The emergence of consciousness

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly


We sometimes feel that we have reached an impasse and need a breath of fresh air to keep going. Words are powerless without a final resolution. Our heart measures time; our brain harbors consciousness, and our body moves through space. Weighted down by the material universe, we think of time and consciousness unworthy of our immediate concern. David Bohm might agree with Samuel Alexander on the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of an artist’s creativity. In our attempt to explain any creative process, we have come to understand that the train of thoughts and the flow of words as well as their association with each other influence the way any subject is discussed or pursued to a more or less unpredictable outcome.


..the discovery of new ideas may typically require a quantum-like, general, even non-logical thinking process, while their justification has to take place in the “classical limit of thought" and make use of the logical thinking process

Paavo Pylkkänen


That which feels, where is it? There is no consensus on the level at which consciousness appears. It may be the result of classical, chemical, and electrical interactions between neurons or arise within cellular structures inside neurons via quantum coherence or even a combination of both.  A model that would establish a relation between states of experience and the quantum universe stems from the fact that there appear to be resemblances between quantum processes and thought processes. In particular, microtubules that are found in almost all eukaryotes and some prokaryotes have been suggested to play an essential role by Penrose and Hameroff. It is often argued that consciousness is limited to large brains and a few living species because only when an animal possesses enough microtubules (or a large enough brain) could it give rise to consciousness in a relatively short and realizable period of time. Among the most recent undertakings, a Functional Modeling Framework proposes to define the criteria for a model of consciousness. 


All that glitters in the brain


The context-dependence of properties in a quantum system affects the superposition and collapse of the wave function, that is when Consciousness comes into play.  David Bohm underlined the indivisible nature of a quantum system. I understand that the collapse of one particle has an effect on the entire system. Could a model of consciousness test the relationship between the conscious experience and the behavior of a quantum system?  In the end, writes Paavo Pylkkänen in a 2014 paper,  we use the thinking process to explain the thinking process, so there is an intrinsic circularity, to begin with. If we are, psychologically, quantum-theoretical beings, he adds, then by being familiar with ourselves, we may be familiar with quantum effects.


Others hypothesize that consciousness emerges from entangled atoms within molecules in the brain or it has to do with photons and photoreceptors. Once the photon is delivered to its photoreceptor, the entangled wave function collapses, and the visual awareness starts to emerge. A ‘quantum Goldilock effect’ -- analog to the fine-tuning -- has been recently proposed, suggesting that the interplay between noise and temporal quantum correlations leads to an increase in the system’s efficiency. 


That something that feels may be a form of ‘proto-cognition’ or ‘proto-will’. I could not say whether we’re talking about panprotopsychism, panexperentialism, or micropsychism. There appear to be varieties of panpsychism that are the subject of many papers and studies today. Modeling frameworks would allow the opportunity to test them. The first step of a conscious experience is feelings. Those are ubiquitous. It is what comes next that creates an irreversible distinction in temporality. William Seager raises the possibility that there is no radical or ontological emergence but an intelligible relation that holds between ’mental components’ and the resulting aggregative state.


What is required of a clump of matter for it to have an experience of something, for it to have a perspective on the world? The new millennium’s theoretical challenges to anthropocentric thought urge us to respond to this question.

Alexander Wilson


Could consciousness be paired with other physical forms of communication abilities? Some may defend a more standard view of the Universe for the reason of conceivability, but conceivability is a concept subject to the extent of our current knowledge. In the end, we remain unsure at what level consciousness emerges and continue to debate whether  ‘proto-cognition’ or ‘proto-will’ is real.  Could it be that it isn’t that consciousness is solely confined within our body, but that the human brain is a transmission box of communication specific to us, the human species? Other transmission models of communication include those in blue whales that have “ten times as many neurons as we do devoted to picking up sounds below 100 Hz”*. Dolphins perceive sounds with a frequency eight times higher than ours. A migrating bird with its light-sensing cells in the eye and its quantum sensor sees the Earth's magnetic field. Cephalopods represent an island of mental complexity in a sea of invertebrate animals. They have developed a large brain and adopted a complex behavior on a branch of the phylogenetic tree, separate from ours. And bees can communicate with each other, through a dance, about the location and quality of a distant food source. Human consciousness appears to be a more integrated, coherent, and unified form of subjective experience. What may be even more disconcerting to us is why some of the other minds have such a short life span. And so is our fate compared to the life of a star.



Poets are tamers of imagination. For them, the Universe is a poem and humankind, a forest of walking brains. Cosmic consciousness is a shadow trapped inside the Universe shaped like a dodecahedron with flat mirrors reflecting endlessly. The octopod-like consciousness propels its eight-fold appendages suitable for feeling and seeing to explore the cavernous empty space. While human consciousness may be a by-product in the evolution of life,  sufficiently complex networks, whether they be ecological, cosmological or even social or artificial, may have become conscious. Could there be extra physical dimensions where consciousness lies? If consciousness is a multiscale phenomenon, are multiscale emergent phenomena common in nature? Cosmic consciousness may be twofold. On the one hand it is, I believe, the inner resonance box that connects us with our surroundings. On the other hand, beyond our conscious experience and that of other organisms, forms of consciousness have emerged and integrated complex physical systems through experience-sharing, fusion, and phenomenal bonding, all of the ways that have triggered in ourselves neural plasticity. 



As I recall, astrophysicist Franco Vazza and neuroscientist Francesco Izzo attempted a comparative study between galactic networks and neural networks. Preliminary results tend to show that the human neural network and the cosmic web are remarkably similar. According to the Integrated Information Theory,  a system is conscious only to the extent that its parts act in a seemingly indivisible and unified way. As it turns out, even sand dunes can interact with each other.


aqueous dunes interact over large distances without the necessity of exchanging mass. Interactions are mediated by turbulent structures forming in the wake of a dune, and lead to dune-dune repulsion, which can prevent collisions.

Wake Induced Long Range Repulsion of Aqueous Dunes


My mind imagines quantum interactions leading to molecular reactions, the Earth as one physical entity, and the Universe a place where consciousness emerges at the molecular level even in stars. Swarm intelligence means the pooling of individually acquired knowledge, a sort of collective consciousness of a group, a population, the universe quite simply. Do the chains of salps swamping Antarctic waters have a mind of their own? A theory of everything, which includes a theory of consciousness, involves the study of how consciousness, spreading branches on its own phylogenic tree, evolves beyond the brain.


The emotionality of the natural world is not a metaphor. It is not a projection from the symbolic repertoire of our cultural history, nor an arbitrary thought, but the inside, the existential side of the natural world’s biological functioning.

Andreas Weber


*Caspar Henderson, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary

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