Written ‘A while back’, by Barney Low

This was written a while back to try and summarize and present some concepts I was introduced to by an fascinating book on consciousness (Going Inside, by John McCrone). Please feel free to comment or correct.

Each instant of consciousness is the result of intense competition between the firing of neurones representing different facets of our mind, with some representing long term memories, objectives and desires, others the raw sensory input of the moment, and others still continuing to fire from the previous instant of consciousness. The thought, sensation or emotion that is potentiated is selected based on the frequency of its firing and its synergy with others that fired along with it, with neurones that fire for the abstract concept of a tree being more likely to fire off when preceded with the firing of subjectively linked ideas, such as forests or nature.

When the victor of this competition is pain, such as when we tread on a pin whilst dancing in our pyjamas, that instant of consciousness will be dominated almost completely by a redirecting of awareness to the overriding stimulus: making us aware of the noxious stimuli, diverting our gaze to the source of the pain as reported by our proprioception, and alerting us to the fact that we have instinctively pulled our foot away.

If we are aware of incoming pain, such as when we are given an injection by a doctor, our mind is primed to suppress the reflex withdrawal and perhaps even anger that would normally result from the sensory stimuli we are subjected to. Here is an example of where the higher cognitive levels of the frontal lobes associated with planning might become involved, interacting and modulating the more primal and reflex orientated aspects of our brain’s functions in preparation for the instants to come. We might even be able to continue a stream of verbal or internal dialogue with our friendly doctor (or our disgruntled complaining self); ensuring by concentrating and the suppression of other input, that the chain of neuronal firing responsible for producing logical sentences is not interrupted from one instant to the next.

This continuity is an essential feature of our conscious experience, with our more recently active (or generated) neuronal networks firing off with greater frequency than less relevant neurones, which might for example represent our mind’s map of our primary school or the visual stimuli of a long lost toy. Examples of this continuity in action would be the continual firing of a neurone representing anything from the earlier content (or the general gist) of a friend’s tale as they expand into gory details, to recalling which seat at the dinner table is our own. This form of recall is essentially what is known as ‘working memory’, and I will go on to discuss how the brain might be able to potentiate the raw content of a moment in a more long term form in another spiel.