“Can consciousness be seen as the key to understanding our surroundings and organizing our actions?” — David Edelman, PhD, Neuroscientist and Visiting Scholar in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College
Ep 22: Consciousness Has an Integrative Function with Neuroscientist, David Edelman
Episode 22 of our podcast On Consciousness brings back neuroscientist David Edelman, who graciously hosted this discussion in the home of his late father, Nobel Laureate Gerald M. Edelman. Some have argued that consciousness is only a side effect of the brain, but from an evolutionary point of view, major adaptations result from intense genetic pressures, which are causal. The exact nature of that causality is still under debate. One evolutionary function of consciousness is likely to be sensory and action (motor) integration. It seems that consciousness is needed anytime two sensory events have to be combined, like the sound of a bird and the sight of that same bird, or the sound of a singer and her lip movements. Even this sentence requires conscious involvement to combine the beginning with its ending. Consciousness has an integrative function.
0:00 – Intro by Nat Geld
0:53 – Is awareness just a side effect of the brain?
5:56 – Does consciousness occur with a delay?
9:13 – Resolving Ambiguity in the World
12:59 – From Uncertainty to Predictability: A major function of consciousness.
18:33 – Fine-tuning the Senses: Perceptual learning.
Controversies Over Causality
Bernie and David mull over the causal role of consciousness in the brain. Bernie mentions that Darwin’s public advocate, Thomas Henry Huxley, claimed that consciousness might only be a side effect of the brain in the way that the steam whistle of a locomotive can be considered to be a side effect of the heating of the giant steam vessel. But this seems to violate the physics of the conservation of energy — the steam vessel is, in fact, driving the train whistle. Still, the notion of consciousness as a side effect continues to be debated in philosophy.
David then suggests that one causal role for consciousness may be a retrospective glance at sensory information in the very brief time after visual neurons are activated.
David suggests that consciousnessmay involve a retrospective assessment as opposed to anything else. Bernie agrees with David’s point, although it depends on the predictability of the input. When our senses encounter an unpredictable event, consciousness is needed to make the unpredictable, predictable. For biologically important events, like avoiding dangers or keeping your child from harm, consciousness is even more deeply involved.
Can consciousness be seen as the key to understanding our surroundings and organizing our actions?
David’s father, Gerald Edelman,was a famous biologist who thought deeply about consciousness, and wondered about the philosophical question of the causality of consciousness. Bernie offers that awareness is not only useful for interpretation of the world, but also for associative creativity. In general, consciousness is needed to reduce uncertainty and increase predictability.
Bernie and Davidthen examine some of the classical experiments on integrative sensory processing. The cognitive scientist David Eagleman has done pioneering work on synesthesia, the ability some people have to link words and numbers with specific colors or sounds or feeling tones — a kind of 'merging of sensations'. Synesthesia is one aspect of artistic creativity that seems to require conscious involvement. Bernie suggests that consciousness has a kind of a pointing role, that allows us to emphasize important events in the world, and to communicate those events to each other.
In the final moments of the episode, Bernie and David agree that the conscious brain is remarkably adaptable to an enormous range of new and biologically important events. This “consciously-mediated adaptability” clearly disappears when we do not pay attention or get distracted, or lose alertness.
The conscious brain appears to have major bio-cultural functions.
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David Edelman, PhD: A neuroscientist and currently Visiting Scholar in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, David has taught neuroscience at the University of San Diego and UCSD. He was Professor of Neuroscience at Bennington College until 2014 and visiting professor in the Department of Psychology, CUNY Brooklyn College from 2015-2017.
He has conducted research in a wide range of areas, including mechanisms of gene regulation, the relationship between mitochondrial transport and brain activity, and visual perception in the octopus. A longstanding interest in the neural basis of consciousness led him to consider the importance—and challenge—of disseminating a more global view of brain function to a broad audience.
Bernard Baars is best known as the originator of global workspace theory and global workspace dynamics,a theory of human cognitive architecture, the cortex and consciousness. Bernie is a former Senior Fellow in Theoretical Neurobiology at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, CA, and Editor in Chief of the Society for MindBrain Sciences. He is author of many scientific papers, articles, essays, chapters, and acclaimed books and textbooks.
Bernie is the recipient of the 2019 Hermann von Helmholtz Life Contribution Award by the International Neural Network Society, which recognizes work in perception proven to be paradigm changing and long-lasting.
He teaches science. It keeps him out of trouble.
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