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A Box of Sticks

A Box of Sticks

How long did it take you to know that you were conscious? Was it something that emerged at birth? Or perhaps it was at two or three years of age. Many of us think that some of us have never recognized our consciousness. Sentience, understanding or believing that we are conscious, separates us from computers and artificial intelligence. I doubt my computer feels pain when a surge of electricity bolts through it. It merely shuts down or behaves in strange ways. If I'm lucky, it reboots without any damage to the hard drive. The damage isn't painful to the computer, but the damage is emotionally painful to the user of the computer. Being self-aware is essential for living a human life.

Our entire body is an emergent structure, and it functions emergently. We are made up of fairly simple cells. Each cell acts in accord with their simple rules. Most of these rules are probably tied to our genetic code in some way. Science has shown that none of our individual cells can think or make decisions. They only respond to changes in their environment -- just like an ant in an ant colony. Despite the appearance of absolute chaos, a complex natural order emerges. We ourselves unfold out of a grand personal cellular disorder into a complex being capable of so much more than just the sum of our microscopic parts.

What baffles neuroscientists is that despite the fact that none of our brain's neurons can think on their own, we experience and integrate mindful experiences of the world around us. We can think introspectively. We can observe small portions of our brain's activities. Our behaviors and reactions to situational change are by and large based in the unconscious mind, although some of us have an extremely keen gift of rationalizing what we did, when and why.

How do we possibly experience consciousness from a tangled mass of relatively ignorant brain cells? Emergence.

All the cells in our body have a binary nature. They act when they are provoked; the action is singular. They are latent if provocation is absent. Essentially our cells are either on or off. Our brain cells are stimulated by chemicals called neurotransmitters. There are many chemical classes of neuronal pheromones; most are specific to families of neurons we call nuclei. Depending on the amount of neurotransmitters around the brain cell, it will fire or not, which means that it communicates with another brain cell or does not. Just like ants, different neurons (brain cells) have different functions.

Some brain cells interpret signals from our senses, such as vision, odor, taste, and hearing. Some pass along the information about the body's position. Some just pass along information to other areas of the brain. Others inhibit brain activity to prevent seizures from over stimulation. Others provide an internal clock, making us aware of the time of day and the position in which we stand, sit, work, or sleep. Over half of our neurons have their assigned function at the time of our birth. Our brains have plasticity and can adapt with age, injury, or training. Some neurons are specifically involved in helping us understand the intentions and beliefs of people and animals around us.

Scientists have discovered mirror neurons that seem to play some role in how we understand the intentions of others. It is believed that mirror neurons help us develop what is labeled Theory of Mind -- the idea that people have thoughts, desires, goals, and worldviews just like our own. Even if mirror neurons are not really influential in Theory of Mind, they've given us a place to start the scientific adventure towards revealing how sentience and self-awareness emerges from a group of simple chaotic binary brain cells.

It appears from research that mirror neurons are not conscious. No single cell knows the intentions of another cell, much less another person. What is certain is that our consciousness seems to believe that our own actions and intentions are shared by others, when in fact they may not be.

If you give any three-year-old a box typically filled with chocolates that has been filled with sticks instead, they will be disappointed. If that child is asked what another person will find in the chocolate box, they will say sticks. But a four-year-old child will tell you that a person naive to the truth will believe that candy will be in a chocolate box, not sticks, even if that child found sticks in their own chocolate box. They also will tell you that the person opening the chocolate box will be very disappointed, if indeed there are sticks in the box.

No one knows how we developed the ability to consider the minds of others. Roughly, 10,000 years ago, we started farming and domesticating animals, which ultimately lead us to live in very large communities. There were some benefits to living together and some disadvantages. Coming together helped us solve problems, build shelters, grow food, hunt more efficiently, and rear children. Larger and larger groups formed which challenged us to keep peace and make sure individual needs were met. The social brain hypothesis suggests that we heightened our intelligent selves so that we could live in harmony together, not in response to ecological difficulties or catastrophes.

I'm not sure how Theory of Mind developed in humans. It is a very powerful force in all of our lives. There is no question that social interactions can extend our lifespan, just as isolation can hasten death. Although the merits of extended social groups can be debated, all of us need someone of like mind to affirm who we are and help us sort out how others fit into our lives.

The next time you pass an anthill, consider each ant as a neuron and watch how they interact with each other. From the chaotic cacophony comes order and purpose.

There is hope for us all!


Posted by Amanda Sanders at 12:51 PM
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