Consciousness – Sentience – Sapience

Friday, January 23rd, 2009 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

Last week we talked about sentience. The ability for an organism to feel, to direct it’s attention towards a thing and thus improve it’s neural model of that thing. This works in ways which are far too complicated for science to have yet explained. However, we do know more or less how neurons in the brain work, and can postulate that this system for filtering information, categorising it, directing attention to parts of it, attaching emotional significance to it and learning to operate in the world is built from some kind of neural network in the brain.

It seems likely that in a sufficiently advanced organism (and right now we basically have no way of determining how ‘advanced’ we mean) these neural circuits can do more than just focus awareness on the senses, more than just learn to trigger emotions and moods through association. It can also grow connections from part of it’s own network back into the ‘input’ parts of that network. By directing it’s attention not at the world, at it’s senses, but back at it’s own sentience network it can begin to learn to model that network in the same way it’s learned to model space though the visual field, sounds though the air-pressure sensors in it’s ears and it’s own body though the network of neurons in the skin and muscle building the kinaesthetic senses.

The organism can become aware not only of the world it lives in, but of it’s own processing of that world, it can learn to use those systems to model and understand itself. It can learn to see how it thinks. This, then, is sapience. A trait usually only attributed to people, to you and I.

With vision, hearing and feeling, you don’t ‘see’ photons or feel the air-pressure in your ear-drums or even actually the stretch of a single neuron. Sentience is finding patterns and metaphors and similarities and generally building a simplified model of that thing. Not trying to represent it all exactly at once. Just narrow down the salient parts. See what they remind it of.

Pattern recognition, simplification

Likewise, a train of thought, a moment of consciousness, an epiphany or understanding, is actually an unimaginably complex cascade of excited neurons selectively exciting and inhibiting others in turn. A massive waterfall of cause and effect. Far too complex and chaotic for the brain to model precisely just as a visual scene is too complex to be modeled precisely. It needs to be simplified, to be compared to other things through metaphor and simile.

When you look at a picture your retinal neurons — the rods and cones in the back of your eye — start firing in some extraordinary complex pattern. In order to see that picture rather than just look at it your brain simplifies and codifies and interprets that scene. The insanely complex neural firing patterns are simplified hierarchically. The visual cortex has networks looking for patches of similar colour which feed into networks looking for lines. Then these feed into networks looking for shape, and these feed into networks looking at orientation, and so on, until eventually it gets to things simple enough to keep in working memory, in the consciousness, in the sentience.

Surely sapience, our awareness of that sentience, our model of our awareness, works in a similar way. Hierarchically organizing the insane cascade of it’s own neurons, looking for patterns, comparing them.

Thinking Styles

Neuro Linguistic Programming practitioners teach that the brain works through ‘Representational Systems’. That each thought is strongly associated with a sensory system. That our thinking is done in ‘modes’, either visual thinking or auditory thinking or kinaesthetic thinking, or sometimes olfactory or gustatory thinking.

Each of us will have more practice with some of these modes of thinking than others. Likely the ones we happened to try first will have been most practised and so most useful and so used more often. Some people are strong visualisers, they have learned to take more conscious control over their visual system than others. Some people have amazing auditory and language skills, they “think in words” more deeply than others can. Some people have more often used kinaesthetic systems to model and understand their own thinking, and so practised that more and perhaps “grasp” ideas rather than “Seeing what you mean”.

These types of thinking may just be metaphors, interpretations of what the brain is doing using similar ideas as those used for seeing, hearing etc. Alternatively, they may be the actual systems which the brain uses to do the thinking. The visual or auditory systems themselves diverted by understanding and control.

Either way, practice using that control will lead to more refinement of those interpretive models or more skill at diverting the brains inherent systems. All normal human beings have learned some ability in all of these skills. Some of these methods are however better at solving some types of problems than others. Thus you should endeavour to improve your abilities to notice, model and so direct them all.

The Meditation

You will concentrate on paying attention to one of the three main styles of thought, concentrating on them, on how they work, and thus improving your own model of these thinking styles.

You will increase your awareness and your conscious control of your own thoughts. Though we will use words to direct you, you will be practising using, modeling and understanding your visual imagery and kinaesthetic senses as well as your auditory ones.

Note that if you’re following along our meditations in order, you have already been practising using those skills for some time. Just about every meditation has you imagining and visualising and paying attention to imaginary detail. As you listen to this meditation however, you’ll be deliberately focusing your attention onto the fact that you are practising them. Learning to direct your consciousness at itself more thoroughly. You’ll also be receiving suggestions that as you practice these things in future, you’ll remember to pay attention to all of your sensory systems rather than concentrating on just one.