In Part 5 of the series we looked at a three structure model of conscious experience, neural activity and language. These three ‘structures’ are important components of any detailed discussion of the mind-brain distinction.
A Three Structure Model of Neural Activity in Relation to Consciousness and Language
Looking more closely at this model it can be seen that there is something distinct about the ‘conscious’ component of the model. This cannot be properly described through external observation. Conscious experience is something that we experience or else can understand in others through an empathic process which usually involves drawing inferences from the language that is spoken to us. In this way, conscious experience is very distinct from language and neural activity. We can understood neural activity through physiological investigation – functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, single electrode recording, electroencephalography, magnetoencephalography and so on.
We can understand language through meaning which implies using conscious experience to interpret this. However we can also analyse language by more abstract means which avoid the need for conscious experience. This can be demonstrated quite easily by making use of the Google translate feature. This feature translates text from one language to another. This is just one example of what happens when language is analysed without the medium of conscious experience. Conscious experience applies both to the subject being studied and to the observer. Theoretically therefore it is possible to study the neural correlates of abstract properties of language such as the number of times a certain word is used within a paragraph without the intermediary of conscious experience. Conscious experience may have been used earlier to construct the algorithms used to identify individual words and match them with words in a database. Once this work is done however the conscious experience intermediary is no longer needed. This is similar to the remarkable Gallant study where film footage was reverse engineered through the processing of fMRI data and movie data that had been watched previously. The conscious experience intermediary was obviated once these prior steps had been taken.
However considering neural activity and superficial aspects of language without looking at conscious experience is like being cast adrift in a rudderless ship. We may enjoy the ride but our destination remains a mystery. Conscious experience enables a narrative which shapes our inner world. The narrative breathes ‘life’ into action potentials and this ‘life’ becomes the spoken word. I may read a paragraph of writing. Each time I can speak it aloud without error. Each time I can understand what it is that is written. Each time I can rephrase it and retain the meaning. This is so obvious to our daily existence that we do not give it a second thought. But deconstruct it into the separate components above and the illusion shatters. We must then face the wondrous awe that is conscious experience assembled from the electrical activity of billions of neurons mediated through trillions of synapses. Happening from moment to moment. Without us needing to think about it.
Consciousness attracts people. Philosophers contemplate it. Romantics channel it. Empiricists deny it. Neurophysiologists measure it. Psychoanalysts explore it. Anaesthetists dampen it. Comedians brighten it. Adventurers actualise it. Authors communicate it. Anatomists localise it. Musicians play it. Dramatists exaggerate it. Leaders inspire it. Communities share it. And we all live in it. Yet when consciousness is modelled or described with colourful neuroimages there is an immediate sense that something wonderful has been lost. That an absurd reduction has been made which misses the point. What we are implicitly aware of is the magnificence of the show that the brain puts on for us. This is not just the output of lots of neurons showing their synergy. It is the output of layer upon layer of neurons, magnificent in their numbers but also magnificent in the specialisation of their assemblies. When we consider how all of these specialised neurons coordinate their roles so effortlessly it has become too much.
At the interface between mind and brain we see on one side the elegant stream of consciousness that Descarte’s homunculus sees on the brain’s projector screen. On the other side we see the projector, an elegant work of engineering whose activities match the stream of consciousness from second to second. We no longer have to leave it there. Little by little the architecture of the brain’s consciousness machinery is being clarified. There is a permission for our understanding of the stream of consciousness to become more refined. But along the way we must never lose sight of the special place that consciousness has and how we must cherish this meaning. Exploring the machinery of consciousness must not result in a dry taxonomy that can be processed without the need for conscious experience. Instead the machinery of consciousness must be contextualised as it is understood. Life must be breathed into this understanding so that it has social as well as academic meaning. So that this understanding inspires joy rather than caution or perplexion.
Related Resources on the TAWOP Site
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