Blindsight (2) – The Brain and Consciousness

This is the second in my article series discussing philosophical issues raised in the excellent SF novel Blindsight by Peter Watts. In this article we will be looking at the brain. I will focus on the relatively recent idea that the brain is modular and also look at a number of fascinating neurological disorders Watts describes in the story.

 

The Brain and Neurology

There are three brain- and neurology-related issues Watts raises, which I will tackle in turn. The first concerns the protagonist, Siri Keeton. To prevent the seizures he was prone to as a child, Keeton had to have an operation which effectively involved the removal of half his brain. The effect of this operation was to leave him completely lacking in emotions and emotional understanding, so much so that in the book, he appears to be autistic, although highly functioning.

The second issue concerns a range of truly bizarre neurological conditions. Keeton has a “twitch” which causes his limbs to spontaneously move into symmetrical poses without his conscious direction. Michelle experiences sensory input in modalities which don’t correspond to the senses with which she received them. And finally, in one climactic scene, odd neurological disorders assail three members of an expedition as they investigate an alien structure. While on the alien edifice, the members are all exposed to lethal doses of radiation and this elicits the following unusual neuro-pathologies:

  • After suddenly being struck blind, Szpindel asks one of this teammates to throw him something. Bates responds by throwing a battery at him and although he doesn’t catch it (he’s blind, after all), he does make contact with it, knocking it off course.
  • Cruncher starts screaming, “Get it off me!” while tugging at his leg. The strange thing was that he wasn’t trying to pull something off his leg, he was trying to pull his leg off the rest of his body. When told that it was his leg, Cruncher responded, “It’s not my leg! Just look at it, how could it – it’s dead. It’s stuck to me…”
  • Perhaps most bizarre of all, Amanda Bates stops struggling to get to the safety of their tent and declares that it is too late for her… because she’s already dead. When the rest of the team try to urge her to get into the tent, she responds as if she were dead, and yet able to talk. “It’s too damn hot out there…” Bates’ response: “I’m not out here.” “Where are you?” “…nowhere.” “You’re saying you don’t exist?” “Yes.”

The third issue I want to look at is the strange case of Susan James. James has a physically partitioned brain, meaning that she is actually four distinct personalities in the same body. Although it seems that James deliberately elected to undergo this procedure, it refers to what we used to call MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder) and what is now called DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder). Of course, James thinks the label ‘disorder’ is horribly offensive, and notes that it is called (in their time) MCC (Multi-Core Complex).

 

Discussion

The reason I included Siri Keeton in this part of the article was what his case tells us about how amazing the brain is. The surgery Keeton undergoes in the book is actually based on a real-life procedure called hemispherectomy which has been used quite successfully to treat subjects who suffer from seizures that affect an entire hemisphere of the brain. More commonly than hemispherectomy, which is an extreme example of this type of surgery, smaller portions of the brain are sometimes removed to prevent more localised seizures, with varying degrees of impact on the subject. Although no one could have the surgery Keeton had and function as well as him in real-life (at least not in this day and age), it is nothing short of astonishing that people can have whole parts of their brain removed (up to a whole hemisphere) and be able to do anything at all.

The first thing Keeton’s surgery made me think about was the idea of neuroplasticity, which is simply the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout one’s life. It used to be thought that after a certain age, neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells) was impossible, but scientists have now confirmed that, although the brain is more malleable in childhood, neurogenesis continues until well into adulthood and possibly even old age.

What is really amazing though, is that even when areas of the brain responsible for specific behaviours are removed or impaired in some way, the brain is able to ‘re-wire’ itself and recruit other pathways and other areas to compensate. In this article, Kayleigh Rogers describes the case of Amanda Caldwell, who had her left hemisphere removed when she was 6 years old. This meant she lost the ability to control the right side of her body. By the time she was 22 however, she was able to walk and run (albeit with a noticeable impediment), move her right arm (although not her hand), and had a full range of motion in her leg and ankle. So, the right side of her brain (which is all she has left) had stepped up and ‘learnt’ how to move the right side of her body as well as the left. Luckily, she didn’t have to re-learn how to speak as well (the centres for speech are also in the left hemisphere) because, after having had a stroke while in the womb, her brain had already outsourced this ability to her right hemisphere.

 

The second thing Siri Keeton brought to mind for me was the modern way of thinking about the brain that has regrettably become all too popular in our age; i.e. the brain as a computer. The first and most obvious objection to this attitude is to point out our (strangely resilient) tendency to consistently think of the brain in terms of the most advanced thinking of that era. From a system of hydraulic pumps, to mechanical motions in the brain, to an electricity-powered telephone switchboard, to a computer, to… the internet? The prevailing, and somewhat historically dismissive, attitude seems to be, “Yes, they were all wrong, but that’s ok because, despite following exactly the same method, we’ve finally got it right.” Mark my words; in a hundred years the priests of the new technological paradigm will be telling us exactly the same thing, even as they relegate the brain as computer analogy to the wastebasket of history.

Secondly, the analogy is based on flawed thinking. It starts from the assumption that the brain is an information processing system, notes that computers also process information, and then concludes that all we need to do is make a sufficiently complex and integrated information processor (i.e. computer) and we’ll have recreated a brain, in digital form. Aside from the obvious gloss that no one knows what ‘complex’ and ‘integrated’ might mean here, the even bigger problem is the mischaracterisation of the brain as an information processing system. As tempting as the analogy is to take literally, it’s a mistake to do so. The brain doesn’t compute, it doesn’t process information; at least not in a way that is anything like the way a computer does. In the time it takes you to identify and label an image, an AI algorithm could have processed thousands of images and have them stored in memory for perfect recall at any future time. If we are merely information processing systems like computers, we are dismally, hopelessly primitive by comparison. And yet an infant can reach out and grasp its mother’s finger, effortlessly performing an action that the most advanced robotic arm can only accomplish after hundreds of years’ worth of training and countless human-hours of dedicated focus, and even then, only in very tightly controlled, highly contrived situations.

The reason computers so easily and outrageously outprocess us is because they are actually processing information. That is why they were made and what they were designed to do. Take a certain input, perform some function on it, and produce a correlated output. In order to complete a manual task involving dexterity then, a robot must actually, not figuratively, process absolutely everything related to the task, crunching the numbers, because that is all a computer can do. There is no other option for the computer. The raw data is all it has to work with.

On the other hand, when a human being performs the same task, we aren’t crunching the numbers like this. We aren’t calculating vectors, relative velocities, angles, trajectories, and all the other data points a robot must navigate. What do we do? We just reach out and close our fingers. The grasping happens naturally, organically. Everything we are and have evolved to be is manifest in this simple action. It reflects the way we are fundamentally in-the-world. It’s tempting to think that we are actually processing all of those variables, just unconsciously. However, I don’t think this is even remotely feasible. An infant’s brain, within a year, is able to outperform the most sophisticated robotic arm we can build. However it’s doing it, it’s not doing it as a result of computational prowess.

The belief that we must be processing information like a computer is an ironic, but quite typically modern, reversal of the situation, reminiscent of what Rene Descartes was once said to have remarked upon seeing an automaton move by itself. The conclusion he drew was not that the mechanical contraption moved like a human, but that humans move like the automaton. We set out to make machines in our image and likeness, but bizarrely, have ended up remaking ourselves in theirs.

* * *

Moving onto the neurological conditions in the book. The ones I have selected all reflect genuine, well-documented, real-life conditions. Keeton’s limbs moving without his conscious direction is an example of alien hand syndrome, which can occur when patients have the corpus callosum (a thick band of nerve fibres connecting the two hemispheres in the brain) severed. In one case I remember reading about, a subject actually sat on his hand to stop it interfering in a manual task he was trying to complete. Michelle has synaesthesia, in which stimulation in one sense provokes a response in a different sensory modality; for example, letters might be seen as coloured. In one scene in the book, Michelle reports that when she looks at the stars in the night sky, they feel ‘prickly’. Spzindel’s affliction comes from the title of the book, blindsight, which we discussed in the first article. Cruncher was experiencing somatoparaphrenia, in which the subject denies that one of their limbs belongs to them. The bizarre thing with this disorder is that despite obvious and incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, the patient will continue to deny the limb is theirs, to the point of confabulating absolutely wild stories to ‘explain’ the fact. One woman with this condition thought that one of her arms actually belonged to her sister, and in explaining this to her doctor confided that her sister was, in fact, hiding behind the bed. People with somatoparaphrenia often demand that the offending limb be amputated and are actually happier if they are granted their wish. The final case, in which Amanda Bates thought she didn’t exist, is called Cotard’s syndrome. People with this disorder might complain to their family that they have died but haven’t yet been buried. In one case, a woman asked that her family take her to a morgue so that she could be with other dead people.

The reason these cases, and others like them in which the brain similarly malfunctions in various ways, are so interesting is what they tell us about consciousness and the way mind ‘emerges’ from the brain. The striking thing about the last two disorders in particular; somatoparaphrenia and Cotard’s syndrome, is the way the individuals suffering from them are able to delude themselves so as to preserve the false belief their brain is telling them is true. Presumably something has gone awry in the brain of a person with Cotard’s syndrome and the resulting ‘feeling’ (of being dead or not existing) is so strong that it just completely rides roughshod over the rational, common-sense observation that dead people can’t talk.

Similarly so with synaesthesia and alien hand syndrome. The former reminds us that we are evolved creatures and even things we might think have to be the way they are, actually turn out to be contingent. There is no absolute reason why photons hitting the retina necessarily results in ‘vision’ or ‘redness’. It could quite conceivably have manifested in an aural or kinaesthetic subjective experience, or both. This raises interesting possibilities for the future in terms of enhancements we might give ourselves (see transhumanism in the next article). The latter, alien hand syndrome, offers bizarre evidence that there could possibly be multiple centres of consciousness in the brain. This will see us segue nicely to the final section; Susan James and DID.

* * *

Cases of DID have been well-documented now and, despite the temptation to write them off as hoaxes, it seems fairly likely that this is a genuine phenomenon (if you’re interested, I recommend a short but compelling documentary on this topic, called All of Me, which is freely available on YouTube). One article I read[1] even documented the case of a woman in Germany who had some “alters” who were blind and others who could see. The interesting thing was that the doctors conducted EEGs and found that when the subject’s blind alters were present, her brain didn’t display any electrical activity where it ought to in a sighted person, even though her eyes were open, suggesting, obviously, that she actually couldn’t see anything despite there being nothing wrong with her eyes or occipital cortex.

If DID doesn’t absolutely shock you and turn what you thought you knew about consciousness upside-down, you probably haven’t thought about it closely enough. One person, one brain, can have multiple, separate, distinct centres of consciousnesses. Sometimes these consciousnesses are aware of the others, sometimes not, sometimes one can be ‘in front’, in control of the body, while the ‘original’ consciousness is merely observing without control, but sometimes an ‘alter’ can completely take over, rendering the ‘original’ consciousness… well, unconscious. This is truly and astonishingly bizarre.

Of course, the first thing to note is this doesn’t disprove the notion of a unified self, something that seems to have become kind of trendy to do. How could you disprove the self by producing evidence for multiple selves? However, it does completely upend our typical view of the human brain and consciousness; namely, one brain, one consciousness.

I have recently read a couple of books about consciousness and the brain (The Consciousness Instinct by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, and Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman, also a neuroscientist), and one interesting thing they discuss is what Gazzaniga calls the modular nature of the brain, and Eagleman calls the team-of-rivals framework. They both mean essentially the same thing with their respective terms; i.e. that there is no single place (a Cartesian Theatre) or single entity (a self) which runs the show. Instead, the brain consists of many different modules or networks which are each vying to have their ‘goals’ implemented.

Eagleman initially illustrates this by dividing the neuroanatomy into rational and emotional systems. When faced with a decision, we often find ourselves torn between two options; one we know we ought to follow and one we want to follow. The nice thing about this example is that it’s one we have all experienced. The only difference is that we usually think of ourselves in this situation as being a single unified self deliberating silently, whereas Eagleman is suggesting that the conflict actually arises from two different physical systems in the brain. He goes on to give the more convincing argument of split-brain patients; people who have had the connecting fibres between their right and left halves of their brains, the corpus callosum, severed in order to lessen the severity of, or even prevent, seizures. The remarkable thing with these people is that while they do not seem to act differently in any other way, in certain situations, it appears that the two halves of the brain are actually living separate existences. Imagine the word apple was flashed to the right brain (through introducing the stimulus to the left eye, which is controlled by the right brain) and the word pencil to the left. If the patient is then asked to pick up the object he just saw, his right hand will pick up a pencil, while his left will grab an apple. In addition, split-brain patients can do things usually impossible for people with an intact corpus callosum; for example, simultaneously draw a circle with the left hand while drawing a square with the right. Eagleman quotes Roger Sperry, one of the neurobiologists who pioneered split-brain studies, as coming to believe that the brain is “two separate realms of conscious awareness; two sensing, perceiving, thinking and remembering systems.” Eagleman merely extends this idea, suggesting there are actually multiple systems in the brain; his team-of-rivals.

Similarly, Gazzaniga endorses the idea that the brain is comprised of many different modules which are basically competing. The key question though is, do the results of the processing of the modules make it to conscious awareness by activating some kind of “make-it-conscious network,” which is essentially a control layer made of arbitrary rules that would boost the results of that module into the limelight of consciousness, or is each module actually conscious? Interestingly, Gazzaniga places himself squarely in the latter camp leading him to suggest that consciousness is actually a stream of the end results of a module or group of modules’ processing. He uses the analogy of bubbles in a boiling pot of water, rising and popping (becoming conscious) for just a moment before being replaced by other “bubbles of consciousness” in a constant flow.

 

What makes the idea of the brain as composed of modules or systems so interesting is that, first, it is completely contrary to our felt experience. None of us experiences our conscious lives as though they are cobbled together from multiple modules. This is what makes the ‘CEO’ model of consciousness so attractive. I experience life as if I am a focal point, a locus receiving impressions, having thoughts, etc., but if Gazzaniga and Eagleman are correct, there is no focal point. Consciousness is nothing more than collections of modules, each churning away semi-independently. While this dismisses the Cartesian/religious ideas that we are a unified substance; a mind or a soul, I don’t think it renders the ‘self’ an illusion – the experience of being a self is sufficient to justify us calling ourselves, ‘selves’ even if there is no little homunculus-self under the hood.

Secondly, there is the tantalising (and quite disturbing) possibility that each module/system is actually conscious and struggling to manifest itself. Although this clearly doesn’t map directly onto DID, (in DID, the alters, while not being fully fledged personalities (this is the reason the name was changed from Multiple Personality Disorder), are clearly not simple processing modules), the parallels are striking.

* * *

Without doubt, the more we learn about the brain, the more we learn about how it produces consciousness, but I’d like to close here by just reflecting on whether neuroscience will ever explain consciousness. First of all, we have to be a little careful here with precisely what we mean by the word ‘explain.’ If by ‘explain’ we mean clarify what systems of neurons, and eventually even individual neurons, are doing when we think about certain things or have certain experiences, then I would say yes. Neuroscience can (and already has, in fact) shed much light on the ‘mechanics,’ if you like, of consciousness, in the same way that science has outlined what happens in photosynthesis or the way different molecules bond to create certain substances. The knowledge we have gained from neuroscience has given us the power to artificially induce conscious states by stimulating certain parts of the brain, and as our understanding of the ‘mechanics’ increases, we will find ourselves able to manipulate conscious states like this in more ways and to ever greater precision.

On the other hand, if by ‘explain’ we mean tell us how conscious experience arises from non-conscious matter, I would suggest the answer is probably no. Imagine if neuroscience develops to the point where we know what every single neuron… or let’s really go crazy, what every single subatomic particle, is doing in the brain during any conscious experience. What would this tell us? It would tell us absolutely everything about the physical correlates of a particular conscious experience. It might even enable us to replicate that particular conscious experience outside a human brain. What it wouldn’t tell us is how stringing clumps of physical matter together in certain configurations produces non-physical conscious experience.

Am I then opening the door to some kind of religious or mystical notion of a soul or higher self, and the requisite deity to set all of this up? Of course not. Positing that kind of childish, superstitious nonsense creates many more problems than it solves. All I’m saying is that no matter how assiduously we study neurons and the workings of the brain, the end result of this won’t tell us how non-physical, subjective experience arises from physical building blocks.

Perhaps the mystery of consciousness will turn out to be inexplicable, although in my opinion, it’s far too early in the game to make that call just yet. If I were a gambling man, I’d put my money on the notion that there is something fundamental in reality we haven’t understood yet and which will bear heavily on this question (mystical/religious pseudo-explanations still need not apply!). Physicists have painstakingly constructed models and derived complex mathematical equations that describe the behaviour of particles (if we can still call them that) at the deepest levels of reality with astonishing degrees of precision, and yet no one knows what any of these models or equations actually mean. What does it mean that the results of the double-slit experiment differ depending on whether we measure which slit the particles go through? What does it mean that particles can be entangled and exchange information faster than the speed of light? What does it mean that an electron is nowhere (or everywhere) until it is measured? What does it mean that conscious experience arises from non-conscious matter? I’m obviously not suggesting that the mystery of consciousness will have a quantum solution (although I’m definitely not ruling that out), but I am suggesting that either consciousness may turn out to be fundamental in some way we haven’t yet understood, or the fundamental nature of reality is amendable to consciousness in some way we haven’t yet understood. Either way, I’m definitely suggesting that watching parts of the brain light up in fMRI images isn’t the right approach to answer this particular question.

 


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/the-blind-woman-who-switched-personalities-and-could-suddenly-see-a6746941.html

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