When trying to understand how consciousness emerges, it is important to take into account that we, as humans are just a complex conglomeration of interacting microscopic cells. These multitudes act together in a grand orchestral scheme that are our bodies and what many presume is but a vehicle ruled ultimately by the master molecule- the gene.
The most successful lineage of “vehicles” by far for these genes are the innumerable unicellular organisms dispersed throughout the globe- easily outstripping anything we colonized masses of cells could offer in terms of ubiquity and reproductive success- yet here we are. There occurred, in the midst of the myriad of evolutionary possibilities, a successful and intimate arrangement that gave rise to the dawn of our multi-cellular family.
Though, tiny in comparison to the rest of the living biomass, these cellular colonies successfully made a run at survival- for the moment. Though the combinations of these cellular colonies seem infinite in variety, there seem to be patterns and rhythms that reflect something fundamental that arise from some primary point- maybe the gene or an even more foundational structure.
It is crucial to note that colonization in no way represents a new paradigm in cellular evolution. It is better described as a random path-a milestone to be sure- among many others that an already complex organism- the cell itself- could have followed all inextricably linked to the demands of evolutionary pressures. Indeed, the cell is itself a part of that previously mentioned conglomeration; an evolutionary thread and a product of cooperative effort.
Richard Dawkins1 notes “Perhaps two billion years ago, an ancient single-celled organism, some kind of proto-protozoan, entered into a strange relation ship with a bacterium: a relationship similar to that between Mixotricha and its bacteria. As with Mixotricha, the same thing happened more than once, with different bacteria, the events possibly separated by hundreds of millions of years. All our cells are like individual Mixotrichs, stuffed with bacteria which have become so transformed by generations of co-operation with the host cell that their bacterial origins are almost lost to sight.”
The seeds of what we call human consciousness likely have evolutionary roots that, in part, germinate from these cooperative interactive beginnings. One would think that this is some part of a beautifully sublime evolutionary process meant to lead somewhere- not so.
Evolution has been a rather messy and jumbled proposition and care should be taken when discussing the patterns we find in its nature. The likely truth is that this evolutionary process managed to rather haphazardly propagate and expand "life" from deep within the structure of genes to, for example, the incredibly complex and interconnected nature of our neurons. That these little structures in turn create swirling patterns of information that cumulatively seem to reflect an “us” is but another seemingly "accidental"event among many that may or may not happen again.
Patterns of consciousness
It is this complexity and interconnectivity that seem to be critical elements in allowing for this level of information processing. Neurons, for example, are far more than just a bag of ionized atoms producing triggered action potentials when stimulated. In and of themselves, they have the ability to sift and prioritize signals discriminating between reliable inputs and background ‘noise”.
In turn, as neurons cooperate and function under ever higher systems of neurons, a layered functionality begins to appear. For example, only when a certain number- a threshold- of sensory sight neurons are stimulated for a specific amount of time will this information be consciously registered- yet the trigger could have been initiated by one cell.
In essence, consciousness can be considered a form of processing and discriminating information that depends on the amount of information received and how this information is ordered. In fact, the brain processes the incoming flow of information in a median range between extreme regularity and total randomness. Basically, we are children of chaos.
Chaotic systems are not random, though might seem to be. They are extremely sensitive to initial conditions and tiny inputs can have dramatic effects on larger outcomes. As David Liley2 notes “Hence, in the brain, it is possible that a single firing of one neuron (among billions) at a critical moment, could cause a shift in the entire system, producing a brain state (and behavior) that seems entirely unpredictable. Any one seeing the results of such a shift from the outside world would reasonably conclude that it happened spontaneously or randomly- so it would seem to be free from the sort of rigid determinism that is seen in non-chaotic systems, like computers.”
This phenomenon produces, over time, semi-stable states called “strange attractors” and form patterns of rhythm or harmony with the surrounding activity- in this case neural electrical activity. This recalls to some extent the coalescing nature of cellular evolution.
These neural rythms can grow and take on other dimensions. Chaotic systems create patterns- fractals- that are a spectrum of structures all having an overall identical shape at every size scale and can grow. According to Liley “Brains have a fractal composition in that its major processing “modules” (visual, auditory, etc.) are made up of hundreds of even more finely specialized mini-modules, which in turn are made up of yet more specialized neurons. The neurons are now known to be “mini-brains...”
In the future, computer/brain interfaces and genomic science may exponentially expand the connectivity and complexity of neural chaotic phenomenon towards heretofore unimagined levels breaking out of the constraints of our cellular ancestors- but not out of what seems to be a universal evolutionary constant. Like a “grand unifying theory” as Dawkins put it “evolution rhymes, patterns recur”
These breathtaking concepts form a full and powerful organic arch that reaches back to our most primordial beginnings and stretches forward toward an incredible and mysterious future. It’s likely we will not keep stride with this process and fall into the abyss of extinction. But maybe, one way or another, humanity will contribute something somehow….
1) Dawkins, R. The Ancestors Tale. Houghton Mifflin Company.
2) Carter, R. Exploring Consciousness.