons arguably will not allow you to understand the brain. And this is something that Kaku argues quite strongly, the human brain with it’s over a hundred billion neurons is on a different scale entirely.
So, to give you an idea of the numerical difference there, um, 300 meters is roughly the top of the Eiffel tower or the Chrysler building. A hundred billion meters gets you just past Mars, currently. That’s the difference in scale and those of you who don’t understand exponentials wont kind of get this, but if you think about the connections between a hundred billion neurons, it’s not just a linear change, it’s an exponential change too. The complexity is phenomenal.
And, as far as Kaku was concerned, in 2014, we were a long, long way from understanding even a small portion of the human brain. And most neuroscientists would agree with that now just by claims you hear to the contrary.
(section – how conscious are we?)
Consciousness for Kaku is feedback loops. It’s all about taking in stimuli and responding to them in a certain way. So, the way he orders kind of the ability of things to do that is along a linear scale from 0 to 3 at the moment, which is humans. At 0, we have things like flowers, which might be able to respond to say 10 different stimuli. So there’s 0 colon 10.
You could also think of a thermostat a conscious. So thermostat can respond to temperature. The thermostat can flick a switch on the basis of a temperature. So that’s 0 colon 1, 1, as far as Kakus scale is concerned
At level 1 on the consciousness scale, we have things which are mobile and have a central nervous system. The example he gives of this is reptiles. So these are things which can respond to the environment around them. Sometimes in quite complex ways, taking into account a number of different stimuli from their need for food, food, to the heat that they need to manage over the course of the day.
What marks out stage two of consciousness for Kaku, the ability to respond to individuals particularly of the same species. This also involves emotions and feeling which excludes the insect to otherwise be here, because they do respond to members of the same species. The complexity level, as far as Kaku is concerned scales with the tribes size. So as tribes of a species get bigger, the complexity of level two consciousness gets bigger because you need that recognition and understanding of individuality at a higher and higher levels.
So, humans before the cognitive revolution lived in tribes of about 150. So we were 2 colon 150 at that point in our evolution. So this is the mammalian mind, the limbic system and things like theory of mind, the ability to recognize another and, use what are called our mirror neurons to, to mirror their actions and intentions. You see this in mammals.
Level three is what humans are. And, what distinguishes humans for Kaku is their ability to simulate the future and to make predictions so that we can intervene, do things differently and affect the future. It’s this ability to look at ever further into the future that for Kaku sets humans apart from all other species .
When you see kids playing and they’re doing what kids always do, inventing games that adults don’t understand, what they’re doing is they’re simulating a world. They’re simulating an alternative future stripped of some of its complexity, as they learn to simulate the real world in their brains too.
(section – analogies for consciousness)
So over the past few millennia, we have had several different models in which humans have tried to form an analogy of how the human, as a thing works, of how our conscious reasoning operates. This is ranged from the homonculus to the clock, to the steam engine, to the computer, and now to the internet. So I’ll just mention a couple of those.
The clock is an interesting one. The idea that we are mechanistic beings, and that there are certain physical inputs that we receive and we react to those and respond in a way that would be predictable. The internet model takes greater account of the way that we’re all connected on an ever increasing scale. And the way that one of our actions influences everybody else as well, at least on a local scale, but also through things that you might notice, the butterfly effect has ripple effects that span far beyond our immediate social networks.
So for Kaku, this is better than, than the clock as an analogy, but it doesn’t recognise the way that information flows through the brain. So, the analogy that he proposes is the corporation.
Your conscious mind is just the chief executive officer of a corporation. Just the one who makes the final decisions on the important matters. Most of the work in your brain is actually done subconsciously. The conscious mind might ratify them, but they’re made subconsciously we’ve known about this since Benjamin Libet showed in 1985, that for most decisions like which way we’re going to reach our hand out if presented with two things that we can grab, for most decisions that have relatively simple, theyre made by our subconscious mind before our conscious mind knows about it. There have been many studies that prove this and the same goes for things that we don’t even know what happening inside our body.
So you don’t know how your digestion is working right now, probably, but it is, it just does itself. This is part of the brain that is way beyond the level of conscious understanding, but all of those subconscious processes also impact your conscious mind and they affect the level of brain chemicals. If you want to take the neuroscience route, they affect the level of brain chemicals that influence your mood, that influence your decision-making.
The subconscious mind is incredibly important. It also filters the sensory input you get. Only some of that goes to your conscious mind. The CEO only sees the final reports.
Emotions can be thought of as rapid responses, taken at a lower level. And then if it’s a particularly important thing that we need to think about, our conscious mind should intervene if our brain is working properly. Our conscious mind should be able to regulate those emotions and make a different decision. Because of that wider visibility that our conscious mind has, as opposed to our emotions that respond more immediately to stimuli and along with the census.
A conscious mind, the bit that we see, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.