It’s Saturday night. I could be drinking now. I should be drinking now; a friend of mine has been liberated from his wife and larva for the weekend— a greater cause for celebration than he’ll admit publicly— and I should be out there helping him kill brain cells. And yet I have chosen to stay home, so that I may plough through a couple of technical papers by some Yale egghead with the unlikely name of Ezequiel Morsella, and bring his words down from the mountaintop1.
It is not often I choose to be such a wet blanket. (Usually it’s an autonomic reflex.) But this Morsella guy has come up with an intriguing theory about consciousness, and I think he might really be on to something. I noticed a couple of New Scientist-type headlines on an in-press paper that takes a stab at empirically testing this theory, but I gotta give a nod to Nick Nimchuk for pointing me at the original 2005 paper.
Morsella has gone back to basics. Forget art, symphonies, science. Forget the step-by-step learning of complex tasks. Those may be some of the things we use consciousness for now but that doesn’t mean that’s what it evolved for, any more than the cones in our eyes evolved to give kaleidoscope makers something to do. What’s the primitive, bare-bones, nuts-and-bolts thing that consciousness does once we’ve stripped away all the self-aggrandizing bombast?
Morsella’s answer is delightfully mundane: it mediates conflicting motor commands to the skeletal muscles.
It’s a revelation, watching this dude whittle away at the options. Consciousness isn’t just about motor commands: we snatch our hand back from a hot stove, play arpeggios far faster than the conscious mind can keep up, and those are all “voluntary” motor actions.
It’s not just about puzzle-solving, or reconciling conflicting inputs, either: look at all the illusions and mind tricks that depend on the brain performing exactly those kinds of operations unconsciously. Binocular rivalry, inattentional blindness, ventriloquism: incompatible views shown to each eye, buildings appearing and disappearing from our field of view, the mouth moving here but the sound coming from over there: somehow the brain puts all those conflicting inputs together and serves up the final product without any sense of conscious conflict. The speaker mouths “ga”; the sound hitting the observer’s ear is “ba”; but the observer hears “ga”, an intermediate sound, without ever being aware of a conflict in need of sophisticated and complex resolution.
Not problem solving, then. Not motor commands. Or rather, not just those things in isolation. But when you snatch your hand from a flame faster than the conscious mind can act, there’s no other agenda to keep your hand where it is, is there? What if there were? Morsella asks. What about the person carrying the scorching plate from kitchen to dining room? Part of him says drop that fucker, it’s burning my fingers, but some other part is saying No, you have guests to feed, you don’t want to clean up the mess, suffer just a little longer and everything will be okay. Or let’s move all the way up to life and death: what about the person trapped beneath the ice, one part burning with the need to inhale, another terrified of drowning should that actually happen?
Not just conflict, or problems to be solved. Not just motor commands to carry out. Rather, conflicting motor commands: competing agendas, both involving voluntary motion. That‘s when you wake up.
Morsella sees us as a series of systems, each with its own agenda: feeding, predator avoidance, injury prevention, and so on. Mostly these systems operate on their own, independently. We can’t voluntarily dilate our eyes, for example. We can’t consciously control our digestive processes, nor are we even generally aware of them — peristalsis, like the pupil reflex, is the purview of the smooth muscles (and no, gas production by gut bacteria is not the same thing). But when digestion is finished — when the rectum is full, and you’re ready to take the mother of all dumps, but you’re on the in-laws good living-room carpet and your incontinent uncle is hogging the toilet — then, sure as shit, you become conscious of the process. There’s a sphincter under voluntary control that’s just urging you to let go. There are other agendas suggesting that that would be a really bad idea. And I would challenge anyone who has ever been in that position to tell me that that situation is not one in which conscious awareness of one’s predicament is, to put it mildly, heightened.
So most of our activities — somatic and cognitive — operate under the purview of these various systems, and as long as they don’t come into conflict we’re not aware of them. But when there is conflict — when SubSystem A tells the body to do this and SubSystem B says no, do that — then we’ve got a problem. Then, the competing agendas enter the arena to do battle. Consciousness, according to Morsella, is a forum for crosstalk between different systems, the only forum in which these systems can communicate when in conflict. He describes it as “a senate, in which representatives from different provinces are always in attendance, regardless of whether they should sit quietly or debate.”2 I myself prefer the Thunderdome For Subroutines metaphor, in which competing agendas duke it out for dominance. The urge to inhale, the fear of drowning. The need to defecate, the price of carpet cleaner. Two plans enter: one plan leaves, and runs down the motor nerves, and is put into action.
Morsella calls it PRISM: the Principle of Parallel Responses Into Skeletal Muscle. He claims the acronym works conceptually, “for just as a prism can combine different colors to yield a single hue, phenomenal states cull simultaneously activated response tendencies to yield a single, adaptive skeletomotor action.” Yeah, right. I bet the dude spent as long playing with Scrabble tiles to come up with a cool-sounding name as he did writing the actual paper, but we’ll let that slide.
I find PRISM appealing on a number of fronts: it resonates both with the latest MRI findings and with ancient insights from the 19th century (“Thinking is for doing”, Morsella quotes from 1890). It explains Blindsight, Alien Hand Syndrome, any number of Sacksian neurological disorders as a loss of integration, the result of inadequate crosstalk between systems. It makes me look at mirror neurons in a whole new way. It’s a testable hypothesis, falsifiable, predictive.
And most importantly, for me — speaking as someone who built a book predicated on the subject — it recognizes its limits. It presents the conscious arena as a necessary place for deliberation, but it doesn’t even try to explain why Thunderdome should have an audience (or rather, why Thunderdome should be its own audience). These are the things that happen in the conscious arena, and only here, as far as we know— but Morsella admits explicitly that it’s easy to imagine another system that does the same thing, more efficiently, without conscious involvement. He leaves the door open for scramblers.
“…this does not mean that current models of nervous activity or
other contraptions are incapable of achieving what phenomenal
states achieve; it means only that, in the course of human evolution,
these physical events happened to be what were selected to solve
certain computational challenges … while intersystem integration
could conceivably occur without something like phenomenal states
(as in an automaton or in an elegant “blackboard” neural network
with all of its modules nicely interconnected), such a solution was not
selected in our evolutionary history.”
Even cooler, he goes on to postulate a whole new system, something that is facultatively conscious, and which I can pretty much guarantee is gonna show up in Dumbspeech if that book ever gets a publisher:
“Although one could easily imagine more efficient arrangements
that invoke phenomenal states only under conditions of conflict,
chronic engagement happens to be a rather parsimonious and, in
some sense, efficient evolutionary solution to the problem of
intersystem interaction. Just as traffic lights, pool filters, and
ball-return machines at bowling alleys operate and expend energy
continuously (regardless of whether their function is presently
needed), chronic engagement is “efficiently inefficient” in the
sense that it does not require additional mechanisms to determine
whether channels of cross-talk should be open or closed.”
“…One could imagine a conscious nervous system that
operates as humans do but does not suffer any internal strife. In
such a system, knowledge guiding skeletomotor action would be
isomorphic to, and never at odds with, the nature of the phenomenal state
— running across the hot desert sand in order to reach water
would actually feel good, because performing the action is
deemed adaptive. Why our nervous system does not operate with
such harmony is perhaps a question that only evolutionary biology
can answer. Certainly one can imagine such integration occurring
without anything like phenomenal states, but from the present
standpoint, this reflects more one’s powers of imagination than
what has occurred in the course of evolutionary history.”
This guy is pointing out the way to whole new forms of consciousness, utterly alien and yet completely plausible. This would be a terrific and uplifting point upon which to end; but because “Peter Watts” and “uplifting” are two terms that do not belong in the same sentence, I think I’ll wind this up on a more somber note. Once again, Ezequiel Morsella:
“It is reasonable to assume that, early in development, skeletomotor
behavior openly reflects the (unchecked and unsuppressed)
tendencies of the response systems. There is no question that an
infant or toddler would immediately drop a plate that was a bit too
hot. But as development unfolds, behavior begins to reflect the
collective development of the quasi-independent learning histories
of the response systems.”
What he is saying here is, the more cognitively sophisticated you become, the more able you are to suppress hardwired aversion responses in favor of long-term agendas. The more sublime your awareness, the more pain you can withstand. And is anyone here not thinking of the Bene Gesserit and their gom jabbar, from Dune? Herbert, once again, had it right. His simple device reduced Voight-Kampf to its essence: testing for humanity through torture.
If Morsella is right, consciousness scales with conflict: the greater the discord between systems, the higher the level of awareness. You are never more alive, more awake, more conscious, than when in excruciating conflict with yourself. If self-awareness is the hallmark of humanity, then Sophie’s Choice may be its most mind-expanding exemplar.
Abu Ghraib was not just a torture chamber. It was a transcendence machine.
Postscript, 11/10/09: Pointing out an obvious religious angle that I missed completely, Caitlin Sweet asks rhetorically, “Why do you think monks whipped themselves until they bled? Transcendence, baby.”
1 Actually, I could have done this this afternoon, but I was drinking at lunch with a couple of other folks, which led to the teensiest bit of drowsiness afterwards and an unexpected coma that only ended when Banana the Cat— outraged by the sight of a food bowl that remained empty a full three minutes past his usual dinnertime— hooked me through the nose with his claw.
2This neatly explains why we are consciously aware of things like hunger even when they are not in obvious conflict with other agendas— although one could also argue that as a prey species, hunger always involves a conflict insofar as going out to forage is to put yourself at risk from predators.