Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Different Minds II (What it is like to be me)

Everyone generalizes from one example. At least, I do....
For me, consciousness comes with a narrator. It's a bit like watching a film with a voiceover. There's a visual field, which goes all around even though I only see a broadish oval cone of it at once, that's full of colour and movement, and there are sounds, which are usually associated with a specific direction or thing or with one of the people I can see. Sometimes there are other human voices, which are streams of words which often have associated with them feelings like "probably to the left" or "middle-aged middle class male". Or both. Other times there are foreign voices, which have the associated labels, but sound like babble.  With French, which I sort of speak, the streams of babble have occasional words in. If I concentrate on the French, then I hear babble with odd words in, and slightly later, some of the other words resolve, and meaning fragments and partial English translations come available (as separate things)

This bit is very like a film. It's more like a 3d colour multilingual film with very good surround sound and alas no subtitles, than a black and white silent, but it's very clearly the experience that cinema films are tending towards.

Which is odd, when you think about it. Because that's nothing like what the incoming information looks like, as countless eyeball-tracking and speech analysis experiments have shown.

But there's also a continuous narration that is a stream of words that are not in the outside, a "stream of consciousness". At the moment it's saying these words, very slowly as I type them. But if I stop typing then it carries on talking, thinking out the next sentence. I (the conscious perceiver) don't produce the words! I just listen to them.

If I like, I can direct the stream to the screen of my netbook. I can still hear the words, but they slow down a lot, and my fingers move in patterns I can't really perceive (just a flurry of movement, like watching a cloud of midges), and the words appear on the netbook screen.

Apart from the initial decision to start typing, this is nothing to do with me at all. I just watch the words appear. Sometimes I notice that one of the words is misspelled, or that I don't agree with what I've just written, so I backspace and do it again, hoping for a better result.

Sometimes I feel a sense of completeness, and at the same time I feel the little finger of my right hand stretch out to end the paragraph.

The narrator is always talking, whatever I'm doing.

I can stop the narration. If I do, then I become super-sensitive to the colors and sounds around me. But the state isn't stable. Even if there's no-one talking near me. I just tried it for a minute or so, and I watched a man walk past and noticed the articulation of all his joints as he walked, and heard the sound of his footsteps, and thought no words. But then there was a slight scraping noise off to the right hand side, (I am sitting in the blessedly silent Eagle), and I heard my voice say "the sound of a barrel". And then I started thinking again.

And if I somehow managed to hold the silent state stable, in an important sense "I" wouldn't be present any more. Nothing I'd call "thinking" would be going on. I'd just be sitting there waiting for alerts from various systems that monitor the world for sound and movement.

Of course I know that this can't be the truth. Sometimes I think about something (yesterday's mole problem is an example) for a while, can't think of the answer, forget about it for a bit, and then have a method of solution pop into my head by magic the following day (and it still took me an hour and a half to actually draw the diagram, even when I could already see how it was all going to pan out).

So a lot of the thinking must be unconscious, and I must have monitors set to alert me when some sub-process has found an important result. And presumably that doesn't stop when the narrator stops.

In fact, maybe the subprocesses can only work when the narrator releases the resources that it's using to narrate?

I wonder if it's possible to solve a problem by just sitting there deliberately not thinking and wait for the 'answer alert' to go off?

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