Consciousness – Integration – Development

Friday, June 18th, 2010 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

Having explored the ways that consciousness can effect your life and improve your abilities at all the other spiral skills, you may wonder exactly how such a thing would develop. How it could evolve in a complex creature, how it develops as a newborn grows into adulthood and beyond. We’ll attempt to address some of those issues this week.

Evolution Of Consciousness

When animals became complex enough to have senses (touch was likely first), and to react to the things which those senses perceived, it was of course no good to just react randomly to whatever they could feel. A reflex to just withdraw or approach whatever is touching you randomly is as pointless as an aid to survival as having no senses at all. Simply approaching all things which touch was likely a good first reflex, but this would of course mean approaching predators as well as food. Soon a combination of mutations would arise which allowed a creature to discriminate, to tell when it’s surroundings are pleasant and move towards those kinds of situations, or tell when it’s unpleasant or threatening and move away from those situations.

Creatures gradually built more and more sense systems into their increasingly complex bodies. Temperature as well as pressure. Smell and taste (which are much the same thing). Eventually hearing (just specialized pressure sensors) and sight. All the time, those which were lucky enough to be born with the mutations which gave them those increasingly complex senses were more successful at reproducing than those who were not so blessed.

As more and more complex combinations of sense data were being discovered by the creatures, it would have eventually stopped being a survival advantage unless it some somehow able to collate all this information in one place, to process it, to summarize and analyse it. Creatures aren’t then making decisions based on a simple reading of the temperature or pressure from a single point on it’s skin. They are building up a more complex representation of the world around them, and using that representation to decide a course of action.

This summary, this evolved abstract representation of the creature and it’s environment, gives the creature a mood, a way of feeling, changing it’s responses to stimulus depending on previous stimulus. When the system for compressing, collating, remembering and processing those senses gets complex enough, those processes actually begin to have an understanding of the world. The model inside processes and emulates just exactly how the universe outside it’s sense data operates.

Note that the creatures are not just modelling the world that they live in, but themselves. Right from the beginning this understanding can only progress if it’s an understanding not only of the external environment, but also the way the creature itself works. It’s own likely responses and actions, the way it’s own mood will change as a result of it’s decisions, are an integral process to actually making those decisions. A learning creature has to learn some things about itself, about it’s own operation, in order to be able to effectively predict the future well enough to navigate though into it.

The process described so far, of course, applies to creatures as simple as fish and snails, they have some basic self understanding, some basic ways of reflecting the world they live in to a virtual model inside their heads. But this model can be more or less complex. A tadpole’s map is less developed than a cod’s map, is less developed than a crab’s map, is less developed than a lizard’s map, etc. etc. Consciousness, at least sentience, is not a singularly human trait, and it is also not a black and white issue. There are greys of consciousness. The amount of consciousness in a creature is a dial, not a switch. A dial which has been slowly turning up in some paths through the evolutionary tree, perhaps especially those lines which lead through Reptiles.

The R-Complex, the deep brain-stem and basic inner parts of the brain are probably more than enough to get that dial turning up from zero, but the Reptiles found a way to push it up even more.

The reptiles effectively have two brains. On top of the R-Complex systems the reptiles grew more sophisticated systems, now known as the Limbic System. While the R-Complex collates and analyzes and processes data from the senses and distributes this around the body as a mood, a feeling, the Limbic system takes most of it’s input from the R-Complex itself. It literally grows around the brain-stem, building a system to analyse and learn not directly from the world, but from the creature’s consciousness itself. If the R-System is a brain which lives by direct experience with the world, the Limbic system is a brain which lives in the virtual model world created by that R-Complex. A consciousness directed primarily at a another consciousness, interacting with it and magnifying it’s complexity.

Could this process go further? In the lines leading through the Mammals, it did just that. Mammals have three brains. An R-Complex, with a Limbic system grown around the top of it, and then a neo-cortex grown up around that.

The Mammals of course all have different shapes and sizes of the different areas of the neo-cortex. Simpler mammals tend to have less of it, while primates have a very complex neo-cortex and a human neo-cortex is so distorted, elongated and expanded at the front it’s brains look freakish and weird compared to the rest of the mammal class. The Mammals continued to turn up the consciousness dial, becoming more and more conscious, more and more sentient.

Very roughly speaking, it seems probable that animals first evolved an R-Complex, giving them reflexes and basic information about the world. Then they evolved a Limbic system, giving them sentience, a way to learn about the world and themselves. Eventually, turning this sentience in on itself over and over again, cranking up the sentienceometer as the generations passed, the forebrains of some mammals grew such complicated models of the world and themselves that they developed symbolic systems to manipulate.

In one species, and likely in a few other related species now extinct, sapience was the result. Not only experience, not only sentience (an understanding of that experience), but also sapience (an understanding of that understanding). This led to language, a way to communicate that understanding of the understanding of experience.

Language, in turn, led to creatures who could learn about things far from their own direct experience. About far away lands, distant times, whole new planets and scales from the quantum to the galactic and beyond. A creature who could, through absorbing language and applying it, come to understand the world and her part in it to a greater degree than the planet had ever seen before.

This is the story of consciousness, how it evolved, and the story is recreated in miniature by the development and life of every human being that lives. The obvious question is how far will it go in your life? How far can you push your understanding of yourself and the cosmos you find yourself in?

Next week’s meditation might be able to help you push it just that bit further, nudge up that dial just a scrap more.