Confusion about consciousness

I have read two essays in the past month on the brain and consciousness and I think both point to examples of why consciousness per se and the “problem of consciousness” are both so confusing and hard to understand. The first article is by philosopher Galen Strawson in The Stone series of the New York Times. Strawson takes issue with the supposed conventional wisdom that consciousness is extremely mysterious and cannot be easily reconciled with materialism. He argues that the problem isn’t about consciousness, which is certainly real, but rather matter, for which we have no “true” understanding. We know what consciousness is since that is all we experience but physics can only explain how matter behaves. We have no grasp whatsoever of the essence of matter. Hence, it is not clear that consciousness is at odds with matter since we don’t understand matter.

I think Strawson’s argument is mostly sound but he misses on the crucial open question of consciousness. It is true that we don’t have an understanding of the true essence of matter and we probably never will but that is not why consciousness is mysterious. The problem is that we do now know whether the rules that govern matter, be they classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, or general relativity, could give rise to a subjective conscious experience. Our understanding of the world is good enough for us to build bridges, cars, computers and launch a spacecraft 4 billion kilometers to Pluto, take photos, and send them back. We can predict the weather with great accuracy for up to a week. We can treat infectious diseases and repair the heart. We can breed super chickens and grow copious amounts of corn. However, we have no idea how these rules can explain consciousness and more importantly we do not know whether these rules are sufficient to understand consciousness or whether we need a different set of rules or reality or whatever. One of the biggest lessons of the twentieth century is that knowing the rules does not mean you can predict the outcome of the rules. Not even taking into the computability and decidability results of Turing and Gödel, it is still not clear how to go from the microscopic dynamics of molecules to the Navier-Stokes equation for macroscopic fluid flow and how to get from Navier-Stokes to the turbulent flow of a river. Likewise, it is hard to understand how the liver works, much less the brain, starting from molecules or even cells. Thus, it is possible that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the rules that we already know, like wetness or a hurricane. We simply do not know and are not even close to knowing. This is the hard problem of consciousness.

The second article is by psychologist Robert Epstein in the online magazine Aeon. In this article, Epstein rails against the use of computers and information processing as a metaphor for how the brain works. He argues that this type of restricted thinking is why we can’t seem to make any progress understanding the brain or consciousness. Unfortunately, Epstein seems to completely misunderstand what computers are and what information processing means.

Firstly, a computation does not necessarily imply a symbolic processing machine like a von Neumann computer with a central processor, memory, inputs and outputs. A computation in the Turing sense is simply about finding or constructing a desired function from one countable set to another. Now, the brain certainly performs computations; any time we identify an object in an image or have a conversation, the brain is performing a computation. You can couch it in whatever language you like but it is a computation. Additionally, the whole point of a universal computer is that it can perform any computation. Computations are not tied to implementations. I can always simulate whatever (computable) system you want on a computer. Neural networks and deep learning are not symbolic computations per se but they can be implemented on a von Neumann computer. We may not know what the brain is doing but it certainly involves computation of some sort. Any thing that can sense the environment and react is making a computation. Bacteria can compute. Molecules compute. However, that is not to say that everything a brain does can be encapsulated by Turing universal computation. For example, Penrose believes that the brain is not computable although as I argued in a previous post, his argument is not very convincing. It is possible that consciousness is beyond the realm of computation and thus would entail very different physics. However, we have yet to find an example of a real physical phenomenon that is not computable.

Secondly, the brain processes information by definition. Information in both the Shannon and Fisher senses is a measure of uncertainty reduction. For example, in order to meet someone for coffee you need at least two pieces of information, where and when. Before you received that information your uncertainty was huge since there were so many possible places and times the meeting could take place. After receiving the information your uncertainty was eliminated. Just knowing it will be on Thursday is already a big decrease in uncertainty and an increase in information. Much of the brain’s job at least for cognition is about uncertainly reduction. When you are searching for your friend in the crowded cafe, you are eliminating possibilities and reducing uncertainty. The big mistake that Epstein makes is conflating an example with the phenomenon. Your brain does not need to function like your smartphone to perform computations or information processing. Computation and information theory are two of the most important mathematical tools we have for analyzing cognition.

New paper in PLoS Comp Bio

Shashaank Vattikuti , Phyllis Thangaraj, Hua W. Xie, Stephen J. Gotts, Alex Martin, Carson C. Chow. Canonical Cortical Circuit Model Explains Rivalry, Intermittent Rivalry, and Rivalry Memory. PLoS Computational Biology (2016).


It has been shown that the same canonical cortical circuit model with mutual inhibition and a fatigue process can explain perceptual rivalry and other neurophysiological responses to a range of static stimuli. However, it has been proposed that this model cannot explain responses to dynamic inputs such as found in intermittent rivalry and rivalry memory, where maintenance of a percept when the stimulus is absent is required. This challenges the universality of the basic canonical cortical circuit. Here, we show that by including an overlooked realistic small nonspecific background neural activity, the same basic model can reproduce intermittent rivalry and rivalry memory without compromising static rivalry and other cortical phenomena. The background activity induces a mutual-inhibition mechanism for short-term memory, which is robust to noise and where fine-tuning of recurrent excitation or inclusion of sub-threshold currents or synaptic facilitation is unnecessary. We prove existence conditions for the mechanism and show that it can explain experimental results from the quartet apparent motion illusion, which is a prototypical intermittent rivalry stimulus.

Author Summary

When the brain is presented with an ambiguous stimulus like the Necker cube or what is known as the quartet illusion, the perception will alternate or rival between the possible interpretations. There are neurons in the brain whose activity is correlated with the perception and not the stimulus. Hence, perceptual rivalry provides a unique probe of cortical function and could possibly serve as a diagnostic tool for cognitive disorders such as autism. A mathematical model based on the known biology of the brain has been developed to account for perceptual rivalry when the stimulus is static. The basic model also accounts for other neural responses to stimuli that do not elicit rivalry. However, these models cannot explain illusions where the stimulus is intermittently switched on and off and the same perception returns after an off period because there is no built-in mechanism to hold the memory. Here, we show that the inclusion of experimentally observed low-level background neural activity is sufficient to explain rivalry for static inputs, and rivalry for intermittent inputs. We validate the model with new experiments.


This paper is the latest of a continuing series of papers outlining how a canonical cortical circuit of excitatory and inhibitory cells can explain psychophysical and electrophysiological data of perceptual and cortical dynamics under a wide range of stimuli and conditions. I’ve summarized some of the work before (e.g. see here). In this particular paper, we show how the same circuit previously shown to explain winner-take-all behavior, normalization, and oscillations at various time scales, can also possess memory in the absence of input. Previous work has shown that if you have a circuit with effective mutual inhibition between two pools representing different percepts and include some type of fatigue process such as synaptic depression or spike frequency adaptation, then the circuit exhibits various dynamics depending on the parameters and input conditions. If the inhibition strength is relatively low and the two pools receive equal inputs then the model will have a symmetric fixed point where both pools are equally active. As the inhibition strength (or input strength) increases, then there can be a bifurcation to oscillations between the two pools with a frequency that is dependent on the strengths of inhibition, recurrent excitation, input, and the time constant of the fatigue process. A further increase in inhibition leads to a bifurcation to a winner-take-all (WTA) state where one of the pools dominates the others. However, the same circuit would be expected to not possess “rivalry memory”, where the same percept returns after the stimulus is completely removed for a duration that is long compared to the average oscillation period (dominance time). The reason is that during rivalry, the dominant pool is weakened while the suppressed pool is strengthened by the fatigue process. Thus when the stimulus is removed and returned, the suppressed pool would be expected to win the competition and become dominant. This reasoning had led people, including myself, to believe that rivalry memory could not be explained by this same model.

However, one thing Shashaank observed and that I hadn’t really noticed before was that the winner-take-all state can persist for arbitrarily low input strength. We prove a little theorem in the paper showing that if the gain function (or FI curve) is concave (i.e. does not bend up), then the winner-take-all will persist for arbitrarily low input if the inhibition is strong enough. Most importantly, the input does not need to be tuned and could be provided by the natural background activity known to exist in the brain. Even zero mean noise is sufficient to maintain the WTA state. This low-activity WTA state can then serve as a memory since whatever was active during a state with strong input can remain active when the input is turned off and the neurons just receive low level background activity. It is thus a purely mutual inhibition maintained memory. We dubbed this “topological memory” because it is like a kink in the carpet that never disappears and persists over a wide range of parameter values and input strengths. Although, we only consider rivalry memory in this paper, the mechanism could also apply in other contexts such as working memory. In this paper, we also focus on a specific rivalry illusion called the quartet illusion, which makes the model slightly more complicated but we show how it naturally reduces to a two pool model. We are currently finishing a paper quantifying precisely how excitatory and inhibitory strengths affect rivalry and other cortical phenomena so watch this space. We also have submitted an abstract to neuroscience demonstrating how you can get WTA and rivalry in a balanced-state network.


Update: link to paper is fixed.

Chomsky on The Philosopher’s Zone

Listen to MIT Linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky on ABC’s radio show The Philosopher’s Zone (link here).  Even at 87, he is still as razor sharp as ever. I’ve always been an admirer of Chomsky although I think I now mostly disagree with his ideas about language. I do remember being completely mesmerized by the few talks I attended when I was a graduate student.

Chomsky is the father of modern linguistics. He turned it into a subfield of computer science and mathematics. People still use Chomsky Normal Form and the Chomsky Hierarchy in computer science. Chomsky believes that the language ability is universal among all humans and is genetically encoded. He comes to this conclusion because in his mathematical analysis of language he found what he called “deep structures”, which are embedded rules that we are consciously unaware of when we use language. He was adamantly opposed to the idea that language could be acquired via a probabilistic machine learning algorithm. His most famous example is that we know that the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” makes grammatical sense but is nonsensical while the sentence “Furiously sleep ideas green colorless”, is nongrammatical. Since, neither of these sentences had ever been spoken nor written he surmised that no statistical algorithm could ever learn the difference between the two. I think it is pretty clear now that Chomsky was incorrect and machine learning can learn to parse language and classify these sentences. There has also been field work that seems to indicate that there do exist languages in the Amazon that are qualitatively different form the universal set. It seems that the brain, rather than having an innate ability for grammar and language, may have an innate ability to detect and learn deep structure with a very small amount of data.

The host Joe Gelonesi, who has filled in admirably for the sadly departed Alan Saunders, asks Chomsky about the hard problem of consciousness near the end of the program. Chomsky, in his typical fashion of invoking 17th and 18th century philosophy, dismisses it by claiming that science itself and physics in particular has long dispensed with the equivalent notion. He says that the moment that Newton wrote down the equation for gravitational force, which requires action at a distance, physics stopped being about making the universe intelligible and became about creating predictive theories. He thus believes that we will eventually be able to create a theory of consciousness although it may not be intelligible to humans. He also seems to subscribe to panpsychism, where consciousness is a property of matter like mass, an idea championed by Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi. However, as I pointed out before, panpsychism is dualism. If it does exist, then it exists apart from the way we currently describe the universe. Lately, I’ve come to believe and accept the fact that consciousness is an epiphenomenon and has no causal consequence in the universe. I must credit David Chalmers (e.g. see previous post) for making it clear that this is the only recourse to dualism. We are no more nor less than automata caroming through the universe, with the ability to spectate a few tens of milliseconds after the fact.

Addendum: As pointed out in the comments, there are monoistic theories, as espoused by Bishop Berkeley, where only ideas are real.  My point about the only recourse to dualism is epiphenomena for consciousness, is if one adheres to materialism.






In praise of MSG

When I go to a Chinese restaurant, I am always disappointed when the menu says “No MSG.” I used to be on the “MSG is bad” bandwagon too until I learned some neuroscience. Glutamate is the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain and now I’m always hoping to get extra glutamate into my system and brain. I don’t really know if MSG is going to supercharge my brain but hey the placebo effect is real. Research has never found any bad effects of MSG. See this article for details. This is also an interesting case where other people’s beliefs do directly affect me. Because, the public is hugely biased against MSG, I will be deprived of it at my local Chinese take out place. I don’t know why you have a headache after you eat at a Chinese restaurant. It might be from drinking too much tea or the salt but it’s probably not because of the MSG.

Commentary on the Blue Brain Project

Definitely read Christof Koch and Michael Buice’s commentary on the Blue Brain Project paper in Cell. They nicely summarize all the important points of the paper and propose a Turing Test for models. The performance of a model can be assessed by how long it would take an experimenter to figure out if the data from proposed neurophysiological experiments was coming from a model or the real thing. I think that this is a nice idea but there is one big difference between the Turing Test for artificial intelligence and brain simulations and that is that everyone has an innate sense of what it means to be human but no one knows what a real brain should be doing. In that sense, it is not really a Turing Test per se but rather the replication of experiments in a more systematic way than is done now. You do an experiment on a real brain then repeat it on the model and see if they get comparable results.