Information Age Education
   Issue Number 62
March, 2011   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See http://iae-pedia.org/ and the end of this newsletter.

David Moursund has recently published a free book for K-8 teachers and parents of K-8 students.

Moursund, David (March, 2011). Expanding the Science and Technology Learning Experiences of Children. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education.

This free 142-page book is designed to help improve Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education for K-8 students. It is loaded with computer-based and by-hand activities for students, and it provides a discussion of the underlying educational value and purpose of these activities.

For more description of the content and for download information go to:
http://iae-pedia.org/David_Moursund_Legacy_Fund#New_Free_Book_from_Moursund.

Consciousness

And what is the ultimate gift of consciousness to humanity? Perhaps the ability to navigate the future in the seas of our imagination, guiding the self-craft into a safe and productive harbor.” (Antonio Damasio, 2010)

This is the second of series of three articles that focus on recent advances in our understanding of (1) emotion/feelings, (2) consciousness, and (3) the human capabilities and challenges that emerge out of these systems.

Consciousness is an enigmatic state of mind that emerges out of the integrated behavior of specialized brain modules. It provides a conscious organism with a sense of self—a personal subjective awareness of its own existence and that of the objects and events it confronts.

Consciousness abandons me when I go to sleep and magically reappears when I awaken. And when I’m conscious, I not only know something about myself and the environment, but I also know that I know it. So who is the “I” who is doing all this knowing? And how is it possible for purely physical brain activity to lead to subjective experience?

The search for the meaning and mechanisms of consciousness has historically been the speculative purview of philosophers and theologians (who often considered it a disembodied essence), but neuroscientists have recently begun to explore the biology of consciousness via the remarkable observational capabilities of brain imaging technology. Giulio Tononi argues that it should be possible at some point to measure levels of consciousness with the same technological ease with which we can now measure blood pressure and body temperature (Zimmer, 2010). If he's correct, this development would provide a much better understanding of epilepsy, persistent vegetative states, the level of consciousness in various animals, and other consciousness issues.

Antonio Damasio is a much-respected pioneer in exploring the underlying neurobiological base of consciousness. He reports his current views in Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (2010).


The Biology of Consciousness

The first article in this three part series suggests that conscious thought and behavior emerge out of unconscious emotional arousal, which alerts us to potential dangers and opportunities and helps to activate an innate automatic response. If we have no innate automatic response to the challenge, unconscious emotional arousal can shift into conscious feelings, which activate relevant brain systems that can consciously and rationally analyze the challenge and develop a solution (albeit a solution often biased by the nature of our emotional arousal).

Since school and other educational activities focus principally on conscious learning and behavior, understanding the biology of consciousness will be essential to the development of credible 21st century theories of teaching and learning. Damasio’s three-part theory of the sequential emergence of consciousness would thus be useful for such educational applications.


Protoself

In Damasio’s theory, the biology of consciousness begins with a stable neuronal arrangement that maps every part of an organism’s body into various interconnected brain areas. This mapping is necessary because brain and body must constantly communicate in order to maintain a continuously revised unconscious sense of what’s happening throughout the organism.

A collection of automated brain systems that Damasio calls the protoself use this continuous flow of information to manage various life processes, such as circulation and respiration. The protoself maintains the stability it needs across its lifetime by operating body systems within innate relatively narrow regulatory ranges.


Core Consciousness: The Present

But we’re conscious of more than our own self. Our protoself is imprisoned within the geography of its body, but sensory/motor and related brain systems also allow a conscious organism to explore the world. A stable body thus confronts a constantly shifting and expanding external environment.

So not only does a brain contain a map of its body, but a conscious brain must also have a mechanism for mapping and connecting to the external world. Damasio believes that consciousness emerges when the mapped relationship between an organism and an external object (which may be another organism) has risen to the level of a feeling of what’s currently happening.

Core consciousness (which we share with many animals) is thus the consciousness of the here-and-now. It’s a non-verbal imaged running account of the objects an organism confronts in a series of successive instants as it moves through and interacts with its immediate environment. Think of being both actor and spectator in a movie within our brain (a film being a sequence of still pictures that give the illusion of movement as they quickly pulsate through our brain).

Many catch-phrases in our culture speak to the importance of recognizing and respecting the here-and-now in the quickly moving stream of consciousness that defines much of life. For example: Stop the world, I want to get off. Slow down and smell the daisies. Seize the moment. Core consciousness is primal in that it continuously focuses the organism on the immediate, which after all, is where we do live.


Extended (or Autobiographical) Consciousness:
The Past and Future


We may live in the present, but we have lived in the past, and we will probably live into the future. Damasio suggests that organisms must have a large complex cortex in order to consciously move beyond the here-and-now—to profit from past experiences and to avoid potential problems. The cortex must be sufficiently large to contain a vast and powerful autobiographical memory that can quickly identify information relevant to a novel challenge. Humans, and the great apes to a lesser extent, have such a cortex.

Intelligence emerges out of this ability to embellish and temporally extend core consciousness. It allows our brain to manipulate recalled information in the mental design and analysis of potential responses. The practical applications of conscious intelligence include imagination, creativity, and conscience—which led to language, art, science, technology, and a variety of cultural and political systems (such as the shared governance of a democratic society).

“The arts were an inadequate compensation for human suffering, for unattained happiness, for lost innocence, but they were and are compensation nonetheless, an offset to natural calamities and to the evil that we do. They are one of the remarkable gifts of consciousness to humans.” (Damasio, 2010)



Consciousness in Computer Brains

The work of Damasio and many others provide an indication of the complexity of human consciousness. Science fiction authors have provided many examples in which humans develop increasingly powerful computers, and eventually a conscious computer. Sometimes the computer is “evil” and the story is about the computer system’s success or failure in taking over the world. Star Trek fans are familiar with the android Data and his struggles to understand his humanness.

Researchers in Artificial Intelligence continue to make progress in developing AI computer systems. They tend to measure this progress in terms of developing computer systems that can solve problems and accomplish tasks that—if done by a human—would be an indication of human intelligence. Many people were quite impressed recently when a computer system defeated two humans in the TV game of Jeopardy (http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/game-of-jeopardy-computer-versus-humans.html).

However, such current AI capability is in no sense a sign of emerging machine consciousness. It does not tell us whether humans will succeed in developing a computer system that has “artificial consciousness” in the same sense that we have developed computer systems that have artificial intelligence.

The field of AI research includes a considerable focus on developing machines that have some type of awareness of their environment and their roles in the environment. As a very simple example, many years ago some AI researchers developed robots that kept track of the power remaining in their batteries and had knowledge of how to find a power outlet and plug into it. One might describe this as a type of consciousness relevant to survival. Currently, a number of projects are exploring developing computer systems that have some ability to recognize human emotions (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101108072502.htm).

Over the next few decades we can expect considerable progress in the development of computer systems that have artificial intelligence and artificial consciousness. These will be imitations of human intelligence and consciousness. Our informal and formal educational system will need to help people learn the capabilities and limitations of such systems and how best to work with them.


References and Resources

Antonio Damasio (2010). Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. New York: Pantheon, 2010. See the Amazon.com set of publication and reader reviews retrieved 3/26/2011 from: http://www.amazon.com/Self-Comes-Mind-Constructing-Conscious/dp/0307378756.

Sylwester, R. (2005). How to Explain a Brain: An Educator’s Handbook of Brain Terms and Cognitive Processes. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.

Zimmer, C. (Sept. 21, 2010).  Sizing up Consciousness by Its Bits. New York Times. Retrieved 3/26/2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/science/21consciousness.html?_r=1&ref=science&pagewanted=print.



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