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"

The Philosophical Baby

Clearly, childhood must serve a purpose, especially human childhood that appears to be so senseless from an evolutionary point of view (no other cub is so helpless in the world). Children spend years practicing a form of mental gymnastics that other species can't do, and that provides the human species with an evolutionary advantage: the ability to map the world and to imagine worlds that don't exist. The US psychologist Alison Gopnik believes that the ability of imagining alternative worlds (of dealing with "counterfactuals") peaks during childhood. Far from being limited to the "here" and "now" as Piaget assumed, children understand how the real world works and then project that knowledge into many other possible worlds. The fact that children don't seem to be capable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy should not be taken as evidence of cognitive limitation but of cognitive power: they are very creative instead of being passive (like adults tend to be).

Because all of this is due to a physically different structure of the brain (mainly in the prefrontal cortex, that doesn't mature until the mid-20s), Gopnik goes as far as to claim that children and adults are two different subspecies of the same species, Homo Sapiens.

Children are also capable of creating "theories of mind", i.e. of understanding the goals and desires of other children and people in general. The way they understand psychology is similar to the way they understand the physical world: they create "psychological counterfactuals", i.e. imaginary companions. With them they rehearse the rules of psychology the same way that they rehearse the rules of physics when they imagine hypothetical worlds. Children are aware that these imaginary companions don't exist, just like they are aware that imaginary worlds don't exist. Children construct maps of both the physical world and of the psychological world. In both cases children first understand the world, then they imagine hypothetical worlds, then they are ready to actually create worlds. In the physical world this translates into action. In the psychological world this translates into dealing with other minds and trying to make them do what we want them to do (which includes the complex interplay of discussions, strategies, and even deceit and lies).

The key to learning is probability theory. Children act just like scientists. They perform experiments and then update their beliefs, each belief being weighed probabilistically. This is true of both facts about the world and facts about people. Gopnik concludes that statistical analysis is actually wired inside the brain. When Thomas Bayes formulated his theorem (the main building block of probabilistic reasoning) he had actually stumbled on a property of the brain.

However, the way children acquire their knowledge about the world is different from the way a scientist does because their brain works in a fundamentally different way. The adult brain regulates attention by inhibiting distractions and thereby "focusing" on something. The baby's brain is still lacking in inhibitory neurotransmitters and therefore absorbs everything that is going on rather than focusing on one particular aspect of reality. The adult brain can balance cholinergic and inhibitory neurotransmitters, whereas the baby's brain is dominated by cholinergic ones.


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