Brains have owners. The question is, "Just who is this owner?" Can the brain be its own owner? Or is it more likely that the brain generates a process that acts like an owner? You might call that process you. The owner is your conscious mind. But how does conscious mind exist? What does the brain do to possess it?
Everything the brain does, as far as we know, involves the deployment and distribution of nerve impulses in defined circuitry to control bodily functions, thought, and behavior. Thus the owner, that is your conscious you, could exist as a special collection of nerve impulses operating in a particular way.
The conscious self is an explicit frame of reference by which the nerve impulse patterns of stimuli from all senses can be evaluated in the context of self-awareness. The smell of sizzling steak is only detected by my olfactory pathways, but it is perceived by my “I.” In both cases, this processing is mediated by nerve impulses. Likewise, the sight of a beautiful woman, or a touch of kindness, or the sound of great music, or the taste of fine wine, are all represented by nerve impulses in my primary sensory pathways, but perceived by my conscious sense of itself.
One approach to this assertion about nerve impulses and their consequences is to dismiss it as irrelevant to the issue of consciousness. This is the dualist position, which holds that mind is external to brain, but is trapped in there while you are alive. However, almost all scientists hold that mind should not be ripped out of the brain. Why can't conscious mind exist as a materialistic property, existing as unique patterns of nerve impulses flowing in self-organizing neural circuitry? Neural circuit impulse patterns (CIPs) underlie all basic brain functions–that should include the state of consciousness. Religious people might say that this is an atheistic position. Not necessarily. There are multiple other explanations for what we call the soul. Here, let us stick with what science has thus far revealed.
Consciousness is a state of awareness (knowing that you know) that uses a set of circuit impulse patterns (CIPs) to represent the sense of self, just as bodily sensations are represented by impulses flowing in the mapped circuitry of the sensory cortex. Movement commands are represented by impulse patterns in the motor cortex and allied structures. The CIPs of conscious self could be the equivalent of a brain-created avatar that acts in the world on behalf of its brain and body. I suggest that conscious CIPs constitute a being. It is what makes us a human being.
People who play computer games know about avatars that act as proxies for the gamer. The avatar is the game-player’s agent, doing things in the game on behalf of the player. A good example is the increasingly popular web environment known as Second Life, in which players create their own avatars and live vicariously through the avatar in the virtual world. Unlike computer avatars, the brain avatar can program itself by deciding what it wants to experience, learn, and remember. Moreover, the biological avatar gets to decide or at least influence what the brain thinks is in the best interest and supervise the actions to accomplish it.
This avatar being is the conscious sense of “I.” It detects much of what the brain is thinking, such as beliefs, wishes, decisions, plans, and the like. Moreover, the avatar knows how it is teaching the unconscious brain in terms of specific cognitive capabilities, motor skills, ideas, attitudes, or emotions. The avatar, by definition, processes information in the context of its own self-identity. It is the avatar that is self-aware.
The nervous system’s fundamental design principle is to accomplish awareness—to detect things in the environment and then generate appropriate responses. In higher animals, that capability extends to detecting more and more abstract things, ultimately the most abstract thing of all, the sense of self. Such a CIP-based system is not only able to detect and code events in the “outside” world, but it can do the same for its inner sense of self. Thus, the conscious mind, being automatically and simultaneously aware of the outside world and its inner world has the capacity to know that it knows. This sense also has an autonomy not found with the traditional five senses. It is an entity that has a life of its own.
Any time we are awake, the avatar is active—deployed on line so to speak. By way of computer analogy, when the avatar is “on-line” during wakefulness, it is operating in RAM and able to exert its functions. When the avatar is shut down, as in going to sleep, the avatar goes off-line and saves its CIP files on "hard disk." In biological systems, the hard disk is stored in the neuron terminals and synapses of the preferential segments of the global neural network that hold the memory of self and the capacity for rebooting the self when sleep ends. The self may have undergone some subtle changes with the day’s experiences. By the way, updating the modified self in long-term memory is one of the functions of sleep.
The really hard question is how could such an avatar exist as a conscious being? What is it about the CIPs of the avatar that empowers it to evaluate input in the context of a conscious self-awareness? Nobody knows, but I will speculate that the consciousness exists because the avatar was created as a “second self-aware self,” which because of the intermingling with CIPs of multiple other circuits allows consciousness to tap into unconscious processes and to exert influence on the brain and behavior. Moreover, we should consider the possibility that consciousness arises because of a unique way in which CIPs are engaged. Much current research shows that the degree of synchrony and time-locking of CIPs in various regions and within regions of cortex are associated with conscious processes. One can use the electroencephalogram to monitor the oscillating field potentials that are associated with impulse activity in a given area. These are voltage waves that occur in multiple frequency bands, and their phase relationship should surely be consequential. Depending on the nature of stimulus and mental state, these oscillations may jitter with respect to each other or become time locked. The functional consequence has to be substantial, and I suggest that this is a fundamental aspect of consciousness.
How can this avatar be aware of sensations? The avatar CIP must “read” the CIP messages representing sensations, which it can do because the circuits of the avatar and sensory cortex overlap. The avatar can read memory stores because its CIPs are coupled to storage areas. Since the avatar knows who it is from the CIP representation of its sense of self, it simultaneously knows that it knows what it knows about the target sensory CIPs. This representation can be compared and evaluated with representation of other targets as they are experienced or recalled from memory, all of which can be processed in the same avatar CIP environment.
How could such an avatar do things? Most of us assume that our avatars are not only self-aware but also make choices and decisions to act on behalf of its brain. How could that be accomplished? Because the avatar is actually a set of CIPs interacting with other CIPs, it can modify and be modified by what is happening in the other CIP sets.
When the brain constructs a CIP representation of a sensation like sound or sight, as far as the brain is concerned, the representation is the sensation. It is the representation that the brain is aware of, not the outer world as it really exists. Another way to say this is you have one set of CIPs, of the avatar, sharing CIP information of another set, the otherwise unconscious sensations and processes.
How can avatars exist as the different personalities of different people? This question is wrongly posed. CIPs may help create these things, but it is also the representation of such things. The CIP coding is an essential part of the machinery of mind. The avatar can therefore influence the very circuits from which it is being generated. This is key—read it again if necessary. In that way, the avatar CIPs can change in real time the nature of the CIP codes at some future time, by creating memory storage if there is going to be significant delay. In short, conscious mind can change its mind. If the CIP codes of personality are replayed and rehearsed enough to create long-term memory, the mind change becomes permanent part of the brain's memory of who and what you are.
Maybe my idea of "I" is an illusion, a figment of my brain’s imagination… But wait: I have to be more than a virtual me. My idea of "I" is created and represented in the form of real brain circuitry, in the wetware of nerves, impulses, and aqueous solutions of neurotransmitter chemicals. When “I” am online, my sense of self exists as patterns of nerve impulses propagating throughout that circuitry. When I am asleep my "I" goes offline and exists as preferred junctions among neurons that store "me" on the biological equivalent of a “hard drive” that has the capacity to put "me" back on line. Remember, all these avatar processes operate throughout our brain’s odyssey from womb to tomb. The avatar is what makes us human.
Some of this article is excerpted from my recent book, Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate, available at Amazon or the publisher's web site. To read rave reviews, go to the author's web site and scroll down to this book.