Speculations on the Neurocomputational Foundations of Consciousness

Take a typical example of conscious thought: imagining a Christmas tree planted on the moon. Take 5 seconds and do it now: imagine in your mind a tree on the moon. This is something you have never experienced, yet it is easy imaginable by your consciousness. What kinds of operations are involved in this conscious thought? Although it sounds strange at first, Julian Jaynes argued that the cognitive basis for this kind of thinking (as well as all the other instantiations of consciousness) is grounded in metaphor and metaphorical processes. Despite the common assumption that metaphor is limited to mere linguistic frills, like icing on the cognitive cake, metaphor is actually a deep principle of human cognition. It governs not just how we speak and write, but how we think and comprehend reality in a very primordial way. As James Geary puts it in his new book I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World,

We think metaphorically. Metaphorical thinking is the way we make sense of the world, and every individual metaphor is a specific instance of this imaginative process at work. Metaphors are therefore not confined to spoken or written language.

This is an essentially Jaynesian thesis. Jaynes thought that “[Consciousness] operates by way of analogy, by way of constructing an analog space with an analog “I” that can observe that space, and move metaphorically in it”. Let’s go back to our example of imagining a Christmas tree planted on the moon. When we execute this conscious operation, it involves several things of importance. First, there is the spatialization of the objects in the scene insofar as the tree is spatially separated from the moon ground, and the individual ornaments are spatially separated from each other, and so on. Moreover, the very fact that you are imagining a spatial arrangement indicates the importance of spatialization for consciousness. The space in our minds (what Jaynes called our “mind-space”) is not as detailed as the space we can perceive by opening our eyes. The conscious space-worlds are mere excerptions, as Jaynes called them. The visual details of the conscious excerption of our inner mind-space pales in comparison to looking at a real Christmas tree . Yet the conscious mind world is there in our minds, with some detail, some specificity. For Jaynes, the real behavioral world of perception and action is a model or source for the construction of conscious imagery and thought. In a sense then, Jaynes thought that all conscious operations are a form of modeling, or analogizing. We take something we know very well (the physical spatial environment) and based on our knowledge of this world, the mind constructs an analogous space which is useful for higher-order cognitive operations such as the famous mental rotation task.

Another component of the conscious operation of imagination is the fact that you are imagining the Christmas tree from a particular perspective. This is the perspective of the “mind’s eye”, what Jaynes called the “Analog ‘I'”. When we imagine anything in our conscious mind-space, it is always done from the perspective of an “I” which is doing the imagining from a particular mental perspective. The “model” or “source” for this analog I is of course our own bodies and the experience of our bodies interacting in a physical environment, which we are familiar with having a certain limited perspective on a space before us.

To explain the mechanisms of consciousness then, we have to develop a theory of how analog spaces are constructed in the brain along with analog bodies to perceive these analog spaces. We would also have to develop a theory of how these analogical processes generate phenomenal associations which Jaynes called “paraphrands”, and which we know of as “conscious feelings”. The mind-space world of the moon and Christmas tree is a paraphrand of the analogical construction of mind-space and the analog I. Explaining consciousness in this way would seem to involve a theory of how the brain uses metaphor at the neurocomputational level. Since metaphor is based on the recycling of basic perceptuo-motor schemas of familiar stimuli burnt into the neural circuitry for the purpose of comprehending unfamiliar stimuli to generate adaptive behavior, it seems like we could use the neuronal cycling hypothesis of Stanislas Dehaene to explain how metaphor works, and thus, how consciousness constructs “analogs” of everything it has experienced. This might be related to the fundamentally “echo-y” or “loopy” nature of cognition that Hofstadter has emphasized (and it is telling that Hofstadter himself has claimed that analogy is the “core” of cognition). This would point to the “networkological” or “intrinsic” nature of brain activity, which only gets modified by exposure to the world rather than completely specified by it. The neurocomputational explanation of consciousness would then look like a neurocomputational explanation of how analogical thinking in the brain works, particularly the analogizing of things/events spatially, especially our experience of time and of our own autobiographical self. Part and parcel of this analogizing cognition is based on linguistic skills, but the underlying cognitive cross-modal mapping is probably prelinguistic in nature. By spatializing time, we can develop a narratively grounded,  “story like” understanding of the world which allows us to consciously assign causes and reasons to things, leading to theory of mind and the development of propositional attitudinal thinking (ascribing beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. to either yourself, others, or inanimate objects). This ability is of course dependent on the linguistic-analogical capacities of human articulatory cognition. The functions of consciousness to explain are excerption, narratization, spatialization, and conciliation (which is the putting of things into unified object in your conscious mind space, such as the unified mental image of a Christmas tree planted on the moon).

Jaynes says consciousness is a “metaphor-generated model”. In order to learn more about consciousness then, I need to learn more about metaphor, and how metaphor works neurocomputationally. It seems like the “mapping” of metaphor, of abstract (unknown) onto concrete (known), is the core process which allows for the “constructing” capacity of modern conscious thought (the ability to effectively close your eyes and consciously construct whole mental vistas). Could Andy Clark’s “epistemic actions” = Jaynes’ “metaphored actions”?

To speculate on the neurocomputational origins of analogical thinking, could there be a link between “convergence” or “association” areas in higher-cortical processing and the computational processing of metaphorical comprehension, which is essentially saying “X = Y”? This “crosstalk” of domain specific modalities is crucial to the complex intelligence of human typical cognition, and now we might see a way to link such informational convergence to the very process of consciousness itself.  This would fit with the original meaning of metaphor as “to carry across”. Metaphorical thinking “carries across” the domain specific schemas and integrates or “associates” (conciliates?) that information into another domain, allowing for novel comprehension of novel stimuli, which would have adaptive success and provide a scaffolding for the evolution of conscious operations in a unconscious world.

My thoughts on this subject are kind of scattered. I am unsure of where metaphor as cross-computational convergence and metaphor as linguistic mapping come apart. Perhaps the nonlinguistic “core analogy” processing was the neural scaffold for verbal analogy to take hold and become useful. The brain was already making cross-modal convergence in a limited sense. Maybe language hijacked these processes and “recycled” the crossing-circuits for a new purpose: linguistic mapping and associating based on communal norms of symbolic information exchange.

p.s. An interesting game is to try and find all the metaphors I naturally used in this post (e.g. thoughts = scattered objects).



Filed under Consciousness, Psychology

2 responses to “Speculations on the Neurocomputational Foundations of Consciousness

  1. It may be of great value to stop ignoring analysis of the obvious. Whitehead wrote, Familiar things happen and mankind does not bother about them.” Hegel said, “Because it’s familiar, a thing remains unknown.” Other critical thinkers agree. Why would we undertake the analysis of familliar, obvious and known things and things we have accepted and taken for granted? This is because we fail to learn things intuitively. We take them for granted and ignore them. They must, must, must become intuitive knowledge. Such is the case with things that learned in our very early years, including the fact that we think. We learned we think, took it for granted and deal strictly with intellect, logic and reason. We miss out on the power of insight which can and should accompany these other things of consciousness.

    Emmanuel Karavousanos
    Author, The Gift of Mystical Insight

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    A splendid blog post, I just passed this onto a workfellow who was doing a little analysis on this. And he in fact bought me dinner because I discovered it for him. smile.. So let me rephrase that: Thank you for the treat! But yeah Thnx for taking the time to talk about this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic.

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