The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


Life is not the only field in which traditional Physics seems to be powerless to offer comprehensive explanations. The brain is another system that seems to obey laws that only partially reflect the linear universe implied by Physics. Explaining the evolution of life required a new paradigm, the paradigm of “design without a designer”. It turns out that the functioning of the brain (that is responsible for the evolution of our thoughts) requires a similar paradigm.

A word of caution: everything we think about the brain comes from our brain. When I say something about the brain, it is my brain talking about itself.



Human memory may be deficient in many ways (it forgets, it does not remember "photographically"), but somehow it is extremely good at recognizing.

I’d recognize a friend even if he grew a beard, even if he's wearing different clothes every day, even if I see him sideways, and from any possible angle. How can I recognize all those images as the same image if they are all different? It is almost impossible to take the identical shot of a person twice: some details will always be different: how can I recognize that it is the same person, if the image is always different? I can show you two pictures of a street, taken at different times: you will recognize them as pictures of the same street. But there are probably countless differences: cars that were parked moved away and new cars took their places, pedestrians that were walking are gone, dogs and birds have changed positions, smoke has blown away, all the leaves of all the trees have moved because of the breeze, etc. How do you recognize that it is the same street, if the image of that street is never the same? Even a baby recognizes that an object turned sideways is still the same object, even if it looks completely different. Take a box and rotate it 45 degrees: it now looks like a completely different geometric figure. Nonetheless, a baby can recognize that it is the same object.

The key to understanding our memory may lie in the peculiar structure of our brain. Unlike most of our artifacts, which are designed to be modular, hierarchical and linear, a brain is an amazingly intricate piece of work. The brain does not work the way our artifacts work. There seems to be no “designer” that specifies what has to be designed. There seems to be a huge number of connected units, none of which prevails and all of which cooperate in some fashion to produce what transpires as “intelligent” behavior.

At the end of the 19th century, the US psychologist William James had a number of powerful intuitions: 1. That the brain is built to ensure survival in the world; 2. That cognitive faculties cannot be abstracted from the environment that they deal with; 3. That the brain is organized as an associative network; 4. That associations are governed by a rule of reinforcement. The latter two (3 and 4) laid the foundations for the “connectionist” model of the brain. The former two (1 and 2) laid the foundations for a cognitive model grounded in a Darwinian scenario of survival of the fittest.


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