Future Tech

Thinking Machines: What Neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence Can Teach Us About Consciousness

Andre Infante 29-07-2014

To the best understanding of modern medical science 10 Ways To Donate Your CPU Time To Science Read More , you are a meticulously structured sack of volatile chemicals under pressure.  There is no reason to believe that there is anything at all special about your body, compared to that of a corpse, or that of a Buick for that matter.   Except for one thing — your body contains a living human brain.


There is no evidence that any new laws of physics or supernatural phenomena are involved in human cognition.  Animalism and dualism are well and truly dead.  This is, at least at first, disturbing – because, from the inside of the human experience, it certainly doesn’t feel like we’re nothing more than a collection of chemicals.  Being a person feels, on a very deep and intuitive level, like something that shouldn’t be possible for what is ultimately a complicated molecular machine.

Programming Consciousness

This begs the question – if we learn how consciousness works, can we build machines, or write software 7 Amazing Websites To See The Latest In Artificial Intelligence Programming Artificial Intelligence is not yet HAL from the 2001: The Space Odyssey…but we are getting awfully close. Sure enough, one day it could be as similar to the sci-fi potboilers being churned out by Hollywood.... Read More , that has it, too?  Can the effort to build intelligent software teach us lessons about the nature of the human mind?  Can we finally understand subjective experience well enough to, once and for all, decide how much moral weight we should assign to the experiences of less sophisticated minds, likes those of livestock, dolphins, or fetuses?

These are the hard questions that philosophers have grappled with for centuries.  However, since philosophy as a discipline is not good at actually solving problems – very little headway 8 Spectacularly Wrong Predictions About Computers & The Internet Read More has been made.  Here’s a traditional philosopher talking about consciousness on a TED stage.

This is a good introduction to the topic, though Chalmer’s philosophy is a supernatural one, proposing metaphysical phenomenon that provide consciousness in ways that don’t interact with the physical world at all.  This is what I’d call the easy way out.

If, in your effort to explain something, you resort to magic, then you haven’t really explained it — you’ve simply given up with style.  Arguably, Star Trek addressed the same issue better.


Recently, science has begun making meaningful progress on this problem, as artificial intelligence and neuroscience have begun to chip away at the edges of the issue. This has inspired new fields of evidence-based philosophical thinking.  The insights gained in this way are enormously interesting, and help to better outline a coherent theory of consciousness, and guide us toward machines that can experience as well as reason.

Neuroscience and Consciousness

In neuroscience, it is largely the defects of the brain that teach us things about its function.  When the brain breaks, we get a peek behind the curtain of the mind.  Taken together, these insights begin to sketch the broad outlines of what the structure of consciousness must look like, and the result is fascinating.

For example: Cotard’s delusion (more colorfully known as “Walking Corpse Syndrome”), is a delusion often caused by severe schizophrenia or physical damage to the parietal lobe of the brain, which causes a variety of symptoms, the most interesting of which is the delusion that the sufferer does not exist.

Sufferers of Cotard’s delusion aren’t self-aware.  They genuinely don’t believe that they exist, which often also leads to the conclusion that they have died.  Decartes once claimed that the fundamental truth, on which all else can be based, is “I think, therefore, I am.”  People with Cotard’s delusion disagree.  In other words, the component of consciousness that includes self-awareness can be selectively turned off by damage to a specific area of the brain, while leaving the rest of the human intellect relatively intact.



A related condition is “blindsight,” which affects some people who are blind due to damage to the visual center of the brain.  Blindsight patients are capable of instinctively catching objects thrown at them, and, if you place objects in front of them and ask them to guess what they are, they significantly outperform random chance.  However, they do not believe that they can see: subjectively, they are blind.

Blindsight patients are unique, in that they have a functioning sense (sight), but are not conscious of it.  What the brain damage has destroyed is not their ability to process visual information, but their ability to be consciously aware of that processing.

Blindsight occurs when one specific circuit that leads information away from the visual cortex is damaged (the V1 circuit), but not the other two, which leaves neuroscientists in the unique position of knowing exactly which neural circuit is necessary for visual information to enter the conscious experience, but not why.



Interestingly, the reverse of Blindsight is also possible — victims of Anton-Babinski syndrome lose their vision but maintain their conscious perception of having vision, insisting that they can see normally and confabulating ridiculous explanations for their inability to perform basic tasks.

There have also been experiments on selectively disabling consciousness.  For example: there is a small region of the brain called the claustrum near the center of the brain that, when stimulated by an electrode in at least some patients, entirely disables consciousness and higher cognition, which returns a few seconds later when the electric current ceases.

What’s interesting is that while the stimulation is occurring, the patient remains awake, eyes open, sitting up.  If the patient is asked to repeat a task while the current is turned on, they simply drift off from what they’re doing and stop.  It’s believed that the role of the claustrum is to coordinate communication between a number of different regions of the brain, including the hippocampus, the amygdala, the caudate nucleus, and possibly others.


Some neuroscientists believe that since the claustrum serve to coordinate communication between different modules of the brain; stimulating this region would disable that coordination, and cause the brain to break down into separate components – each largely useless in isolation, and incapable of building a subjective experience.


This notion meshes with what we know about the function of anesthetics – which we’ve used for centuries before we understood how they work.

It is currently believed that general anesthetics interfere with networking between different high-level components of the brain, preventing them from building whatever  neurological system is necessary to produce a coherent conscious experience.  Upon consideration, this makes a certain amount of intuitive sense: if it isn’t possible for the visual cortex to send information to your working memory, there’s no way for you to have a conscious visual experience that you could talk about later.

The same goes for hearing, memory, emotion, internal monologue, planning, etc.   All of those systems are modules that, once disconnected from working memory, would remove a crucial part of the conscious experience.

It may, in fact, be more accurate to talk about consciousness – rather than as a distinct, unified entity – as a collaboration of many different kinds of awareness, bound together by inclusion in the narrative flow of memory.  In other words, instead of a “consciousness”, you might have a visual consciousness, an audible consciousness, a consciousness of memories, and so on.  It’s an open question as to whether anything remains when you take away all of these pieces, or whether this explains the matter of consciousness entirely.

Theories of Consciousness

Daniel Dennett, otherwise known as the “cranky old man” of consciousness research, holds that this is in fact the case – that consciousness simply isn’t as special as most people imagine.  His model of consciousness, which some accuse of being overly reductionist, is called the ‘multiple drafts’ theory, and works like this:

The brain functions as a population of semi-independent, interconnected modules, continuously transmitting information Geeks Weigh In: Does a Human Think Faster Than a Computer? Read More semi-discriminately into the network, often in response to the signals that they are receiving from other modules.  Signals that trigger responses from other modules, such as a smell that provokes a visual memory, cascade between modules and escalate. The memory might provoke an emotion, and an executive process might have a response to that emotion, which might be structured by the language center into part of an inner monologue.

This process increases the odds that the whole cascade of related signals will be detected by the memory encoding mechanism of the brain, and become part of the record of short term memory: the “story” of consciousness, some of which will make it into longer term memory, and become part of the permanent record.


Consciousness, according to Dennett, is nothing but a serial narrative comprised of these sorts of cascades, which make up the entire system’s record of the world it exists in, and its path through it. Because the modules don’t have introspective access to their own functions, when we are asked to describe the nature of the behavior of one module, we come up with no useful information.  As a result, we feel, intuitively, that our subjective experience is undefinable and ineffable.

An example would be asking someone to describe what the color red looks like.  The question feels absurd, not because of any inherent fact about the universe, but because the underlying structure of the brain doesn’t actually allow us to know how the color red is implemented in our own hardware.  As far as our conscious experience is concerned, it’s just… red.

Philosophers call these sorts of experiences ‘qualia’ and often assign near-mystical significance to them.  Daniel Dennett suggests that they’re more like a neurological 404 page the brain throws up when asked what goes on behind the curtain of a particular brain region not accessible to the conscious narrative. Dennet himself puts it like this:

There is no single, definitive “stream of consciousness,” because there is no central Headquarters, no Cartesian Theatre where “it all comes together” for the perusal of a Central Meaner. Instead of such a single stream (however wide), there are multiple channels in which specialist circuits try, in parallel pandemoniums, to do their various things, creating Multiple Drafts as they go. Most of these fragmentary drafts of “narrative” play short-lived roles in the modulation of current activity but some get promoted to further functional roles, in swift succession, by the activity of a virtual machine in the brain. The seriality of this machine (its “von Neumannesque” character) is not a “hard-wired” design feature, but rather the upshot of a succession of coalitions of these specialists.

There are, of course, other schools of thought.  One model that is currently popular among certain philosophers is called integrated information theory, which holds that the consciousness of a system is related to its density of internal networking – the complexity of its overall structure, relative to the structure of its components.

However, this model has been criticized via the suggestion of intuitively non-conscious (simply structured) information systems which it ranks as massively more conscious than humans. Scott Aaronson, a mathematical researcher and vocal critic of integrated information theory, said this about the issue a few months ago:

“In my opinion, the fact that Integrated Information Theory is wrong—demonstrably wrong, for reasons that go to its core—puts it in something like the top 2% of all mathematical theories of consciousness ever proposed. Almost all competing theories of consciousness, it seems to me, have been so vague, fluffy, and malleable that they can only aspire to wrongness.”

Another proposed model holds that consciousness is the result of humans modelling themselves, an idea that may be compatible with Dennett’s model, but suffers from the possibly fatal flaw of suggesting that a windows computer running a virtual machine of itself is in some sense conscious. The list of models of consciousness is about as long as the list of everyone who’s ever felt inclined to tackle such a difficult problem.

There are a lot of options out there, from the outright mystical, to Dennett’s stolid, cynical pragmatism.  For my money, Dennett’s multiple drafts theory strikes me as, if not a complete accounting of why human beings talk about consciousness, at least a solid start along that path.

Artificial Intelligence & Consciousness

Let’s say that, a few years from now, progress in neuroscience has led to a Grand Unified Theory of Consciousness — how could we know if it’s right?  What if the theory leaves out something important — how would we know?  The history of science has taught us to be wary of nice-sounding ideas that we can’t test.  So how might we test our model of consciousness?

Well, we could try to build one.

Our ability to construct intelligent machines has been going through something of a renaissance lately.  Watson, a piece of intelligent software developed by IBM, which famously won on the game show Jeopardy, is also capable of a surprisingly broad suite of intellectual tasks, having been adapted to serve as both a talented chef and a superhuman diagnostician.

Though IBM calls Watson a cognitive computer, the truth is that Watson is very much a triumph of non-neuromorphic artificial intelligence Giovanni Idili of OpenWorm: Brains, Worms, and Artificial Intelligence Simulating a human brain is a ways off, but an open-source project is taking vital first steps, by simulating the neurology and physiology of one of the simplest animals known to science.   Read More – that is, it is an intelligent piece of software that does not attempt to implement the specific insights of neuroscience and brain research.  IBM works by using a large number of very different machine learning algorithms, some of which are used to evaluate the output of other algorithms to gauge their usefulness, and many algorithms which are hand-tweaked to connect together in productive ways.

As Watson improves and its reasoning becomes deeper and more useful, it’s easy to imagine using Watson technology, along with other technology not yet developed, to build systems that emulate the function of specific known brain systems, and integrating those systems in a way that would produce a conscious experience.

We could then experiment with that intelligent machine, to see if it describes a subjective experience at all – and, if so, determine if that subjective experience is similar to the human experience.  If we can build a conscious computer that, at its lowest level is not similar to our own neurology, that would certainly validate the model!


This idea of building an artificial intelligence to validate theories about the brain is not a new one.  Spaun, a research project at the University of Alberta, is a huge (roughly mouse-scale) biological neural network simulation designed to implement models of various brain regions, including executive function, sight, working memory, and motor function.

The implementation is capable of performing a number of basic cognitive tasks, like recognizing and drawing symbols, repeating back strings of numbers, and answering simple questions by drawing the answers, and predicting the next digit of a sequence.  Because Spaun can do these things, this implies that current artificial intelligence models are correct, at least in the broad strokes.

In principle, the same could be applied to consciousness, provided we can build the component parts of the system to a high enough standard. Of course, with the ability to make conscious machines comes a degree of responsibility.  Turning on a machine that may be conscious is at least as big a moral responsibility as the decision to have a child, and, if we succeed, we are responsible for the well-being of that machine for the rest of its existence.

This is on top of the risks associated with building very intelligent software at all – namely the risk of a machine with different values from our own rapidly improving its own architecture until it’s smart enough to begin changing the world in ways that we may not like.  Numerous commentators, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, have noted that this may be one of the most significant threats mankind faces going forward.

Put another way: the ability to create a new kind of “human” is a big responsibility.  It might be the most important thing humanity has ever done as a species, and we should take it very seriously.  None the less, there’s potential there, too – the potential to understand those fundamental questions about our own minds.  We’re still a ways out from having the technology we need to put these ideas into practice, but not so far out that we can ignore them entirely.  The future is on its way, deceptively quickly, and we’d be wise to get ready for it today.

Image credits: “Watson and the other three podiums“, by Atomic Taco, “No Brain” by Pierre-Olivier Carles, “Brain“, by GreenFlames09 “Lights of Ideas” by Saad Faruque, Abstract Eye by ARTEMENKO VALENTYN via Shutterstock 

Related topics: Artificial Intelligence, Geeky Science.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

Whatsapp Pinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Michael A Williams
    August 4, 2014 at 7:28 pm

    The article is mistaken. Consciousness cannot be reduced to mere physics, chemistry and biology. Now, there's "magical" thinking! Reductionist/Materialist science hardly has it right. Check out: "Irreducible Mind" by Edward Kelly, Emily Williams Kelly and others; "Anomalous Experiences: Examining the Scientific Evidence" edited by Etzel Cardena, Steven Jay Lynn and Stanley Krippner; and any books by Dr. Dean Radin - for starters.

    As for James Randi's million dollar challenge, that's been long debunked as a fraud. The contract has all sorts of "ifs, ands, or buts", road blocks and an escape clause for Randi and his associates, saying they can cancel the contract at any time for no reason given. For more on Randi and other "pseudo-skeptics" see http://www.debunkingskeptics.com

    Plus, you materialists check out philosopher Bernardo Kastrup's site: http://www.bernardokastrup.com where he dismantles all sorts of "fairytale notions" of materialists with reason and logic.
    And, to finish off here, check out the new article "Is Mind Element Needed to Interpret Quantum Mechanics" by Deepak Chopra, MD and Henry Stapp, Ph.D. at: http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/chopra/article/is-mind-element-needed-to-interpret-quantum-5666376.php

    "Mind is the matrix of all matter." - Max Planck

  2. Noah Peabody
    July 31, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Edit---not "conscience"...should be "conscious mind"

  3. Noah Peabody
    July 31, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    Andre---that's the catch---prescient dreams don't happen on command----its the unconscious working, not the conscience....at least in my case. Not only that---most of the dreams took place during a certain period in my life, not so much anymore these days, just the usual rehash of the day's events. I do have very high doubts about psychics who can do this stuff on command. I do think sometimes that there is a larger "mind" that we are all part of...it is likely apart from our neural networks. Amit Goswami Phd Physics thinks the the crazy quantum behavior is the interface of this. Maybe. I don't know.

  4. bnjohanson
    July 30, 2014 at 9:26 pm

    " Life is a tale told by an idiot referring to himself as DragonMouth - full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. "

    -William Shakespeare

  5. dragonmouth
    July 30, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    @bnjohanson & Andre I:
    The only fool bigger than the person who knows it all is the person who argues with him.

    • bnjohanson
      July 30, 2014 at 8:21 pm

      My motive and tact is purely based upon my being exceptionally willing and able to call-out incidences like this that pose ideological propaganda-based declarations as fact.....EVERY CHANCE THAT I GET, WHETHER IN A PUBLIC VENUE OR TO A LESSOR EXTENT, A VENUE LIKE THIS ONE FOR THE REST OF MY BREATHING LIFE.

      ...I am so sick and tired of the trend this society is taking as a consequence of having to rely on the establishment/institutional information infrastructure as their guide to knowledge, a majority of which is so deeply flawed, totally fraudulent, and managed and maintained by nothing short of a criminal enterprise, whether actively so, or negligently naive to the fact.

      ....but you go on ahead and remain passive in your candor; just make sure you don't choose screen names like Dragonface because that would appear inconsistent in your motives.....oh wait.

    • dragonmouth
      July 30, 2014 at 8:50 pm

      "A man must be both stupid and uncharitable who believes there is no virtue or truth but on his own side."
      Joseph Addison, English poet and essayist (1672-1719)

  6. Noah Peabody
    July 30, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    I have experienced quite a number of prescient dreams in my life---I would be interested in how a collection of neurons is capable of that. There are deeper aspects to our psyches that require further explanation if the nuts and bolts theory is true.

  7. Louis Savain
    July 30, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    "Animalism and dualism are well and truly dead."

    So sure of this you are. There is nothing scientific in that statement. It is an unfalsifiable, metaphysical statement and it does not belong in science.

    • bnjohanson
      July 30, 2014 at 7:39 pm

      Andre- YOU'RE FIRED AND GO AWAY...forever you pre-programmed and deeply flawed Liberal LOON.

      1. Quantum Mechanics is the NEWEST form of Physics you moron....advancing past the deeply flawed in the atomic scale Classical form of Physics you moron;
      2. Quantum Mechanics WORKS 100% of the time AGAIN YOU MORON...look it up you obvious noob;
      3. In the effort to find a theory that "explains everything" is ongoing and totally irrelevant to the quality and always accurate methods derived by Quantum Mechanics;
      4. As research in Laws of Quantum Entanglement are advancing now daily, not only is the connection/relation between particles proving WRONG the once believed "light is the speed limit", but has supported in surprising fashion the likelihood of Dualism and consciousness. This discovery has proven no longer theoretical but fact as the spin of a particle WILL change direction INSTANTANEOUSLY with it's pair even when located on the other side of the Universe.

      Your deeply flawed opinion regarding the "quantum consciousness crowd" is as expired as the flat-earth theory nowadays and via these new discoveries via the aforementioned.

      My whole candor here is not based upon your effort to reconcile the current mysteries and "spooky actions" attributed to the results that Quantum Mechanics has concluded, nor is it aimed at ridiculing your effort to meld these relationships with AI. My serious problem with you is your declarative, presumably all-knowing, and at the same time totally inaccurate statements rife throughout your piece. Your behavior in this regard is all too common to by those leftist whackos that were successfully programmed by the methods adhered to in this Country by the DOE, but also prevalent among all of the extreme Leftists circles that laughably believe themselves to smarter than thou but horrendously retarded by their agenda(s) (pls. ref. "The Science Is Settled" as honked by your man-crush Obama supporting the Anthropogenic-deltas in Climate Change.

      In conclusion: Quit the preaching of your fallacies under the guise of Declarative penmanship. It doesn't work anymore since you (a) no longer have a monopoly on your beliefs via the mainstream media spinning these myths as facts, (b) even the layman in this country is on to your culture and catching-up rapidly to your kind's overrated and dwarfed "intelligence", and (c) you need to strongly consider restructuring your soul and mental aptitude from that which was hardwired and programmed by the teachers' and professors' asses you were kissing and expand your knowledge sources outside of those that have been pre-approved by those that have toed the line fbo the poisonously biased institutionally academic stale and limited infrastructure.

      Reply if you may pal....but you are a total waste of time and I likely won't be so charitable as to strive in showing you the light any longer.....

    • Andre I
      July 30, 2014 at 7:43 pm

      It's not unscientific to be dismissive of dragons. Science is allowed to make negative observations, as well as positive ones. If those observations are strong enough, then it's least misleading, in plain, spoken English, to speak in absolutes (because we often speak in absolutes about things we are very sure about, even if we're willing to update on overwhelming evidence). The strength of evidence for a chemical, mechanical mind is overwhelming, and it's silly to pretend that there's a reasonable doubt left.

    • Louis Savain
      July 30, 2014 at 8:31 pm

      This is not about dragons and unicorns. It's about simple logic. It takes two complementary opposite entities in order to have consciousness: a knower and a known. And neither can be its own opposite. Some of the neuronal activations in the brain contribute to conscious events. Thus the activation of a neuron is the known. A neuronal activation cannot be its own opposite. Before the brain-is-all-there-is crowd can claim that they are practicing science, they must provide an experimental setup that will tell us in no uncertain terms whether or not a thermostat is conscious. Until then, it's just more metaphysics and superstition. Nothing to get excited about. In other words, the Singularity/materialist/transcendence movement is just another religion masquerading as science.

  8. bnjohanson
    July 30, 2014 at 10:34 am

    " There is no evidence that any new laws of physics or supernatural phenomena are involved in human cognition. Animalism and dualism are well and truly dead. "

    YOU ARE 100% W-R-O-N-G....and I base this not on anything having to do with "faith" or some other intangible. Current research in Quantum Mechanics and its relationship with consciousness has never been more active in the history of mankind....and they're finding some rather "spooky" stuff...as would be consistent with this newest modern form of Physics that works 100% of time.

    For you to make such a declarative statement not only confirms you as a lazy, out of touch, idiot, but just might indicate you are some typical ideological LIBERAL LOON S.O.B.

    So which one is it Andre? Are you an ignorant moron striving to play yourself off as somebody even relatively smart, or are you just another narcissistic-Liberal-Loon-all-take-no-give liability to the human race that will meet their end via simple Darwinism?

    Pick one.

    • DMusac
      July 30, 2014 at 2:53 pm

      You give no reason for your conclusion, you resort to insults, you added a dash of politics. Are you a moron or just retarded? Pick one.

    • Andre I
      July 30, 2014 at 7:08 pm

      A few points of correction: one, quantum mechanics isn't new, it predates WWII. Second, it doesn't work '100%' of the time: the current horizon in physics is trying to find a model that reproduces the results of both quantum mechanics and general relativity in a single theory, because right now our standard equations for modelling quantum events don't scale to predicting the behavior of macroscopic objects for which gravity is relevant. Finally, the quantum consciousness crowd are largely a bunch of complete wall-lickers - as of right now, quantum consciousness is so far outside the mainstream of neuroscience that you couldn't spot them with the Hubble.

  9. dragonmouth
    July 29, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    "how much moral weight we should assign to the experiences of less sophisticated minds, likes those of livestock, dolphins, or fetuses?"
    By "less sophisticated" do you mean "less complex physiologically"? Because since we cannot communicate with those less sophisticated minds, we do not know how sophisticated their thinking processes are. We only ASSUME that they are not as sophisticated as ours.
    Shouldn't we first define and quantify what "consciousness" is before we move on to what AI can teach us about "consciousness"? If we do not know clearly what it is, how can we learn more about it.

    You are mixing together two metaphors - humans as physical objects and humans as metaphysical entities - which leads to dilemas which do not exist if the mataphors are considered separately on their own. As Mr. Spock would say, you are being illogical.

    "from the inside of the human experience, it certainly doesn’t feel like we’re nothing more than a collection of chemicals"
    Would a self-aware artificial intelligence feel that it was artificial? Would a self-aware robot feel like it was nothing more than a collection of nuts and bolts? The answer in both cases is - only if programmed with the knowledge. Over eons, humans have been programmed to think of themselves as something "more", something "better" than a bag of chemicals.

    "If, in your effort to explain something, you resort to magic, then you haven’t really explained it"
    As Arthur Clarke said "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistiguishable from magic." If the "something" we are trying to explain is sufficiently beyond our ken, then "magic" may be the only word we can use.