The Avatar Theory of Consciousness

A Neurophysiological Explanation

Posted Jun 27, 2015

As everyone knows who has played computer games that use avatars, avatars are agents controlled by the player. Human consciousness can be likened to be an avatar controlled by the brain and acting on behalf of the brain and the body. However, the avatar of human consciousness differs from computer avatars in the highly significant way that the avatar is aware of itself and non-self, and it knows what it knows, feels, and believes. The conscious avatar is surely influenced by the brain, for that is where consciousness arises. At issue is whether a conscious avatar has any autonomy, that is, can it do anything other than observe what it knows, feels, and believes. Can it have any free will?

To answer that question, we have to recognize the physiology of a brain-generated avatar. It surely exists as a special state of brain-generated circuit impulse patterns (CIPs), because all evidence indicates that all brain messaging and processing resides in CIPs.

At the heart of the conscious avatar is the conscious sense of self. Conscious sense of self arises from the unconscious imperative of topographical sensory and motor maps that are anatomically hard-wired throughout the brain and consciously accessible via the connections of the body mapping in the cerebral cortex. The sense of self is thus itself a CIP representation. I defend and explain this position in my book, Atoms of Mind (Springer).

What can a conscious avatar do? Many scholars hold that it can't do anything. I argue to the contrary in my book, Mental Biology (Prometheus). Among the avatar's capacity to act as an agent is the ability to:

Direct attention
Learn
Direct memorization
Reason
Improve decision making
Innovate
Reprogram itself
Promote personal character and skills development
Promote personal responsibility
Create beliefs

To stay within the scope of this essay, let us focus on the perquisite question: How could a conscious avatar do anything?  If the avatar is a set of CIPs, and other kinds of CIPs clearly do things, then the avatar has the neurophysiological capacity to do things. It uses the same fundamental mechanisms of brain function, and the avatar's connections with other brain CIPs give it access to employ and program certain unconscious CIP capabilities. The neural circuitry underlying conscious and unconscious functions is shared. Thus, the CIPs of the avatar can influence unconscious processing as well as alter its own processing. The avatar's CIP processing can adjust in real time to alter the processing in future time. If the adjustment is rehearsed, it can become a long-term memory, which in essence is a lasting change in the nature of the avatar itself. In this way, we can mentally become what we choose to be. Your avatar really is justified in concluding "I am master of my fate, I am captain of my own soul."

Reasoning aside, is there any physical evidence for the conscious avatar existing as a special set of CIPs? Of course. CIPS are expressions of brain electrical activity, which are also manifest in summed voltage fields and the electroencephalogram. It is well established that various states of consciousness are associated with corresponding changes in field potentials and EEG. Moreover, if one changes field potentials and EEG with drugs, magnetic fields, surgery, trauma, or brain disease, states of consciousness will be correspondingly changed.

Brains and their functions are the products of biological evolution. Is there any reason to think there was a natural selection force to favor the evolution of the conscious avatar? Yes, even though lower animals seem to do quite well without an avatar agent. Consider what a human zombie without a conscious avatar would be like. It could probably survive and maybe even dominate other species. But it certainly could not function as we conscious humans do. Primate human precursor species probably were smart zombies. Why did they all become extinct?

First, humanoids had smaller brains. It takes significantly more neurons and connections to run an unconscious mind with enough processing capability left over to create a conscious avatar. Having neural capacity of an avatar is an enormous competitive advantage over the limitations of zombies. Fossil discoveries reveal that early stages of human evolution included periods where more than one humanoid species co-existed. Humans competed with each other, not just with lower animals. Fossil signs of wounding reveal that a great deal of killing occurred among pre-humans, and this trend has been documented in human history. I suspect that human avatars would be more effective at killing than would zombies. It may be hard to believe, but there is less human-on-human violence now than in pre-civilization eras. Evolution made us smart enough to be effective killers and now hopefully wise enough to be more humane.

The avatar's adaptiveness is even more powerful because it also creates artifacts to help it act as an agent. These agency artifacts include:

Gestures and body language
Verbal language
Music
Art
Tools
Beliefs
Religion

A key part of human evolution is that conscious avatars are able to construct religions that impose standards of belief and behavior. This led to group taboos, morays, morals, and social cohesion—all of which are evolutionarily adaptive.  Hopefully, we are still evolving in this better direction.

Believing that religion is a creation of the conscious avatar is a basis for atheism. But that is not proof for atheism. Atheism, like religion, is a belief. So the issue is which belief makes more sense. This applies also to choosing among various religious belief systems. Which has the most explanatory power? Which is biologically more adaptive? Which is the more consilient way for the avatar to think about itself and its place in the universe? A zombie would not have such choices of belief. The avatar does. There must be a reason.

Sources:

Klemm, W. R. (2010). Free will debates: simple experiments are not so simple. Advances in Cognitive Psychology. 6: (6) 47-65.

Klemm, W. R. (2011). Neural representations of the sense of self. Archives Cognitive Psychology. Advances in Cognitive Psychology. 7: 16-30. DOI 10.2478/v10053-008-0084-2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3163487/

Klemm, W. R. (2011). Atoms of Mind. The "Ghost in the Machine" Materializes. New York: Springer.

Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate. New York: Prometheus.

Klemm, W. R. (2015). Neurobiology Perspectives on Agency: 10 Axioms and 10 Propositions, in Constraints of Agency. Explorations of Theory in Everyday Life. edited  by Graig W. Gruber et al. Annals of Theoretical Psychology, Vol. 12, p.51-88.

Klemm, W. R. (2015). Starting Points for Agency Research, Chapter 8. Constraints of Agency, in  Explorations of Theory in Everyday Life. edited  by Graig W. Gruber et al. Annals of Theoretical Psychology, Vol. 12, p. 125-128.

Klemm, W. R. (2015). Making a Scientific Case for Free Will.  In preparation.