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Theories on Conscious Thought


Consciousness has typically been associated with the cerebral cortex of the brain, but more recently neurologists have asserted that the brain does not have a single specific area responsible for what we know as “conscious thought”. It has long been the goal of psychologists and scientists alike to define “consciousness” and offer some explanation as to the origins of the human perception of self-awareness. This short paper attempts to offer some insight into the mechanisms leading to conscious thought and how these mechanisms distinguish the human brain from those of other mammals.

It should be noted that the author has no formal education in psychology or neurology. As a consequence of this, the following theories may have already been forwarded, may be out of date, or may be simply a wildly inaccurate and unfounded view of the subject.

Mammalian Minds

It is commonly believed that mammals other than man do not generally have the ability to think consciously in the same way that humans do. It is my theory that consciousness is intrinsically connected to memory. All mammals, including man, appear to have several distinct forms of memory.

Ancestral memory

Effectively based on the evolutionary process of a species, this memory is formed as a result of natural selection. All mammals share this memory, and it is simply a hard-wired form of instinct that protects the individual’s survival. Mental structures prone to thought processes that result in the death of an individual rarely become replicated, and more stable mental structures survive and propagate as the mammal reproduces.

It may be wrong to consider this process as a form of “memory” as nothing is really remembered. The memory is better described as a habitual lifestyle based on the development of mental structures over long generations.

Personal Incidental Memory

Personal Incidental Memory is long-term memory based on sensory input. It is evolutionally beneficial to mammals to be able to learn from mistakes and successes to enhance chances of survival. Mammalian brains are constantly making decisions based on memory and circumstance, and attempting to perform actions based on the results of conclusions. If the action results in a distinct sensory input, such as pain, the memory of this event is imprinted into long-term memory and the mammal will not attempt the same action again. It may take several impressions for the mammal to learn that the result of an action always yields the same result.

Working Memory

Working memory can be defined as memory that is devoted to the process of reaching a conclusion. This is not the same as short-term memory. Working memory is integral to decision making and allows operands and sub-operands relating to a particular decision to be retained for reference while the conclusion is being formed.

Short Term Memory

Short-term memory is simply a scratchpad, a storage area for learning purposes. As events occur they are stored in short-term memory until their significance is such that they become imprinted in long-term memory (personal incidental memory). This is almost like a filtration system. The brain is not an infinitely large space and it would be impractical and impossible for every event to be stored, cross-referenced and retrieved from long-term memory. Short-term memory acts as a system to ensure that only significant events are forwarded to long-term memory.

Consciousness and Looking Inward

We have established the four basic types of memory in mammals. Now we look at how this memory is used in everyday life. From observations, it can be seen that mammals primarily react to sensory stimulus and seem to use this as a basis to define the significance of the result of a particular mental process. For instance, if a thought process results in an action that produces a strong sense of pain, the significance of the thought process and it’s result is very high and likely to be almost immediately imprinted in the personal incidental memory, where it will be used as a reference during future thought processes to ascertain the expected result of a particular action and cancel that action if the expected result jeopardises survival.

The difference in humans is that, while other mammals require sensory input to determine the significance of a conclusion, humans appear to be able to determine the significance of conclusions based on internal attributes (for instance, the amount of time required to achieve a result that is similar to the expected result). Humans do not require sensory input in order to forward thoughts between the “subconscious” and the short-term memory. This allows humans to be introspective. Since many conclusions may be formed per minute, the conscious filters the wheat from the chaff and stores only conclusions that are significant. With this functionality, the “subconscious” portions of the brain can base future conclusions on the results of previous conclusions without needing to obtain sensory input to validate the significance of each stage. This is beneficial to survival from an evolutionary point of view because it allows learning that is not based on physical reward or punishment. It facilitates the mental gymnastics required to find relationships between two or more completely unrelated memories by providing internal assessment and storage of results of each stage of the conclusive process. This is the functionality behind complex thought processes and is what distinguishes humans from most other mammals.

Evidence of this is bountiful. Most of the time, humans are not thinking “consciously” in the classical sense of the word, but are performing actions automatically, based on previous memories of expected results. Only when the result is unexpected (e.g. the door does not open when pushed) does the impression of conscious thought arise. The brain is typically following patterns that it has learned over long periods of time. Neural networks are extremely efficient at pattern recognition and most of the brain’s day-to-day activity is based on comparing and executing results in the form of patterns. When the pattern does not yield the anticipated result it becomes invalid and this is of great significance, almost as if an error has been flagged up in the subconscious. It is at this point that the impression of conscious thought begins, as the processing of various memories and correlation of remembered events starts to throw information back and forth between the long-term and short-term memories and the “subconscious”. During this many conclusions are being reached, and some of these will be deemed significant by the conscious and stored in short term memory. The process of this “filter” in action, classifying the significance of hundreds of pseudo-random conclusions per minute, is what humans think of as self-awareness.

Conscious thought, as mentioned above, is not just down to serendipity. It is a solid advantage to survival, allowing humans not only to create conclusions based on unrelated memories and learn without reward or punishment, but also to optimise thought processes. This is what we commonly call meditation or contemplation. Usually it occurs when sensory stimulus is low, we are relaxed, and the brain is not particularly active. Humans seem to have a natural desire to simplify problems, which is (of course) beneficial to our survival as a species. If some pseudo-random thought process causes us to try to link two diverse concepts together, for example to try to find out why the expected result of an action is different from the actual result with little evidence, we will begin a complex process of memory manipulation where we attempt to form a defining pattern for the problem that can be easily remembered. In other words, the significance of early thoughts during problem solving is very high, as many errors are present and the mind is extremely active attempting to synthesize patterns. As contemplation continues, significance of thoughts diminishes as the mind creates an optimised, more simplified pattern that conforms to the expected results. Eventually, contemplation is over and the result matches expected results. The process of obtaining the final pattern, up to the point where the significance of each intermediate result has diminished to a level where they are discarded, is stored in memory (perhaps long-term) and these memorised intermediate results can then be used when the same (or similar) contemplative actions need to be performed again. They then act as stepping stones to “jump to conclusions” (it is remarkable how common terms such as this tie in with the actual processes involved) and nodes, or component thoughts, that can be used to connect other events.

The Weevil.

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