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"

Protoconsciousness

The US psychologist Stuart Hameroff advanced a theory of consciousness rooted in Physics. One of the big mysteries of evolutionary Biology is the sudden explosion of species during the Cambrian period. According to fossil records, life on Earth originated about 4 billion years ago, but for about 3.5 billion years it evolved very slowly, producing mainly single-celled organisms and a few simple multicellular organisms. Then, all of a sudden, in a rather brief period of 10 million years beginning about 540 million years ago (the Cambrian period), a huge number of different forms of life emerged. Biologists have always been puzzled by this sudden diversification of life.

One possible explanation would be the emergence of a feature that greatly enhanced adaptation and mutation. Hameroff thinks that it may have been the emergence of consciousness, that consciousness not only occurred early in the evolutionary path but it even altered the course of evolution. The idea is that behavior can indirectly alter genetic information, as already argued in 1958 by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schroedinger, by enabling organisms to survive and reproduce where non-intelligent organisms would simply die.

Cells contain a structure called “cytoskeleton”, which is made of a protein called "tubulin", which forms cylinders called "microtubules". According to the US biologist Lynn Margulis, microtubules and the cytoskeleton were created by symbiotic mergers more than a billion years ago. Simple organisms actually had to rely on the cytoskeleton for purposeful behavior. Having no synapses or neural networks, they relied on their cytoskeleton for sensation, locomotion and information processing. Cytoskeletal structures provided several services, including internal organization of the neuron, processing of information, communication. In summary, the cytoskeleton organizes intelligent behavior in simple organisms. Margulis thinks that consciousness was a property of even simple unicellular organisms of several billion years ago.

The cytoskeleton seems to play a particularly relevant role in differentiation. A cell's genes are activated and regulated by its cytoskeleton. Cytoskeletal cooperation among neighboring cells enabled differentiation and allowed different types of tissues to emerge. Then, higher order structures appearing with specific functions (organs) started appearing and these in turn enabled more purposeful behavior.

All of this depends on the cytoskeleton, which Hameroff thinks is the level at which consciousness is created. If that is the case, then rudimentary "conscious" events occurred the very moment the cytoskeleton became important for small organisms. Organisms began to experience feelings and make conscious choices.

 


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