language

Major conscious and unconscious processes in the brain: part 4: the easy problem of A-consciousness

This is the part 4 of the multipart series on conscious and unconscious processes in the brain.

I’ll like to start with a quote from the Mundaka Upanishads:

Two birds, inseparable friends, cling to the same tree. One of them eats the sweet fruit, the other looks on without eating.


On the same tree man sits grieving, immersed, bewildered, by his own impotence. But when he sees the other lord contented and knows his glory, then his grief passes away.

Today I plan to delineate the major conscious processes in the brain, without bothering with their neural correlates or how they are related to unconscious processes that I have delineated earlier. Also I’ll be restricting the discussion mostly to the easy problem of Access or A- consciousness.  leaving the hard problem of phenomenal or P-consciousness for later.

I’ll first like to quote a definition of consciousness form Baars:

The contents of consciousness include the immediate perceptual world; inner speech and visual imagery; the fleeting present and its fading traces in immediate memory; bodily feelings like pleasure, pain, and excitement; surges of feeling; autobiographical events when they are remembered; clear and immediate intentions, expectations and actions; explicit beliefs about oneself and the world; and concepts that are abstract but focal. In spite of decades of behaviouristic avoidance, few would quarrel with this list today.

Next I would like to list the subsystems identified by Charles T tart that are involved in consciousness:

  • EXTEROCEPTION (sensing the external world)
  • INTEROCEPTION (sensing the body)
  • INPUT-PROCESSING (seeing meaningful stimuli)
  • EMOTIONS
  • MEMORY
  • SPACE/TIME SENSE
  • SENSE OF IDENTITY
  • EVALUATION AND DECISION -MAKING
  • MOTOR OUTPUT
  • SUBCONSCIOUS

With this background, let me delineate the major conscious processes/ systems that make up the A-consciousness as per me:-

  1. Perceptual system: Once the spotlight of attention is available, it can be used to bring into focus the unconscious input representations that the brain is creating.  Thus a system may evolve that has access to information regarding the sensations that are being processed or in other words that perceives and is conscious of what is being sensed. To perceive is to have access to ones sensations.  In Tarts model , it is the input-processing module  that ‘sees’ meaningful stimuli and ignores the rest / hides them from second-order representation. This is Baars immediate perceptual world.
  2. Agency system: The spotlight of attention can also bring into foreground the unconscious urges that propel movement. This access to information regarding how and why we move gives rise to the emergence of A-consciousness of will/ volition/agency. To will is to have access to ones action-causes. In tarts model , it is the motor output module that enables sense of voluntary movement. In Baars definition it is clear and immediate intentions, expectations and actions.
  3. Memory system:  The spotlight of attention may also bring into focus past learning. This access to information regarding past unconscious learning gives rise to A-consciousness of remembering/ recognizing. To remember is to have access to past learning. The Tart subsystem for the same is Memory and Baars definition is autobiographical events when they are remembered. 
  4. Feeling (emotional/ mood) system: The spotlight of attention may also highlight the emotional state of the organism. An information about one’s own emotional state gives rise to the A-consciousness of feelings that have an emotional tone/ mood associated. To feel is to have access to ones emotional state. The emotions system of Tart and Baars bodily feelings like pleasure, pain, and excitement; surges of feeling relate to this.
  5. Deliberation/ reasoning/thought system: The spotlight of attention may also highlight the decisional and evaluative unconscious processes that the organism indulges in. An information about which values guided decision can lead to a reasoning module that justifies the decisions and an A-consciousness of introspection. To think is to have access to ones own deliberation and evaluative process. Tarts evaluative and decision making module is for the same. Baars definition may be enhanced to include intorspection i.e access to thoughts and thinking (remember Descartes dictum of I think therefore I am. ) as part of consciousness.
  6. Modeling system that can differentiate and perceive dualism: The spotlight of attention may highlight the dual properties of the world (deterministic and chaotic ). An information regarding the fact that two contradictory models of the world can both be true at the same time, leads to modeling of oneslf that is different from the world giving rise to the difference between ‘this’ and ‘that’ and giving rise to the sense of self. One models both the self and the world based on principles/ subsystems of extereocpetion and interoception and this give rise to A-consciousness of beliefs about the self and the world. To believe is to have access to one’s model of something. One has access to a self/ subjectivity different from world and defined by interoceptive senses ; and a world/ reality different from self defined by exterioceptive senses. The interocpetive and exteroceptive subsystems of  Tart and Baars  explicit beliefs about oneself and the world are relevant here. This system give rise to the concept of a subjective person or self.
  7. Language system that can report on subjective contents and propositions. The spotlight of awareness may  verbalize the unconscious communicative intents and propositions giving rise to access to inner speech and enabling overt language and reporting capabilities. To verbally report is to have access to the underlying narrative that one wants to communicate and that one is creating/confabulating. This narrative and story-telling capability should also in my view lead to the A-consciousness of the stream of consciousness. This would be implemented most probably by Tart’s unconscious and space/time sense modules and relates to Baars the fleeting present and its fading traces in immediate memory- a sense of an ongoing stream of consciousness. To have a stream of consciousness is to have access to one’s inner narrative.
  8. Awareness system that can bring into focal awareness the different conscious process that are seen as  coherent. : the spotlight of attention can also be turned upon itself- an information about what all processes make a coherent whole and are thus being attended and amplified gives rise to a sense of self-identity that is stable across time and  unified in space. To be aware is to have access to what one is attending or focusing on or is ‘conscious’ of. Tarts Sense of identity subsystem and Baars concepts that are abstract but focal relate to this. Once available the spotlight of awareness opens the floodgates of phenomenal or P-consciousness or experience in the here-and-now of qualia that are invariant and experiential in  nature. That ‘feeling of what it means to be’ of course is the subject matter for another day and another post!

Major conscious and unconcoscious processes in the brain: part 2

This is the second in the series about major conscious and unconscious processes in the brain.  The first part can be found here. This post  tries to document a few more processes / functions in the brain and their neural substrates.
To recap, the major processes  in brain (along with sample broad brain regions (grossly simplified) associated) are :

  1. Sensory (occipital)
  2. Motor (parietal)
  3. Learning (hippocampal formation in medial temporal)
  4. Affective (amygdalar and limbic system)
  5. Evaluative/decisional (frontal)
These are supplanted by the following processes and mechanisms.
6. Modeling system/ Hemispheric laterlaization: Another system/ mechanism that the brain may find useful and develop is the ability to model the world and model the self and others . This presents the following problem. The world consist of objects that follow deterministic casual laws thus lending order to it as well as seeming agents that act by their own volition and thus leading to chaos. The modeling required to model causal, deterministic world may suffer from different design constraints than that required to model a chaotic, agentic world.  The brain, I propose, solves this, by having two hemispheres, one specialized for interacting with the world based on the model of the world as orderly, deterministic , statistically regular world; while the other hemisphere specialized for interacting with the world assuming it as a chaotic , agentic, probabilistically undetermined world. The two hemispheres co-operate with each other and respond using the advantages offered by the different strategies of both hemispheres. To recap, left hemisphere is specialized for causal patterns, sequences, analysis and interpretation, classifying objects (categorical spatial represnetation) , verbal abilities depending on analysis of sequences, uses prototypes (statistical mean) and uses Match strategy of responding in a statistical pattern, Music lyrics, and works on local stimuli (components) and parses high spatial frequency and values relativity. The right brain on the other hand is specialized for random/unperdicatble associations, scenes, synthesis and documentation, acting on objects (co-ordinate spatial representation), Spatial abilities depending on synthesis of objects making the scene, uses exemplars (actual events) and uses Maximizing strategy of responding as per probability at the moment, Music melody, and works on  global stimuli (wholes) and parses low spatial frequency and values absoluteness. To summarize, left hemisphere is best suited to model temporal dimensions in an analytical and causal manner, while right hemisphere is best suited to model the spatial dimensions in an holistic and agentic manner. This modeling, it needs to be emphasized, need not be  conscious, but could be entirely unconscious and have unconscious effects. 

7. Communciation system/ perisylvian area/ mirror neurons?: Once an organism has discovered/ realized unconsciously that there are other agents/ con specifics in the world , a brain system that communicates (on an unconscious level) with the others can evolve. A system can evolve that signals the emotional/internal state to others and can also sense the emotional/ internal state of others. This can be used as an aid to predict how the agent will act – as the agent is similar to oneself, one can predict how the other will act based on its internal state by simulating how one would act himself , given the same internal state. Sensing the internal state of others is one side of the coin, the other part is signalling your own internal state honestly to others to aid communication and enhance fitness by group selection. Remember that none of these consdireations need to be conscious. Even unicellular bacteria that live in colonies/ cultures evolve communication systems based on sensing and emitting chemicals etc.  In humans the mirror neuron system activated by others actions, the emotional expression and contagious unconscious empathy may all be the unconscious communciation system driven by non-verbal communication based on mirroring and mirror neurons.

8. Attention system : The last (for now!) system to evolve might be related to directing attention or selectivity processing relevant inputs, actions, affects, evaluations, associations, models and communciations while suppressing irrelevant ones. At any time , one is bombarded by many (all unconscious ) different stimuli, urges, activated associations, body states, values, models and communications from con specifics- these may or may not be relevant to current situation/ goal.  Not everything can be processed equally as the brain has limited computational resources. This leads to a mechanism/system to gauze relevance and thus bias the other systems by selectively processing some aspects in detail while ignoring others. This attentional/orientational mechanism may be covert, may be unconscious and might be triggered by external events/ voluntarily directed; important thing to realize is that  attention seems to integrate the output and inputs of other brain systems/ mechanisms  by selectivity highlighting a few features that are relevant and coherent. This also ultimately leads to  opening the doors to the next higher level of processing by brain – the conscious processing, which is computationally more demanding and thus requires attention to restrict the inputs that it can process. The attentional system opens the floodgates of heaven (consciousness) for the humans/ animals that are able to use it appropriately.

The spotlight of attention once created leads to conscious experiences of perception, agency, memory, feelings, thoughts, self-awareness, inner speech and identity. That of course is material for another post!

Linguistic effects on unconscious color perception

The post headline may seem an oxymoron , but it is indeed possible to perceive colors unconsciously. How do we know that someone has perceived a color, when he doesn’t report the qualia. We do so by measuring the effects on subsequent behavior. Consider subliminal priming. Consider a subliminal stroop test, in which color patches are presented subliminally and then color lexical terms are presented consciously in neutral (say black) ink. I’m sure with this subliminal modified stroop test one could still get a color and lexical term interaction effect; the point is that color , when not perceived, may still influence subsequent behavior.

The experimental paradigm in this PNAS article did not go so far, but restricted itself to color stimuli that was not attended to; that is, the color was indeed perceived, but it was not attended to (the task involved attention to form rather than color) and so as the color was not attended to, they presumed that the effects that the color information would have on behavior would be completely unconscious. I’m not convinced, but that doesn’t invalidate their otherwise very beautiful study that once again provides strong evidence for the milder version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, at least as it relates to categorical color perception. 

Now, I have written previously about Sapir- Whorf hypothesis in general,  and in particular about the ability of Russians( who have two separate terms for light and dark blue) to visually discriminate between light and dark blue significantly better than their English counterparts, thanks to their rich color lexicon; so this new study that found that Greek-natives (who also have different lexical terms for light and dark blue) were superior to English-natives in terms of discriminating categorical color perception for light and dark blue color, did not come as a surprise or seemed ground-breaking; but there are important differences both in terms of the procedures used and the processes involved.

This study, works at pre-attentive level, uses physiological measures like ERP (they studied the vMMN – visual Mismatch Negativity) to determine whether the color stimuli had differential effect even at pre-attentive perception and thus provides independent evidence for the effect of Language on color perception. I’ll now quote from the abstract and discussion section:

It is now established that native language affects one’s perception of the world. However, it is unknown whether this effect is merely driven by conscious, language-based evaluation of the environment or whether it reflects fundamental differences in perceptual processing between individuals speaking different languages. Using brain potentials, we demonstrate that the existence in Greek of 2 color terms—ghalazio and ble—distinguishing light and dark blue leads to greater and faster perceptual discrimination of these colors in native speakers of Greek than in native speakers of English. The visual mismatch negativity, an index of automatic and preattentive change detection, was similar for blue and green deviant stimuli during a color oddball detection task in English participants, but it was significantly larger for blue than green deviant stimuli in native speakers of Greek. These findings establish an implicit effect of language-specific terminology on human color perception.

This study tested potential effects of color terminology in different languages on early stages of visual perception using the vMMN, an electrophysiological index of perceptual deviancy detection. The vMMN findings show a greater distinction between different shades of blue than different shades of green in Greek participants, whereas English speakers show no such distinction. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of a relationship between native language and unconscious, preattentive color discrimination rather than simply conscious, overt color categorization.

To conclude, our electrophysiological findings reveal not only an effect of the native language on implicit color discrimination as indexed by preattentive change detection but even electrophysiological differences occurring as early as 100 ms after stimulus presentation, a time range associated with activity in the primary and secondary visual cortices (22). We therefore demonstrate that language-specific distinctions between 2 colors affect early visual processing, even when color is task irrelevant. At debriefing, none of the participants highlighted the critical stimulus dimension tested (luminance) or reported verbalizing the colors presented to them. The findings of the present study establish that early stages of color perception are unconsciously affected by the terminology specific to the native language. They lend strong support to the Whorfian hypothesis by demonstrating, for the first time, differences between speakers of different languages in early stages of color perception beyond the observation of high-level categorization and discrimination effects strategically and overtly contingent on language specific
distinctions.

I think this fits in with predictive models of perception, wherein, earlier stages of visual processing, that are unrelated to color discrimination, may still be primed by color information that one has obtained earlier and has processed pre-attentively. I, as always , am excited by this proof of whorfian hypotheses.

Language and intentionality

Michael Tomasello has a new book out titled ” The origins of human communication” and the book seems to be promising, though has been a bit harshly reviewed at the Babel’s Dawn. In it Tomasello proposes that a pre-requisite for language is ‘a psychological infrastructure of shared intentionality’. It is based on Jean Nicod lectures and you can read a review here too.
What I am most interested is in this intentionality business. I have commented on orders of intentionality previously and this shared intentionality seems to fit the third order of intentionality that I proposed was necessary for communication.

But first for the premise of the book:

Tomasello opens his book with a consideration of the “infrastructure” that enables people to tell one another things. Apes do not have this infrastructure and the absence leads to scenes like this one:

A “whimpering chimpanzee child” is searching for its mother; the other chimps in the area are smart enough and social enough to recognize why the chimpanzee is whimpering; sometimes one of the chimps present will know where the mother is, and of course chimps have the physical ability to raise an arm point out the mother; even so, chimpanzees never help forlorn infants by pointing to the mother.

Why not?

There is a straightforward, Darwinian explanation for the ape’s mum’s-the-word behavior. Individuals don’t help non-kin. There is nothing in it for the informed adults to help the whimpering child of another. But Tomasello comes at the question from another perspective. Humans typically do help out whimpering children, even if the child is a stranger. An adult, happening upon a solitary, unknown, whimpering child is very likely to stop and ask what is wrong, take charge, and stick around until the problem is resolved. This activity strikes us as perfectly natural, normal behavior, even though it is contrary to so many of the rules in Darwin’s book. What, Tomasello wonders, is there about humans that makes such behavior easy and routine? His answer: “a psychological infrastructure of shared intentionality” [p. 12].

Thus, the premise is that pro-social behaviour and the shared intentionality underlying it are the pre-requisites for any meaningful language to evolve. And for this some tools are required.

The psychological tools Tomasello refers to are cognitive and emotional. The cognitive tools give us the understanding to engage in joint purposes and joint attention. The emotional tools provide us with the motivation for helping and sharing with others. These tools enable people to act together on a “common ground.”

Ebolles goes on further to speculate that this could be tied to Autistics’ difficulty with language and I concur that the cognitive deficits related to intentionality as opposed to affective deficits empathy or mindblindness may be the roots of Autistics’ language and communicative difficulties. We already know that they lack ToM to an extent and they also have communicative and social difficulties; might lack of shared intentionality, or intentionality at all or the lack of feeling of one has an intentional agent,  lie at the heart of the autism issue?

Immediately one can imagine all sorts of peculiarities that would arise in people who lack some part of these needs. Some people might have the prosocial motivation but not the cognitive ability to form a bird’s eye view. Perhaps autistic-spectrum disorder includes this difficulty. Others might have the cognitive ability, but not the prosocial motivation. There’s your sociopath, in a nutshell.

I think this common ground and ‘infrastructure of shared intentionality’ concept is awesome and I intend to read the book and review it soon on this blog. 

Intentionality: order, order!

I have been reading, of late, some articles that have invoked the concept of intentionality and its orders. More specifically, this has been with respect to Social Brian hypothesis of Robin Dunbar, whereby he claims that humans evolved intelligence to be able to cope with your in-laws (and other social members of one’s groups). Leaving asides the main premise of the social brain hypothesis, which I find convincing to an extent, he also claims that monkeys have only first order intentionality, while apes have second order and humans are able to function at about fifth order of intentionality, with some like Shakespeare being able to work on the sixth order. To quote at length form the ‘beginner’s guide to intentionality’:

Computers can be said to know things because their memories contain information; however, it seems unlikely that they know that they know these things, in that we have no evidence that they can reflect on their states of ‘‘mind.’’ In the jargon of the philosophy of mind, computers are zero-order intentional machines. Intentionality is the term that philosophers of mind use to refer to the state of having a state of mind (knowing, believing, thinking, wanting, understanding, intending, etc).

Most vertebrates are probably capable of reflecting on their states of mind, at least in some crude sense: they know that they know. Organisms of this kind are first-order intentional. By extension, second-order intentional organisms know that someone else knows something, and third-order intentional organisms know that someone else knows that someone else knows something. In principle, the sequence can be extended reflexively indefinitely, although, in practice, humans rarely engage in more than fourth-order intentionality in everyday life and probably face an upper limit at sixth-order (‘‘Peter knows that Jane believes that Mark thinks that Paula wants Jake to suppose that Amelia intends to do something’’).

A minimum of fourth-order intentionality is required for literature that goes beyond the merely narrative (‘‘the writer wants the reader to believe that character A thinks that character B intends to do something’’). Similar abilities may be required for science, since doing science requires us to ask whether the world can be other than it is (a second-order problem at the very least) and then ask someone else to do the same (an additional order of intentionality).

I find the above definitions (and other I have found on the web), slightly problematic, so I’ll attempt my own synthesis on the matter:

  1. Zeroth order or No intentionality: Having knowledge but no ‘awareness ‘ of knowledge. Mere representation of information, but no meta awareness of that representation. Computers and machines , and even simple life forms like bacteria etc, may have this (no) intentionality, wherein they have ‘facts’ about the world, but no beliefs, desires etc.
  2. First Order Intentionality: Awareness of knowledge that is distinct from mere knowledge. A belief system. Knowing that something you know may be incorrect from the actual world scenario. You know what you know and you know what you don’t know. Meta cognition. Beliefs, desires etc. Important thing to note is that only ‘I know’ is covered in this definition. A limited ‘You know as I know’ may be covered at this order as one may be aware of other people as being intentional agents , but whose beliefs are congruent with one’s own! ‘You know something that may be different from what I know’ is not possible yet. Most mammals including rats and monkeys are at this level. Awareness ta this level may be that others too have facts of world at their disposal.
  3. Second order intentionality: Awareness of a belief-system that is distinct from the belief system itself. A Theory of Mind. You know that someone else may know things differently from both as they are and as you think they are. Awareness that others have a mind or a belief-system. Ability to keep two different belief systems in the mind- one of your own and the other of another third person. Apes and children age 4 demonstrate this level and order of intentionality. They have a theory of mind as to the fact that others have beliefs and that these are after all beliefs and can be false too. Awareness that others have beliefs, but still no awareness that they have a ToM too!
  4. Third order intentionality: Awareness of a ToM that is distinct from the ToM itself. A communicative intent. Joint attention. Language. symbol grounding. Knowing that someone else may have different views regarding what you yourself believe and thus it is important to communicate your internal intentions, beliefs , desires etc to others so that there is common ground on which communication and speech acts can proceed. this also enables grounds for lies and deceptions in the sense that one can deliberately lead someone to believe what one oneself does not believe. As per this source , communication requires third order of intentionality. To quote:
  5. Suppose my little brother intends for me to jump. He might (and sometimes does) achieve this by sneaking up behind me and yelling “Boo!”. But that’s not communication, in the fullest sense of the word. It would be quite a different sort of action were he to instead request of me, “please jump.” (I don’t think he’d find that nearly so fun, for one thing.) Such a speech-act would show not only that he intends me to jump, but also that he intends for me to recognize that he wants me to jump.

    Purposive communication requires an intentional state of at least third-order complexity. The speaker wants his audience to recognize what the speaker intends by his utterance. Put another way, you don’t just communicate ‘X’, you rather communicate, “I am trying to convey ‘X'”. (This is the difference between discreetly insulting someone, or making it clear to him that you want him to know you’re insulting him.) Anything less would fail to qualify as ‘communication’, in the fullest sense of the word.

  6. Fourth-order Intentionality: Awareness of a communicative act that is distinct from the communicative act itself: A narrative or story telling/ story understanding capability. An ability to weave experiences into a running narrative such that it incorporates different communicative acts or ‘scenes’. An understanding of ‘roles’ that one is playing that give shape to all the communicative acts one participate sin and the narrative one weaves for oneself. A limited awareness that others are also communicative agents , but not a full awareness , that like oneself, they are also acting a script/ playing a role/ having a running narrative using which they interpret events. It is important to emphasize that story telling requires one to visit a new world in which the protagonist is separate, but also one is in a state of willful suspension of disbelief and thus one feels along-with the protagonist, but still retains one’s own narrative: separate, and quite distinct, form the story-teller’s narrative. Story-telling, and story understanding and the interpreter module of humans that gives rise to stream of consciousness to me are the hallmarks of fourth order of intentionality and most of us juts stop there. One may mistakenly believe that there is only one role / narrative and that everybody shares the same narrative.
  7. Fifth order intentionality: Awareness of roles and narratives that are distinct from the role or narrative. An organizing system of religion/ myths using which one interprets stories. Awareness that others too have their own narratives and are playing a script/ performing their roles. Awareness that one’s role/ stance / understanding of world can be radically different from someone having the same experiences but using a different interpretation. A culture . A worldview. It is instructive to note that Dunbar considers that religion and story telling are higher level intentional activities.

I’ll leave things as they are for now as this fits nicely with my obsession with 5 + 3 stage developmental process. Higher orders of intentionality may exist, but probably we humans are not yet evolved to appreciate their subtleties/ find practical examples.

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