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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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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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