One aspect of evaluating a theory is to consider the breadth of phenomena that it can explain. A theory of intelligence would be stronger if it explained how “the hard problem of consciousness” is solved.1 In this post, an attempt will be made to explain consciousness from the perspective of this author’s theory of intelligence (Functions Operating on Mental Models – FOMM).
Global Workspace Theory
It would be useful to start with a short explanation of a competing theory of consciousness namely, global workspace theory.2 The central idea of the global workspace theory is that cognitive content is available to a diverse set of cognitive processes, including attention, memory, evaluation, and verbal report. This availability of content is said to explain the association of consciousness with integrative cognitive processes like attention, decision-making, and action selection. Also, since the cognitive content is global in their availability, the global extent of the availability of information is necessarily limited to a single stream of consciousness.
Experience and Action Model of Consciousness (EA Model)
The current theory of consciousness postulates that consciousness is a high-level mental model. This mental model could be characterized as an experience and actions (autonomy) model (EA Model). It is the highest level of a procedural behavioral model (PBM), which is a conceptually sequential set of behaviors that is executed in parallel. PBM’s were explained in the initial FOMM Theory and are the major functional element of intelligence. Under FOMM, language, attention, and motor actions are considered to be PBM’s.
Experience is a high level PBM that requires other high level PBM’s (Attention and Action). Attention is a PBM that can be thought of as directing the experience model towards processing occurring in the conceptual space. Since it is a PBM, it is conceptual at a high level, but parallel at a low level (neurological). An example may be helpful. Imagine a child and parent playing catch. The child is watching (A PBM for tracking) the ball (conceptual) and throwing and catching the ball. The experience model is processing the highest levels of this, while overlearned PBM’s are executing autonomously. Qualia is part of the model as an experience of concepts. Attention may slide up an down the conceptual hierarchy as a way of inputting information into the Experience and Action Model (it is like an internal eye that can be moved around the mental landscape to provide input to the Experience model).
Action is a procedural behavioral model (PBM). The experience model uses attention to focus some mental resources on current actions and an array of future actions. The brain is in a constant state of action and experience that wrap around each other like the double helix molecule of DNA. Karl Friston’s Free Energy Principle uses a similar concept of explaining how the brain works with perception and action being intertwined. In the EA model, action and experience are so intertwined that you could think of action as experience or vice versa. Experience is a behavior (action) that is always selected as the highest level PBM. Action is the experience of performing a behavior (either within the brain or outside). Other mental functions can be thought of as actions as well including memory, attention, movement, speech, and internal thought.
Track and Adjust
One fundamental action is Track and Adjust (TA). TA is present across species. TA requires many of the elements necessary for general intelligence. The image above shows a dog engaged in the TA task of catching a ball. There are multiple goals selected simultaneously by the whole system at various levels of abstraction. At the highest level of abstraction, there is one goal (catch the ball). Consciousness may generally be involved in this highest level goal selection (rather than the minutia and more concrete goals like “I’m going to place my left foot and leg at an angle to brace myself for catching this ball.”). The experience and action model may focus attention on lower levels in the hierarchy (e.g., moving a single joint in a single finger), but there is a level of abstraction below which the organism cannot go within its own EA model (e.g., “I’m going to send 20 neural motor impulses to the muscles controlling my index finger to move it up by one half inch.”). All experience and action is consciously experienced and executed in layers of abstraction. We act and experience through an internal world of ideas.
It may be that the TA PBM is greatly enhanced for humans. Imagine being able to track and adjust on the whole range of concepts that humans are able to understand and extended over time (i.e., long-term abstract goals; tracking and adjusting your understanding while listening to another person talk; tracking and adjusting while working towards explaining something to another person).
Other theories might conceptualize the TA PBM as homeostasis. This conceptualization is deficient in that TA allows for an ever-changing target, or set of targets, and changing setpoints. One function of working memory may be holding recent targets or a current set of targets that may not always be visible or evident (in the conceptual space).
Imagine a little eyeball in the middle of your brain. This little eyeball is your attention. You can direct it towards different areas of the brain to experience the conceptual-level processing that is happening in these various areas. If the eye is turned towards part of your visual processing, you experience a high level sequence of concepts related to that focus. The mental eye of attention can focus on certain aspects of hearing or language processing. It can focus on available actions or memory. Obviously there is no eye in the middle of the brain, but there is an “I” there, which could be considered the Experience and Action model.
It may help to make a comparison with Jeff Hawkins’ et. al. Thousand Brains Theory of Intelligence.3 They discuss it in terms of having thousands of simultaneous models active throughout the brain. Instead of this idea, this writer proposes that all perceptual processing contributes to experience and action. Hawkins frequently describes how, when touching a coffee cup, you can predict what it will feel like when moving the finger in any direction. Certainly, this phenomenological experience is familiar and is easily testable in your own experience. What is missing is that there must also be an Experience and Action model that is developed at all points in the mental models. In other words, Hawkins’ theory is helpful with the experience side of intelligence, but not the action side. The EA model of consciousness intertwines these concepts as being equally important and inseparable.
In the past, this may have been thought of as more of a psychological concept of dissociation. It may be that dissociation could operate through decontextualizing. The concept of decontextualizing finds support in neuroscience though increased understanding of the role of the dendrite in processing context. The notion is that dendrites have their own form of action potentials and have a large effect on neuron firing. They contribute to the complexity of attempting to simulate a single pyramidal neuron, which requires a multilayer perceptron in itself. The contribution of dendrites, and hence context, can be turned on and off. Without the context, the brain networks are thought to process statistical regularities, versus integrating information with context with dendritic contribution. Some have speculated that young humans are processing primarily statistical regularities without context and then the contextual processing comes online at a later time.
We certainly have the ability to suppress or repress context during thinking, and this may be critically important to intelligence. It may be necessary for sliding up and down the ladder of levels of abstraction from the highly abstract to concrete.
Excluding information from consciousness is also seen as a necessity in Karl Friston’s Free Energy Principle (he uses an example of how visual information acquired during saccades is excluded from perception to produce a stable image from eyes that are constantly in motion). In this author’s view, dissociation is an active inattention. It is the active exclusion from the Experience and Action model of processing that is taking place within the mind/brain. The reason for this exclusion is that it is often necessary to have an active exclusionary process of cognition rather than having only a passive exclusionary process (i.e., you cannot see what you are not looking at). Based on the work showing how dendrites contribute context to processing, active information exclusion seems critical for intelligence. There may be something beyond decontextualizing/contextualizing that requires dissociation. It may be that the this dendrite function can be used to develop a practiced decontextualization/dissociation. Consider that inner thoughts likely develop from a practiced dissociation between speaking and thinking. In other words, children learn to develop an inner voice through a practiced dissociation between speaking and experiencing the speech plan through the inner speech experience model. You can run mental simulations that dissociate (actively disconnect) internal action plans from the execution of the motor actions. For example, imagine what could potentially happen if you throw a rubber ball against a hard wall. Most people can easily do this without actually needing to perform the experiment with the body, but it is still performed as an action within the mind. A dissociation PBM may need to run to maintain certain experiences and actions. In other words, all of the complexity of a PBM could be utilized in the dissociation process (a very complex, active unawareness).
With dissociation playing an active role in consciousness and intelligence, it raises possibilities for discussion of mental illness as disorders of consciousness and dissociation. This is far from a new idea (e.g., Pierre Janet), but the current formulation has an upgraded description of dissociation as being fundamental to intelligence and consciousness, that is prone to dysregulation (potentially contributing to mental illness). Indeed, Carl Jung viewed dissociation as being necessary for consciousness to be able to operate in one way without being hampered by the opposite concept. Whereas Jung’s view is in the neighborhood of this author’s view of the necessity for dissociation, the current description would consider Jung’s notion of excluding opposites as only one of many possible exclusionary concepts. Indeed, the work considering context and dendritic function would extend the potential information exclusion to all contextual information. Most physical disorders involve important processes that go too far in one direction or the other. The EA model of consciousness and associated FOMM model of intelligence suggests that mental illness could occur due to PBM’s that are overlearned and are no longer fitting the current situation (executing without conscious awareness or modification), PBM’s that are too flexible and changing (excessive adaptability), dissociation that is too strong (for example actively excluding positive perceptions from awareness in depression), dissociation that is too weak (awareness of reality disconnected mental processes or feeling overwhelmed with awareness of too many things), and distorted experience models.
Psychotherapies focusing on integrating contextual information into the thinking process may be one way to consider this from a cognitive perspective. It may also be that dendritic dysregulation, either globally or locally, may contribute to mental illness. This may provide new avenues of research for pharmaceutical interventions and/or contribute to the understanding of existing interventions (imagine comparing cognitive performance on various tasks requiring integrating contextual and general pattern information both before and after starting an intervention).
In this post, the Experience and Action Model of Consciousness was explained, which postulates consciousness as a procedural behavioral model (PBM) containing experience as an element of all action and action as an element of all experience. It is a conceptually sequential set of mental behaviors that are executed in parallel. Qualia are thought of as experience models that can be interacted with through attention (which is consider to be an action). You can look at a stop sign and experience it as red, but you can use your attention to focus on different parts of the hierarchical model (depending on the lighting some of the red may appear completely black). Many common cognitive functions are thought of as actions that are available for selection by the EA Model (e.g., memory, attention, working memory). Track and Adjust was developed as a cognitive-behavioral function that may be prominent in a large portion of cognition and behavior.
Dissociation is thought to be an important aspect of conscious functioning, which enables various types of abstract thinking and a decoupling of cognition from overt motor actions (e.g., inner speech). Dissociation may be more important for overriding previously learned patterns or responses when learning a new task. The implications for the understanding of mental illness were explored, and some promising conceptualizations were considered.
A criticism of this model of consciousness may be that consciousness is handwaved somewhat magically into the word experience. This may or may not be a valid criticism that will await empirical research into the question.