Phenomenal Consciousness As A Survival Strategy

“..a natural language is not only imperfect, but even in principle incoherent.”     Frege

Figure #1


       In a previous article we labored to put into perspective the enormous complexity of the task involved in trying to reach an ontological definition of consciousness (“Ruminations on the Essence and Existence of Consciousness”). It was noted then that the entity ‘consciousness’ has no measurable dimensions to delimit its extension or localize its position in space time or hyperspace. Other than a first person, self-evident human experience, can we objectively intuit its essence rationally?

        A rational dissection need not imply a methodological restriction to a logical manipulation of sense-phenomenal perceptual intuitions of objective physical reality assisted by laboratory confirmations. To escape the methodological straight jacket of scientific methodology and free ourselves from the limitations imposed by the narrow scope of the human brain combinatorial capacities to deal with the multi-factorial, multi-modal variables, we have to reach out into the un-chartered territories of quantum mechanics, computer assisted cog science and metaphysical logic. The natural faculties of sensation, reflection and faith are being tested as to the certainty or probability of their propositions or truth values when deductively / inductively challenged.

          After several articles outlining the magnitude, complexity and multidisciplinary nature of this problem, it is high noon that we should start to assemble the scaffolding to focus on a marketable explanation of the ‘easy problem’ of phenomenal first order consciousness before we even try tackling the ‘hard and hot’ (high order thoughts) conundrum of self-consciousness. In so doing we enunciate once more our guiding principle: consciousness integrates the biological, psychological (spiritual?) and sociological dimensions of human survival in its ecological niche. Within this general context we make three assumptions;

1) man’s unconscious priority is his individual biologic and mental viability / survival and that of his species (the survival / reproductive imperative).

2) this goal is accomplished by the elaboration of eco-logic and anthropo-logic strategies by the Turing component of his brain assisted by a

3) theo-logic orientation to accommodate the extra-sensorial, extra-physical presence.

       The first premise is self-evident under behavioral optics, the third one is well documented under historical optics. The second premise links the other too in a comprehensive, coherent, consistent and credible fashion, not necessarily aiming at an absolute account of the Kantian ‘reality in itself’ but a working reality we can peacefully and productively live with (see “The Qualitative Jump to Self Consciousness.”).

         Within such framework, after much reflexive activity, we have come to visualize language as a common denominator predicate underlying the manifestation of all such premises at various stages of human life. This additional premise is supported by our contention that language is a system of symbolic representations containing a combinatorial syntax structure layered during intra-uterine and post-natal life over an inherited combinatorial semantic foundation, i.e., a layering of social memory over genetic memory (see “Regenerative Semantics and Generative Grammar in Pre-Linguistic Organ.”). Thus conceived, language expressions in all their forms and hues, from signs to sounds to movements, bond the primeval past with the future, the inherited with the acquired, the spiritual abstract with the concrete physical, the biological with the sociological, the individual with the group, the observed with the inferred, the certain with the alleatory, the immanent with the transcendental, technology and philosophy, art and science.

          This essay may be considered an expansion and further buttressing of our original premises, an attempt to reconcile our model of consciousness with new multidisciplinary experimental data. The most important feature is our continued exploration of the ‘proto-linguistic organ’ (Fig.1, peri-Sylvian cortex) as the brain’s command and control center and prototype of consciousness, all based on its involvement with language processing. In the interest of expositional clarity we will divide our discussion of phenomenal consciousness (using the ‘proto linguistic organ’ example) in three segments, neurological, cognitive-theoretic and metaphysical.


            Neurological. We have examined in various previous publications how the brain reacts to novelty, especially environmental stimuli in the form of potentially noxious objects or events. In such analysis we were able to identify ultra-fast unconscious sub-cortical events and delayed responses processed at higher cortical levels we assumed to be pre-conscious. In both cases we also identified the underlying neuronal connectivity and synaptic neurotransmitters responsible for the behavioral and neuro-physiological responses recorded. Whereas the stereotyped ‘freeze’ reflex motor sequences, as described, may adequately explain a biological / reproductive survival adaptive response to a potential threat novelty, it is inadequate to describe garden-variety adaptive responses though they may share much of the neuronal circuitry. Our suspicion about the co-existence of two independent systems mediating novelty responses, instantiated in the temporal and parietal lobes respectively is now supported by recent evidence from studies in the visual system (vide infra). They coincide with our contention that each lobe handles different aspects of objective reality as evidenced in our description of a novelty response in two stages, an unconscious on-line audio-visual adaptive reflex and a delayed off-line control of same action focusing on the context surrounding the phenomenal event. We believe that such neuronal circuitry common to both situations involves the ‘proto-linguistic organ’ and may well represent the homuncular locus for phenomenal consciousness as argued below. To follow is additional neurological, cognitive and metaphysical evidence in support of that model. We continue to view the proto-linguistic organ as a complex adaptive survival system as the title suggests. As such, we will discuss how a limited number of simple elements (codelets) spontaneously assemble themselves into a hierarchy of increasing levels of complexity. (see Holland 1998).

We believe the amygdaloidal component of the ‘proto linguistic organ’ (plo) plays a fundamental role in language development. It guides the pertinent neuronal overlap accompanying the unfolding of the human embryonic genetic memory while in the container womb and its subsequent post-natal modification. The emergence of ‘self’ in the newborn is preceded by the satisfaction of basic nutritional survival needs in the womb and during the first month of lactation when eye contact with the mother is first made. This event signals the beginning of an ongoing interactive signaling process slowly evolving into the primitive psychological structure of the newborn. We must keep in mind that the driving force behind this process in the newborn is a Freudian diminution or extinction of urge and an inborn curiosity and need for stimulation. Self organization is a description of how perceptual external objects in the immediate vicinity of the newborn will progressively be no longer considered as exclusively related to feeding or as an extension of self (see “The Emergence of Self”).

          We have also speculated before about the existence of an audio-visual ‘gallery’ of sorts in the amygdaloidal complex storing basic coded genetic information for the individual-biologic and species-social survival, for the biological preservation of self and the perpetuation of the species. The organism biological survival is predicated on the amygdaloidal activation of autonomic and endocrine servo-control mechanisms; the social adaptation to the hostile environmental milieu depends on the elaboration of an effective communication system, a language. We are now prepared to further argue our case with new experimental data and fresh philosophical insights.

          Recent data suggesting the existence of non-conscious visual experience has generated the two-independent systems theory of vision (see Milner and Goodale, 1995, two distinct visual systems, instantiated in the temporal and parietal lobes respectively. They conclude that the parietal lobe ‘unconsciously’ handles the on-line visual control (e.g., driving along a highway) whereas the ‘phenomenally conscious’ temporal lobes are primarily concerned with more off-line functions such as visual learning and object recognition. The temporal-lobe system is supposed to have access both to property information and to spatial information (via angular gyrus). In this study, it makes a distinction between a combined what-where system located in the temporal lobes and a how-to or action-guiding system located in the parietal lobes. In our case we have reported before on the synaptic plasticity affecting the amygdalae’s adaptive response to life-threatening environmental stimuli where a delayed secondary response enters into play to modify the original response. See also J. Biol. Psychiatry 1999 Nov. 1 46(9):1140. There is also evidence of a possibly related independent secondary system involving the baso-lateral amygdaloidal nucleus participation in memory consolidation most likely through its connections with the prefrontal cortex. These activities strongly extend the role of the amygdale to include attention (input to magno-cellular basal forebrain) and cognition.

In a related way there has been a steady build up of literature on pattern recognition and perception of facial expressions (see Cottrell J. Cognitive Neuroscience 2002). Before that publication we had detailed the significance of that type of research in the context of language development (“Regenerative Semantics & Generative Grammar in Pre-Linguistic Organ”). Based on those results we suggested how the newborn encodes mother’s baby talk sounds and gestures, priming the hippocampus formation into syntactic ordering and coding activity after the phonemes had been processed in the first system (amygdale) for their primeval semantic content (phonemic codelets) as it related to biological preservation. We will have more to add below.

Another piece of neurological evidence of disjunctive separation of functions concludes that the sensorimotor perceptual system is functionally and anatomically distinct from the object-recognition / conscious system. These are seen in cases of a neurological syndrome called ‘visual form agnosia’ caused by carbon monoxide poisoning damage to both temporal lobes, leaving primary visual cortex and the parietal lobes intact. Such patients cannot recognize objects or shapes, and may be capable of little conscious visual experience; but their sensorimotor abilities remain largely intact, e.g., can catch object presented inside their blind visual field.

What implications does all this have for phenomenal consciousness? Are these non-conscious elements described also absent in phenomenal properties? Are the perceptions of the absent-minded highway truck driver phenomenally conscious or just lying outside the periphery of attention, or being instantly forgotten?, it is very hard to believe that either blind sight percepts or sensorimotor perceptual states might be phenomenally conscious ones. Blind sight is a condition in which subjects have had a portion of their primary visual cortex (V1) destroyed or diseased, and apparently become blind in a given region of their visual field as a result. However if subjects are presented objects at their ‘blind’ field and asked to describe them they prove remarkably accuracy. Subjects can also reach out and grasp objects in their ‘blind’ field all without conscious awareness. It seems like these perceptions are ones to which the subjects of those states are blind, and of which they cannot be aware of notwithstanding their oculomotor response and the question, then, is what makes the relevant difference? What is it about a conscious perception which renders it phenomenal, which a blind sight perceptual state would correspondingly lack? Higher-order theorists seem to agree that the relevant difference consists in the presence of some higher-order activity in the conscious phenomenal case which is absent in the unconscious phenomenal second case. The core intuition is that a phenomenally conscious state will be a state of which the subject is aware of the goings on. In general the going notion is that conscious perceptions are those which are available to belief and thought, whereas non-conscious ones are unconscious servo-control mechanisms which are available to guide sensory-motor movement (Kirk, 1994).

In summary the ability to detect and respond to novel events is crucial for biological / reproductive survival of humans inside their ecological niche. We have outlined the neural mechanisms by which the brain detects and responds adaptively to a life threatening novelty and how it recovers from the alert once a second delayed system has denied its presence. Both seem to operate under unconscious states unless there is a genuine novelty where the individual has no inherited (amygdale) or acquired (hippocampus) data to compare it with in which case there may be the illusion that we are consciously improvising a novel conscious adaptive response as will be explained below.

In addition, we propose to explain in the process how the inherited information may be encoded in the amygdaloidal complex.

Recent EEG research contributes additional data on neural processing at the cellular, synaptic and network levels involved in detecting and adaptively responding to environmental life-threatening objects / events (fast phase). Storing and remembering contextual events surrounding the life-threatening stimulus is a different (slower phase) process altogether, we call it contextual novelty and arises in an unexpected context but it may not represent a biological survival threat to the individual. In the EEG cases referenced the response to a presentation of a novelty stimulus was delayed, directed and deliberate following the initial orienting response. In these EEG studies where event-related potentials (ERP) are being recorded have shown four important characteristics of the measured potentials P3a. First, novelty P3 responses tend to habituate across successive presentations of same novel items, indicating that as these stimuli become more predictable, the magnitude of the response wanes57-61. Second, novelty P3 responses are not tied-up to any particular modality, similar novelty P3 responses have been observed for novel visual, auditory and somato-sensory events57, 62, 63. Third, although the novelty P3 is typically elicited experimentally by complex sounds, similar potentials can be derived with simple stimuli, provided that they are contextually deviant49, 64. Fourth, although task manipulations can affect the magnitude of the novelty P3 (Refs 65–68), a stimulus can elicit a robust novelty P3 even if it is task-irrelevant48 or if it is ignored49, 58, 69. The early latency of the novelty P3, together with the functional characteristics described above, indicate that the novelty P3 reflects the activity of a general network for rapidly orienting to novel stimuli or events51, 52.

In addition to the studies measuring event-related potentials (ERP) following the presentation of novel items, the data shows that besides habituation after successive presentations, regions in the prefrontal cortex and the medial temporal lobes are, as expected, important components of the network that generates the novelty P3. For example, patients with epilepsy in whom intracranial electrodes have been implanted for pre-surgical evaluation, ERP values in these patients have reported cortical-field potentials that have properties analogous to those of the scalp-recorded P3 (Refs 54,70–78; Box 2). These field potentials have been most commonly observed in the dorsolateral, ventrolateral and orbital prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, lateral temporo-parietal cortex, hippocampus and para-hippocampal cortical regions. Using an experimental design to elicit responses specific to novel stimuli73-75, Halgren and colleagues observed field potentials generated in orbital, ventrolateral and dorsolateral prefrontal regions that were temporally and functionally similar to the novelty P3 (Ref. 75). Outside the prefrontal cortex, similar field potentials were recorded from sites in the medial temporal (peri-rhinal and posterior para-hippocampal) cortex, subicular complex (in the hippocampus formation), temporo-parietal cortex and cingulate gyrus73, 74. The results from this recent study are in remarkable agreement with other published account of the same issue about the neural pathways involved, we quote “Several brain regions have been implicated in novelty processing, leading some researchers to suggest that these regions represent a distributed network for novelty detection50, 52. Referring to Fig.#1 above, this network includes areas in the lateral prefrontal cortex (blue), orbital prefrontal, anterior insular and anterior temporal cortex (red), temporo-parietal cortex (brown), medial temporal areas along the para-hippocampal gyrus (including the peri-rhinal and posterior para-hippocampal cortices, dark green), and hippocampus formation (including the ento-rhinal cortex, dentate gyrus, CA1-3 subfields and subicular complex, purple). Other areas implicated in novelty processing (not shown) include the amygdale and the cingulate gyrus. These areas correspond relatively well to the projection zones of two neurotransmitter systems: acetylcholine (ACh) and noradrenaline (NA). In the lower panel, the thickness of the arrows corresponds to the relative strength of projections to each region. Although both ACh and NA project widely across the cortex, the strengths of these projections vary — ACh projections are strongest to orbital prefrontal and medial temporal regions113, whereas NA projections are strongest to parietal and motor areas128, 139, 140. Activity in both ACh and NA neurons that project to the cortex is sensitive to novelty, indicating that these neuromodulatory systems are crucial for orienting attention to and enhancing memory for novel stimuli.”

An intracellular recording study identified a calcium-dependent potassium current as an important contributor to adaptation in the primary visual cortex17. explaining the relatively high level of repetition suppression that is seen in some peri-rhinal cortex neurons19, in which a single repetition of a stimulus can sometimes lead to marked attenuation of neural responses. Interestingly, repetition suppression is thought to contribute to short-term recognition memory.12

While many investigators interested in studying the effects of stimulus repetition, they seem to us more a reflection of the effects of novelty. Investigations of field potentials recorded from the human medial temporal lobes during performance of verbal memory tasks indicate that same neural mechanisms might specifically affect the processing of relatively novel information. In these studies, field potentials were recorded in patients with severe epilepsy who had electrodes placed in their medial temporal lobes for pre-surgical evaluation. Several previous intracranial event-related-potential studies observed a potential generated in the anterior medial temporal cortex, known as the AMTL-N400, the amplitude of which is sensitive to the novelty of a word41, 133-138. This was of particular interest to us as it relates to the hippocampus handling of novelty phonemes. One study found that epilepsy patients with hippocampus sclerosis had a reduced N400 response to novel words, relative to epilepsy patients without hippocampus sclerosis134. By contrast, the N400 response to familiar words was not affected by hippocampus sclerosis, indicating that integrity of the hippocampus was crucial specifically for the enhanced N400 response to novel sound stimuli. A follow-up study showed that the magnitude of the N400 response to novel words was directly correlated with neuronal density in the CA1 subfield of the hippocampus41. In addition, administration of the NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptor antagonist ketamine selectively attenuated the N400 response to novel words41. Collectively, these results indicate that there is a link between hippocampus NMDA receptor function and the encoding of novel stimuli.

To link the generally observed reductions in neural activity in response to repetition (novelty reduction) with improved processing of these repeated stimuli, it has been suggested that habituated neurons are 'dropping out' of the object representation38, 39. We agree with their conclusion about the involvement of synaptic plasticity. Consistent with this hypothesis, one study found that blocking NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate)-receptor-dependent synaptic plasticity eliminated medial temporal lobe field potentials that were correlated with stimulus repetition41 (Box 1). We believe similar events are likely to occur in the newborn mirror neurons during language formation.

Reports in the literature show that: “Patients with focal brain lesions also indicate that prefrontal, temporo-parietal and medial temporal cortical regions are important for responding to contextual novelty. For example, patients with lateral prefrontal57, 63, 79-82, lateral temporoparietal63, 81, 83 or posterior medial temporal lobe lesions62, 82 resulting from strokes have attenuated novelty P3 responses to novel auditory, visual or somato-sensory stimuli. Likewise patients with prefrontal or medial temporal lesions also do not show peripheral indices of orienting to contextually novel events, as indexed by skin conductance responses62, 84. In addition, some findings indicate that patients with lateral prefrontal lesions divert less attention towards novel stimuli, and this reduction is directly correlated with the attenuation of the novelty P3 (Refs 79,80,85). In contrast to the effects of lateral prefrontal lesions, which reduce or eliminate the novelty P3 response, the results of one study indicate that damage to the orbital prefrontal cortex enhances the novelty P3 (Ref. 86).” Analysis of this data is, once more, in substantial agreement with our conclusion regarding the mechanisms involved in the operation of the slow-phase response to the presentation of novelty environmental stimulus.

We do not know at the moment the full significance of these experimental results other than to conclude that the orbital prefrontal cortex serves to suppress or modulate the novelty response and that novelty detection, whether in life-threatening or garden variety situations, seems mostly circumscribed to the peri-sylvian proto-linguistic organ locus as argued (see Fig.1 above).

We are next left with the task of developing the second dimension of the model, the cognitive theoretic. In so doing there will be a deliberate attempt to remain as close as possible to the connectivity model of brain function.

Cognitive theoretic. This dimension of the model illustrates how may novelty detection also be formulated as a ‘bottoms-up’ vector unconsciously and rapidly carrying information from receptors (extero, intero and propioreceptor varieties) up the sensory nets (according to functional hierarchies) to cortical levels of processing whereupon analog-level phenomenal consciousness recognition (at the first order level) of the percept triggers a ‘consumer-based’ vector orientation charged with a further elaboration of the percept details (context analysis, when needed) in anticipation of an adaptive ‘top-down’ response vector directed at effector modules coordinating the appropriate level of an adaptive response (skeletal / smooth musculature and glands).

There are two important co-existing variations in this general cognitive scheme, all receptor input is first routed through an ultra-fast short cut pathway for a quick monitoring of any multimodal input with life-threatening content based on a comparison matching of the input with inherited codelets (amygdale) followed by a brief gated inhibition of further processing pending a delayed context monitoring of the percept based on comparison matching of input with acquired codelets (hippocampus). We have discussed elsewhere the ensuing response when the first-level amygdaloidal comparison identifies a life threatening stimulus present is confirmed by the second-level hippocampus context evaluation; at this point the inhibitory gate is removed and a full-fledge ‘top-down’ Cannon response follows when needed. The perceptual input is only able to activate ‘driving’ circuits (synaptic contacts at basal neuronal dendrites) as opposed to subsequent ‘modulating’ circuits (synaptic contact by back projections to apical dendrites) further along the processing. It is important to note that prior to the gate dis-inhibition (at the amygdaloidal level), all of the preceding events operated unconsciously as (first-order level) analog circuits accessible to ‘consumer circuits’ as ‘read only’. One major source of controversy which will be detailed more below has to do with the counter-intuitive possibility of a servo-controlled, analogically structured, higher-order level type of phenomenal ‘consciousness’ still operating ‘unconsciously’ and inaccessible to language report-processing consumer circuits. The latter conclusion is based on the reflex immediate, non-inferential and non interpretative nature of the response.

The second variation is even more controversial in that it supposes the existence of shifting ‘category codelets’ along the ‘bottoms-up’ or ‘top-down’ vector pathways, whether inherited or acquired, which under appropriate environmental conditions may be integrated based on the ‘weight’ (ease) of their synaptic connections and on that basis recruited by a consumer system to constitute the ‘working memory’ content of phenomenal consciousness. A codelet is a small piece of representative code, a mini-token, a little program that performs one specialized, simple task, each representing different attributes of the same object which are amalgamated by common denominators to constitute the phenomenal consciousness to be. We repeat that only when there is no genetic or acquired data base able to match the environmental percept with stored data can we properly talk of a higher order self-consciousness which requires introspection, otherwise we are witnessing a first order consciousness (awareness) any good artificial intelligence (AI) program may be able to simulate.

Shifting category codelets come in various hues and degrees of complexity. At the receptor level perceptual reality gets differentiated into feature-relevant input codelet fragments whereupon they are subject to random interaction with semantic slipnets in their flow along nodes in the network in their way to appropriate temporary memory buffers. Progression along the network brings about modifications and a net growth in size by accretion / deletions resulting from multimodal interactivity. Before stabilization in one of several available memory buffer positions, shifting assemblies form loops awaiting suitable configurations to become suitable analog isomorphs of the original percept, something William James may have called a fringe or sub-threshold phenomenal consciousness and Crick now calls ‘penumbra’ loops, a reservoir of activity options useful in unconscious priming.


Thus, the incoming, unexpected audio-visual perception by the Florida tourist in our example (see “The Emotional Variable in the Logic Equation”) gets bifurcated into a slow and a fast pathway before being fragmented into feature codelets (including the context surroundings). Along the fast pathway to the amygdale target information flows from node to node in the slipnet (e.g., ipsilateral cochlear nucleus > contra lateral inferior colliculus of the mesencephalon  > medial geniculate body of the thalamus > > lateral amygdale > central amygdale) bringing about a convergence of multimodal streams to bear on the flowing structural features thereby assembling a semantic node package suitable for a comparison analysis at the target amygdaloidal organ locus. The central nucleus of the amygdale becomes now the command center coordinating and completing the fast survival avoidance reflex ‘freezing response’ by gate inhibition pending the arrival of contextual confirmation data from the slow pathway before the release from the inhibition. Bruce Kapp was able to demonstrate a ‘freezing **response by stimulating the central nucleus. In the last section we will argue our contention that the amygdale is the reservoir of inherited comparison codelets representing an unconscious, non-verbalized first line of reflex defense against environmental life-threatening situations. We realize the confusion  generated by this arguably counterintuitive model of phenomenal ‘consciousness’ operating at ‘unconscious’ levels but stay tuned J!


The functional structure of the slow pathway (featuring the hippocampus formation) that ultimately converges at the central amygdaloidal nucleus to open the inhibited gate so a stereotyped Cannon response may be unleashed in case of a confirmation of the presence of a nociceptive stimulus, follows the same general outlines described for the fast pathway except for some salient points we will attempt to describe now.


We have described the neuro-anatomical ‘slow’ pathway in the reference above emphasizing now that the implicit memory embodied into amygdaloidal codelets were not able to resolve the environmental context in which the assumed nociceptive stimulus unfolds that would have solved the riddle about the reality of its assumed premise of danger. This is the role of the hippocampus formation but this organ does not receive the receptor input directly via a fast circuit, it must wait for the input transit along the slower thalamo-cortical relay > > transitional cortex (entorhinal, peri-rhinal, para-hippocampal) > hippocampus. Along the way this information flow incorporates higher level post-perceptual (pre-conceptual) codelets while activating a secondary wave of arousal (via the reticular activating system or ras) and affective responses (via cingulated cortex) as discussed. At the conclusion of this secondary slower pathway loop, a relay to Broca and executive cortex makes it possible to have the type of ‘conscious’ phenomenal awareness that enables the subject to verbalize and report his experience. It is still debatable whether we are conscious of the code representation of the thought or the thought itself, but we will expand on this below.


We may add that, as the activation flows along the slower pathway, the initial percept codelet has an opportunity to grow in size (and meaning) as it gets modified by the incorporation / deletion of audio-visual-spatial transient memory codelets while it traverses from node to node in the slipnet, all this before arriving to the hippocampus long term memory data base on its way to a pre-frontal pre-conscious buffer. It is worth mentioning that, unlike the events described for the fast pathway, the flow along the slow pathway may be intervened with by the current contents of consciousness contained in transient episodic memory codelets. The competing bids for consciousness attention will depend on the comparative saliency of their respective content (‘bottoms-up’) or a volitional ‘top-down’ deliberate act of will. The life cycle of attention codelets (decay or conversion to permanent memory) and their role in this decision and its relation to phenomenal consciousness is unclear at this stage. Before leaving this unit, we realize that for many lay readers the preceding account may seem like just another metaphor-laden winter brainstorm, especially when accounting for inherited codelets present in the amygdale (the ‘audio-visual gallery’) and their comparison with incoming perceptual codelets; fortunately we can refer the reader to a successful AI computer program developed by the U.S. Navy predicated on the premises outlined above. In the following unit discussion to follow we will subject our claims to the rigor of logic reasoning to enhance the credibility of our phenomenal consciousness model.


Metaphysical Logic.  Those readers following the unfolding of our consciousness model in more than a dozen previous publications will realize that its success or downfall hinges on our ability to couple its emergence with language processing in the brain as a necessary but insufficient pre-condition for introspective higher order self-consciousness, not phenomenal consciousness which we prefer to label ‘awareness’. In the process we have availed ourselves with varied resources like multidisciplinary experimental data, metaphysical logic and a good dose of plain observation and common sense. The real challenge presented to us has been to find common grounds between the ‘hard’ measurable data from the various scientific disciplines and the discursive-type analysis of metaphysics, a strange blend indeed for tasters on both sides of the materialistic / idealistic divide amongst us. But reality is one, our individual perceptions fashion the differences. The distinction between the mental states of sense-phenomenal consciousness and higher orders of consciousness and how pre-linguistic processing is established in their midst is important to hold in perspective to be able to follow the succeeding arguments.

A phenomenally conscious mental state is an analog, non-verbal (‘unconscious’), non-conceptual state which either is, or is disposed to be, the object of a higher-order representation of a certain sort when targeted (accessed) by an ongoing brain consumer system (working memory progression, etc.) which incorporates its codelet(s) as required to attain consciousness status (i.e., having a thought produced non-inferentially) It can be argued that such mental states as ‘belief’ states can be targets of higher-order representations without the subject being necessarily phenomenally conscious of the act. What is distinctive of sense-phenomenal consciousness is that the states in question should be perceptual or in memory stores as code-phenomenal quasi-perceptual ones. Notice that these ‘phenomenal’ states must possess a certain kind of analog, fine-grained, non-conceptual intentional content. Intentionality refers to beliefs or other mental states represented about other things.

What makes perceptual states, mental images, bodily sensations, and emotional feelings phenomenally conscious (qualia), is that they represent pre-conscious states with analog or non-conceptual contents that are targeted by higher order thoughts. So putting these points together, we get the view that phenomenally conscious states are those states possessing fine-grained intentional content of which a subject ‘may’ be aware iff (and when) it becomes the target of some form of higher-order representation. We stress ‘may’ because arguably the state of consciousness may turn out to be a result, i.e., not causal, of the state and may remain at subconscious levels. To illustrate, visual perceptions such as those involved in blind sight will be non-conscious by virtue of not being able to be so targeted, an example of ‘phenomenal consciousness’ operating at unconscious levels! It will help to remember that higher-order content is assembled from first–order codelets (V1) absent in the blind sight patient. We believe that when our Florida subject of the example was confronted with a potentially harmful stimulus the first line of defense (fast pathway) response was an unconscious lower order mental state and remained so pending the completion of the second line of defense (slow pathway) when an introspective, verbalized state of consciousness is now possible BUT not required as will explain later.


An alert patient reader may have noticed that the amygdaloidal target organ has been assigned a monitoring role based on its data base of pre-concepts!! (‘audio-visual gallery’). What?, the amygdale containing un-activated inherited proto-concepts, and what is that?? The answer may be tortuous at first sight but considering its undeniable role in the alert response (see “Synaptic Self.”) we will try to elaborate a convincing answer. In our model we have designated this organ as providing the primitive semantic component of the proto-linguistic organ and now we add that it is based on its content of inherited ‘proto-concepts’ codelets, a sort of universal grammar (UG) for survival. Now we are charged with the defense of the argument about innate concepts.

          We have to start by making sure that concepts are not to be confused with the hypothesis they are constituents off. When I say: “the man screamed” (when he heard the rustling of leaves) the statement represents a judgment made based on a hypothesis formation and confirmation, e.g., it was arrived at on the basis of a proposition formed by the combination of two independent, stand-alone concepts man & screamed. The confirmation is that tourists can scream (when facing a possible life-threatening novelty). You can not apply the confirmation to the constitutive concepts individually isolated because they are prior to the hypothesis, there is no predicate to disconfirm about those primitive, stand-alone neutral concepts devoid of causal value. The same reasoning applies to our primitive, inherited proto-concept analog codelets (e.g., representing phonemes) housed in the amygdale. Independently they are not able to express any rules of combination as expected from a universal grammar (UG). They simply represent a gated relay system monitoring receptor input with on / off alternatives of response based on a comparison analysis of the sound input from the leafs with its data-base phonemic isomorphs. One may ask how those primitive proto-concepts got there to begin with, how do they work? Linguists are not familiar with this new situation and one would expect confusion between concept acquisition and belief fixation theories. Proto-concepts have no internal structure and can not independently constitute the anlage of a universal grammar cognitive theory. During the first (fast) phase of a novelty response mediated by the amygdale its semantic contribution to a universal grammar is automatic, non-inferred, a reflex unconscious activity.

The situation is very different to what obtains in the second (slow) phase, a belief-fixation phase that requires the elaboration of a hypothesis where the proto-concepts codelets are subjects to modifications as discussed above as soon as they incorporate the second phase (slow) content of information arriving from hippocampus and looping back to the amygdale. This combination gets further modified and forms the basis for the elaboration of a propositional attitude associated with non-phenomenal consciousness with linguistic meaning.  The resulting linear code composed by the primitive semantic input from the amygdale and the primitive syntactic ordering from the remaining peri-Sylvian structures (including hippocampus) is now ready to be processed at Broca’s region. Our ability to understand language requires that we be able to discern the meaning of a sentence on the basis of our knowledge of the meanings of its component codelets parts and the way that they are assembled together. This is another way of stating the compositional character of linguistic semantics that enables us to make sense of an infinity of novel sentences, based on our understanding of word components (semantics) and how they are put together (syntax).

Linguist detractors from the ‘semantic externalist’ persuasion will deny the proposition that proto-conceptual codelets are determined genetically. The remaining alternative, however, is that they are acquired (learned) and THAT would constitute a paradox! A hypothesis testing argument assuming that individual primitive concepts like ‘man’ and ‘screamed’ are learned would have to, in each case, confirm the hypothesis about their individuating properties, e.g., about which the primitive concept ‘man’ is, i.e., it is the concept that expresses the property of being a man. If the concept ‘man’ is learned then we can formulate the hypothesis that “M is the concept that expresses the property of being a ‘man’.” which upon examination we note it already contains the concept ‘man’ among its components. Consequently, a fortiori, such hypothesis can not be formulated by someone lacking the concept nor a fortiori dis-confirmed by anyone lacking the concept (see Fodor’s The Impossible Argument, 1981). The rigor of the compositionality constraint rules in linguistics affirm that the identity of a complex concept is entirely determined by the identity of its primitive components. The object of our reasoning (concepts) must be preceded by knowledge about them, i.e., one can not reason with a concept you do not already have. Ergo primitive concepts can not be learned because it implies its acquisition by reasoning, thus they must be inherited (innate) and can not be individuated. Everybody accepts that complex concepts (prototypes) can be learned by parsing and assembling from their component parts. This raises the additional question about how can any object exist without being individuated, sans causal force, what justifies its inheritance, how does it become a causal agent? How are the principles of individuation established? This would not be entirely the case when the concept is environmentally acquired (learned) where its ‘in situ’ individuation or extension in the possessor is determined by causally-related environment-to-mind interactions. But nobody has yet identified in the literature what these acquired concepts are like (if indeed ‘they are’) or the nature of the external environmental or internal brain inducer (consumer system) that brings them into a causal relation. To follow we are suggesting an explanation by an analogical comparison with a well documented genetic system.

All concepts require a semantic content to be individuated and innate concepts are no exception. Acquired concepts (learned) come to life (are individuated) when their semantic content supervenes on environment-to-mind causal interactions whereas inherited proto-concepts do not, for want of such causal relationship in the new born; i.e., they are ipso-facto presumed at that stage not to be causally related to anything in the environment (see below for more comments on the newborn inherited capabilities). How then do they come alive by semantic individuation if they arguably do not have content, if they are causally inert? How do they enter into environment-to-mind causal relations? Assuming, as we do, that they are inherited from the mother’s mitochondrial genes, we ask, whatever happens if their semantic proto-concept characteristic is not pheno-typically expressed? Asking the same question in the context of the second stage of phenomenal consciousness, how can the semantic (intentional) content of propositional attitudes survive if they are not targeted by a thought consumer system? Disuse atrophy of systems hangs from the ceiling like a Damocles’ sword! An attempted answer will follow after a brief anecdote.

In another context (justifying Lamarcquian evolution) we struggled with this Gordian knot for many years until it occurred to us the novel idea that, under  standard relevant environmental conditions –usually temperature and pressure (STP)-, and barring any mutation, ALL solutions to environmental challenges were already in existence as proto-concepts ready to come into action when triggered by a novelty demand. By the early 1980’s we dared to challenge Darwin and bring some of these ideas to print in Spanish (Biopsicosociología, Limusa Ed.). We said (p.131): “..if we can ignore mutations, then natural selection eliminates adaptive genes that have lost their usefulness in the evolutionary (Darwinian) process. If (blind) evolution were to take us into a scenario where past environmental conditions are re-enacted, adaptation and human species survival would become impossible,..…we thus conclude that ALL adaptive genes pre-exist in the individual (under prevailing STP conditions) and the environment is charged with the selection (best fit) not according to Darwinian precepts but a selective genetic functional repression (operating at the cellular level by induction).” [parenthesis added]. By the time of our publication Jacob and Monod had already published their famous Nobel-prize account of genetic induction which allowed a species of micro-organisms to modify its metabolic machinery to adapt to a novel environmental challenge. We never read of any account about the existence of proto-concepts or proto-genes as we postulated.

Thanks to Jacob and Monod we can now apply this reasoning to justify the existence of inherited, un-committed, analog, semantic proto-concepts codelets in the amygdaloid complex charged with the recognition of nociceptive environmental novelty stimuli during the first (fast) stage of an adaptive response completed by a second (slow) stage of context recognition where equivalent complex codelets (prototypes) in the hippocampus formation bring about a ‘pondered’ adaptive final resolution to the environmental challenge which can be verbally reported as a syntactic / semantic linguistic assertion with the intervention of Broca’s area. All we need is to identify an environmental proprietary trigger-inducer (e.g., sound of rustled leaves) specific to activate the innate proto-concept phoneme codelet (in the amygdale) to bring it to life by individuation, allowing it to enter into an environment-to- mind relation where reality in potency becomes reality in act. The amygdaloidal-activated codelet(s), when released from inhibition by the hippocampus intervention (slow phase) gets now modified by semantic slipnets as the information flows from node to node in the neuronal network. This way we reconcile our model with the two-independent systems theory of vision (see Milner and Goodale, 1995) where, as we described above, novelty environmental visual inducers get independently instantiated in the temporal (peri-sylvian) and parietal lobes respectively. In our case we conclude that the peri-sylvian area unconsciously handles the on-line audio-visual control (what-where system) of the novelty stimulus during the fast phase whereas the phenomenally conscious temporal lobes are primarily concerned with more off-line functions such as context visual learning and object recognition during the second slow phase, the how-to or action-guiding system.

The preceding account describing the possibilities of a peri-sylvian ‘proto-linguistic organ’ (plo) brings again into focus another interesting possibility, the existence of an ‘inner sense’ command and control organ controlling a phenomenally 'conscious' mental state with analog / non-conceptual intentional content, which may be targeted by higher-order analog / non-conceptual intentional state for the discharge of the assigned responsibilities of a given consumer system, like e.g., Broca’s area language processing. In previous articles we have postulated the involvement of mirror neurons (MN) in the newborn “..whose future core principles of social behavior are being socially layered by his mother baby-talk upon an inherited set of biological and pre-social principles.” We argued that the newborn inherits ‘archetypes’, a toti-potential set of possibilities (proto-conceptual codelets) to develop according the activity of social inducers in the environment, all within the constraints of the pre-ordained guidelines of the inherited genetic template. At this moment we are trying to articulate further how may recursive, internode modifications, as above described, lead to spontaneous self-organization along specific design guidelines (see Intelligent Design, William Dembsky) giving rise to an emergent level of negentropy order, more complex than the one preceding it.

Newborn children can perform unconsciously what only powerful main frame computers driven with a powerful parsing program (see Steven Pinker, Quinn T. Jackson) can do. The moment ANY newborn, anywhere in the world, can respond with a facial expression to a mother’s cue (verbalized or as body language) they are answering questions of this complexity: “What kind of grammar underlies Mom’s language expression “baby is hungry?” He can only answer (smile?) after analyzing the expression for content and meaning to see if Mom’s grammar structure conforms to a universal grammar (UG) rules to begin with. But notice that the newborn has not had time (if ever) to acquire and learn to use that vast information content (UG) before he was able to learn his own language, so he may compare them to Mom’s phonemes heard (the only information he is able to perceive from mom’s baby-talk at that stage). The only explanation remaining is that UG is innate, inherited from his parents and now available for analytical purposes like a parsing program does using its ‘learned’ computer parsing program from the programmer.

We assume that the classical theories of concept formation concede to the fact that the meaning of the words in the baby talk is to be found exclusively in the concepts they express. If so, it would then be very difficult (impossible?) to comply with the rigor of the compositionality constraint rules as discussed earlier. This because they can not express a concept (baby, hungry) they have not learned previously, by the arguments presented earlier (because concept acquisition is hypothesis confirmation!), unless it was already there inherited in the form of proto-conceptual codelets as argued. As to the constitution of a concept it should be clear that not all primitive concepts necessarily owe their existence to inheritance, only those strictly associated with human biological / reproductive survival and social viability (language-related). This idea is still in the process of being refined further.

Before leaving this complex exposition we would like to admit to one major stumbling block in our attempt to develop a comprehensive theory of consciousness that includes, besides the external objective reality captured (as it is) by exteroceptors, the internal body proper homeostatic reality as revealed by interoceptors of the visceral brain (our brain Module I). We have failed to develop and accommodate an ‘inner sense’ theory in our scheme mainly because we have failed to envision how to properly code for the stochastic, quasi-chaotic nature of the homeostatic equilibrium states characterizing their autonomic, unconscious adaptive adjustment to varying anatomico-physiological conditions. There is not an equivalent homuncular representation of viscera in cortical tissue and we suspect the reason we may not be able to use the same approach described above; there is also lacking a phenomenal consciousness of body proper homeostatic events until homeo-dynamic equilibrium states are altered and pathology shows its ugly head. Somehow internal and propioception first order senses (pain / pressure /touch / chemo) are not the functional equivalents of the special senses (audio-visual, etc) counterpart whose features are readily conceptualized by sentential and symbolic logic. Until we can translate their output into codelets or sentences or their equivalent we are not able to produce first or higher-order analog contents in order for them to be accessed by consumer systems and thereby become a phenomenally conscious computer simulation. We have long pleaded the mathematics community in ultra HiQ groups in the web for help in this search but no whiz-kid takers so far.

Being able to include an ‘inner sense’ theory incorporating the inner body proper component within our scheme of second stage (slow) phenomenal consciousness is crucial for its further development because, as it stands now, it can only provide for an understanding of how our higher-order experiential analog contents produced by the operations of our inner-senses (which make some first-order mental states with analog contents) is available to their thinking subjects. This is an incomplete way because it lacks the visceral component link to the all important emotions involved that is so relevant in the subjective dimension. We must remember that higher-order contents, when appropriately engaged (recognized) by a relevant consumer system (like language processing), may well constitute the subjective dimension or ‘feel’, what we like to call the phenomenally conscious state. This black box content ignorance hinders at present our attempt to link language processing as instrumental in the generation of this qualic state during the second (low) phase of the response to the novelty object / event as discussed. We believe, with Dennet, that either recognition access or the high-order thought are formulated in natural language..

We can, of course, conceive of a recognition access to a higher-order content being un-accompanied by qualia. But should these concepts ever become useful in psychotherapy, nothing can be more useful than the understanding of qualia when revealed as a sign, symptom or verbal report. Naturally, we are assuming, without explaining, the also controversial premise that qualia and emotional states are intimately related and are the result, not the cause of the conscious experience as William James would have defended, the John Hopkins experiments notwithstanding. Finally, we thought un-necessary at this juncture to stress the important, relevant and controversial distinction between general (in-attentive), specific (attentive) on-line consciousness, as in distracted and concentrated driving respectively and general and specific off-line introspective consciousness, as we find in reverie or dreams respectively. This is essentially a dispute as to whether phenomenal consciousness can be reductively explained in functional and / or representational terms.

Summary and Conclusions.

Any analytical probe into mental states of consciousness has to make a clear distinction between ‘phenomenal consciousness’, the one we normally associate with qualia, a feeling of what it is like being in a given state (see Nagel, 1974) and various sundry forms of access consciousness (see Block, 1995) as explained above. Many complications arise when mental states can be phenomenally-conscious without also being conscious in the functionally-definable sense, like being ‘unconsciously conscious’, like the distracted truck driver described! The truth is that most mental-state types can be considered as containing both the conscious, sub-conscious and non-conscious varieties. We are all familiar e.g., of how propositional attitudes (beliefs and desires) can be activated un-consciously while engaged in a neutral conversation or even during sleep, unconscious intentional states are self-evident daily experiences. To avoid the resulting conceptual complications we have reserved the term conscious self-awareness to introspective states resulting from the unexpected sudden coming into existence of a genuine novelty situation with no recorded precedent (inherited or acquired) in our brain data-bases, like when the truck driver finds himself for the first time floating in the river after the highway bridge collapsed in the darkness. In our discussion, the important thing to keep in mind is that mental states as such are the objects of some  hierarchic order (cognitive) representation in the form of brain codelets,  whether represented as a first order code that can be recognized (accessed) by information (action potentials) originating from sense exteroceptor perception, as in the case of the ‘freeze response’ reflex mediated by the amygdaloidal complex during the first (fast) phase’ described or represented as a higher-order belief or thought code that can be targeted (accessed or recognized) by a relevant consumer system (e.g., language or visual context processor) as in the case of the second (slow) phase mediated principally by the hippocampus formation.

In our model development we stressed the fact that the first (fast) response to an environmental novelty was unconscious, stereotyped, reflex and determined by the detection (recognition) by the amygdaloidal complex inherited codelets in the sensory input (traveling internodally from the receptor site) life-threatening features (phonemes?); no high-order  representation needed in this phase of the novelty event analysis. The second (slow) response required more complete analysis of the environmental context surrounding the production of the environmental stimulus sound (phoneme?) which required accessing, among other things, relevant stored memory data from the hippocampus formation (therein coded in a higher-order codelet protocol). That protocol needs to become available to be engaged by various consumer systems as a required component of a phenomenal-conscious event to ensue as well as the language thought report attending the event (verbalized or not).  We discussed the difficulty surrounding the mental state characterization for each of the 2 phases of discrimination of the novelty event. The hierarchy of the event’s analog codelet representation as first or higher-order in each phase is related to their category as perception-like or belief-like. The order complexity is relevant to their availability to a consumer system.  The question of their relative availability (disposition) to be targeted directly (first order level) or by way of a higher level conformation to form a conscious experience was briefly discussed. We also touched briefly on the fact that humans, while possibly capable of forming first-order non-conceptual and / or analog perceptions of states of their environments and bodies, they also have second-order non-conceptual and / or analog perceptions of their first-order states of perception that is limited to the external objective reality due to the paucity of information on the body proper cognitive, analog representation in the brain.

The evidence cited on the studies on blind-sight patients suggests to us how their inability to form first-order analog states with e.g., a content ‘blue’ (cortical area V1 missing) determines their inability to form a subsequent higher-order analog states derived from their first-order states. The fact that a blind sight CAN respond to a blue visual object without being conscious of the act is proof that sense-phenomenal consciousness may become a consumer system itself whose instantiation is predicated on targeting, accessing, recognizing an analog higher-order state codelet (derived from first-order analog state) which is absent in the patient and consequently unable to enjoy the subjective qualia of ‘seems blue’. During on-line events the phenomenally conscious state with analog / non-conceptual intentional content, is held in a special access-ready short-term memory store easily targeted to cause (non-inferentially) higher-order thoughts about any of the contents of that storage. The rest of the time (off-line) the similar higher-order shifting, recursive(?) codelets (with the potential to render a percept conscious) may be held in longer-term memory stores available to higher-order thought formation. The availability of its representational content is in turn predicated on the particularities of the consumer system needs (its theory of mind). In our view, on-line first-order perceptual representations arriving with the receptor input and able to deploy a ‘theory of mind’, capable of recognition applications of theoretically-embedded concepts of experience, may be all that is needed to confer on our phenomenally conscious experiences the dimension of subjectivity. What we are trying to say (with some difficulty) is that each perceptual system, can deploy a characteristic ‘theory of mind’ enabling it, upon presentation of the receptor input, to specify which first-order analog representation of the input will in turn generate a higher–order analog representation best fit to adaptively resolve the issue presented by the input. During the vigil state, our brain is simultaneously scanning the representations of our inner body states, the state of the external environment and whatever novelty event that pops up. Each novelty experience becomes a representation assimilated into the context of the other two monitoring systems and the basis for the elaboration of a theory of mind consumer system.

 A sensory perception of blue, e.g., would be simultaneously an analog representation of blue (first order) and an analog representation of seems blue or experience of blue (higher-order).

The next important issue addressed was to explain the possible existence of inherited proto-conceptual codelets in the amygdale representing a monitoring system for life-threatening environmental stimuli. Logical and genetic arguments were used to argue their primitive nature by considering them as unexpressed phenotypic traits equivalents being activated when induced by characteristic environmental features (e.g., sounds) or memory codelets. When activated they are individuated and instantiated in relation to mind-environment causal link phenotypes. They are believe to constitute an inherited reservoir of semantic phonemes tied up with pain-pleasure systems as part of a proto-linguistic organ useful in the formation of morpheme particles during the newborn stage with the assistance of mirror cell emulations (from mothers baby talk & facial features) and hippocampus memory. It is explained how they can constitute mental content that are not being thought and phenotypic traits in potency, awaiting environmental activation by way of a Jacob-Monod repression protocol.

Finally we argued for a cognitive theoretic model component of phenomenal consciousness by a recursive elaboration of inherited and acquired codelets as they loop recursively and interactively with sense receptor and memory inputs, following some leads from Edelman’s neuronal model in his book “The Remembered Present” (1987). Phenomenal consciousness was argued as a strategy for survival where its cognitive content is carried by a consumer system integration of relevant analog higher-order codelets awaiting for a language processing decoding in a pre-conscious working memory buffer required to attain a state of consciousness.

End Chapter 17