Awareness: Mystery of the Mind
By Mark K. Anderson
2:00 a.m. April 15, 2002 PDT
TUCSON, Arizona -- In the quest to make a brainpower computer,
perhaps the biggest mysteries remains the most nebulous: Where does
awareness come from? Can it be simulated? What does awareness by
itself look like?
While the first question remains unanswered, Rodney Brooks of MIT
presented new research on robot algorithms that mimic aware
behavior, which leaves open to interpretation whether it will pave
the road to machine consciousness or simply build a better parrot.
The third question has inspired new studies that coax consciousness
into the open, discovering that some heightened forms of awareness
continue after the mind falls asleep, while more rudimentary kinds
of awareness can even enter the mind through a temporarily blinded
At the latest Toward a Science of Consciousness conference, which
ended in Tucson on Friday, Brooks reported on his lab's latest
efforts to teach its robot, named Kismet, some basic protocols of
First, he said, came the task of finding every set of human eyes in
its field of view, so Kismet could follow the primary human medium
for sending cues. This was done by detecting any oval-shaped objects
with human skin tones and using geometrical models of faces to
isolate that face's windows on the world.
>From there, motion-detecting software -- combined with knowledge of
the laws of classical physics -- allowed Kismet to sense when an
object was ballistic and when it was guided by a conscious hand.
Algorithms such as these allowed the robot to perform basic
interactions, such as simulating short conversations with humans and
following a pointing hand toward the object it points at -- a task
that cat and dog owners know nature's programmers never quite
debugged for some species.
"Unlike neuroscience, where scientists are presented with an
existing object they have to study, we get to build these objects
and understand what we put into them," Brooks said.
Pure awareness, stripped of any corresponding mental state, does
present itself for study in humans, said Fred Travis of the
Maharishi University of Management. Travis reported on his recent
efforts to isolate patterns of brain activity in subjects who
regularly practice transcendental meditation.
"Can there be a sense of self without mental content, which is just
aware of its own structure without perception or thinking?" he
This state of consciousness in experienced meditators was
characterized by EEG data that Travis presented, which showed brain
patterns of wakeful awareness (so-called theta and alpha activity)
that appeared even when the subjects were in deep sleep.
These findings were also consistent with meditators' claims.
"Subjects report a permanent integration of transcendental
experiences with waking, sleeping and dreaming," Travis said.
Basic forms of awareness can be studied in the absence of conscious
awareness, said Randolph Blake of Vanderbilt University. He
presented a series of results involving subjects who were shown
different images in each eye.
The brain, when presented with an image from the left eye that's
completely different from the image in the right eye, cycles its
conscious attention between eyes. Thus, at a moment when one eye is
dominant, the images appearing before the other eye lie outside a
subject's visual consciousness.
This laboratory trick -- called "binocular rivalry" -- allows
researchers to provoke mental responses to changing images in one
eye, even though the mind may be focused on the input coming from
For instance, Blake summarized the results of a study in which
subjects watched a rotating pinwheel pattern and then trained their
sight on a still image that appeared to move. This optical illusion,
his lab found, could even be provoked when the spinning pinwheel was
only observed by the unconscious eye.
Subsequent studies, including brain-imaging studies, indicate that
the brain's more basic regions for visual processing (including the
primary visual cortex) handle these images, even though the
pinwheels are suppressed from a person's awareness.
Yet when the researchers presented the subjects' temporarily
"blinded" eye with images that required advanced visual or verbal
processing -- requiring more sophisticated tasks beyond the range of
the visual cortex -- they could not provoke unconscious awareness.
Blake said that binocular rivalry is a useful tool for probing some
of the rudiments of awareness, but the "knife is not sharp enough"
to slice into the root cause of awareness. To that end, he cited the
early 20th century psychologist William James.
"We know what consciousness is," James famously wrote, "as long as
no one asks us to define it."
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