Neuronal Panpsychism


Panpsychism is the view that everything has a mental life. Many people find this implausible because it seems weird to think that rocks and dust bunnies are cognizers in the same way that people or animals are cognizers. Panpsychism also seems to contradict the growing consensus among neuroscientists who claim that consciousness only “arises” when a certain level of cortical connectivity or information integration is present in the brain, especially in fronto-parietal circuits and other “global workspaces”.

But why think you need a sophisticated network of cortico-cortical activity in order to have a mind, to have a point of view on the world? Why not think a single neuron is a locus of mental experience? Perhaps there is a faint “something-it-is-like” from the point of view of individual neurons. I call this view neuronal panpsychism: it says that every neuron has a distinct mental life independent of its interaction with any other neuron. Of course a neurons experience is going to be significantly impacted by its causal and reciprocal interaction with neighboring neurons but the point is that the neurons themselves are loci of experience in virtue of their intrinsic nature.

But how do we account for the reams of data suggesting that a high-level of connectivity is necessary for what Stan Dehaene calls “conscious ignition”? After all, even coma patients have some preserved neuronal activity but no one thinks they are conscious: they show no external signs of consciousness at least.

The key to explaining this data in a way that’s consistent with neuronal panpsychism is the “nesting” solution. The idea is that the “macro” consciousness of normal human adults is actually composed of the “micro” experiences of all the individual neurons. The feeling of global unity is therefore an illusion according to neuronal panpsychism. The feeling of being one great unified stream of experience is actually an aggregate of billions of microexperiences in the same way that a river is composed of countless water atoms.

But what does it mean for experiences to “add up” in this way? Is there an equivalent of multiplication or taking the integral? These are tough, unresolved theoretical issues facing all brands of panpsychism. But is it any less mysterious than saying consciousness “arises” whenever informational connectivity reaches a certain threshold in frontal-parietal circuits or when there is 40z synchrony or whatever?

I actually think though neuronal panpsychism can make sense of why it feels different to have your frontal-parietal circuits activated or deactivated and why these circuits seem to make both a significant phenomenal and functional difference to the “macro” level experience of normal human adults. Neuronal panpsychism says that all neurons have mental states but that doesn’t mean they all have the same kind of mental states. For example, a motor neuron might have a different experience than a Von Economo neuron, or a cerebellar neuron might have a different experience than a neuron than lives in the prefrontal cortex.

In effect neuronal panpsychism is a kind of microfunctionalism where neurons with different functional profiles have different mental lives. These functional differences arise from both their phylo and ontogenetic history i.e. different types of neurons have different inherited genetic programming but they also have unique, individualized learning experiences.Thus. the differences in felt macro experiences when there are high levels of frontal-parietal activity are due to the unique experiences of those neurons being added to the choir of subcortical neurons. But they are not the origin of phenomenality, only the “loudest” phenomenality or “most famous” phenomenality, to borrow a metaphor from Dan Dennett’s “fame in the brain” theory (which is an intellectual precursor to neuronal panpsychism).

Thus, when a vegetative patient is transitioning to the minimally conscious state and onwards to normal consciousness there is never one unique threshold when consciousness gets “turned on”. Consciousness is not all or nothing. Consciousness is not a special property of only a unique set of cortical circuits in mammals with sufficiently activated global workspaces. According to neuronal panpsychism, ALL neurons contribute to what-it’s-like to be a unified mind or “I”.

But why stop at neurons? Why not think glial cells have mental lives too? Indeed, why not claims all cells have mental lives? This would be “cellular panpsychism”. But that’s another post.


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The Moral Significance of Access Consciousness in the Vegetative State


Here’s the latest draft of my paper on covert consciousness in the vegetative state, which is still very much a work-in-progress. If you compare it to the earlier draft I posted, you can see I am taking the paper in a more bioethical direction, which is a whole new ballgame for me. Comments welcome.

Abstract: Adrian Owen and colleagues (2006 et al.) report using functional neuroimaging to detect residual levels of conscious awareness in patients diagnosed with vegetative state syndrome. These studies have generated immense scientific and public interest largely due to the putative moral significance of consciousness. These findings raise vexing philosophical and ethical questions about the nature of consciousness and its moral significance. My goal in this paper is to critically examine these findings and evaluate their significance from a clinical-ethical perspective. The general lesson is that these findings are not nearly as conclusive as they are sometimes portrayed in the literature, and determining the moral significance of consciousness is complex and multifaceted.

Link to PDF: The Moral Significance of Access Consciousness in the Vegetative State


Filed under Consciousness, Moral Philosophy, Philosophy, Psychology

Reflections on My Dislocated Shoulder: Two Types of Pain and Their Moral Significance

I recently dislocated my right shoulder and not surprisingly this experience has caused me to reflect on the nature of pain. In this post I will use my own experience coupled with a thought experiment to argue for two distinct types of pain: reflective pain and nonreflective pain. Having spelled out this distinction, I will raise some difficult questions about their respective moral significance.

Reflective Pain

If you are right-handed like myself, a dislocated right shoulder is an example of an injury that occasions reflective pain par excellence.  In essence, reflective pain is pain that interferes with your day-to-day functioning by causing you to consciously reflect on it more than normal. Everything is now harder and more painfully deliberate to do e.g. taking a shower, putting on clothes, hugging my wife, wearing a backpack, opening a beer, etc. The thousands of micro-tasks I typically used my dominant hand for in coordination with my non-dominant left now must be performed awkwardly with my left hand alone in order to minimize pain in my right shoulder. This has halted my daily productivity significantly. For example, as a grad student and denizen of the 21st century, I spend much of my time on a laptop. It’s amazingly slow to type with only your left hand on a QWERTY keyboard. You actually type significantly less than half of normal speed because you have less fingers but you also have to stretch your fingers more to reach across the whole keyboard. This has made day-to-day academic housekeeping and research painfully tedious in a literal sense.

Thus, the salient feature of reflective pain is that you can’t help but reflect on it because throughout the day you are continually reminded of your injury every time you go to do something that you previously would have done without hesitation. Now every motor intention is tentative and the perception of thousands of lost affordances is palpable. Reflective pain intrudes and interferes with your thought processes because you are acutely aware of the bodily powers you have lost and the pain that has replaced them.

What about nonreflective pain?

Nonreflective Pain

Nonreflective pain is quite different from reflective pain. Imagine you are walking across a desert keenly intent on getting to the other side. It’s sweltering hot so you expose your back to the air. In so doing you introspectively notice a pain sensation localized to a patch of skin on your back. You can’t remember how long that pain sensation as been there. The pain isn’t screamingly intense nor does it burn or throb. It’s more like a light tingle or steady buzz. It doesn’t itch and you feel no compulsion to reach behind you and scratch or rub it. In fact, the pain seems to be minimized by simply leaving it alone. The pain is localized such that the movement of your muscles and skin across your skeleton doesn’t exacerbate the pain. In fact the pain doesn’t interfere with your walking at all.

 The pain doesn’t necessarily command your full attention and often when you are absorbed in watching out for rattlesnakes or walking across tough terrain you entirely forget the pain is there. It’s only when you get on flat easy ground again and your mind begins to wander that you can notice the pain, buzzing with the same steadiness as always.

As you walk you begin to use the pain as a source of introspective entertainment. The pain becomes more of an interesting sensation to play with than a genuine nuisance. The pain is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It’s simply there. You can choose to attend to it or not. You can describe the sensation and localize it to a particular patch of skin, but you don’t mind the sensation; it doesn’t bother you. In fact you have grown to like it because it gives you something to reflect on as you walk mindlessly across the desert. What’s interesting about the pain is when you are not reflecting at all but entirely in the flow of walking the pain is not consciously noticed at all. There is seemingly no conscious awareness of the pain as you are absorbed in walking. There is only the ground before you and your movements. But even if you don’t consciously attend to the pain the pain is there nonetheless (presumably). It’s a steady sensation, but it seems then that not all sensations are necessarily conscious. This is what David Rosenthal might call “nonconscious qualia”.  If you didn’t introspect and reflect on the pain sensation, it’s hard to imagine it interfering with your cognitive functioning except at the grossest level of physiological nociception.

The Ethics of Pain

Now that I’ve distinguished these two types of pain, I want to ask a series of rhetorical questions. Do animals have reflective pains or are all their pains nonreflective? If so, which animals have reflective pain? All of them, or only the super-intelligent animals like apes, dolphins, and elephants? What about fish, insects, rats and cats? What is the evolutionary function of reflective pain, if it even has one? Is nonreflective pain just as morally significant as reflective pain? If we knew that a vegetative state patient had nonreflective pain, are clinicians obligated to give them pain medication?

Perhaps these are bad questions because the distinction is a false dichotomy, or conceptually or empirically mistaken. Maybe it’s a matter of degree. But it seems intuitive to me that there is something morally distinctive about the type of pains that cause us suffering and anguish on account of our reflecting on them and not just in virtue of the first-order sensory “painfulness” of them. I don’t mean to suggest that first-order painfulness has no moral significance but it seems to me that it should be weighted differently in a utilitarian calculus.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

Book Review: Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body


In The Story of the Human Body Daniel Lieberman builds a strong case that making fully informed decisions about diet and lifestyle is only possible through the lens of evolutionary history. If you want to know where your body comes from, you need to understand its evolutionary history. Why do humans stand and walk on two legs? Why are we weak compared to other primates of comparable size? Why are our legs and feet shaped the way they are, with springy tendons and arched feet? Why does our spine have a special S-curve? The answer to these questions lies in the the evolutionary history of our species.

Now ask, why do people in modern societies suffer from “diseases of affluence” like obesity, type-2 diabetes, tooth decay, metabolic syndrome, flat feet, nearsightedness, lower back pain, and sleep disorders? Daniel Lieberman argues that these questions can only be fully answered by understanding the evolutionary history of our species. Lieberman argues these diseases are examples of “mismatch diseases” i.e. a disease that is primarily caused by our bodies not being sufficiently adapted to novel gene-environment contexts. We know they’re mismatch diseases primarily because they used to be rare, are largely preventable, and are almost unheard of in hunter-gatherer populations.

Lieberman argues that all of these diseases are in some sense a result of cultural evolution speeding ahead of natural evolution with the result that have humans manufactured a psychologically comfy and satisfying environment that is paradoxically unhealthy without fundamentally affecting our reproductive fitness. Lieberman calls this this paradoxical unhealthiness “dysevolution”. It turns out that surrounding ourselves with unlimited sources of cheap junk food is a bad idea because humans are genetically wired to crave food with dense amounts of fat, sugar, starch, and salt.

Lieberman is no luddite, and certainly doesn’t advocate a return to the caves and giving up on modern science and technology. His position is more nuanced than many of the extreme black and white positions out there, as befitting the complexity of gene-environment interaction. In many senses, the agricultural and industrial revolutions have propelled humans to new heights of health and longevity, with modern science curing diseases and fixing people better than ever before. At the same time, we are living longer but spending many of those years suffering from chronic, preventable diseases. The paradox of the modern world is reduced mortality but greater morbidity i.e. living longer, but spending more of those extra years with an illness of some sort. Lieberman argues that too often the incentives of modern medicine aim at fixing symptoms but not the underlying structural causes: the toxically comfortable environments we built for ourselves.

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Draft of Latest Paper – Awake But Not Aware: Probing For Consciousness in Unresponsive Patients


Ok everyone, here’s a paper I’m really excited about. The topic is so “me” — the first project I’ve wholeheartedly thrown myself into since since I came to Wash U. I can see myself wanting to write a dissertation or book on the topic so this paper will likely serve as the basis for a prospectus in the near future. The issue I’m dealing with in the paper is situated at the intersection of a variety of fields ranging from philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, cutting edge neuroscience, clinical neurology and biomedical ethics. I could conceivably “sell” the project to a variety of people. The project is obviously at an early stage of development and the paper is drafty but I have the rest of the semester to work on this so I’m open to any comments, criticisms, or questions. Thanks!

For PDF of paper, click here –> Williams-AwakeButNotAware-Draft-3-03-14

Here’s a tentative abstract:

The standard approach in clinical neurology is to diagnose disorders of consciousness (DOC) on the basis of operationally defined behaviors. Critics of the standard approach argue that it relies on a flawed behaviorist epistemology that methodologically rules out the possibility of covert consciousness existing independently of any observable behavior or overt report. Furthermore, critics point to developments in neuroimaging that use fMRI to “actively probe” for consciousness in unresponsive patients using mental imagery tasks (Owen et al. 2006). Critics argue these studies showcase the limitations of the standard approach. The goal of this paper is to defend the standard approach against these objections. My defense comes in two parts: negative and positive. Negatively, I argue that these new “active probe” techniques are inconclusive as demonstrations of consciousness. Positively, I reinterpret these active probes in behavioral terms by arguing they are instances of “brain behaviors”, and thus not counterexamples to the standard approach.

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What It’s Like to Be Locked-In


I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.

-Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, p. 52

As I mentioned in this post my latest research project involves the measurement of consciousness in patients with brain damage, including the rare case of Locked-in Syndrome. I recently finished reading Bauby’s memoir about being in the locked-in state, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly where Bauby takes you inside what he called his “diving bell”, submerged in the depths of his useless body peering out at the world through the tiny window of his left eye. The memoir is nothing less than riveting, a powerful demonstration of the indefatigable human will.

Bauby dictated the entire book to an assistant with only the use of his left eye. The assistant would read off letters in the alphabet in a pre-established series arranged by frequency in the French language and Bauby would blink when the assistant spoke the correct letter; then they would start from the beginning for the next letter, and so on. You can imagine how laborious this would be. Yet the book reads beautifully, revealing an active, curious, intelligent mind trapped inside a bodily shell.

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Thoughts on the Future of Blogging and this Website

I’m torn and must decide: to blog or micro-blog. Regular or traditional blogging is writing posts on individual websites such as this WordPress site or a Blogger or Typepad site. Micro-blogging is posting on sites like Twitter or G+ where you don’t have your own website per se but, rather, are part of a larger social network where sharing is more ubiquitous and the nature of the content includes more link-sharing and conversation. I admit though that the boundaries between blogging and micro-blogging are fuzzy, which is part of what this post is about.

Why micro-blog? Obviously there are things you can write on WordPress that are much different from the things you can write on Twitter. They are not really comparable in this sense because of the extreme length restrictions of Twitter. However, with G+ the relative advantage of WordPress over social media is lessened since G+ lets you write relatively long posts with some amount of basic formating (bold, italics, etc.). So in deciding whether to blog or micro-blog I see the choice narrowed between WordPress and G+.

On G+ I share and reshare articles from around the web that I wouldn’t find appropriate to share on this website, which is more about philosophy and psychology rather than science and news at large. But rather than writing exclusively on a small set of subjects on a real blog, I am contemplating merging everything into a unified “jack-of-all-trades” G+ account that shares sciency-links (and who knows what else) but also occasionally writes “real” philosophy or describes more serious psycho-philosophical research. I haven’t tried to used G+ in this way (yet), but I’m thinking about it. The main advantage I see is convenience and potential for a larger, share-friendly audience. It’s nice being able to log into a central site that allows you to do all your online communication without having to switch between different websites, formats, etc. Also, it seems easier to “spread the word” on G+ than WordPress because G+ was built from the ground up to share information ubiquitously.   Also, when it comes to the Facebook vs Twitter vs G+ battles I see the writing on the wall, and Google has the pen in their hand (give it a few more years though).

The main reasons I can think of for why I am hesitant to merge everything into G+ rather than posting on both G+ and WordPress is (1) Continuity with the blogging content I’ve been posting for the last six years (Has it really been that long?!) and (2) Having my “own” website feels more legitimate academically speaking than doing everything on G+. It has a greater feel of authenticity, but perhaps this is an accidental or sentimental feature I am projecting onto WordPress. Of course, perhaps my bigger problem is that I think blogging has any academic legitimacy in the first place.

What say you, readers?


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