Fleeting Consciousness

Robert Thibadeau, Ph.D.
Internet Systems Laboratory
Another Saturday Afternoon on the Internet

Stated simply: I believe now that consciousness is truly a fleeting thing.  Every person has moments of consciousness, possibly minutes and hours of consciousness.  But consciousness is characterized most definitely as a fleeting thing.

In this view there are many odd results.  For example, if asked if a fly is conscious, I will now say, "Yes, I think so, but much less often and certainly for shorter moments than we are conscious."  If asked if a worm is conscious, I say, "I don't know worms well enough."  Asked if a dog is conscious, I say, "No doubt about it, but less often than most of us and possibly for shorter times."

The object of my inquiry into consciousness that self-awareness of consciousness that we, as people, experience and talk to each other about.  I see no reason to use technical language since I see this object as something that exists in common natural language, and that is the language it is best understood.   Epistemology, Philosophy, Linguistics, Phenomenology, are all important studies, but consciousness is a thing in human experience that is common for those without analytical training.  This means that I, as a person, can just see whether some animal is acting conscious.  I see this the same way that I see there is a coffee mug on the table.  This is what has been termed inductive inference: I simply observe the truth of the thing's existence.  The value of understanding that consciousness is always fleeting is in permitting us to see consciousness without analytical argument.  I need, perhaps, only to decide that the fly is conscious for one millisecond while it decides to escape from my slapping hand, and then it's consciousness rapidly disappears into mass of cooperating cells.  I don't have a problem understanding consciousness this way since it corresponds to what I see, in the most simple way of seeing.

So, the fact of fleeting consciousness is a direct observation.  We may disagree and quickly become argumentative, just as we can always easily disagree with what we observe about mental states.   Mental states are not physical stuff that can be measured by physical instruments that are incapable, even in principle, of observing inductively.   I can't always tell exactly when you are sad, but occasionally I can say with certainty that you are, indeed, sad.  I can't always tell exactly when you are conscious, but I can occasionally say with certainty that you seem conscious about something.  

We must concede that consciousness cannot be known since a thing cannot fully know itself in a deductive sense.  However, we can know about consciousness.  A proposition of this short thesis is that lots of animals are conscious.  A dog, for instance, is conscious.  So are we.  We are certainly conscious more persistently than a fly.  Perhaps more persistently than dogs.  I don't know most animals well enough to say for sure what the numbers are, but I have made direct observations for consciousness on a few animals.  This is all, in the current thesis, that anyone can do.

This should not mean that science and philosophy is not possible with the current approach.  The remainder of this document discusses where to get the science out.  What can we actually measure, quantify, and predict about consciousness.  Again, I am explicitly not turning to established concepts in established disciplines because I think that is unnecessary in making the thesis.

Consciousness is an event, not a stuff or intrinsic property of something, except that consciousness is an unstoppable series of  lifetime events associated with many life forms.  Like the heart beating, consciousness exists.  Also, it isn't the heart, it's the beating. It isn't the brain, its the consciousness.  However, it does not exist all the time for a single individual.  We know we are not conscious during most of our sleep.  But this oversimplifies the nature of consciousness.  The present thesis is that we are not even conscious during many, if not most,  waking moments.  One book that meant a lot to my thinking was Julian Jaynes "The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind."  He argued that many people are never conscious.  He argued that consciousness is the "internal voice," or it is emergent out of such an internal dichotomy as speaking silently to oneself.  I have always been taken by his thesis that consciousness is not necessarily present, but I found his speculations largely irrelevant and useless.  I would rather argue that people can go days, if not years, without being conscious or with only the smallest fleeting moments of consciousness interspersed in their living habits.  I would argue that this is a much more information-rich way to understand consciousness.

In making my observations of fleeting consciousness, I am struck that it does always seem to manifest itself, both in what I observe externally and internally, in a recruitment process.  One way to make the argument is as a Darwinian argument.  For the individual to survive he must, on some occasions, get all his cells moving in the same direction.  He must attend to external events and act on them through a single decision point in time.  Without this singular point of decision, "duck!", there is no consciousness.  It is this evident decision to recruit the bodily and mental self that is the essence of a conscious moment.  The ability to draw that decision out in time, to make it last, is probably adaptive for higher order animals like ourselves.  Also, the capability to recruit resources based on more diverse and subtle cues probably distinguishes us from lower animals.  One way to look at this is that our perception is more adaptive and our recruitment is capable not only of bodily recruitment but mental recruitment ("stay aware!") as well.  

A recruitment process is not a guaranteed process.  Recruitment means that you try to get the cooperation of the bodily and mental resources.  It doesn't mean that you accomplish it.  So you can't put an electrode on a mass of muscle to measure consciousness.  You can't have people report a mental experience.  You might, on the other hand, ask them to not feel sad, and then see if they can do it.  In some of the moments between the time you ask and the time they said they did it, you might suppose they were conscious.  If they disclosed enough for you to definitely recognize a conscious act, you might be sure they were conscious in changing their mental state.

The singular point of decision is important.  If an orchestration of recruitment activities is completely external (reflexive) or habitual, then we might say there is no single point of decision and therefore no consciousness.  I am making a judgment with the fly that there is a very fleeting glimpse of consciousness in its making the decision to fly.  If you showed me that all flies exhibit very precisely predictable behavior based on external stimuli and showed no adaptive variation with respect to flying off, then I might say there isn't even a fleeting moment of consciousness.  Although, I suspect, I will still recall some flies I have gamed with and will argue there was a tiny speck of awareness there.  I doubt if I would ever want to argue that I have observed introspective consciousness in a fly.  Although I think I have seen some fleeting moments of that in a dog.  I am certain that I have conversations with people who demonstrate they have brought their perceptions to singular points of decision and recruited whole mental acts from these.  Perhaps a fly can only recruit a physical act.  He forgets rapidly.

This brings us to the interaction of consciousness and memory.  I think now that consciousness and memory are intertwined in interesting but not simple ways.  For example, can you remember when you were last conscious, as opposed to just awake?  We know we don't see our eye blinks, when the world goes black for a moment, so we might say these are clear moments of unconsciousness.  However, it seems more informative to search back for clear moments of consciousness.  In my experience, even though one can induct a conscious act, it is hard to remember moments of consciousness.  This might be an interesting place to start in trying to understand how consciousness and memory interact.  To use a word I promised not to use, it may be that consciousness is just an epiphenomena that can't be remembered because it isn't defined, inductively, as something you remember.  It is only observable in current moment or as a inference based on the observation of someone else.  This ephiphenomenal meaning of consciousness may be the reason why it is so hard to just directly see that consciousness is fleeting.

So now I think that consciousness is a shared perception of an epiphenoma but that the real consciousness that underlies the epiphenomena is of interest as perceptions leading to a lifelong series singular points of decisions that lead to, or can readily lead to, whole body and self actions.  Understanding what brings the perceptions together to singular points of decision and what recruitments to action can and do take place would become an interesting focus for science.  The argument for fleeting consciousness says that most bodily and mental decisions are not singular : habitualized or reflexive actions based on habitualized or reflexive perceptions fill most of our waking hours.  The coordination of the perceptions and the coordination of the actions is guaranteed only by reflex or habit.  We only bring the whole organism together when the situation is ripe or our already whole, conscious, organism keeps it ripe as part of its own perception of self.  Nowadays, I observe people may be constantly awake but I don't confuse being awake with being conscious. This is even, importantly, when they are talking.

When a person is talking, he may be consciously framing his speech, watching the reactions of others, or just listening to his own speech, or consciously doing all three.  People in conversation maintain consciousness among each other.  I suspect it might even be better to call a conversation, sustained consciousness with fleeting moments of unconsciousness, like eye blinks.  However, listening to a speech, to the radio, watching television, may well more naturally be composed of fleeting moments of consciousness in a sea of unconsciousness. 

Performing an action does not guarantee sustained consciousness.  Driving a car, making idle chatter, humming a tune, may well involve fleeting consciousness.  I would argue that if one observes that someone is conscious, they expect them to remember what they were perceiving and doing when they observed them as conscious.  People hold other people to what they say.  Conversation is largely conscious.  If one doesn't confuse consciousness with being awake, it is pretty easy to see that people can very well be unconsciously driving the car, making idle chatter, or unconsciously walking, let alone unconsciously sitting or eating. 

Eating is another interesting event for the analysis of fleeting consciousness.  It would seem that the acquisition of control over the food involves some consciousness, usually.  It would also seem that the first taste of an item involves fleeting consciousness.  However, I feel comfortable saying that as the eating of the item proceeds, particularly if there is a lot of it, like eating a bowl of rice, there is not much consciousness involved after the first two or three bites until perhaps one nears the end of the bowl when consciousness briefly lights up again to make a next decision. 

The entire argument being made here is that the quantitative amount of consciousness in someone is a derivative with respect to time.  The mass of consciousness at rest is zero.  Most of the time, the derivative is also zero or near zero.  The mass in motion can grow and shrink, and it can do this very quickly, literally, in the blink of an eye. In motion, the objects that add to consciousness are all phenomena with consciousness being one epiphenomena.  If this is the case, we should be able to enumerate the phenomena that may lead to the generation of the epiphenomena recognizable as consciousness.  A few have been identified so far.

These are physiological recruitment, mental recruitment or orienting, and decision making outside the realm of the habitual.   Physiological recruitment includes muscular action, but may involve other kinds of physiological action such as electro-chemical ones.  The recruitment processes and the decision making processes may well involve milliseconds of consciousness in minutes of awake activity.  Once the decision is made to grasp the fork, are you conscious of grasping it?  Are you conscious of using it?  Or, are you more conscious of the food and not the fork.  There are certainly moments of fork consciousness, but these do not endure for long. 

Consciousness is an activity of the self, but it may not be perfectly self aware.  Indeed, one can argue that there is no perfect self awareness, since there are things one is unaware of at all times that a simple decision to become aware is sufficient to bring to awareness.  However, a plain property of consciousness that the fleeting consciousness hypothesis seems to ignore is that consciousness seems continuous to the self.  I would say the fly flits from one rare conscious moment to another, but the fly is unaware of the gaps in time during which consciousness was not present.  Similarly for the person eating food.  The person talking in conversation, however, may be conscious, perhaps even with sustained recruitment and complicated decision processes. 

This perceived continuity of consciousness is a misperception because of the difficulty of being conscious of being unconscious.  As long as the life story unfolds, as long as the recruitment from conscious moment to conscious moment is perceived as consistent with continuity, then continuous consciousness is the self perception.  There are many examples where consciousness fails the continuity test.  As a thought experiment, it would clearly fail the test if, at one moment one is standing on the Mall in Washington D.C. and the next on the side of the hill in the Presidium overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.  There would be a clear recognition of a loss of consciousness.  However, if at one moment one is walking near the Smithsonian and another one is encountering a child's smile, the gap may not be noticed as a gap, even though the walking may have been for a minute without consciousness.   More realistically, noticeable gaps include times when one suddenly finds himself somewhere unexpected, or starts to feel ill and then tries to recall the last few minutes.  Presumably the recruitment and decision making phenomena are adapted well enough and yield few enough surprises that the gaps in consciousness over time cannot be observed by the observer but the observer doesn't generally need to observe them, either.

Writing is an example like eating in that consciousness may be fleeting during this activity as well.  There are the moments, sometime long moments, when the words are coming.  Then, just before the sure knowledge of the next batch of words (or ideas) comes into focus, there is a fleeting consciousness, followed by the typing of the words and the, sometimes overlapping, pause for the next batch.  This would suggest that the unconscious moments are playing some role since it is hard to have sustained consciousness in writing.  Here I would say that the conscious recruitment of the thing to say follows the unconscious phenomena that leads to the content that needs to be said next.  The conscious decision making, the recognition of that there is something to say next, whether to say it, or whether it is said right, happens in brief moments of fleeting consciousness.

An interesting question is whether consciousness must always involve both a perception and an action.  To keep this out of the mire, the action can be a mental action or conscious thought as well as a physical action.  The perception can be another kind of thought, a recognition. Indeed, it may be the inductive recognition that is the stuff of recognizing consciousness.  Is fleeting consciousness composed of fleeting phenomena of perceptions followed by actions?  Perhaps so.  Following this line of reasoning, there is a moment when a recognition is brought to awareness, with a decision and action that may or may not be immediate, but is more or less certain to come to consciousness as well.  The self awareness, the consciousness, is in the fleeting control management of what to do with the recognition or perception and how to recruit the resources to decide what to do and to do it.  Sometimes, as in writing, the control management says to just wait until the right action can be perceived.  Right, of course, here means whatever the unconscious processes that were recruited, are going to do.  Hopefully the right thought and action happens but the person may well be conscious for a moment to decide, and perhaps at later points track the efficacy of, the action.   

This notion of consciousness is certainly similar in some ways to that of many others, including Freud.  However, Freud was concerned less with characterizing consciousness, as characterizing un-consciousness.  If we look to consciousness, it's curious fleeting nature seems apparent.  If we look to understand the unconscious, we don't see conscious as fleeting in a sea of unconsciousness, but rather as something that hides an unconscious side.   I see my dog as just as conscious as I am, when I am conscious.  The awareness both of self and situation is plainly there to me.  But I also see her as not conscious very much of the time.  It accounts for why my dog, as fine as she is, can just loll about for hours.  It accounts for why, perhaps, an animal doesn't see itself in the mirror, but another animal.  It isn't that the animal isn't conscious, it is that it isn't conscious very much and happens not to have an unconscious component that can recognize the full physical image for the partial one the animal can see.  If the recognition doesn't occur, the conscious moment doesn't occur.  If it occurs wrongly, it occurs.  The dog that barks at its mirror image is demonstrating consciousness as surely as the dog that recognizes itself.  The dog that (eventually) ignores its mirror image is the one that is not conscious, at least right then.

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