Stung Eye
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From instincts to consciousness

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There are times when certain ideas consume me.

Looking back to when life was first emerging on this planet:

Organisms were evolving mechanisms for survival. These early mechanisms would have dealt primarily with food consumptions, self-defence and sexual reproduction. Through sexual reproduction, the blueprints for these mechanisms would be passed along to the offspring via the genetic code. Paired within the genetic code with these survival mechanism would be hard-coded instructions for how and when to uses each mechanism. (For a tool without instructions is of no use to an organism incapable of thought.) These hard-coded instructions are the lowest level of instincts: Cellular Mechanism / Instruction pairs. These low level instincts can also be seen as a type of inherited memory.

With basic survival mechanisms/instincts covered, cellular organism began to evolve mechanisms to gather information from the external world. Senses alone, however, are of no use to a pre-thought organism. Much like the survival mechanisms needed to be paired with instructions, the senses needed to be paired with hard-coded responses that could be passed on to offspring. These Sense / Response pairs were the next level of instincts (i.e. the next level of inherited memory). It should be noted that these sense/response instincts were then subjected to a form of Darwinian evolution. The sense/response pairs that enhanced the survival of the organism would be kept in favour of pairs that did not. Over time, these inherited sense/response pairs grew in number and complexity and thus began the formation of an automatic nervous system.

At this point I know there is no turning back. The thought has infected my brain.

Today, many micro-organisms still thrive at this level of instinctual evolution. Their actions and reactions are bases solely on their inherited internal-mechanism-instincts and their external-sensory-instincts. Having no memory of their own, they are guided through life by the inherited memory of their species.

At this point we will leave the internal-mechanism-instincts behind and follow the evolutionary path of the sensory-based instincts.

Sensory instincts based on inherited memory can be limiting since the instinctual response does not guarantee a positive outcome. It merely guarantees a statistically high success rate. (As mentioned before, instincts that lead to statistically low success rates would be weeded out of the inherited memory over time.)

The next evolutionary leap for thought was the ability to use the outcome of a sensory response as the input for a higher-level instinctual response. This created a feedback loop, where the output of the first order instinctual response would be paired with new sensory input in order to generate a higher order instinctual response. The study of control systems, (organic or inorganic), tells us that this is the first step towards memory. In order to create a feedback loop, the initial outcome has to be held (remembered) over time. These feedback loops within the early nervous system are the root of short-term memory. The higher order instinctual responses are now added to the collective memory of the species and inherited by the offspring as part of its nervous system.

Again, we can see many examples of this level of instinctual evolution in the world around us. A goldfish is said to have a memory of only a few seconds. This may not seem like much, but this allows the goldfish to use its senses to perceive the outcome of an instinctual response and to react with a higher order instinctual response. This feedback process can be iterated many times, (the number of iterations limited by the duration of the short-term memory).

At what point do these high order responses become conscious choices?

An organism with only a short-term memory is doomed to repeat the same feedback loops time and time again. With the evolution of a long-term storage bank for sense/response pairs, the organism can begin to break away from inherited biological instincts. The sensory input and short-term memory feedback loop can now be circumvented or adjusted if a matching scenario can be found in long-term memory. The outcome of this memory-generated response is then fed back into short-term memory. Here, the effectiveness of the response will then be judged based on current sensory inputs. If the response proves ineffective for the situation, the lower-level instinct/short-term memory feedback loop will take over, (unless the long-term memory wishes to circumvent once again!).

This long-term storage will evolve with the experience of the organism building on the perceived effectiveness of instinctual responses as well as long-term-memory driven responses. As this long-term storage of sense/response pairs grows in size and complexity, the drive for an organism to circumvent its inherited instinctual patterns will also grow. This is something that can be observed in human culture, for the circumvention of inherited instinctual patterns is not without cost. This circumvention leads to an internal stress as the intellectual level of the human organism attempts to suppress its inherited biological instincts.

But where is consciousness in all of this? Is consciousness merely the pattern of high order instinctual response? Looking back it became clear to be that I've already brought consciousness into the picture without knowing it.

We have now reached a point in this thought experiment where the brain has evolved to include short-term memory, long-term memory, various levels of instinctual responses, and a response evaluation system.

In the context of external stimulation, this response evaluation system is tasked with assigning a value to a sense driven response. (This response being either instinctual or based on a pattern stored in long term memory). Above, we stated that a response is assigned a high value if it proves effective for the situation at hand. But what is the gauge for effectiveness?

There is even room for this dynamic assignment of response value at the evolutionary level of the instinct/short term memory feedback loop discussed above. How else is the instinctual response fed back into the system paired with the current sensory information? Can a goldfish make a conscious choice based on value? At a low level this "gauge of effectiveness" can be tied directly to survival. So I suppose in this sense, a goldfish can make conscious value choices.

Is this "gauge of effectiveness" the root of consciousness? Let's re-cap and see where that leads us.

  • Organisms evolved instincts (collective memory) to allow future generations to thrive by reacting with set responses that lead to a statistically positive outcome.

  • Sense/response feedback systems evolved to allow for higher-level instinctual responses.

  • These sense/response feedback systems could not function without a method to evaluate the effectiveness of an instinctual response.

  • As the higher-level instinctual responses grew in complexity, this "gauge of effectiveness" began to drift away from its roots as a gauge for survival.

  • Once long-term memory came along, the organism could build a databank of experienced sense/response pairs.

  • This long-term memory abstracts the organism's "gauge for effectiveness" (AKA its conscious assignment of value) even further away from its roots.

  • The organism can now use this assignment of value along with its long-term memory to completely circumvent its instinctual drives.

  • This circumvention of instinctual drives paved the way for communication and the formation of complex organism-based societies.

The impact of the developement of language on the evolution of consciousness is often stressed. This led me to believe that language was the tool we used to externalize our assignment of value. I guess at the same time as it was allowing us to externalize and share our consciousness it was adding new levels of complexity to our internal value assignment system.

These externalized value patterns defended society in much the same way as our internal value patterns protected us. In turn, in order to defend these external value patterns, higher-level external value patterns were formed. Religion is a great example of these higher-level value defence systems. Values at this level were simply called Morals and they held society together.

These thought path core-dumps were inspired by the novel, Lila.


A treat for sticking with me: A slice of Canadian prairie hip hop at it's finest: Epic - Live from the saskatoon club (offline)


Update (04/12/03) : The above post has been edited to increase clarity and to re-work some of the ideas near the end.



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