Consciousness and the Unconscious as a Memory Management Tool

A few months ago, I wrote something like “I am not interested in consciousness. I don’t even get what is supposed to be interesting about “consciousness”. There is no definition of consciousness that does not sound new-agey. “The issue of consciousness” does not exist”.
It was a radical reaction to a deluge of pseudo-spiritual talking about consciousness. “Consciousness is… is what I am feeling now” “Consciousness is subjectivity” “Consciousness is qualia”. I don’t like this kind of discussions, because the conclusion is always that we cannot scientifically study consciousness, as it is such a “spiritual” whatever it is.

Then I went to a talk given by a scientist who is seriously, and scientifically, trying to study consciousness using applied mathematical methods (along the vein of Tononi, if you’re motivated enough to look it up). I  disagreed with almost all his hypotheses and even more with his interpretation of experimental results, but it was a very exciting talk. No new age. No nonsense. Just theory and experimental results. I salute and admire the courage that you must have to bring science where everyone is too afraid to look. For the first time, I though that studying consciousness might be interesting, after all.

And suddenly, here I am. From next week I’m most likely getting involved in a project that heavily features consciousness and robots. Diving into that field feels like looking for diamonds in sewage water. Someone who feels so strongly against this kind of stuff should be the last one to start such a project, right?
Wrong. I want to do it precisely because I don’t want the new-agey people to corrupt the subject of “consciousness” further. If there is any scientific truth in there, we can’t let it to rot. And if there’s nothing, at least we will not have dismissed the hypothesis without investigating, which would be somewhat unfair. That’s why you need me in your consciousness project: I won’t accept it to fall into the abyss of nonsense gaping at us; if it’s crap I’ll tell you and go do something else. If you have a radical skeptic in the team, it’ll give you an idea of how real people will react to your work when it becomes public. It doesn’t mean that everything I say will be right, just that you might hear the same criticisms from your opponents. That’s the advantage of having an enemy on your side.

So yeah, anyway, what do I mean by consciousness if I’m not talking about religion or “alternative medicine” or parapsychology? To talk about consciousness, it is often easier to first talk about the unconscious. I am not talking about the Freudian vision of the unconscious: if you have read anything by or about Freud, you know that the guy was just really obsessed by making everything about sex and had nothing scientific to say about anything. Unfortunately, just like consciousness, the unconscious too has no definition that everyone agrees on.
So here is what I mean by unconscious: all the processes that you run through mostly automatically. I am not including really trivial reflexes like sneezing, breathing or the beating of your heart. I am talking about when you are so used to doing something, that you don’t have to think about it anymore: it has become (almost) automatic. When you’re walking, you don’t think about moving all the muscles of your legs with the right strength at the right timing. You consciously decide to go for a walk, but the basic processes involved in walking are unconscious. If you use computers a lot, the motion of your fingers on the keyboard may also become unconscious. When you’re eating, the detail of the motion of your hands is unconscious.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that you don’t know what you are doing. On the contrary, you know it so well that you are able to do it without paying attention. Only if something seems to go wrong will you start paying attention again.

Being able to run some processes unconsciously has some obvious advantages. First, if you don’t have to think about something to do it, then it exerts less of a strain on your brain: you are able to direct your attention elsewhere. If your brain uses less resources, it also means that it is using less energy, which sounds evolutionary advantageous. Automatic processes are also much faster than processes that require a lot of thinking or a lot of monitoring, so they are more efficient in terms of reaction time.

If unconscious processes are so great, then why have conscious processes at all? They are slow, cumbersome and require more energy. My hypothesis is that unconscious processes have to be learned from conscious processes first because we live in a complex environment. For situations where there is only one “right” way to behave, this behaviour is likely to be mostly encoded in your genes for example, so you are able to do things “right” without going through complex learning procedures. Most people know how to chew food even before they have grown their baby teeth.

But when the definition of “right” behaviour itself is complex, you will have to learn it and update this definition if necessary. Maybe something is only right to do in some very precise conditions. Maybe you have to learn a behaviour that your ancestors didn’t have to use. Maybe “right” depends on the people you are with, on your culture, on the environment you live in. In all these situations, having an automatic behaviour from the start is either going to get you in trouble, or is just not possible because you cannot encode every possible reaction to every possible situation in a single human brain.

To introduce my opinion about the role and meaning of consciousness, I need to talk about models. When you learn a new behaviour, you try to build a model for it. Say you’re learning to ride a bicycle. At first, you have to think a lot about what to do: if the bike is going to much to the right, push on your right hand to make the handle turn to the left, to cause the bike to go to the left. But not too fast or the tire will turn in a way that will make you fall down.

This process is not instinctive at all. At first you might get the causal links wrong and turn the handle to the right while you really wanted to go to the left. But you end up with a model of how to control the bike, a group of rules going like “if I do this, that happens. If I want to do that, I should do this.”. As long as you are still building the model, things aren’t going so great. Then your reactions get more instinctive. You don’t have to think that much anymore, but you might still refer to the model from time to time. Then all your reactions become instinctive and you don’t need the model anymore, to the point that you don’t use it, you completely bypass it and it eventually disappears. Your body reacts to a selected set of inputs with a learned set of outputs. The process has gone from conscious to unconscious, and very often it even bypasses your memory. Type “computer” on your computer’s keyboard. Which fingers did you use and in which order? Can you answer this question without having to “replay” the sequence in your mind, just from memory? I sure can’t. Unconscious processes free your brain from models that became useless, and they don’t clutter your short and long term memory. Of course, if you think about it, it makes sense to turn a bike’s handle to the right to make it go to the right. But this is just knowledge derived from common sense and your experience of bikes, not a model that you have to use each time you ride a bike (thanks goodness).

And now about the role of consciousness. Automatic processes are great, but they are also very dangerous. First, because you are not paying attention when executing them and just anything could happen without you noticing (ask factory robots; but I am sure you had similar experiences as well). Secondly, because they are not able to react to unexpected situations. As long as the inputs are in the normal range, your process will happily produce outputs. But I see two cases that might require your consciousness to suddenly snap back in place: when an unexpected value appears and disturbs normal functioning of a process, and when two competing unconscious processes try to run at the same time. I see processes as separated entities that cannot directly communicate with each other. Several processes can run simultaneously, but if two sets of inputs trigger two distinct processes, conflict might appear in the resulting outputs and disrupt one or both processes. When a process faces unexpected values, or when two processes are competing, you must consciously decide what to do next. I think that consciousness is that thing which conveys information between processes. If an unexpected input is spotted during process 1, this unexpected information must be made accessible to all other processes. One or several processes tuned to this specific input will be kicked off. The role of that information road is to allow information sharing; therefore it must be unique to avoid conflicts and redundancy. My current hypothesis is that this flow of information is consciousness, and this is why you never feel like “having two consciousnesses” in your brain. Consciousness is by definition, unique.

Accordingly, the difference between dreaming and being unconscious (in the medical sense of unconscious) would be that information is flowing during dreams, but not when you are unconscious. So no memories are formed during total unconsciousness (like deep sleep or being knocked out), but you can still have memory of your dreams.

But hey, where is the shared information coming from when you’re dreaming? Why would your unconscious processes run if there is no input? Well, the input does not need to come directly from the outside world. As consciousness is supposed to deliver information between processes, it means that consciousness can take the output of a process and present it as input to other processes. That could be what happens during dreams. (This raises many questions: why is deep sleep (the dreamless phase of sleeping) necessary? Why does it require your consciousness to be out of the way? And what happens when you go from deep sleep to REM (when dreams occur)? How does consciousness come back? Why doesn’t it work for people in a coma?)

I also think that processes cannot access memories, but as a trasmitter of information, consciousness can. It is probably needed to build the models that will finally transform into unconscious processes; these models should most likely be built from existing knowledge and associations from existing processes.

These ideas might sound to you like the famous theory of consciousness as the result of information integration. If I remember well, that theory says that information from different types of sources (eg, color and shape; position and nature of an object…) can only be integrated consciously. This is not at all what I am saying. In my view, if color and shape are necessary inputs for a unconscious process, they will be “integrated” (used simultaneously) by that unconscious process. It does not require your consciousness.

This post is already a bit long and there are still blank parts in my ideas. Is a computer conscious just because it has distributed processors and a bus to share information? What exactly is the relationship between consciousness and memory? Why must sending info from one process to others automatically give access to memory (why can’t you have information sharing that does not leave a trace in your short term memory)? What about split-brain persons? There is information flowing independently in the two halves of their brain; why don’t they feel two consciousnesses? Why is only one half of the brain doing things consciously ? (I suspect that the fact that only one half of their brain seems to have access to memory is a hint). Why do some people not remember their dreams, and some do?

Finally, to be falsifiable, a theory needs to make new claims and predictions. Here is a tentative:

  1. All animals that exhibit learning have consciousness and therefore are conscious beings (of course we need a way to measure consciousness to check this).
  2. Consciousness has nothing to do with your ability to move, to react to external stimuli or to integrate information. This is in complete disagreement with what Google will tell you (Consciousness: the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings.). To prove this we could try to rely on people who got out of, or are still in a coma, for example.
  3. When an unconscious process is perturbed by unexpected input, information flows to reach all other potential relevant processes; only some will be started (this would be difficult but not impossible to check using brain imaging; it would require to define precisely what exactly we are looking for…)
  4. The transformation of a conscious process involving a model to an unconscious model-less process must be measurable objectively and subjectively: a process that links directly inputs to outputs without the use of a model must be unconscious. Forcibly making it conscious by paying attention to it is only possible by involving the use of model(s).
  5. Unconscious processes can run independently of your consciousness; therefore a person who is in an unconscious state should still be able to react unconsciously if you find the right set of input stimuli (if they are not paralyzed and can still receive inputs from outside). Maybe blind sight is linked to this point? And sleep-walking.

In conclusion, the unconscious could be tool for space and energy management in the brain; consciousness would be used “on top of it” to access memory and share information. The pair conscious-unconscious would be the result of the need for memory management.

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