The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


Gestalt psychologists, instead, focused on higher cognitive processes and opposed the idea that the individual stimulus could cause an individual response. For example, in 1938 the German psychologist Max Wertheimer claimed that perception ought to be more than the sum of the perceived things, i.e. that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.  He showed, for example, how one can alter the parts of a melody but the listener would still recognize the melody.

Perception of the whole does not depend on perception of all of its parts. We recognize the shape of a landscape way before we recognize each tree and rock in the landscape, and we recognize that a tree is a tree before we recognize what kind of tree it is, because recognizing the species requires an analysis of its parts.

Already in the 1920s the German psychologist Wolfgang Koehler had claimed that most problem-solving is not due to a decomposition of the problem but to sudden insight. Problems can be solved by visualizing the problem correctly so that "insight" shows the solution as obvious. One may not recognize a familiar face for a few seconds, and then suddenly recognize it. This is not due to a myriad calculations, but to a sudden insight that cannot be broken down into atomic processes. It is just a sudden insight.

The German neurologist Kurt Goldstein viewed the organism as a system that has to struggle in order to cope with the challenges of the environment and of its own body. The organism cannot be divided into "organs" and far less into "mind" and "body", because it is the whole that reacts to the environment.  Nothing is independent within the organism. The organism is a whole.

"Disease" is a manifestation of a change of state between the organism and its environment. Healing does not come through "repair" but through adaptation. The organism cannot simply return to the state preceding the event that changed it, but has to adapt to the conditions that caused the new state. In particular, a local symptom is not meaningful to understand a "disease", and the organism's behavior during a disease is hardly explained as a response to that specific symptom. A patient's body will often undergo mass-scale adjustments.  Goldstein emphasizes the ability of organisms to adjust to catastrophic breakdowns of their most vital (mental or physical) functions.  The organism's reaction is often a redistribution of its (mental or physical) faculties.

Coherently, gestalt psychologists claimed that form is the elementary unit of perception. We do not construct a perception by analyzing a myriad data. We perceive the form as a whole.

Around 1950 experiments by the US neurologist Karl Lashley confirmed that intuition: a lesion in the brain does not necessarily cause a change in the response. Lashley concluded that functions are not localized but distributed around the brain, that there are no specialized areas, that all cortical areas are equally “potent” in carrying out mental functions (this was his "principle of equipotentiality"). Lashley realized that this architecture yields a tremendous advantage: the brain as a whole is “fault tolerant”, because no single part is essential to the functioning of the whole.

Lashley also enunciated a second principle that can be viewed as its dual, the principle of "mass action": every brain region partakes (to some extent) in all brain processes. Lashley even imagined that memory behaved like an electromagnetic field and that a specific memory was a wave within that field. While he never came to appreciate the importance of the "connections", Lashley's ideas were sort of complementary to the ideas of connectionism.

Functions are indeed localized in the brain, but the processing of information inside the brain involves "mass action". The function of analyzing data from the retina is localized in a specific region of the brain, but the function of "seeing" is not localized, because it requires processes that are spread around the brain.

There are maps of the retina in the brain (even more than one), and there are maps of the entire body in the brain, and they are orderly maps. The brain keeps a map of what is going on in every part of the body.




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