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Thursday, June 4, 2020


Frames of Consciousness by Joel Frohlich is a very well written and well referenced Aeon essay on the current state of defining and even quantitatively measuring consciousness in neuroscience. 
It is very pleasing to have such an interesting topic covered in such detail and I really appreciate his essay. It is difficult to both define and then to measure the thing you have defined since it is a lot like making up a new word and then using other words to define your new word that you just made up. After all, why make up a new word when other words already exist that communicate the thing just fine.

Consciousness is, after all, not a new word that Frohlich just made up and so there are as many definitions of consciousness as there are people writing essays about consciousness...and as many disagreements as well. Consciousness includes sensation, conscious thought, unconscious thought, subconscious thought, autonomic action, long-term memory, short-term memory, emotion, sleep and, of course, free choice action. We sense, reason consciously or respond subconsciously, and then excite or inhibit action. In the end, Frohlich does not really define consciousness but simply shows ways to quantitatively measure small slices of consciousness. 

"Consciousness is a mystery. A multitude of scientific theories attempt to explain why our brains experience the world, rather than simply receiving input and producing output without feeling."

Notice that feeling is a part of consciousness as is experience and receiving input (sensation) and producing output (free choice action) are all also parts of consciousness, with or without feeling. So Frohlich's phrase simply means that consciousness is the involuntary act of being conscious, an identity that is certainly true but hardly useful. Frohlich goes on to argue that quantum superposition and quantum phase decay have nothing to do with consciousness. Of course, quantum superposition and quantum phase decay is how all of the world works and so quantum is certainly how consciousness works as well, even though Frohlich does not like Hameroff at all.

Instead, Frohlich likes Tonini's two words for consciousness: differentiation and integration. Okay. We see two things and then can tell them apart. Great. Then we remember that new thing in terms of all of the similar things that we have also remembered. Once again, this sounds a little bit like defining consciousness as being conscious. Fortunately, Frohlich then moves on to measurements thank goodness instead of more definitions.

Frohlich likes Massimini's zap and zip measurement, which is a type of pulse-echo measurement for the brain. Given a brain pulse, you measure its echo and there are many pulses with both sound and light that also work. An operator delivers an electromagnetic pulse to a brain region and then measures how quickly the EEG modes return to the normal conscious pattern before the pulse. Of course, any stimulus like a bright light, a loud sound, a strong odor, or a pin prick results in the same EEG pulse echo. Oddly, these are the same actions that medicine now uses to measure conscious behavior, even for unconscious or comatose people.

Finally, Frohlich wraps up with his favorite Angelman syndrome of conscious behavior. These very happy people have grown up with the simple EEG modes of children and so never seem to have grow up and their characteristic EEG delta modes are without alpha or beta overtones of higher consciousness. However, since science has no theory that explains what EEG modes represent, once again, Angelman syndrome people are conscious because they are conscious. However, without alpha and beta activity, they are not conscious like other people are conscious, but really, children are not conscious like adults are conscious and so this does not seem to mean much.

Oh well, it was still fun to theory is somewhat different...The EEG Mind