Thursday, January 01, 2004

A Likely Story: Brains, Minds, and Hyperspaces

Radiant Cool: A Novel Theory of Consciousness

By: Christian de Quincey, Ph.D.


The brain is a story, something to interpret. Perhaps that is the best science can hope for, as it turns its beam of inquiry toward the “final frontier”—the exploration of mind or consciousness. Science as interpretation? But isn’t science a body of knowledge distinguished by its powers of explanation, revealing causal mechanisms, enabling us to predict and, therefore, control otherwise unruly and messy nature? Isn’t interpretation for the other guys, those “H-guys” in hermeneutics, who study meaning and language, and in the humanities, who study literature and write stories?

Well, yes, I think that Dan Lloyd, Trinity College philosophy professor, 2002 winner of the New Perspectives in fMRI Research Award, and author of Radiant Cool: A Novel Theory of Consciousness (MIT Press, 2003) might agree that explanation is one worthy goal of science. The problem is that both the brain and consciousness are themselves notoriously messy—and, Lloyd suspects, are so necessarily. Messiness is best handled with the soft touch of interpretation, rather than with the hard hand of rigorous explanation. Lloyd spends 350 pages presenting a persuasive case for the inevitable messiness of brains and the inescapable “blooming buzzing confusion” that underlies the nature of consciousness. Brain and mind are unimaginably complex systems, and it is this complexity—with built-in nested recursive loops and pathways of connection—that accounts for the awesome and mysterious properties of consciousness. 

What is Lloyd’s “novel theory of consciousness”? It is indeed a novel theory. This is a most unusual book for MIT Press to publish, because it is not only an academic study of mind and brain but also a novel—a story. In fact, it is two books folded into one. The first 224 pages are a murder mystery, replete with characters and plot and the captivating title “The Thrill of Phenomenology.” Now, who could resist grabbing that from a bookstore? But, to be fair, that is the title of a book within the book. And, you have to admit, Radiant Cool is a catchy title for the whole book, likely to snag the glance of many a browser online or in the store. Lloyd wants to get his message to a wide—and unsuspecting—audience. I say “unsuspecting,” because many readers are likely to experience a reaction somewhere on the spectrum from hoodwinked to overwhelmed as they plow through the pages. A much smaller minority, artificial intelligence and cognitive science aficionados, could respond happily to the familiar jargon of their trade, sprinkled liberally throughout. Who else would want to read a novel with diagrams of neural nets, multivariate analysis, and dimensional scaling of brains in “activating space”? 

Of course, I could be wrong. Look at the runaway success of The Matrix and its clones. Evidently, a lot of people are fascinated by the problematic borderline between fantasy and fact, virtual reality and the world, the imagined and the real. Lloyd takes the reader into that borderland in a way no mere movie ever could— although, from his references to Hollywood, I suspect he hopes for a movie deal, too. And why not? After all, what is The Matrix but a shoot-em-up, science fiction dramatization of the famous “brain-in-a-vat” conundrum? 

Lloyd’s treatment of that particular conundrum is one of his more engaging passages, and he gives it a few new twists. How can you tell that what seems to you the real world is truly “out there” and not the production of some modern-day Frankenstein who has scooped your brain from your skull, stuck it in a vat, plugged in some wires, and connected you to a computer programmed to stimulate all the right sensory input areas of your cerebrum? You would experience the world exactly the same way, right? 

Lloyd makes a good case (albeit in the footsteps of Immanuel Kant) that— vat or no—we are already living in a virtual reality. We never can know the world except through our experience. That world is phenomenal; what shows up on the screen of the mind is the only world we can ever know. This inescapable fact is a keystone of Lloyd’s novel theory of consciousness, in which he brings together rival disciplines. His theory is, essentially, a blending of a first-person subjective approach to objectivity (phenomenology) and a third-person objective approach to subjectivity (neuroscience and cognitive science). The result, he proposes, is an opening to a new scientific discipline called “neurophenomenology”—a discipline that folds the “soft” humanities in with “hard” science, rigorous explanation coated with the flux and fluidity of interpretation, a beguiling mix of data and story. 


So much for the theory. What about the story? In Radiant Cool, Lloyd uses a fictional narrative to tackle some of the toughest problems in contemporary cognitive science, neuroscience, phenomenology, and philosophy of mind. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when he was discussing this book with his editor. Which came first, the idea for the novel or his theory of consciousness? Given his profession, I am pretty sure that theory preceded story, but also that Lloyd genuinely wanted to write a novel. He has a flair for creative writing. Particularly in the earlier chapters, the story sparkles with wonderful metaphors: “Perhaps the instant can be written so: It passes like a seam in the highway, with a sharp clunk to announce that it has been, is gone.” And “We live and die as easily as a spark becomes a cinder.” To one with Lloyd’s gift for language and intrigue, the premises that the brain is a story and that the relationship between brain and mind is perhaps the greatest mystery for science and philosophy cry out for novelistic treatment. But in the end, I am afraid, he does not quite pull it off.

When I began Radiant Cool, I settled down for what I expected to be one of the most intellectually engaging and well-crafted postmodern novels I had read in a long time. The first couple of chapters had me wishing “if only I’d written this.” They have style, verve, wit, and intelligence. Here was a cognitive scientist writing with the skill of a seasoned novelist. I was looking forward to being swept along a dramatic curve and sent hurtling into a world within a world within a world. Alas, the curve flattened out by about chapter 5. Lloyd seems unable to weave his ideas into the voices and actions of his characters. I empathize: It is very difficult to write a novel of ideas, to balance the requirements of plot and character with the need to uphold the integrity of the ideas. 

Here is my hunch (without benefit of a fly’s eye view, of course) about what might have happened. Lloyd wrote this, his first novel, but could not find a trade book publisher. Both the subject matter and the execution of the narrative worked against him. The two strikes against it are long lapses into discursive presentations of his theory (in the mouths or e-mails of his characters) and a whole chapter in the style of “Cognitive Science for Dummies”— complete with comic-style drawings, computer graphics, and thought bubbles. In short, he was trying too hard. His draft had the promise of a good novel, however, and it would have been a shame to let it languish in a bottom drawer (or on a hard drive). The “novel theory” is Lloyd’s own, and he even appears in the story as “Dan Lloyd,” a character working on a theory of consciousness. 

But no doubt his theory existed in more conventional form before finding its way into fiction. So why not meld the promising but idiosyncratic story into an academic book on consciousness, give it a cool title, develop the theory a bit further, and see what happens? 

Let us imagine, still based only on my hunch, that for some reason Lloyd’s publisher went along with the scheme. If this is roughly what occurred, I think they made a mistake. The second part of the book, the theoretical part, is worthy of publication on its own and does not need the fictionalized prologue, which fails to hold together as a novel. Much better, I think, if Lloyd had published his theory as a regular MIT cognitive science book, then carved out the time to rework his novel.


What can we say about the theory that Radiant Cool presents? Let me state my conclusion, then explain what I mean (readers of the book will appreciate the allusion): “First there is a mountain. Then there is no mountain. Then there’s a mouse.” Lloyd’s effort to construct a theory of consciousness is a labor of love; and it is a labor for the reader to climb that mountain, only to discover that in the end all the effort produced a mere mouse. But what a mouse! 

Lloyd’s approach to understanding consciousness, inspired by the phenomenology of early 20th century German philosopher Edmund Husserl, is rooted in the intimate relationship between consciousness and time (the essential ingredients of any story, as we have suggested). Elsewhere, I have presented a similar idea (in my case, inspired by the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead) that “matter stories”—that the universe itself (including bodies and minds) is the unfolding of a story and “Stories require memory...experience...and anticipation...All this requires consciousness.” 

Lloyd’s version (using the terminology of Husserl) is that “temporality is necessary for any experience at all.” And time— no matter how short or long the duration— is always a trinity of “retention” (memory), “presence” or “primal impression” (experience), and “protention” (anticipation). He writes: “The temporal traces of past and future are superposed at all times in the present object, in the current state of consciousness.” 

The idea of superposition (a term familiar to quantum physicists, who use it to denote the simultaneous existence of multiple probability states) is central to Lloyd’s theory of consciousness. Drawing on the phenomenology of perception, however, he uses superposition in a psychological sense to suggest that no perceptual object is “pure,” no object of consciousness is ever perceived in a “raw” state. Instead, superposition is the “ever-present symbiosis of object and interpretation” or, lyrically, “Objects travel with a flock of meanings attached.”

Many of these additional meanings are not sensory input from the outside world. They “flock in” from memory. This idea is familiar to phenomenologists and the source of a significant difference between their understanding of consciousness and that of most cognitive scientists. Lloyd urges his cognitive science colleagues to pay attention to their own experience and to see that the phenomenologists are right about this. So much of our experience is freighted with “sensory and nonsensory components,” and typically this combination is overlooked by cognitive scientists. 

Lloyd’s notion that the present moment of experience necessarily retains its antecedent states and is oriented toward anticipated future states is central to his theory of consciousness. One of the most striking nonsensory components of experience can be the “presence of absence,” as Sartre famously described in Being and Nothingness. Using capital letters for aspects of the “real” external world to distinguish them from their counterparts in the phenomenal world of experience, Lloyd writes: 

In drawing attention to the nonsensory, phenomenology deepens the rift between human consciousness and the detectorheads [referring to those cognitive scientists who champion the idea that cognition or consciousness can be explained by exhaustively identifying how a perceptual system “detects” objects in the world]. Traditional psychology, from which the detectorhead has evolved, imagines perception as tracking specific Real features of the Environment. Real Things have Real effects, and where a Thing is missing there is no effect at all. Cognitive science elaborated the detector idea to allow those Features to be complex, but still saw each of us as dedicated to deciphering what is actually Present before us. Nonsensory properties are nonsense within this framework; nothing can come from Nothing. Accordingly, there was no room for the rest of the phenomenal world, the many dimensions of perception that are out of sight but still very much in mind. 


The phenomenological notion of “there’s more to reality than meets the eye” is the core of Lloyd’s “subjective view of objectivity.” He writes: “What matters most is nonsensory, and among all the insensible dimensions that constitute reality, the first is experienced time...Both history and the future are compacted into every moment of awareness ...Time takes no time at all. The mountain is not a mountain at all.” 

First there is a mountain. Lloyd examines the “detectorhead” cognitive scientist’s objective view of subjectivity, the attempt to build a theory of consciousness around the detection of stimuli from a real, external, objective world—and reveals its shortcomings. 

Then there is no mountain. He follows with his alternative, the phenomenologist’s subjective view of objectivity, which reveals that the only world we know is the one composed of the objects within our own experience. The world—the “mountain”— dissolves into mind. 

Then there is a mountain—sort of. He concludes by returning to the objective view of subjectivity and looking at the contributions of cognitive scientists working with neural nets (computer simulations of simple artificial “nervous systems”) and of neuroscientists working with brain-imaging technology. He compares these third-person sources of data with the first-person insights reported from phenomenology’s subjective view of objectivity. The convergence of these two views is his “open sesame” to the new discipline of neurophenomenology, which he believes is the direction any effective science of consciousness must go. If the complex relationships that show up in phenomenology can be correlated with comparable complexity in neural nets then, in principle, he will have demonstrated “how consciousness could be embodied” and, finally, “we will discover whether consciousness is in fact so embodied” in actual brains. 

This all is a valiant attempt, but Lloyd’s novel theory of consciousness is not yet a mountain again, as he admits:

I predict that readers did not experience their personal click [a satisfying aha] as the book unfolded...

Both experience and the brain are certainly messy targets of explanation, and this book has conveyed no master equation or single crystalline insight. Predictive power does lurk, however, in the data and programs undergirding the empirical discussions in the book... 

The neural nets I built constitute huge equations that explain (by immediately producing the immediate past of the brain) and predict (by correctly reproducing the immediate future). Aha!

Or not aha. It is not clear whether having these equations would lead to a satisfying understanding of brain function or consciousness. They are simply too complicated to be grasped. 

Then there is a mouse. But what a mouse! To fully appreciate Lloyd’s novel theory you must read Radiant Cool, where he lays out the steps of his journey in fine detail. You will probably come to agree with his conclusion “that the processes of consciousness cannot be simplified beyond a certain point, and that there will be no master equation or aha insight. Consciousness and brain are messy of necessity.” 


Lloyd would have us believe that his theory of consciousness transparently shows or at least points to how brain events are mind events: 

Our conscious mind is the great quaking stage of experience from first step to first kiss to last word. No place could seem less its home than that gelatinous organ known as the brain, a place of perfect darkness and bare chemical murmurs. For decades the drumbeat of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience has insisted that mind is brain, and brain is mind. It could be so; it must be so. But how is it so? 

This is pretty standard stuff among neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers of mind. It is the almost unquestioned view, even dogma, of modern science. But it hinges on a metaphysical assumption that verges on pure faith: the idea that from wholly nonconscious matter (for example, neurons) conscious, subjective, feeling brains (or their hosts) could emerge. The common mantra of this “scientific” faith is complexity. Given enough complexity, “dead” unfeeling matter can spring to sentience and consciousness. It has to be faith because such an ontological jump from utter objectivity to subjectivity would require nothing short of a miracle—and miracles are precisely what this materialist worldview denies are possible. So the standard dogma spikes itself on an embarrassing paradox. 

Lloyd’s theory of consciousness responds to the same scientific call to prayer: complexity leads to emergence, and emergence leads to mind. In his hands, the “solution” is multidimensional mapping of patterns of brain events onto patterns experienced in the phenomenology of consciousness. It’s all very neat—one-to-one brain-mind mapping. And if it is achieved, then the conclusion is obvious, transparent: Mind equals brain states.

But there is one little problem that his theory of consciousness overlooks. It does not even begin to explain just how mindless neurons (or patterns of billions of them), grouped in complex neural nets, could ever result in any kind of experience whatsoever. Just where did the phenomenology come from? Yes, we know it is there; we all experience it from moment to moment. But how? 

It is no surprise to have a theory of consciousness that maps brain events to mind events—we would expect that, eventually. But even if accurate and true, all it would do is show how certain patterns of brain events correlate with mental experiences. We may map the contents of consciousness (thoughts, feelings, desires, volitions, emotions, and so on) onto brains (or their mathematical descriptions in multidimensional activation spaces), but what about the raw fact of consciousness itself, the context for all these contents? Where did that come from? 

Reading Lloyd’s theory, one of my problems was getting clear what he meant by “consciousness.” Like many cognitive scientists, psychologists, and philosophers of mind—who should know better—he conflates two very distinct and different meanings of consciousness. He flips back and forth (both in his novel and in his essay) between consciousness contrasted with the unconscious (a psychological meaning borrowed from Freud and his successors) and consciousness contrasted with non-consciousness (an ontological meaning: the utter, complete absence of any mentality, subjectivity, or interiority whatsoever). There is a world of difference between these two meanings. 

Showing how to turn up a light by turning a dimmer switch does not explain how the light got switched on in the first place. We need not only a science of dimmer-switch consciousness but also a science of flip-switch consciousness. 

Arguments derived from mapping certain states or contents of consciousness (psychological meaning) onto patterns of brain events may well be valid, but it is a gross logical error to then conclude from the validity of such data that the theory tells us anything about the ontological fact of consciousness—why lumps of gelatinous matter could scintillate with any kind of consciousness at all. Showing how to turn up a light by turning a dimmer switch does not explain how the light got switched on in the first place. We need not only a science of dimmer-switch consciousness but also a science of flip-switch consciousness. And that’s another story.


From Radiant Cool: A Novel Theory of Consciousness by Dan Lloyd. ©2003 Dan Lloyd. Reprinted with permission of MIT Press.

We are staring at each other, circling. I look down and pretend to pick some lint off my knee. Then Miranda the genius detective manages a convincing fake yawn, politely hidden in one hand. 

It works. The Doc needs the spotlight full on her. “The voicemail he left me last night was very different. A breakthrough, he said. A new theory of consciousness. Do you know anything about that?” 

“He’s been talking all semester about the solution. Smoke and mirrored shades, I think.” 

“I suppose it would seem so to a graduate student. I would not underestimate him, Miranda. He is a very capable man.” Ah, man. Do I detect some love among the subroutines? 

I offer another teaser. “His idea was to find a transparent theory of consciousness, a Rosetta Stone—you’d put in phenomenology at one end and get spiking neurons at the other.” 

“Yes yes, he told me that too,” she said. “Did he say anything about an aleph?” 

“A what?” 

“Aleph. It’s from a short story, by Borges. The aleph is a place where the entire universe comes together, like a lens of space and time. Last night he said, ‘I have seen the aleph of consciousness.’ Those were his exact words. He said something about it being a blurry image, but a whole one. I take him to mean that he was reading some sort of a rough draft. He was tremendously excited.” 

If she does know him, she should know that he is always tremendously excited. Max Grue shouting his tales, laughing and waving his arms—that was part of his charm. Or maybe she does know him, and he really is where the wild things are. Hurricane Max. With a little spinal tingle I ask, “What do you suppose he saw?” 

“Well,” says Clare Lucid, back on home ground, “The rough draft notion is clearly an allusion to Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, and his multiple drafts theory. Consciousness is not a single thing, all funneled through a magical place somewhere in the brain. But then, that idea is implicit in Freud. When I read Dennett I wondered what all the fuss was about. The mind is a text. That’s obvious, isn’t it? Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology was his ‘consciousness explained,’ and ‘unconsciousness explained’ as well. The mystery is, why would Max get all worked up over old news?” 

“Maybe he meant something else.” 

“But what else could he mean? Freud and Dennett have to be right. Our minds are full of codes—sentences floating around in mental soup, forming and unforming. Some are ongoing updates of the perceived world, some are expressions of infantile needs, and some are the ego overwriting its own data-structures. Only a bit of that is conscious. It’s obvious, really.” 

“But how could a sentence be conscious?” How a neuron? How an anything? 

“Miranda, they aren’t literal sentences in English or Java.” 

“But....” I’m vamping. Everything is running backward. Max has been minimized Miranda too. This shrink shrinks. She talks like she’s the only game in town. “But when I look at something...” I look at something, so I don’t have to look at her. The something is lines, tubes, cords, cables. “...At your computers here, I experience a lot more than a mental label attaching to the object.” 

“Of course. Every label leads to many different associations. It’s a hypertext.” 

“Yes...” I say tentatively. “Sometimes I feel that way, I guess.” 

“You feel? Oh, Miranda, overwrite that bit of Enlightenment folly. Your feelings are only symptoms of the code. The mind works mainly in the dark, and we waste our time if we think a little introspection is going to show us anything useful. It can give us symptoms only, side effects of the real work, the processing out of sight.” 

“You mean, it’s biological?” 

She dismisses the idea with a wave of one hand. “Cells, silicon, that’s mere implementation. Beneath even the operating system. No, I mean that your virtual machines, the cathedrals of the soul, are operating out of sight. It takes a master programmer, an artist–like Freud–to delete the subroutines that’ll kill you. But here in the twenty-first century, the rage is drugs. Prozac and Pleasac. Pissing in the machine! That’ll fix it! Hah!” She is blushing. I can’t tell if it was from catching herself ranting or the heart of the rant itself. 

“You think Max saw that?” 

“I suppose he must have.” 

About Cerebrum

Bill Glovin, editor
Carolyn Asbury, Ph.D., consultant

Scientific Advisory Board
Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
Helen Mayberg, M.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai 
Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Charles Zorumski, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine

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