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

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.

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.

Interpersonal pragmatics in real-time

Interpersonal pragmatics are absolutely fundamental to human psychology.

Understanding interpersonal pragmatics in real-time is the holy grail of human psychology because there is nothing else that reveals as well how human psychology actually functions.

Pragmatics “is a subfield of linguistics and semiotics that studies the ways in which context contributes to meaning.” It is the study of why we say what we say when we say it and how that is understood by others and vice-versa.

Real-time interpersonal pragmatics are highly idiosyncratic. This means that psychological generalizations can be and often are seriously misleading when applied to real-time interpersonal pragmatics. And this means that you will never figure out your own psychology or anyone else’s if you do not have a method for understanding real-time interpersonal pragmatics.

One day AI will help us with this task and when that day comes, our understanding of human psychology will change completely. After that day, people in future will have a very hard time understanding how and why we are so limited today in our comprehension of human psychology. They will see that, yes, we functioned, but Lord what a mess we make of it!

The way to understand interpersonal pragmatics in real-time today is FIML and I do not believe there is any other way. At least I have not found one after over ten years of searching.

The following comments are for readers who already practice FIML and/or those who are contemplating doing it or just getting started:

  • It is very important to fully grasp the difference between knowing that real-time communication details are extremely revealing of something else (how your mind functions) and becoming lost in the emotions of those details.
  • It is very good to be passionate about wanting to understand the minutiae of real-time communication but very bad to get embroiled in the emotions of those small, originating exchanges.
  • FIML works with small bits of data because only these can be reliable isolated and viewed analytically.
  • To lose perspective and become emotionally embroiled in these bits of data because they are being focused on (for FIML reasons) is to waste time and create unnecessary problems. Don’t do it. Be smarter than that.

Real-time, real-world analysis of interpersonal communication

…From this, you can see that a percept is a “thing” in the mind, an electro-checmical “structure” with imagery, thought, and emotion. Based on what is known about the physical, brains (like all matter) are fields or fields intersecting; superimposed fields with remarkable stability and complexity.

If we consider the brain as some sort of field array and its particles as excited points on it, we can see how “mind” could be retained in the field array even though its brain particles have become unexcited through changed attention or death. (Source)

Facial expressions as tools for social influence

“This paper is an attempt to bring the field up to a scientific understanding of human facial displays, and to restore continuity with modern views of animal communication,” Fridlund said. “From preschool on, we see smiley faces with the word ‘happy’ written under them. We see sad faces with the word ‘sad’ written under them. That may not be the best way to understand facial expressions. A monkey at the zoo that smiles at you is not necessarily happy — it is giving a ‘submissive threat grimace.’” (Source)

The paper: Facial Displays Are Tools for Social Influence

The value of introversion, and probably reclusion

Do reclusive and monastic religious practices foster wisdom about the human condition?

A new study indicates that they may.

Insights into social psychological phenomena have been thought of as solely attainable through empirical research. Our findings, however, indicate that some lay individuals can reliably judge established social psychological phenomena without any experience in social psychology. These results raise the striking possibility that certain individuals can predict the accuracy of unexplored social psychological phenomena better than others. (Social Psychological Skill and Its Correlates)

In an article about this study, its authors say that introverted people tend to be better at observing others because they are good at introspection and have fewer motivational biases. Here’s that article: Yale Study: Sad, Lonely Introverts Are Natural Born Social Psychologists.