The Conscious Mind

The Conscious Mind

ZOLTAN L. TOREY
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 208
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qf9cq
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  • Book Info
    The Conscious Mind
    Book Description:

    How did the human mind emerge from the collection of neurons that makes up the brain? How did the brain acquire self-awareness, functional autonomy, language, and the ability to think, to understand itself and the world? In this volume in the Essential Knowledge series, Zoltan Torey offers an accessible and concise description of the evolutionary breakthrough that created the human mind. Drawing on insights from evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and linguistics, Torey reconstructs the sequence of events by whichHomo erectusbecameHomo sapiens. He describes the augmented functioning that underpins the emergent mind -- a new ("off-line") internal response system with which the brain accesses itself and then forms a selection mechanism for mentally generated behavior options. This functional breakthrough, Torey argues, explains how the animal brain's "awareness" became self-accessible and reflective -- that is, how the human brain acquired a conscious mind. Consciousness, unlike animal awareness, is not a unitary phenomenon but a composite process. Torey's account shows how protolanguage evolved into language, how a brain subsystem for the emergent mind was built, and why these developments are opaque to introspection. We experience the brain's functional autonomy, he argues, as free will. Torey proposes that once life began, consciousness had to emerge -- because consciousness is the informational source of the brain's behavioral response. Consciousness, he argues, is not a newly acquired "quality," "cosmic principle," "circuitry arrangement," or "epiphenomenon," as others have argued, but an indispensable working component of the living system's manner of functioning.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-31930-0
    Subjects: Philosophy, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. SERIES FOREWORD
    (pp. ix-x)
    Bruce Tidor

    The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series offers accessible, concise, beautifully produced pocket-size books on topics of current interest. Written by leading thinkers, the books in this series deliver expert overviews of subjects that range from the cultural and the historical to the scientific and the technical.

    In today’s era of instant information gratification, we have ready access to opinions, rationalizations, and superficial descriptions. Much harder to come by is the foundational knowledge that informs a principled understanding of the world. Essential Knowledge books fill that need. Synthesizing specialized subject matter for nonspecialists and engaging critical topics through fundamentals, each of...

  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. 1 INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-12)

    In an article in the January 2011 issue ofScientific Americanentitled “100 Trillion Connections,” the eminent science writer Carl Zimmer had this to say:

    A single neuron sits in a petri dish, crackling in lonely contentment. From time to time, it spontaneously unleashes a wave of electric current that travels down its length. If you deliver pulses of electricity to one end of the cell, the neuron may respond with extra spikes of voltage. Bathe the neuron in various transmitters, and you can alter the strength and timing of its electrical waves. On its own, in its dish, the...

  7. 2 BACKGROUND TO THE BRAIN: THE IDENTITY OF CONSCIOUSNESS
    (pp. 13-28)

    Compared with the sophistication of the knowledge science gives us of the physical world, our understanding of its source—the conscious mind—is dismally lacking. Banished for decades and neglected by neuroscience and psychology alike, consciousness, though still a mystery, is once more a subject of much interest. In this chapter, I clarify its identity by demonstrating its physical substrate. Without such an identification, the breakthrough toHomo sapiens,the evolution of language, and the acquisition of our functional autonomy (our sense of free will) cannot be accounted for.

    First, much needs to be done to clarify the situation. The...

  8. 3 NEOTENY: THE BREAKING OF THE HOMINID IMPASSE
    (pp. 29-38)

    The acquisition of an off-line mechanism (a brain within the brain) with language as its motor-arm was an evolutionary breakthrough, the key to the transformation ofHomo erectusintoHomo sapiensand to the quantum leap in processing efficiency that changed the brain’s relationship to itself. In this chapter, I suggest a likely explanation of how it all came about and how the foundation for language evolution was put in place.

    The search for the critical factor that set off the chain of events typically focuses on the examination of systems of animal communication as forerunners of human language. Reflecting...

  9. 4 THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF LANGUAGE
    (pp. 39-46)

    Having identified the breakthrough fromerectustosapiens,namely, the acquisition of the dedicated motor-arm for verbalization and speech, we look at the three things that the human brain could begin to work on and with. These were: a handful of vocal signals that were brought across the divide fromHomo erectus;an ability to name, reiterate, and reexperience at will, courtesy of the recently acquired motor-link; and an accompanying vague but persistent sense of being the source of the experience. This is not much, perhaps, but it was all that was needed to get the ball rolling.

    The modular...

  10. 5 COGNITIVE BOOTSTRAPPING: THE EPIGENESIS OF LANGUAGE
    (pp. 47-58)

    The epigenesis¹ of our highly articulated human language is a fascinating story. It begins simply, with the acquisition of a motor-arm for Broca’s area² and the ability to name percepts generating nouns and verbs. Then, by scanning this protomaterial, the brain extracted a secondary vocabulary (adjectives, adverbs, and function words) that enabled it to achieve syntax.

    Going back to where it all started, we want to know what the protolanguage of nouns and verbs was like and what adaptive pressures for upgrading it were in force. The reconstruction of this early stage is not problematic. The language that could be...

  11. 6 A DEVICE TO MOVE MOUNTAINS: DUAL OUTPUT, SINGLE FOCUS
    (pp. 59-70)

    At this point, I want to highlight evolution’s gift to humanity. Evolution’s gift to us is the power to focus, to hold the attention at will, to concentrate, reflect, and circumvent the ape brain’s distractibility. It is the pathway to knowledge, to science and invention, to the understanding of the world and of the “self” itself that understands.

    The way our understanding of ourselves and the world was achieved is a tour de force. Consider, then, that the living organism is one of complex interactions, a hierarchy of juggling acts. There is no stasis, no permanence in structure or function....

  12. 7 LANGUAGE: THE TROJAN HORSE OF NEGATIVE ENTROPY
    (pp. 71-80)

    As we have seen, animal communication was not ancestral to language. It was the neotenous regression and the neuroplasticity of the protohuman infant that led to the rewiring of the left brain and brought into existence the precondition for an internal (off-line) way of functioning. Language is no ordinary operation. It uses a dedicated neural circuit that works almost independently of the organism’s on-line response mechanism, yet it is in a position to guide and influence that response mechanism.

    Composed of a rather small number of sounds or phonemes,¹ which form words (meaningful units) that can be combined in an...

  13. 8 WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED MIND?
    (pp. 81-94)

    We speak of the mind as if we know what it is, but we have only the vaguest of ideas of its true nature. To think of it merely as the functioning of the brain is just as misguided as to take it to be a nonmaterial entity. In this chapter, I show that what we are talking about is a distinct and robust neural system, a system that was born when the brain gained access to itself. There is no justification for the confusion that surrounds the term “mind.”

    Not that the imprecision is in any way surprising. Its...

  14. 9 THE ALCHEMY OF SELF-DECEPTION: INTROSPECTION AT WORK
    (pp. 95-106)

    I now turn to examine what the conscious mind, when left to its own resources, is bound to make of itself. I show how introspection is constrained to generate the impression that we are entelechy-like, free-willing entities. To do this I identify four seemingly unassailably solid sources of internal evidence. The self-deception that will be demonstrated shows us with clarity what can happen if Konrad Lorenz’s (1978) insightful warning is not heeded:

    At an early age I realised that in the interest of objectivity a scientist must understand the physiological and psychological mechanisms by which experiences are conveyed to man....

  15. 10 FUNCTIONAL AUTONOMY: THE TRIUMPH OF EVOLUTIONARY BOOTSTRAPPING
    (pp. 107-120)

    Having identified the intracortical mechanism that puts the brain in charge of itself by making its awareness reflective, we must now tackle the problem of free will, the Gordian knot at the crossroads of science and philosophy.

    In an orderly world, where everything is lawfully anteceded, there is no room for autonomous sources of causation. To claim otherwise is scientific heresy and a philosophical death wish. The entelechy, the uncaused causal agent, is fiction, and, as was shown in the previous chapter on introspection, its source is delusional.

    But what if it were possible to demonstrate that the breakthrough to...

  16. 11 ABOUT THE SELF: FICTION AND FACT
    (pp. 121-130)

    The model I am proposing is a single perspective whose aspects interlock and confirm one another. Without this model, the identification and clarification of consciousness, mind, the breakthrough to language, the source of syntax, free will, and the experience of the self would not be possible.

    I have accounted for consciousness and matters relating to it in chapter 2, sharing Gerald Edelman’s (1992) view that “there can be no science of human beings until consciousness is explained in biological terms.” I have identified the mind and the brain module supporting it in chapter 8, traced the breakthrough toHomo sapiens...

  17. 12 UNFINISHED BUSINESS: SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET
    (pp. 131-146)

    The aim of this book is to present a model that accounts for all aspects of human consciousness. It is to show the connectedness of these aspects and to prevent the entertaining of ideas that may make sense in isolation but not when seen in the context of the whole. The three ideas I explore in this chapter are costly diversions—“major misdirectors of attention” or “illusion generators,” to borrow Daniel Dennett’s words—and should be seen for what they are.

    I start by taking a closer look at David Chalmers’s socalled hard problem, the bastard offshoot of neuroscience, which,...

  18. 13 AT THE EDGE OF COMPREHENSION
    (pp. 147-160)

    Let us recap what this book has sought to accomplish, namely, the building of a model that accounts for the emergence of the human mind and its autonomous (free) functioning. To see what we would be up against without this model, I cite the opening passage of an article by the neuroscientist Christof Koch, entitled “Finding Free Will” (2012):

    In a remote corner of the universe on a small blue planet, gravitating around a humdrum sun in the outer districts of the Milky Way, organisms arose from the primordial mud and ooze in an epic struggle for survival that spans...

  19. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 161-170)
  20. NOTES
    (pp. 171-174)
  21. FURTHER READINGS
    (pp. 175-176)
  22. REFERENCES
    (pp. 177-186)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 187-191)