The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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

Selection Processes Of The Brain

Darwinian thinking emphasizes selection over instruction. Some variations are "selected" by the environment over others.  Adaptation to the environment is a process of selection. Selection processes are ubiquitous in nature.

In 1955 the Danish immunologist Niels Jerne (“The natural selection theory of antibody formation”) discovered that a selection process also presides over the immune system. The traditional view of the immune system was that it is capable of manufacturing protein molecules, or “antibodies”, in order to neutralize foreign antigens (viruses, bacteria, etc). Jerne and Edelman discovered that, on the contrary, the immune system routinely manufactures all the antibodies it knows how to make (the Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner had already demonstrated this). Whenever the body is attacked by foreign antigens, some antibodies (the ones that best "bind" with the invader) are selected and start multiplying rapidly to cope with the invasion.

Antibodies are created by the thousands even "before" the body is attacked by anything. An invasion results in a rapid increase in the rate of production of the one antibody that matches the intruder. In a sense, it is the intruder (not the immune system) that decides which antibodies need to multiply.

In 1968 Jerne wondered whether a selection process could also account for the mind: do we learn new concepts or are useful concepts chosen by the environment among a pre-existing array of concepts? Do we create a plan of action or is an action selected by the environment from a pre-existing set of actions? Do we think or is a thought selected by the circumstances from a vast pool of possible thoughts?

Do we design our mental life, or is our mental life a continuous process of environmental selection of concepts in our brain?

Does our mind manufacture ordered thought or does it manufacture chaotic mental events that the environment orders into thought?

Socrates believed that all learning consists in being reminded of what we already know. Jerne, basically, updated Socrates’ idea to Darwinian thinking: every being is equipped with a library of all possible behavior and cognitive life simply consists in finding (within that library) the behavior that best copes with the environmental conditions.

The genes encode that "library". They encode information accrued over millions of years of evolution.

The mind already knows the solution to all the problems that can occur in the environment in which it evolved over millions of years. Given a problem, it is only a matter of retrieving the appropriate solution. Indirectly, it is the environment that selects what the mind does. And it is the genes that have restricted what the possibilities are for the mind. And the genes too were selected by the environment.

Further similarities between the immune system and the neural system were discovered in the following decades. For examples, in 1995 the US pediatrician Abraham Kupfer showed that immune cells communicate information via synapses in a manner similar to how neural cells communicate information. The information they exchange is presumably about the present dangers within the body.


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