How Consciousness Might Have Evolved

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Human consciousness. Our wonderful, crazy mind. Our personhood. And our quandary. Where did consciousness come from? How did it become part of us?

Michael Graziano, a neuropsychologist I’ve posted about before, writes in the June 2016 Atlantic about how consciousness might have evolved. He starts with the question that evolutionists ask about any feature of an organism: What is its adaptive value?

The answer, he writes, is that consciousness is a sophisticated solution to a difficulty that plagues the nervous system of all creatures: “Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed.” It’s an old dilemma, with early fixes. Even before the formation of brains, nervous systems 600 million years ago enhanced certain nerve signals at the expense of others. The eyes of insects and crabs, for example, generate “an outline sketch of the world” as the signals carrying visual data about the edges of objects are stronger than other visual signals.

Then around 500 million years ago, a controller in the early brains of fish and reptiles began coordinating several senses at a time, “aiming the satellite dishes of the eyes, ears, and nose towards anything important.” The controller did so by generating an internal model, a set of information about the current state of the body parts, and predicting “how these body parts will move next and about the consequences of their movement.” If you had only a reptilian controller for a brain, you would look at the steps in front of you and the controller would check those nerve signals against its model of where your legs ought to be to get you up the steps successfully.

But we have much more than a controller. Some mammals, including us, have the latest upgrade, the cerebral cortex. We can pay attention to something we are not even focused on at the moment—the TV in the other room, for instance—because our cortex can select what to select. What’s more, we can even be self-aware that we are doing so. “I’m not going to go in there, but he’s watching that news again” (my example). Humans can do this because our upgraded controller uses schemas, models of not only all that we know but also of our attention itself. Our brain tracks “what covert attention is doing moment by moment and what its consequences are.” This is where we get that self-aware voice inside us that tells us, “I’ve got something intangible inside me. It moves around from one thing to another and allows me to understand and remember.”

Such evolution of consciousness goes hand in hand with our social evolution, according to Graziano. Animals acquired the capacity to be aware of the mind of other members of their species. Social awareness and self-awareness have evolved “in tandem….We understand other people by projecting ourselves onto them. But we also understand ourselves by considering the way other people might see us.” Consciousness tracks and grows from our social life and our social self.

Graziano acknowledges that the schema theory of consciousness is still new, but he believes it “provides a general framework” for understanding consciousness and its evolution. It seems to me that it does so very well. It’s difficult for us to see our minds in physical terms because we have that voice in our head that insists, “Wow! I’m thinking and feeling all this!” Glowing with this cerebral radiance, we easily believe we carry an ethereal self, even an undying soul. But it is thrilling to me to understand the splendor of consciousness not as an outlier in nature but as a thoroughly earthly step in the push of small, accidental, pragmatic adjustments that is physical life.

 

Meditation and Animal Consciousness

I’ve been meditating more regularly for the last couple of months—about 20 minutes once or twice a day. I’m still very much a novice but the experience is vivid and calming. I’ve been thinking about how it may be showing me a piece of the history of my consciousness.

I’m gradually finding it easier to stay tuned to my breathing and lengthen the quiet spaces between the word streams that seep through my head. I think those quiet moments take me briefly to a state that has elements in common with the consciousness of animals. Of course we can’t know much about what goes through the heads of a crocodile or a horse or what nuances of emotions they may feel. But we can be fairly sure that animals experience their sensory world without the complications and distractions of language and the social web that language is anchored in. I think meditation has about it a kind of withdrawal from mental complexity that takes us back to a small portion of the calm and direct sensory life of animal consciousness.

buddhaweekly.com

buddhaweekly.com

But in my meditative 20 minutes, this peaceful withdrawal doesn’t last long and soon the words come banging at the door again. No matter how earnestly but gently I try to float them away, they return like a too-friendly dog that refuses to be pushed off. This fervent activity is what our brains are good at. Even when they are idling with no particular task at hand, they crank away, replaying bits of yesterday, rehearsing bits of tomorrow. That’s how our minds protect us, that’s why they evolved: to anticipate the future on the basis of the past.

I have the image of two lines running through me, two orientations in time and place. One runs through me from back to front, from past to future. This is the calculating cognition of language and our intense social lives; we are almost always, in our heads, thinking about and talking to people. The other line runs through me sideways, in the here and now, the wordless, calm mindfulness of meditation (or any other concentrated task such as playing music). With more practice, I find this orientation growing a little more available even when I am not meditating. I can take a minute to focus on myself, relax my body, turn down the volume in my head. I think of this orientation as an outrigger, extending sideways to the immediate world, stabilizing me, with little fuss about where I’m heading.

The sages like to warn us that our imagination is too good at just the kind of of theorizing and imaging that these paragraphs are about, creating a lovely picture that distracts us from the solid realities. Still, I think about the history of consciousness that runs to us and through us. I’m moved by the notion that meditation taps into some of the serenity of animals to give us relief from the word-maker-wonder-maker-trouble-maker of our cognition.

The Purpose Problem

Years ago I heard about a book on the purpose-driven life. I rushed to a bookstore (ah, bookstores), only to find that it was mostly about God. But I realized then that I had uncertainties that had snuck up on me about my life’s purpose . Now, years later, I’m thinking that life is indeed purpose-driven but not at all in Rick Warren’s terms.

But let me back up and summarize some basic ideas about purpose.

A traditional view has been that things happen in order to achieve a final goal, a goal often involving God. Today we often think about goals on the more modest scale of strategic plans and personal targets. And yet the idea that everything is part of a grand plan remains very comforting. People seem calmer about bad news after saying that “everything happens for a reason.”

Over the last century, this traditional view has been largely dismantled. Things in nature and life happen for reasons—physical, social, psychological—that are rooted in the past and present more than in the future. A woman who is looking for a job might say that her purpose for doing so is to earn money so her young children will be able to go to college some day. The traditional analysis of her actions would be that she is “pulled along” through her job search by the final goal of college for her kids. But her friends today might tell you that while that distant goal may boost her spirits from time to time, her actions are more the result of her history, her personality, and her current debts.

god and purpose statement

People take comfort from viewing the world, including themselves, as full of purpose. (heartprintsofgod.com)

Now the pendulum is swinging again and a different perspective about purpose is getting attention. This is the observation that certain ordinary actions are indeed clearly purposeful. If you’re getting hungry and planning your dinner, your planning is purposeful. Maybe you need to drive to Subway to buy that sandwich; the drive is purposeful. Once you’ve eaten the sandwich, your digestive system will take up its own purposeful process. It turns out that most of what you and your body parts do—your stomach, your heart, your sleeping, your socializing—is purposeful in that it accomplishes some basic biological function or meets a biological need.

In other words, human organs and behaviors did not come into existence for a purpose but came into existence because they served a purpose. There is very little in us that is not purposeful in terms of functioning to keep us alive. 

Evolution of the heart

The heart evolved not for a purpose but because it served a purpose. (antibodyreview.com)

So back to the big question about the purpose-driven life. Are the purpose-serving activities of the organs that keep us alive related to that Purpose with a capital P that we look for in our  life as a whole? Do these biological functions and behaviors with their specific purposes make up part of  what we can think of as “the purpose of life”?

I think so. I think it would be surprising if they didn’t. We may each frame our Purpose in a different future-oriented way—to live happily, to be creative, to find peace, to achieve success. But each vision of a direction seems to me to be the work of our brain as it extends and embellishes the biological functionality that keeps us alive. We are indeed purpose-driven.

 

 

Note: A useful source has been a paper by Nathan Bourne, “Teleology as Evolutionary Etiology: An analysis of teleological explanations of biological phenomena,” at http://www.sewanee.edu/philosophy/Capstone/2011/bourne.pdf. Bourne draws on the work of Larry Wright, especially his book Teleological Explanations: An Etiological Analysis of Goals and Functions, UCal Press, 1976.