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Rodolfo Llinas on Consciousness

Continuing on the theme of the last two entries on insect consciousness and bird intelligence, we'll work our way, via the octopus, towards the human brain (and the particular relevance of this topic to meditation.) Rodolfo Llinas, a "founding father of modern brain science," is the author of the fascinating book "I of the Vortex," which offers a compelling argument about the evolution of thought and the mind.

In examining the question of consciousness, Llinas addresses the question of whether animals and other creatures experience subjectivity, or whether they are simply automatons:

I shall use the term qualia to denote subjective experience of any type generated by the nervous system, be it pain, the color green, or the specific timbre of a musical note. This issue has been discussed at great length from a philosophical point of view.

Llinas notes a common scientific perception that:

...while being the basis for consciousness, qualia appeared in only the highest life forms, suggesting that qualia represent a recently evolved central function that is present in only the more advanced brains. This view relegates the more lowly animals, for example ants, to a realm characterized by the absence of subjective experiences of any kind.

Llinas disagrees:

To me, these views lack a proper evolutionary perspective.... What is not often understood is how deeply related qualia truly are to the evolutionary, functional structure of the brain.

He goes on to discuss the intelligence of octopi:

I must tell you one of the most alarming experiences I've had in pondering brain function.... that the octopus is capable of truly extraordinary feats of intelligence. I have read of experiments in octopus by J.Z. Young, where these invertebrates have solved problems as complicated as opening a jar to remove a crab kept inside. Operating with nothing but the visual image and olfactory clues indicating the presence of the crab inside and the tactile manipulation of the jar, the creature finally found that the top could be opened by applying force. And after having done so, when presented again with the same problem, the animal was immediately capable of opening the top and fetching the crab out. Astoundingly, this event could be learned with a single trial. More to the point, however, and most remarkable is the report that octopi may learn from observing other octopi at work. The alarming fact here is that the organization of the nervous system of this animal is totally different from the organization we have learned is capable of supporting this type of activity in the vertebrate brain.... there may well be a large number of possible architectures that could provide the basis of what we consider necessary for cognition and qualia.... the simplest assumption from what we see is that their behavior supports subjectivity.... the onus of proof lies with those who believe that these animals are devoid of qualia.

These observations on "possible architectures for cognition," echo the recent reevaluation of the bird brain, and its non-mammalian stucture for intelligence.

Llinas continues:

Given our knowledge today, we seem to have come as close as we can to understanding qualia [subjective experience]. Those who reject the reduction of qualia to the electrical activity and geometry of neuronal circuits, perhaps do so because they lack any understanding of functional geometries; qualia are not some mysterious events that, "residing between," manage miraculously to change the nature of electrical activity into "feelings." After all... qualia are soluble in local anesthetics. Here the ghost in the machine is responsive to surgery or even a whack on the head. Since when are transcendent properties so fragile and close to the biological process? Parsimony and serious science clearly indicate that "the bridge," "the mysterious transformation" of electrochemical events into sensations is an empty set. It does not exist: neuronal activity and sensation are one and the same event.

Llinas concludes that, "For all intents and purposes, the question of qualia or feelings is the question of conscious experience." Our common approach when considering consciousness is to imagine it hierarchically as a special province of the human brain. We may allow that other creatures have varying, albeit lesser forms of experience, but nothing that compares to the rich, language-infused complexity of the human mind. But such judgments are merely a reflection of our capacity to analyze, compare, and elevate the primacy of our own experience. Llinas suggests that consciousness, or subjective experience, is not an exclusively human capacity, but stems from neural activity itself.

February 8, 2005 | Science | Permalink


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