Is consciousness continuous or discrete?

Is consciousness a continuous flow of awareness without intervals or is it something that emerges continually at discrete points in a cascade of microbits?

The Buddhist answer has always been the latter.

The Buddha’s five skandha explanation of perception and consciousness says that there are four discrete steps that are the basis of consciousness.

The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation, which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness. In the Buddha’s explanation, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of discrete or discernible moments. A form arises or appears, then there is a sensation, then perception, then activity, then consciousness. (The five skandhas and modern science)

The first four skandhas are normally unconscious. Buddhist mindfulness and meditation training are importantly designed to help us become conscious of each of the five skandhas as they actually function in real-time.

A study from 2014—Amygdala Responsivity to High-Level Social Information from Unseen Faces—supports the five skandha explanation. From that study:

The findings demonstrate that the amygdala can be influenced by even high-level facial information before that information is consciously perceived, suggesting that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described. (emphasis added)

A few days ago, a new model of how consciousness arises was proposed. This model is being called a “two-stage” model, but it is based on research and conclusions derived from that research that support the Buddha’s five skandha explanation of consciousness.

The study abstract:

We experience the world as a seamless stream of percepts. However, intriguing illusions and recent experiments suggest that the world is not continuously translated into conscious perception. Instead, perception seems to operate in a discrete manner, just like movies appear continuous although they consist of discrete images. To explain how the temporal resolution of human vision can be fast compared to sluggish conscious perception, we propose a novel conceptual framework in which features of objects, such as their color, are quasi-continuously and unconsciously analyzed with high temporal resolution. Like other features, temporal features, such as duration, are coded as quantitative labels. When unconscious processing is “completed,” all features are simultaneously rendered conscious at discrete moments in time, sometimes even hundreds of milliseconds after stimuli were presented. (Time Slices: What Is the Duration of a Percept?) (emphasis added)

I, of course, completely support science going where the evidence leads and am not trying to shoehorn these findings into a Buddhist package. Nonetheless, that does sound a lot like a slimmed-down version of the five skandhas. Considering these and other recent findings in a Buddhist light may help science resolve more clearly what is actually happening in the brain/mind.

As for form-sensation-perception-activity-consciousness, you might suddenly think of your mother, or the history of China, or the spider that just climbed onto your shoulder.

In Buddhist terms, initially, each of those items is a form which leads to a sensation which leads to perception which leads to activity which leads to consciousness.

Obviously, the form of a spider on your shoulder differs from the form of the history of China. Yet both forms can be understood to produce positive, negative, or neutral sensations, after which we begin to perceive the form and then react to it with activity (either mental or physical or both) before becoming fully conscious of it.

In the case of the spider, the first four skandhas may happen so quickly, we will have reacted (activity) to it (the spider) before being conscious of what we are doing. The skandha of activity is deeply physical in this case, though once consciousness of the event arises our sense of what the first four skandhas were and are will change.

If we slapped the spider and think we killed it, our eyes will monitor it for movement. If it moves and we are sensitive in that way, we might shudder again and relive the minor panic that just occurred.

If we are sorry that we reacted without thinking and notice the spider is moving, we might feel relief that it is alive or sadness that it has been wounded.

In all cases, our consciousness of the original event, will constellate around the spider through monitoring it, our own reactions, and whatever else arises. Maybe our sudden movements brought someone else into the room.

The constellation of skandhas and angles of awareness can become very complex, but the skandhas will still operate in unique and/or feedback loops that can often be analyzed.

The word skandha means “aggregate” or “heap” indicating that the linear first-fifth explanation of how they operate is greatly simplified.

The above explanation of the spider can also be applied to the form skandhas of the history of China or your mother when they suddenly arise in your mind, or anything else.

We can also perceive the skandhas when our minds bring in new information from memory or wander. As we read, for example, it is normal for other forms to enter our minds from our memories. Some of these forms will enhance our reading and some of them will cause our minds to wander.

Either way, our consciousness is always slightly jumpy because it emerges continually at discrete points in a cascade of microbits, be they called skandhas or something else.


See also: How the brain produces consciousness in ‘time slices’

This essay was first posted April 16, 2016

What is FIML?

At its most basic FIML is a way to ask your partner what they are or were just thinking, feeling, perceiving, or meaning when they said or did something that communicated something to you. And then it is a way to get a good answer from them, an answer that completely satisfies you both.

FIML works with data that is as immediate as possible. It works with our “working memories,” the stuff we actually have in our minds as we speak and listen  (not the stuff we can call up quickly from memory but that is not actually there during the speech event.)

People often speak more vaguely than they listen. Listening often is more precise in its details than what the speaker was saying. Listening focuses on less of the discourse, sometimes more clearly.

The act of speaking takes up space in working memory and thus can have an atmospheric feel. Listening has sharp moments disturbed by confusion. An unknown group of people coming up an apartment stairwell is an example of a typical act of listening.

How working memory works and doesn’t work

A new study on working memory has some intriguing insights into how working memory works and how it doesn’t work.

It’s widely known that when working memory is overtaxed, confusion results, skills decline, while feeling of frustration and anger may arise. The reason for this seems to be:

Feedback (top-down) coupling broke down when the number of objects exceeded cognitive capacity. Thus, impaired behavioral performance coincided with a break-down of Prediction signals. This provides new insights into the neuronal underpinnings of cognitive capacity and how coupling in a distributed working memory network is affected by memory load. (Working Memory Load Modulates Neuronal Coupling)

A well-written article about this study contains the following diagram and explanation:

This article—Overtaxed Working Memory Knocks the Brain Out of Sync—also contains the following passages and quote from one of the study’s authors:

Miller thinks the brain is juggling the items being held in working memory one at a time, in alternation. “That means all the information has to fit into one brain wave,” he said. “When you exceed the capacity of that one brain wave, you’ve reached the limit on working memory.”

The prefrontal cortex seems to help construct an internal model of the world, sending so-called “top-down,” or feedback, signals that convey this model to lower-level brain areas. Meanwhile, the superficial frontal eye fields and lateral intraparietal area send raw sensory input to the deeper areas in the prefrontal cortex, in the form of bottom-up or feedforward signals. Differences between the top-down model and the bottom-up sensory information allow the brain to figure out what it’s experiencing, and to tweak its internal models accordingly. (Emphasis added)

Working memory works via connections between three brain regions that together form a coherent brain wave.

Notice that “an internal model of the world,” which is a “top-down signal” within the brain wave feedback loop, predicts or interprets “bottom-up” sensory input as it arrives in the brain.

I believe this “top-down signal” within working memory is the reason FIML practice has such enormous psychological value.

By analyzing minute emotional reactions in real-time during normal conversation, FIML practice disrupts the consolidation, or more often the reconsolidation, of “neurotic” responses. (Disruption of neurotic response in FIML practice)

FIML optimizes human psychology by helping partners intervene directly into their working memories to access real-world top-down signals as they are happening in real-time. Doing this repeatedly reliably alters the brain’s repository of top-down interpretations, making them much more accurate and up-to-date.

The model of working memory proposed in this study also explains why FIML can be a bit difficult to do. Partners must learn to allow a FIML meta-perspective or “super top-down” signal to quickly commandeer their working memories so that analysis of whatever just happened can proceed rationally and objectively. It does take some time to learn this skill, but it is no harder than many other “automated” skills such bicycling, typing, or playing a musical instrument.

Interoception, proprioception, and perception of dynamic mental states

Interoception means our “perception or sense of internal body states,” including the states of our cardiovascular, digestive, respiratory, and thermoregulatory systems among others.

Proprioception means “one’s own” or “ones’ individual” (Latin proprius) “perception.” We normally use this word to refer to our physical position in the world—whether we are standing or sitting, how we are moving, and how much energy we are using.

Both interoception and proprioception generally refer to physical states of the body though, of course, how we interpret those states may involve much more than immediate physical considerations.

Erroneous interoception or the misinterpretation of internal states is probably an important contributing factor to many psychological disorders, including anxiety, depression, panic disorder, and more.

Consider another level of interoception—our states of mind; our mental impressions of other people and of ourselves; our senses of our own psychologies.

This level of psychological reality is normally accessed through introspection, meditation, mindfulness, and psychotherapy. All of these methods are good, but each of them lacks ongoing, real-time input from another human being, thus missing the dynamic functioning of the human mind in real-life situations.

FIML corrects this problem by providing objective, dynamic access to real-time psychological functioning. FIML is a method or tool for optimizing human psychology by honing our perceptions of our mental states as they actually function in real-world situations.

Psychology is a self-generating, auto-catalytic system

Human psychology is self-generated in the sense that it takes ideas and energy from other people and then interprets and builds on that.

Our cognitive systems self-generate with what we learn from life and other humans—language, ideas, philosophies, behaviors, emotions, almost everything.

Auto-catalytic systems are systems that are able to catalyze their own production. You learn something, combine it with something else and then auto-catalyze that combination into something new, something that is unique to you.

The problem with being a self-generating, auto-catalytic system is you need a way to unify your system. It has to make sense to you, has to have meaning. Part of it is copy-paste from other people and part of it is DIY. It’s hard to do.

Human games make it easier. Games are things we do with our psychological systems. Many games unify our systems for a short period of time. Sports, cooking, reading, TV, etc. provide “meaning” or systemic focus long enough for most of us to experience a sense of contentment or purpose. Religions, careers, philosophies, etc. are meta-unifying games that provide unification or meaning at meta levels and for longer periods of time.

A big problem here is as self-generating systems we make mistakes, and many of them compound.

Self-generating auto-catalytic systems are complex and difficult to manage. They can induce terrible misery if they fail to bring unity and meaning to themselves.

How signals form in the brain

Researchers at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour have discovered that:

“…nerve cells collect evidence for the alternative choices as minute voltage changes across their surface. These changes build up over time until they reach a hair-trigger point, at which the nerve cell produces a large electrical impulse. This impulse signals that a decision has been reached.” (Source)

Lead author of the study behind these conclusions, Dr. Lukas Groschner, says:

“We have discovered a simple physical basis for a cognitive process.

“Our work suggests that there is an important analogue component to cognition. People sometimes compare the brain to a digital machine operating with sequences of impulses and silences. But much of what looks like silence is actually taken up by analogue computation.” (Ibid)

The study, which can be found here, worked with a small number of nerve cells important for decision-making in fruit flies. One can imagine that similar processes occur in human brains.

If decisions are based on electrical charges that “build up over time” as analog computations, many aspects of thought become clearer. Indecision, abrupt decision, and mistakes as well as rational analysis all show signs of a mounting and wavering of voltage prior to decisive action. Frequently, the deciding “voltage” is an emotional burst or a bias.

It seems clear to me that decisions are built up over time (experience, training, rumination, unconscious accumulations) before they are made, often seemingly spontaneously.

As humans, we are particularly susceptible to a bias toward familiar or authoritative human semiotics. This is why propaganda works so well or why Google can swing an election without consumers of its products being aware they have been manipulated.

That humans copy and follow other humans is the basis of sociology and psychology. Culture is much like a Google algorithm that all but forces us to “decide” between limited options that have been “built up” over time by social inertia or manipulated by people who control social semiotics or the algorithms that select the ones we see.

Technology and human transformation

Most fundamental changes in human societies happen due to technological advances.

The next big change in human psychology will come from inexpensive, very sensitive brain scans.

These scans will show millions people in real-time how their brains are actually behaving and reacting. Presently unnoticed or concealed twinges of emotion will become conspicuously visible on a screen or within a hologram that surrounds our heads.

People will be able to use this technology in the company of a computer program or with a human partner. A good AI program will use brain-scan information to reveal much about us. We will learn stuff about how we actually function that very few are aware of today.

Having this knowledge will change the way we understand ourselves and our interactions with others. Rather than work almost exclusively with the vague stories we tell ourselves, we will be able to see how our brains (and bodies) actually function in real time.

The difference between our stories and how we actually function is very great. Great enough to completely change the landscape of what we now think of as human psychology.

There already exist inexpensive EEG rigs that are sort of good at measuring moods and honesty. There are also expensive ones with more capacity. Within a decade or two, these devices will be much better. An accurate lie-detector will surely be included in the consumer package.

This technology will rewrite our understanding of human psychology and remake the ways we think of human society today. If you want to get a head start on the future, learn how to do FIML now.