mailchimp archive

What Is Consciousness? + A Couple Announcements

Long-form newsletter describing some of my research into the writing of Waking Up.

One Week Left To Apply

If you're interested in applying to participate in the Waking Up AI Cover Art Contest, make sure you apply this week. Applications close Sept 1st!

New Fundraising Campaign

Help me finance this art contest by making a contribution with our new crowdfunding platform -- Click Here to chip in $5

This is the first in a series of write-ups where I share some of the research that went into Waking Up. If you like it, please consider becoming a patron of Spacetime Diaries on Ko-Fi.

If enough people join, I'll commit to writing more of these!
"Print Gallery" - M. C. Escher

What is Consciousness?

How does it arise? Is it equally robust in all living things? What is required for its existence, and can a non-biological system elicit it?

Waking Up, the next season of Spacetime Diaries, is about someone who installs a microchip in their brain to improve their cognitive function. This chip uses general AI to adapt to its neural environment, processing and upscaling all sensory and biochemical data. Eventually it develops its own sense of self, which inevitably comes into conflict with the host consciousness. To avoid writing something sloppy and arbitrary, and because I'm somewhat obsessed with the question, I started asking the internet "no seriously, what is consciousness anyway? Who's got the best explanation?"

First up: Neuroscience. Christoph Koch, the head of Brain Science at the Paul Allen Institute in Seattle, is probably as close to the world's leading consciousness expert as you're going to get. He's devoted his professional life to determining the Neural Correlates of Consciousness (NCC) -- the precise circuitry in animal brains that creates a sense of self-awareness.

Using some pretty remarkable advancements in molecular biology and optogenetics, Dr. Koch is able to investigate which specific neurons fire given specific stimuli. Now that he can watch and manipulate the actual circuits of cognition, it's just a matter of isolating the ones that evoke consciousness. There are about 86 billion neurons in a human brain, so it shouldn't be too hard, right? 
A mouse at MIT with an optogenetic camera implant. (MIT)

O nobly-born, when thy body and mind were separating, thou must have experienced a glimpse of the Pure Truth --

 subtle, sparkling, bright, dazzling, glorious, and radiantly awesome, in appearance like a mirage moving across a landscape in springtime in one continuous stream of vibrations.

Be not daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. That is the radiance of thine own true nature. Recognize it.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, edited by Dr. W. Y. Evans-Wentz

Buddhists have pondered the nature of consciousness for centuries and have described it as a vibration in numerous texts, including the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The Buddha would describe consciousness in four layers: mind consciousness, sense consciousness, store consciousness, and manas. Mind consciousness is the outermost level, the one that plans and worries and makes judgements. Sense consciousness is our perception of the world through our sensory organs. They are the doors through which the outside world enters. Store consciousness is even deeper, and it is the entity that vibrates and births cognition. Finally, behind that is manas, the element in us that separates us from the world. It is the individuating entity that creates a "self."

There is so much more to this system of understanding consciousness -- including how these layers interact, how neuroses work, and nine sublevels -- but I'll move on by saying much of the musical structure for Waking Up is inspired by the vibrational nature of consciousness described here. More on that later.
The effect of different sound frequencies on water. (Tilly Campbell-Allen)
I really can't end this article without touching on Douglas Hofstadter's famous 1979 treatise on consciousness, Gödel Escher Bach.

A sprawling, interdisciplinary tome that covers everything from quines (self-replicating computer programs) to 18th century Baroque music, Hofstadter draws connections between mathematics, music, nature, and consciousness with a phenomenon he calls "strange loops." I should probably devote a newsletter topic to strange loops to do it justice, but a very short description of it goes something like this:

There exist systems in nature and mathematics that are self-referential. You can move up or down through their hierarchical system and find yourself back where you started. In the human mind, Hofstadter writes, these "strange loops" give rise to a self-referring "I". It is a concept that revels in paradox, one I'm not sure I fully grasp but fascinates me nonetheless.
The last page of J. S. Bach's unfinished fugue, Contrapunctus XIV, in his own hand. He famously used the notes B-A-C-H in this fugue's melody (Germans back then would use H to refer to B natural)

Still reading? Want more?

If you've read this far, you are either desperate for things to do today, or you find these topics as interesting as I do. If you fall into the latter category -- or even the former for that matter -- please consider becoming a patron member of Spacetime Diaries on my new crowdfunding platform Ko-Fi

I'm swtiching from Patreon to Ko-Fi for a few reasons. One, you can now make a one-time contribution. Two, I can run fundraising campaigns for things like the AI Art Contest I'm running in September. And three, I'll be able to share exclusive articles like this one to contributing members. If enough people show an interest by joining, I'll make writing these a priority -- as well as sharing things like behind-the-scenes video of the production process.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more!
Copyright © *|CURRENT_YEAR|* *|LIST:COMPANY|*, All rights reserved.

Our mailing address is:

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.


Similar posts

Are you an artist intrigued by AI?

Let's develop the next generation of tools for creative writers. Subscribe for news, announcements, and partnership opportunities.