Call for a Tangible Model of Consciousness

By Georgeann Sack

We understand what we can touch

There are two types of scientific advancement—facts and theory. One provides more information and the other synthesizes existing information into a comprehensive theoretical framework. It is the difference between adding a new piece to the puzzle and putting the puzzle pieces together into a big picture.

The science of consciousness is no different. The vast majority of advancement occurs slowly, in the form of incremental increases in our understanding of how a particular cognitive process works. In step with these incremental increases, there are theorists trying to put the pieces together.

I suggest that the theorists would benefit from a tangible model of consciousness. What if we could identify the key puzzle pieces, and then hold a model of them in our hands? We could look at them from every angle and orientation to better see how the pieces fit together. This would help us in our thinking about consciousness.

Modeling Structure

This approach has been fruitful in the past. In “The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA,” James Watson provides an autobiographical account of his discovery, alongside Francis Crick, of the double-stranded helical structure of DNA. A few parts of his story stuck with me. First, Watson comes across as someone who talks with the people doing the work (notably Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins, John Kendrew, Max Perutz, Jerry Donohue, and Hugh Huxley) more than working himself. Second, his aha moment came from playing with a tangible model.

Following Linus Pauling’s discovery that proteins can form a helical structure, Watson set out to “imitate Linus Pauling and beat him at his own game.”

“The key to Linus’ success was his reliance on the simple Laws of structural chemistry. The α-helix had not been found by only staring at X ray pictures; the essential trick, instead, was to ask which atoms like to sit next to each other. In place of pencil and paper, the main working tools were a set of molecular models superficially resembling the toys of preschool children. We could thus see no reason why we should not solve DNA in the same way. All we had to do was to construct a set of molecular models and begin to play.”

James Watson in “The Double Helix”

Watson and Crick set out to create molecular models of the components of DNA. Watson initially used copper wire and carbon atoms or cardboard cutouts. Fortuitously, office-mate Jerry Donohue saw the models and informed Watson that the organic chemistry textbooks he was basing the structures of guanine and thymine on were wrong. With correct structures in hand, Watson had a machinist create metal pieces to represent the four nucleotide bases — adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine —and the sugar-phosphate links between them, that make up DNA.

As Watson and Crick played with their toys, they relied heavily on X-ray diffraction images of crystallized DNA shared by Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. This data provided design constraints, ultimately leading Watson to build a two-stranded helical structure with the sugar-phosphate backbone on the outside, adenine always forming a hydrogen-bonded base pair with thymine, and guanine with cytosine.

“The brightly shining metal plates were then immediately used to make a model in which for the first time all the DNA components were present. In about an hour I had arranged the atoms in positions which satisfied both the X-ray data and the laws of stereochemistry. The resulting helix was right-handed with the two chains running in opposite directions.”

James Watson in “The Double Helix”

This guy went into the whole process totally naive, attended an abundance of lunches and parties, talked to people about the science they were doing and the theories they had come up with, went on long walks, and played with toys in order to discover the structure of DNA.

I am not saying anyone should model Watson’s behavior, but I don’t think we should overlook the efficiency of discovery once a tangible model was in hand. Let’s make a toy brain to play with.

Modeling Behavior

The human brain is a complex, dynamic system, with many specialized parts. Every interaction between the parts has a probability-based outcome. How could we possibly model such a system in a way that we can see and touch? Consider this for inspiration:

In the above video by KQED’s Deep Look, a large population of small robots are used to test and model how simple components can self-organize to have complex structures or collective behaviors. These robots were created by the Self-Organizing Systems Research Group at Harvard University.

“How does a group of animals, or cells for that matter, work together in an organized way when no one is in charge? … It’s called emergent behavior, order emerging from chaos.”

KQED’s Deep Look

With some modifications, a similar approach could be used to toy with a model of electrical signaling in the brain.

Going Virtual

Another option would be to use virtual reality to interact with computer based models of the human brain in a more tangible way. For inspiration see the following excerpt from my favorite science fiction book, Permutation City by Greg Egan (first published in 1994). The book begins with a character manipulating the structure of a molecule using a virtual reality interface.

“Maria reached into the workspace again, halted the molecule’s spin, deftly plucked the lone red and blue-red spike from one of the greens, then reattached them, swapped, so that the spike now pointed upward. The gloves’ force and tactile feedback, the molecule’s laser-painted image, and the faint clicks that might have been plastic on plastic as she pushed the atoms into place, combined to create a convincing impression of manipulating a tangible object, built out of solid spheres and rods.

This virtual ball-and-stick model was easy to work with — but its placid behavior had nothing to do with the physics of the Autoverse, temporarily held in abeyance. Only when she released her grip was the molecule allowed to express its true dynamics, oscillating wildly as the stresses induced by the alteration were redistributed from atom to atom, until a new equilibrium geometry was found.”

From Permutation City, by Greg Egan.

We have an incredible amount of data about the human brain, and initiatives like the Blue Brain Project are working to put all that structural and functional information into a computer-based model. Could we then interact with the model using virtual reality technology?

Why Would Any of this Help?

Seeing the same information from a new perspective is always a helpful way to make leaps in understanding, but this goes deeper than that. Human beings are not as logical as we would like to believe. A lot of our understanding is not logical at all. It is visceral, based on sensory experience and on trial and error. Even those of us trained to test our understanding using the scientific method or systematic critical thinking interface with the world using the same sensory organs as everyone else.

We learn better when we are able to reach out and touch what we are trying to understand. We learn best when integrating multisensory information — visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic. Kinesthetic sensation is awareness of one’s own body in motion during physical activities.

“The human brain has evolved to learn and operate in natural environments in which behavior is often guided by information integrated across multiple sensory modalities. Multisensory interactions are ubiquitous in the nervous system and occur at early stages of perceptual processing. (…) We argue that multisensory-training protocols, as opposed to unisensory protocols, can (…) produce greater and more efficient learning.”

From “Benefits of Multisensory Learning,” by Ladan Shams and Aaron R. Seitz, Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2008).

If we learn best while while integrating tactile information with other modalities, why do we so often attempt to minimize sensory stimuli in preparation for our deepest thinking? Some of the most productive thinkers in history, including Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin, reported that they did their best thinking while walking outside. When considering a particular open question, however, perhaps a more specific multisensory stimulus could help us to synthesize information and develop answers.

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