Evolutionary advantage of consciousness

Evolutionary advantage of consciousness

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What possible theories are out there, regarding the evolutionary benefits of having consciousness? Why is not all information processing done subconsciously? Can it have something to do with language and communication? But then, a lot of animals can be considered to be communicating without "qualia".

EDIT: Some background. Philosophy student here. Recently ventured into reading a bit of genetics. Every aspect of life seems to be slowly evolved out of need, either survival or atleast survival till reproduction occurs. Consciousness, according to me, would be the constant "subjective experience" of our lives, the inner movie as they would say. My question, then, is why would a part of the brain be dedicated to generating an integrated coherent experience when zombie-like information processing could suffice? Did the ability of movement, along with certain cognitive skills, really make the upper mammalian habitat so unpredictable that genes had to adapt to "every-situation-might-be-a-new-situation" level of brain capacity? Has any biologist written about the evolution of intelligence (which is a precursor to the consciousness I'm talking about) corresponding to early humans?


I know little on the subject. I want to first express my personal views of the existing difficulties at answering this question and then I will attempt to give a short overview of the potential answers I could find.


Consciousness vs higher cognitive abilities

I personally find it hard to disentangle evolutionary advantage of consciousness from the ones linked to other cognitive abilities especially the social ones such as for example cooperative hunting, Machiavellian intelligence or advanced communication. I think a big part of the issue in this question is in the exact definition of consciousness.

So, a very important issue with the question is that 'consciousness' is not well defined.

Only few peer-reviewd papers on the subject

While there are a number of ressources in the non-peer reviewed literature (mainly books or popular articles) on the question, I could not find a lot of papers in the peer-reviewed literature. I suppose again that part of the issue that prevents much discussion in the subject is the absent of a commonly agreed upon definition of consciousness. Some of what I'm about to quote is not peer-reviewed and some are not written by biologists but philosophers.

Evolutionary psychology remains very theoretical

One would note as well that most work in evolutionary psychology remains mostly theoretical as it is often hard to perform meaningful empirical testing for the existing hypotheses.

Quoting for safety

As I often failed to make sense of what I just read(!), I will try to quote quite a bit to avoid misinterpreting other authors.


Definition of consciousness

I recommend having a look at Perlovsky (2007) for a semantic discussion (and opinion) on the concept of consciousness. Quoting their full abstract

The knowledge instinct is a fundamental mechanism of the mind that drives evolution of higher cognitive functions. Neural modeling fields and dynamic logic describe it mathematically and relate to language, concepts, emotions, and behavior. Perception and cognition, consciousness and unconsciousness, are described, while overcoming past mathematical difficulties of modeling intelligence. The two main aspects of the knowledge instinct determining evolution are differentiation and synthesis. Differentiation proceeds from and unconscious states to more crisp and conscious, from less knowledge to more knowledge; it separates concepts from emotions, Its main mechanism is language. Synthesis strives to achieve unity and meaning of knowledge; it is necessary for resolving contradictions, concentrating will and for purposeful actions. Synthesis connects language and cognition. Its main mechanisms are emotionality of languages and the hierarchy of the mind. Differentiation and synthesis are in complex relationship of symbiosis and opposition. This Leads to complex dynamics of evolution of consciousness and languages. Its mathematical modeling predicts evolution of cultures. We discuss existing evidence and future research directions.

Consciousness as a by-product

To my personal experience, consciousness is in general viewed as a by-product of the selection for specific cognitive abilities. Again, without much of a definition of consciousness it feels to me that selection for specific social skills, such as those requiring the Theory of Mind (ToM) would yield to increase consciousness.

If consciousness and ToM (and other related cognitive skills) are the same thing, then we got our answer, otherwise, the standard view is to consider consciousness as a by-product of the selection for those higher cognitive skills.

On the topic, see for example Judd (1910) (did I really cite such an old paper?) or Dennett (1980) (Dennett is a philosopher, not a biologist).

In the comments the OP said

To me, it feels either too complicated and inefficient or just a chance byproduct of "useful intelligence"

I would note that, if taken as an argument, then it would be a logical fallacy called argument from incredulity.

Consciousness as a result of higher social abilities

This opinion seems quite related to the previous one. Quoting from Ingold (2005)

Becoming a person is thus a matter of gathering social relations into the structures of consciousness: the movement in development, as Vygotsky put it, is 'not from the individual to the socialized, but from the social to the individual'

[… ]

as relationships unfold in the course of purposive social action, they are enfolded in the consciousness of persons, that is, in the structures of the self. The connection between social relations and consciousness should thus be understood in terms of unfolding and enfolding, rather than in terms of cause and effect

[… ]

This view of sociality, and the theory of direct perception on which it is founded, suggests that it is possible for persons to engage with one another on the basis of shared perceptual experience prior to the objectification of that experience in terms of collective representations encoded in language and validated by verbal agreement. Thus sociality is possible in the absence of both language and the kind of objective self-consciousness that (probably) depends on language

Conscioussness as result of the logistics of decision making

Quoting from Merker (2003)

Consciousness will be interpreted as a biological function evolved by mobile animals as a solution to neural logistics problems inherent in the control of orientation to their surroundings. The interpretation is motivated by the conspicuous absence from the contents of consciousness of two significant classes of information known to be present in brains, one on the afferent and the other on the efferent side of neural function. In fact, the thoroughness of their exclusion from consciousness suggests that their absence represents a design feature of consciousness providing important clues to its nature and biological function. This in turn helps constrain conceptions of its neural implementation as well as the search for its origin in the phylogeny of life forms

Why Do We Love? Evolution And Biology

Love is often shrouded in mystery. It is seen as a universal unknowable thing, driven by unseen, outside forces-at least by some. Others take a far more practical approach to love, and recognize it as a chemical-fueled interaction between two people, with an evolutionary design behind it. Still, for others, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Evolution certainly plays a role and biology is definitely involved, but love retains some mystery in how it happens, how it is carried out, and how it survives.

Love is often the subject of study. Love is the source material for countless art forms, and frequently catches the eye of scientists, sociologists, and psychologists alike, as it is a powerful motivator, and has been at the core of countless revolutions-and has also been claimed as the core of numerous wars. So what exactly is behind love?

A New Theory Explains How Consciousness Evolved

A neuroscientist on how we came to be aware of ourselves.

Ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution has been the grand unifying theory of biology. Yet one of our most important biological traits, consciousness, is rarely studied in the context of evolution. Theories of consciousness come from religion, from philosophy, from cognitive science, but not so much from evolutionary biology. Maybe that’s why so few theories have been able to tackle basic questions such as: What is the adaptive value of consciousness? When did it evolve and what animals have it?

The Attention Schema Theory (AST), developed over the past five years, may be able to answer those questions. The theory suggests that consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed. The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is right—and that has yet to be determined—then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species.

Even before the evolution of a central brain, nervous systems took advantage of a simple computing trick: competition. Neurons act like candidates in an election, each one shouting and trying to suppress its fellows. At any moment only a few neurons win that intense competition, their signals rising up above the noise and impacting the animal’s behavior. This process is called selective signal enhancement, and without it, a nervous system can do almost nothing.

We can take a good guess when selective signal enhancement first evolved by comparing different species of animal, a common method in evolutionary biology. The hydra, a small relative of jellyfish, arguably has the simplest nervous system known—a nerve net. If you poke the hydra anywhere, it gives a generalized response. It shows no evidence of selectively processing some pokes while strategically ignoring others. The split between the ancestors of hydras and other animals, according to genetic analysis, may have been as early as 700 million years ago. Selective signal enhancement probably evolved after that.

The arthropod eye, on the other hand, has one of the best-studied examples of selective signal enhancement. It sharpens the signals related to visual edges and suppresses other visual signals, generating an outline sketch of the world. Selective enhancement therefore probably evolved sometime between hydras and arthropods—between about 700 and 600 million years ago, close to the beginning of complex, multicellular life. Selective signal enhancement is so primitive that it doesn’t even require a central brain. The eye, the network of touch sensors on the body, and the auditory system can each have their own local versions of attention focusing on a few select signals.

The next evolutionary advance was a centralized controller for attention that could coordinate among all senses. In many animals, that central controller is a brain area called the tectum. (“Tectum” means “roof” in Latin, and it often covers the top of the brain.) It coordinates something called overt attention – aiming the satellite dishes of the eyes, ears, and nose toward anything important.

All vertebrates—fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals—have a tectum. Even lampreys have one, and they appeared so early in evolution that they don’t even have a lower jaw. But as far as anyone knows, the tectum is absent from all invertebrates. The fact that vertebrates have it and invertebrates don’t allows us to bracket its evolution. According to fossil and genetic evidence, vertebrates evolved around 520 million years ago. The tectum and the central control of attention probably evolved around then, during the so-called Cambrian Explosion when vertebrates were tiny wriggling creatures competing with a vast range of invertebrates in the sea.

The tectum is a beautiful piece of engineering. To control the head and the eyes efficiently, it constructs something called an internal model, a feature well known to engineers. An internal model is a simulation that keeps track of whatever is being controlled and allows for predictions and planning. The tectum’s internal model is a set of information encoded in the complex pattern of activity of the neurons. That information simulates the current state of the eyes, head, and other major body parts, making predictions about how these body parts will move next and about the consequences of their movement. For example, if you move your eyes to the right, the visual world should shift across your retinas to the left in a predictable way. The tectum compares the predicted visual signals to the actual visual input, to make sure that your movements are going as planned. These computations are extraordinarily complex and yet well worth the extra energy for the benefit to movement control. In fish and amphibians, the tectum is the pinnacle of sophistication and the largest part of the brain. A frog has a pretty good simulation of itself.

With the evolution of reptiles around 350 to 300 million years ago, a new brain structure began to emerge – the wulst. Birds inherited a wulst from their reptile ancestors. Mammals did too, but our version is usually called the cerebral cortex and has expanded enormously. It’s by far the largest structure in the human brain. Sometimes you hear people refer to the reptilian brain as the brute, automatic part that’s left over when you strip away the cortex, but this is not correct. The cortex has its origin in the reptilian wulst, and reptiles are probably smarter than we give them credit for.

The cortex is like an upgraded tectum. We still have a tectum buried under the cortex and it performs the same functions as in fish and amphibians. If you hear a sudden sound or see a movement in the corner of your eye, your tectum directs your gaze toward it quickly and accurately. The cortex also takes in sensory signals and coordinates movement, but it has a more flexible repertoire. Depending on context, you might look toward, look away, make a sound, do a dance, or simply store the sensory event in memory in case the information is useful for the future.

The most important difference between the cortex and the tectum may be the kind of attention they control. The tectum is the master of overt attention—pointing the sensory apparatus toward anything important. The cortex ups the ante with something called covert attention. You don’t need to look directly at something to covertly attend to it. Even if you’ve turned your back on an object, your cortex can still focus its processing resources on it. Scientists sometimes compare covert attention to a spotlight. (The analogy was first suggested by Francis Crick, the geneticist.) Your cortex can shift covert attention from the text in front of you to a nearby person, to the sounds in your backyard, to a thought or a memory. Covert attention is the virtual movement of deep processing from one item to another.

The cortex needs to control that virtual movement, and therefore like any efficient controller it needs an internal model. Unlike the tectum, which models concrete objects like the eyes and the head, the cortex must model something much more abstract. According to the AST, it does so by constructing an attention schema—a constantly updated set of information that describes what covert attention is doing moment-by-moment and what its consequences are.

Consider an unlikely thought experiment. If you could somehow attach an external speech mechanism to a crocodile, and the speech mechanism had access to the information in that attention schema in the crocodile’s wulst, that technology-assisted crocodile might report, “I’ve got something intangible inside me. It’s not an eyeball or a head or an arm. It exists without substance. It’s my mental possession of things. It moves around from one set of items to another. When that mysterious process in me grasps hold of something, it allows me to understand, to remember, and to respond.”

The crocodile would be wrong, of course. Covert attention isn’t intangible. It has a physical basis, but that physical basis lies in the microscopic details of neurons, synapses, and signals. The brain has no need to know those details. The attention schema is therefore strategically vague. It depicts covert attention in a physically incoherent way, as a non-physical essence. And this, according to the theory, is the origin of consciousness. We say we have consciousness because deep in the brain, something quite primitive is computing that semi-magical self-description. Alas crocodiles can’t really talk. But in this theory, they’re likely to have at least a simple form of an attention schema.

When I think about evolution, I’m reminded of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous quote, “Do what you can with what you have where you are.” Evolution is the master of that kind of opportunism. Fins become feet. Gill arches become jaws. And self-models become models of others. In the AST, the attention schema first evolved as a model of one’s own covert attention. But once the basic mechanism was in place, according to the theory, it was further adapted to model the attentional states of others, to allow for social prediction. Not only could the brain attribute consciousness to itself, it began to attribute consciousness to others.

When psychologists study social cognition, they often focus on something called theory of mind, the ability to understand the possible contents of someone else’s mind. Some of the more complex examples are limited to humans and apes. But experiments show that a dog can look at another dog and figure out, “Is he aware of me?” Crows also show an impressive theory of mind. If they hide food when another bird is watching, they’ll wait for the other bird’s absence and then hide the same piece of food again, as if able to compute that the other bird is aware of one hiding place but unaware of the other. If a basic ability to attribute awareness to others is present in mammals and in birds, then it may have an origin in their common ancestor, the reptiles. In the AST’s evolutionary story, social cognition begins to ramp up shortly after the reptilian wulst evolved. Crocodiles may not be the most socially complex creatures on earth, but they live in large communities, care for their young, and can make loyal if somewhat dangerous pets.

If AST is correct, 300 million years of reptilian, avian, and mammalian evolution have allowed the self-model and the social model to evolve in tandem, each influencing the other. We understand other people by projecting ourselves onto them. But we also understand ourselves by considering the way other people might see us. Data from my own lab suggests that the cortical networks in the human brain that allow us to attribute consciousness to others overlap extensively with the networks that construct our own sense of consciousness.

Language is perhaps the most recent big leap in the evolution of consciousness. Nobody knows when human language first evolved. Certainly we had it by 70 thousand years ago when people began to disperse around the world, since all dispersed groups have a sophisticated language. The relationship between language and consciousness is often debated, but we can be sure of at least this much: once we developed language, we could talk about consciousness and compare notes. We could say out loud, “I’m conscious of things. So is she. So is he. So is that damn river that just tried to wipe out my village.”

Maybe partly because of language and culture, humans have a hair-trigger tendency to attribute consciousness to everything around us. We attribute consciousness to characters in a story, puppets and dolls, storms, rivers, empty spaces, ghosts and gods. Justin Barrett called it the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device, or HADD. One speculation is that it’s better to be safe than sorry. If the wind rustles the grass and you misinterpret it as a lion, no harm done. But if you fail to detect an actual lion, you’re taken out of the gene pool. To me, however, the HADD goes way beyond detecting predators. It’s a consequence of our hyper-social nature. Evolution turned up the amplitude on our tendency to model others and now we’re supremely attuned to each other’s mind states. It gives us our adaptive edge. The inevitable side effect is the detection of false positives, or ghosts.

And so the evolutionary story brings us up to date, to human consciousness—something we ascribe to ourselves, to others, and to a rich spirit world of ghosts and gods in the empty spaces around us. The AST covers a lot of ground, from simple nervous systems to simulations of self and others. It provides a general framework for understanding consciousness, its many adaptive uses, and its gradual and continuing evolution.

The Biology of Mind and Consciousness

Difficult Questions – Different Answers!

The intriguing problem of mind and consciousness has historically defied proper scientific examination, and despite scientific advancement, two big questions are left largely unanswered: What is mind? What is consciousness? We know that we are conscious when we look at a rose, or when we listen to our favorite music, or when we taste our hot pasta. We may say that we can sense all these events of the external world by using our mental faculty called mind! By this way we become conscious of the world around us! But consider this: We are conscious in the wakeful state alright – but are we conscious during sleep, or in dreams, or in deep coma? Likewise, is a baby in the womb conscious of its surroundings? If yes, when did consciousness start? If no, at what stage does it start? Many more of such questions …

Look at the problem from an evolutionary angle. We can say that our dog is conscious of a luring piece of bone in the basket. We also know that a sparrow is conscious of a worm on a leaf. Take a step further down, is a caterpillar conscious of its prey? Perhaps it is! But now, look into this: We find no difficulty in saying that a creeper plant in your garden is not conscious of a pole standing by its side – but it can ‘sense’ the pole, reach for it and wrap around it. We can also say that an entamoeba landed on a glass-slide is not conscious of the event – but it can ‘sense’ the presence of a microscopic clump of RBC and move its pseudopodia towards it. Many more such questions here as well!

What are these myriad senses and how are they sensed? How can we unify all these vague phenomena and define human consciousness/mind in definite terms? What is that which holds back our scientific progress in this field? This blog post presents a novel approach to address this issue!

Consider this: the fundamental constituent of each of the phenomena which constitutes mind or consciousness is thought – the sensations as they are presented at our receptors are transmitted to the brain where they are converted into perceptions or thoughts. These thoughts form the core of human mind and the background of consciousness. Now we can say that, an understanding of the mechanism of generation of thought sheds more light upon the concept of mind/consciousness. The discussion below also shows that the only way to correctly understand the human mind is to study its evolutionary development!

The Biology of Thoughtproposes a new molecular mechanism by which the external world stimuli are converted into internal perceptions by the neurons, thus generating primary thoughts (described as the molecular-grid model in Chapters 4 through 8). The book also deals with scientific examination of the evolutionary development of mind and consciousness in Chapter 9 – which, at the end, culminates in a proper explanation of some difficult questions related to human psychology and intelligence – a rich dividend indeed!

This blog presents excerpts of Chapter 9.

The Four Basic Survival Functions

All life forms (including plants, animals and microorganisms) have a basic desire to live, and in order to cope with the surrounding environment, all life forms on the earth have to perform the following four basic survival functions:

  • They have to procure food
  • They have to protect themselves from predators
  • They have to grow in size
  • They have to procreate

In order to perform these survival functions all life forms need to sense their surroundings through external stimuli. They have to sense the presence of food in their surroundings in order to reach for it sense and detect their predators to avoid danger sense and recognize a suitable environment for them to grow and thrive sense and identify their mates to procreate and proliferate.

The stimuli may present themselves in any form of energy – light, heat, sound, chemical, mechanical, electrical, gravitational, magnetic etc. For example, in the case of microorganisms, they employ chemotaxis to reach for their food and mechanotaxis to avoid danger – if they sense favorable environment they proliferate, if not they sporulate. In case of plants they use phototaxis to reach for light as energy source, geotaxis to grow their roots down, hydrotropism to move to the source of water, thigmotropism to move towards support etc. Animals have special faculties to move around in search of food and mate, and to avoid danger – they may employ the usual stimuli like light, sound etc or they may engage special senses like ultraviolet detection, infrasound perception, echolocation etc.

Finally, in the case of the “versatile” human beings, they have the following recognizable senses – Special senses: vision (light energy), hearing (sound energy), smell, taste (chemical) and vestibular function (gravitational) General senses: touch, pain, pressure, vibration (mechanical energy), temperature (heat) and proprioception (? geomagnetic). However, humans have a complex interactive haptic perception of which we will not go into details now.

To summarize, all life-forms must be aware of their surroundings in order to execute their survival functions. This means that awareness is the characteristic feature of all life forms. Thus, we can say that:

Awareness is sensing the environment, and all life forms possess awareness

Evolution of Nervous System: In the case of animals (starting from coelenterates and worms to insects, reptiles, birds and mammals), they become aware of their external environment by the way of senses like touch, smell, vision, sound etc. Unlike in plants, animals receive signals from the environment, process them and store them in an organized fashion – this advanced form of awareness is possible only with the development of a specialized system called the nervous system. Thus all animals possess some sort of nervous system to perceive these sensations which enable them to move around in space more effectively and perform all the four basic functions. Thus, we can say that:

Perception is a neural form of awareness

Evolution of Consciousness: The characteristic feature of nervous system is not only to perceive but to hold these perceptions for some variable period – i.e. to form memory. Thus, all these animals are not only aware of their surroundings, but are capable of holding this awareness in memory for some time, and this memory helps them to navigate in their surroundings efficiently – even a snail needs some slight memory to move around in space. This sort of awareness stored in the nervous system as memory is consciousness. The animals now have become conscious of their surroundings (not just being aware of their surroundings like plants). A busy bee hovers over the flowers in a garden until they are empty of their nectar, and could fly to a distant garden in search of more flowers – which means that it is conscious of the next possible source a deer is conscious of its predators in the jungle a mother monkey is conscious of its baby monkey playing around, so on. Nervous system gave animals another leverage – the time-scale of responses to stimuli in case of plants is inexorably slow (e.g. phototaxis, geotaxis) whereas in animals nervous system made this stimulus-response phenomenon instantaneous which is essential for their survival. Thus, we can say that:

Memory is the cornerstone of consciousness, and all animals possess consciousness

As the complexity of the nervous system increases in animals, consciousness progresses into higher levels. The lower animals (e.g. insects) have only very short memory which works only to serve their immediate survival instincts. As animals become more advanced (e.g. reptiles, birds and lower mammals) their brain’s neural connections become increasingly complex, and the consciousness progresses to provide them with a longer memory and, more importantly, in a better organized fashion. Thus, as animals ascend in their phylogeny they become more capable of organizing their memory to perform the four survival functions – an “eyeless” earthworm can only move around in space and cannot have any further memory an insect like mosquito has a little more memory to repeat its actions over and over a bird like parrot can do far better in memorizing the events a mouse in a maze or a monkey in a predicament can store more details in their memory and surpass hurdles with their tricks. Thus, animals possess consciousness in improving degrees as they become more advanced.

Evolution of Mind: The nervous system in the more advanced mammals like elephants, dogs, tigers etc is much more complex, and the consciousness is much more advanced and can store much more memory. In fact, the memory in these advanced animals takes the form of a solid long-term memory which can be used to perform certain intelligent tasks. This advanced form of consciousness is the mind. Thus, elephants are not only conscious but they have minds of their own, so is the case with your pet dog. As we can see, the simple survival function of awareness in lower life forms has transformed into a complex mind in higher animals, and reached its zenith in the human beings in the form of intelligence.

Thus, it can be concluded that human consciousness and mind are epiphenomena of awareness (and awareness is nothing but perception itself!) – and have gradually evolved from lower organisms.

Further on, in the Chapter 9 of The Biology of Thought we will demonstrate how human mind is wholly dependent on external stimuli for its existence and explores the evolution of central executive and its relationship with human intelligence, and its importance in human psychology and psychosomatic disorders.

About the Author

Krishnagopal Dharani is a medical doctor practicing at Adoni, a large town in South India. He has graduated in medicine from Kurnool Medical College in Andhra Pradesh, and did his general surgery from Kasturba Medical College, Manipal, South Canara. He took his post-doctoral specialization in vascular surgery at the Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences, Hyderabad. He is presently holding the post of Specialist Civil Surgeon in AP Medical Services, and despite having a large surgical practice, he manages to split his time between his profession and his academic pursuits in science. The author can be contacted at [email protected]


I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about consciousness. Like many others in recent years, I assume that there is knowable explanation despite the subjective nature of the experience. Previously, consciousness was not considered a proper field of scientific study since it was considered absolutely intractable. Of course, by that standard the nature of stars and planets would have been considered outside the realm of science in Greek and Roman times. Not being a solipsist, I assume that not only are you conscious, but that consciousness is widespread in much of the animal kingdom, without ruling out the possibility it may occur in plants and individual cells. By consciousness, I’m not referring to intelligence but to a form of sentience–the ability to have experiences. More specifically to have feelings. Even more specifically, the ability to care what happens.

Many authors have wondered what the evolutionary benefit of having consciousness would be. If it were to have selective value, then one might expect the retention, spread, and increasing sophistication of these life forms as organisms with consciousness should perform better than competitors without it. Surprisingly to me, many of these authors have not been able to see an adaptive advantage of consciousness. I see two advantages, hence the title of this page: “The executive who cared.” [The business world implications are actually a good analogy–just wish I could make big money making a business training model of it!]. The advantages I see are:

  1. To deal with unexpected circumstances–this is the executive function. That is, despite thoroughly programming decisions for anticipated situations, it is always possible to encounter situations which were not anticipated during programming. The best approach in these cases can be to give the agent the ability to make its own decisions on the spot.
  2. To permit motivation–this is the caring function. Indeed, I believe that the ability respond to reward and punishment is the minimal definition of consciousness–that is, the ability to care. At present, it is not possible to punish or reward a computer and expect it to change its behavior–it really doesn’t care what you do to it. I suspect that the ability of an organism to have experiences (qualia) corresponds with its ability to care, which is linked with the ability to respond to reward and punishment. This is a type of learning, operant conditioning, though learning is a broader term, since non-caring computers can be programmed to learn. While non-caring workers (or machines) can perform very well, it is not hard to imagine that workers that do care about the task they are performing will often do a better job. Numerous business management books have been written about how to motivate workers–presumably to improve performance.

Perhaps it’s simplistic since I haven’t read this elsewhere, but determining the presence of sentience in an organism seems as simple as determining whether it can be trained by operant conditioning. That is, can it be trained to avoid punishment (can it be punished–is there something it doesn’t like?) or trained to seek rewards (can it be rewarded–is there something it likes?). However, I recognize that the inability to train an organism with operant conditioning doesn’t preclude sentience, since it could just be unable to learn or show a response.

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Evolutionary advantage of consciousness - Biology

One of my readers recently made the comment on my recent protopanpsychism re-post: ". it is not clear what the evolutionary advantage is of subjective states and therefore how they evolved."

To answer the question I will borrow a quote from neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman:


This confuses planning with consciousness. When Deep Blue beats Kasparov at Chess, it is planning but it is not conscious.

I have to agree with Random Stuff's comment. Further, there is growing evidence (using EEG and, more recently, fMRI) that decisions are made unconsciously, long before they are acknowledged consciously. See this New Scientist article for some fairly recent research.

The thing is, at the moment, no one really knows what consciousness is, or what it does. A speaker at last year's British Psychological Society annual conference argued that it is merely part of the perceptual process, and that its supposed control over decision-making is entirely illusory.

Whatever the truth, it seems impossible to speculate meaningfully on the evolutionary advantage of consciousness (or, for that matter, on whether it could still exist if the brain were simulated in different substrates) until such time as we have a better idea of what it actually does.

Evolutionary advantages of inter-subjectivity and self-consciousness through improvements of action programs (TSC 2010)

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Why do humans laugh? The evolutionary biology of laughter.

Teeth by Creatas/Thinkstock photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

On Jan. 30, 1962, three schoolgirls started giggling in a boarding school classroom in the northeastern corner of what is now Tanzania—and touched off a very strange epidemic. The three couldn’t stop laughing—and soon the uncontrollable cackles spread to their classmates. The laughing attacks lasted from a few minutes up to a few hours one poor girl reportedly experienced symptoms for 16 straight days. Victims couldn’t focus on their schoolwork, and would lash out if others tried to restrain them.

When 95 of the school’s 159 pupils had come down with what came to be known as omuneepo, the Swahili word for laughing disease, the school shut down. The students returned to their villages, taking omuneepo with them. The affliction spread from person to person, school to school, village to village. “The education of the children is being seriously interfered with and there is considerable fear among the village communities,” noted local medical officers in a 1963 report in the Central African Journal of Medicine. They could find no explanation for the matter. When the epidemic finally died down months later, roughly a thousand people had been struck by the “laughing disease.”

As part of our effort to understand what makes people laugh, we traveled to northeastern Tanzania, tracing omuneepo’s spread across the region more than a half-century ago. We tracked down teachers, students, and medical experts who experienced the phenomenon firsthand. We learned there was nothing funny at all about the situation at the time. The religious boarding school where the laughter began was marked by strict rules, windowless dorms, and devilishly uncomfortably chairs designed to promote correct posture. Investigators found similar conditions at other locations where the omuneepo later erupted: Serious overcrowding, poor food quality.

“It’s a form of complaint,” Kroeber Rugliyama, a longtime local psychiatrist said of the mysterious laughter. “They had no alternative form of expression.”

Laughter is a vexing subject even when it’s not spreading through the countryside like a virulent disease. Take the work of Robert Provine, a neuroscientist and psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. For his book, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, Provine engaged in what he called “sidewalk neuroscience,” tracking and observing real-world laughter. He and his collaborators used tape recorders to capture more than a thousand “laugh episodes” in bars, shopping malls, cocktail parties, and class reunions. And he had dozens of student volunteers note in a “laugh log” the circumstances around every time they tittered, chuckled, or guffawed.

The results were surprising, even to Provine: Less than 20 percent of the real-world laughter incidents he cataloged were in response to anything resembling something funny. Far more often, people were giggling or chuckling at innocuous statements such as “I’ll see you guys later,” “I see your point,” and “Look, it’s Andre!” What’s more, in all of these cases, the person who produced the laugh-provoking statement was 46 percent more likely to be the one chuckling than the person listening. And while laughter might seem like something that can erupt at any point in response to something funny, in only eight of the 1,200 laugh episodes Provine cataloged did the laughter interrupt what somebody was saying. Instead, 99.9 percent of the time, laughter occurred in tidy, natural breaks in the conversation, punctuating the speech like a period or exclamation point.

Provine discovered that the laughter of our everyday lives isn’t for the most part in response to anything resembling jokes. Instead, most of it occurs in conversations that, out of context, don’t seem funny at all. Provine’s discoveries suggest that laughter is inherently social, that at its core it’s a form of communication and not just a byproduct of finding something funny. Sure enough, when Provine went through the laugh logs he’d collected, he found his participants were 30 times more likely to laugh in the presence of others than when they were alone. Among the few solitary instances of laughter, nearly all occurred in response to TV shows or other media—that is, electronic proxies for other people. When people noted in their journals that they were truly alone, they hardly recorded any laughter at all.

So why would we have evolved the odd and powerful vocal mannerism of laughter? Why do we have an innate need to share what we find funny with others, and why can it can resemble an out-of-control disease?

Evolutionary theory is rife with possible explanations, but one of the most compelling was put forward in a 2005 Quarterly Review of Biology article by an undergrad named Matthew Gervais and his adviser, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. It’s based on the efforts of a quirky 19 th -century French physician named Guillaume Duchenne, who went around zapping people’s faces with electrodes. Luckily for Duchenne, he worked at an old woman’s hospice, so he had access to a lot of prone bodies. He must have been quite the charmer. According to articles on Duchenne, all the ladies wanted to be electrocuted by the “little old man with his mischief box.”

Applying the prongs of his box to people’s faces, Duchenne evoked one kind of smiling—the voluntary kind, the type of expression we produce when we a grin to be polite. This mannerism, he discovered, involves the face’s zygomatic major muscles raising the corners of the mouth. But Duchenne discovered there was a second variety of smiling and laughing, one that occurs when we find something truly entertaining or funny. This expression was more complex, utilizing both the zygomatic major muscles and the orbicularis oculi muscles that form crow’s feet around your eyes. It’s why people say a real smile is in the eyes. Duchenne was never able to reproduce with his electrodes this second form of expression—now known as a Duchenne smile or Duchenne laughter—and he came to believe it was “only put at play by the sweet emotion of the soul.”

More than a century later, Gervais and Wilson saw Duchenne’s discovery as evidence that laughter evolved at two different points in human development. First, they posited, at a point sometime between 2 million and 4 million years ago, came Duchenne laughter, the kind triggered by something funny. An outgrowth of the breathy panting emitted by primates during play fighting, it likely appeared before the emergence of language. This sort of laughter was a signal that things at the moment were OK, that danger was low and basic needs were met, and now was as good a time as any to explore, to play, to socialize. “What the humor is indexing and the laughter is signaling is, ‘this is an opportunity for learning,’” Gervais told us. “It signals this is a non-serious novelty, and recruits others to play and explore cognitively, emotionally and socially with the implications of this novelty.”

But then, sometime in the hundreds of thousands of years after that, theorized Gervais and Wilson, the other sort of laughter emerged—the non-Duchenne sort, the kind that isn’t dependent on something being funny. As people developed cognitively and behaviorally, they learned to mimic the spontaneous behavior of laughter to take advantage of its effects. They couldn’t get it right—they couldn’t simulate the eye-muscle movements of real laughter and smiling—but it was close. Mimicked laughter was a way to manipulate others—sometimes for mutually beneficial purposes, sometimes for more devious reasons. As Gervais and Wilson put it in their paper, “non-Duchenne laughter came to occur in aggressive, nervous, or hierarchical contexts, functioning to signal, to appease, to manipulate, to deride, or to subvert.”

Laughter, in other words, is more than just a response to humor. It’s a primal human tool, one of the building blocks of society. It taps into the core of what we are as social creatures, expressing from one person to another what often cannot be said in any other way: either that everything is in good fun—or, as in the case of omuneepo, that something is very, very wrong.

Is there an evolutionary advantage to actually experiencing consciousness as opposed to being 'intelligent' but non-sentient?

On the face of it, it might seem obvious that being conscious and having subjective experiences such as thoughts and emotions would be beneficial from an evolutionary standpoint. For instance, if you encounter a predator, you might have an emotional response of fear, and this unpleasant feeling will motivate you to avoid the predator, ensuring your survival. However, couldn't a 'human equivalent' creature have all the neurological framework to prompt them to run away from a predator, without actually producing a feeling of fear, or any other emotion?

Similarly, our ability to think, reason, and store memories benefits us because we can plan ahead to ensure our survival in the long term. But I have heard it said that much if not all of our behaviour is caused by activity in the brain which takes place without conscious awareness, and the sophistication of modern day AI seems to suggest that beings can interact with their environment, makes decisions, learn, and store memories without having sentient experiences, feeling emotions, or possessing a sense of self.

So would there be an evolutionary advantage to being conscious? Or is it possible that, under slightly different circumstances, a species which behaved in a very similar way to humans but did not experience consciousness, feel emotions, have thoughts, or otherwise possess any of our subjective sense of internal experience, could have evolved in our place and come to dominate the planet?

What Brains Are For: The evolutionary advantage of consciousness

Some philosophers and neuroscientists worry about the need of brains. However, it is increasingly clear that the fundamental role of brains is to serve motion. Locomotion is a defining characteristic of animals as opposed to plants, and particularly so of humans.

Albert Gjedde will talk about why useful motion requires a plan that is derived both from a review of actual past reactions and a preview of possible future reactions to instances of the same movements. Decisions based on such an evaluation presumably improve the chances of ultimate reproductive success and reduce the risks of reproductive failure.

Review and preview both take place in conscious space and interestingly presume the existence of free will, subjectivity, and communication, the three elements of "agency" that underpin the ability of humans to use their brains to consciously impose a program of rational modification and improvement on the material world. The mystery is how agency can be understood without an unsatisfactory recourse to metaphysics.

After the lecture SØS Gunver Ryberg will present some of her sound works. Her universe of sound consists of field recordings and electronic sounds which transform into strong physical music. Reality raw sound framed by almost symphonic forms which acquire a unique expressivity with an insistent prospective timing.

And if you like this brain stuff, then you'll also like John Gray's "Straw Dogs" and Raymond Tallis' "Aping Mankind".

Organised by the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen.

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Performances of Self-Awareness used to explain the Evolutionary Advantages of Consciousness

The question about evolution of consciousness has been addressed so far as possible selectional advantage related to consciousness ("What evolutionary advantages, if any, being conscious might confer on an organism ? "). But evidencing an adaptative explanation of consciousness has proven to be very difficult. Reason for that being the complexity of consciousness. We take here a different approach on subject by looking at possible selectional advantages related to the performance of Self Awareness that appeared during evolution millions of years before consciousness as we know it for humans. The interest of such an approach is that the analysis of selectional advantage is done at an evolution step sigificantly simpler that the step of Human Consciousness. We analyse how evolutionary advantages have resulted from this specific Self Awareness step. This is done by taking into consideration the possibility for a subject to identify with a conspecific at this level of evolution. We use the results made available by Mirror Neuron researchs where intersubjectivity and some level of identification with conspecifics have been evidenced for non human primates. Selectional advantages related to Self Awareness are analysed two ways: - Reformulating the performances of imitation and of development of language. - Showing that Self Awareness within group life can naturaly produce an important increase in fear/anxiety for a subject, and that the means implemented by the subject to overcome this fear/anxiety can act as significant evolution advantages opening the road to Human Consciousness. Such approach brings new elements supporting the view that consciousness is grounded in emotions. It also proposes some more evolutionist explanations to the widely dicussed subject of Empathy (S. Preston & F. de Waal) in terms of specific behaviour implemented to limit fear/anxiety increase. This approach also provides some explanation for limited anxiety within dolphins and introduces a basis for a possible phylogenesis of emotions.

Watch the video: Dawkins on the evolutionary advantage of religious belief (December 2022).