2.2 Minds: 600 million to 4 million years ago

The Concerns of Animals

Animals are mobile. Mobile organisms need brains while sessile ones don’t. This point is so obvious it hardly needs to be said, but everything follows from it. Fungi are close relatives to animals that have evolved some highly specialized features that make them ideally suited to life under ground, and plants are arguably more evolved than fungi or animals because their cells can photosynthesize using chloroplasts. But they don’t need brains because they don’t move. They just sit tight and grow, making the best of whatever happens to them. Plants can afford to wait for food (i.e. sunlight) and mates (i.e. pollen) to come to them, but animals need to seek them out and compete for them. They need algorithms to decide where to go and what to do when they get there. The body must be controlled as a logical unit called an agent, and its activities in the world can be subdivided into discrete functions, starting with eating, mating, and sleeping (an activity most animals do for reasons still only partially understood). These can be subdivided further based on physical considerations, chiefly how to control the body and external objects, and functional considerations, chiefly maximizing survival potential by meeting needs and avoiding risks. Brains are the specialized control organs animals developed to weigh these considerations. Brains first collect information about their bodies and the environment from the bottom up but then fit that information into control algorithms that address discrete functions and control considerations from the top down. Top-down prioritization is essential to coordinate body movements and actions effectively. Let’s take a closer look at how animals evolved to get a better idea how they have met these challenges.

The last animalian common ancestor is called the urmetazoan, aka “first animal”, and is thought to have been a flagellate marine creature. The urmetazoan is important because, like the LUCA and LECA before it, an unknown but perhaps significant amount of animal evolution went into making the urmetazoan and an unknown but perhaps significant number of competing multicellular mobile forms were squeezed out by the metazoans (aka animals). Now we only see what got through this bottleneck. The surviving animals have differentiated into many branches with a wide variety of forms, so I will climb up through the animal family tree.

Sponges are the most primitive animals from a control standpoint, having no neurons or indeed any organs or specialized cells. But they have animal-like immune systems and some capacity for movement in distress.1. Cnidarians (like jellyfish, anemones, and corals) come next and feature diffuse nervous systems with nerve cells distributed throughout the body without a central brain, but often featuring a nerve net that coordinates movements of a radially symmetric body. Although jellyfish move with more energy efficiency than any other animal, a radial body design provides limited movement options, which may explain why all higher animals are bilateral (though some, like sea stars and sea urchins, have bilateral larvae but radial adults). Nearly all creatures that seem noticeably “animal-like” to us do so because of their bilateral design which features forward eyes and a mouth. This group is so important that we have to think of the features of the urbilaterian, the first bilateral animal about 570-600 million years ago. As I mentioned above, we now have evidence that the urbilaterian had eyes.

While the exact order in which the features of animals first appeared is still unknown, the centralized brain became the dominant strategy in most bilateral animals. A few exceptions to centralized control exist among the invertebrates, most notably the octopus (a mollusk), which has a brain for each arm and a central brain that loosely administers them. Having independent eight-way control of its arms comes in handy for an octopus because the arms can often usefully pursue independent tasks. Octopus arms are vastly more capable than those of any other animals, and they use them in amazingly coordinated ways, including to “bounce-walk” across the sea floor and to jump out of the water’s edge to capture crabs.

Why, then, don’t animals all have separate brains for each limb and organ? The ways function evolves is always a compromise between logical need and physical mechanism. To some degree, historical accident has undoubtedly shaped and constrained evolution, but, on the other hand, where logical needs exist, nature often finds a way, which sometimes results in convergent evolution of the same trait through completely different mechanisms. In the case of control, it seems likely that it was physically feasible for animals to either localize or centralize control according to which strategy was more effective. An example of decentralized control in the human body is the enteric nervous system, or “gut-brain”, which lines the gut with more than 100 million nerve cells. This is about 0.1% of the 100 billion or so nerves in the human brain. Its main role is controlling digestion, which is largely an internal affair that doesn’t require overall control from the brain.2 However, the brain and gut-brain do communicate in both directions, and the gut-brain has “advice” for the brain in the form of gut feelings. Much of the information sent from the gut to the brain is now thought to arise from our microbiota. The microbes in our gut can weigh several pounds and comprise hundreds of times more genes than our own genome. So gut feelings are probably a show of “no digestion without representation” that works to both parties’ benefit.34 The key point in terms of distributed control is that if the gut has information relevant to the control of the whole animal, it needs to convey that information in a form that can impact top-level control, and it does this through feelings and not thoughts. The highest level decisions of the animal need to be centralized so it can carry out coordinated plans.

So let’s consider how control of the body is accomplished in the other two families of highly mobile, complex animals, namely the arthropods and vertebrates. The control system of these animals is most broadly called the neuroendocrine system, as the nervous and endocrine systems are complementary control systems that work together. The endocrine system sends chemical messages using hormones traveling in the blood while the nervous system sends electrochemical messages through axons, which are long, slender projection of nerve cells, aka neurons, and then between neurons through specialized connections called synapses. Endocrine signals generally start slower and last longer than nerve-based signals. Both arthropods and vertebrates have endocrine glands in the brain and about the body, including the ovaries and testes. Hormones regulate both physiology and behavior of bodily functions like digestion, metabolism, respiration, tissue function, sensory perception, sleep, excretion, lactation, stress, growth and development, movement and reproduction. Hormones also affect our conscious mood, which encompasses a range of slowly-changing subjective states that can influence our behavior.

While the endocrine system focuses on control of specific functions, the nervous system provides overall control of the body, which includes communication to and from the endocrine system. In addition to the enteric nervous system (gut-brain), the body has two other peripheral systems called the somatic and autonomic nervous systems that control movement and regulation of the body somewhat independently from the brain. The central nervous system (CNS) comprises the spinal cord and the brain itself. Nerve cells divide into sensory or afferent neurons that send information from the body to the CNS, motor or efferent neurons that send information from the brain to the body, and interneurons which comprise the brain itself.

The functional capabilities of brains have developed quite differently in arthropods and vertebrates. I am not going to review arthropod brains in detail because vertebrates ultimately developed much larger brains with more generalized functionality, but arthropods are much more successful at small scales than vertebrates. It seems likely and appears to be the case that they depend much more on instinctive behavior than vertebrates. However, many can learn to adapt their behavior by learning about new features in their environment.5 Moving through the vertebrates on the way to Homo sapiens, first

fish branch off, then
amphibians, and then
amniotes, which enclose embryos with an amniotic sac that provides a protective environment and makes it possible to lay eggs on land. Amniotes divide into
reptiles, from which derive
birds (by way of dinosaurs), and
mammals. And mammals then divide into
monotremes (like the duck-billed platypus), then
marsupials, and then
placentals, which gestate their young internally to a relatively late stage of development. There are eighteen orders of placentals, one of which is
primates, to which
humans belong.

It seems to us that evolution reached its apotheosis (divine perfection) in Homo sapiens, and yet we all know that all species have had the same amount of time to evolve, so none should be “more evolved” than others. And yet, by almost any measure, brain power (viewed as a general capacity to solve problems) generally increases as one moves through the above branches toward humans. Furthermore, new brain structures appear along the way that help to account for that increase in power. Of course, the living representatives of each line above have evolved more brain power and new brain structures. Some birds, in particular, are smarter by almost any measure than some primitive mammals. But birds and mammals have specialized to many new environments, while fish, amphibians, and reptiles have mostly continued to occupy environments they were already well-adapted for. By comparison, fish haven’t had the need or the opportunity to evolve much more powerful brains than they have had for millions of years. The truth is, brain power has generally increased over time in all animal lines because evolution is not random, it is directed. It is not directed to more complex forms but to more functional forms. In animals, that functionality is most critically driven by the power of the top-level control center, which is the brain. So some species have made better use of the time they have had available to evolve because they have faced greater environmental challenges which have needed better control systems. But it is also worth noting that fish, amphibians, and reptiles are cold-blooded. Warm-blooded animals need much more food but can engage in a more active lifestyle in a wider temperature range. Also, warm-blooded animals can support more energy-dependent brains, making it easier for them to think more and faster.6

Let’s consider for a moment the differences in brain development among vertebrates. Fish and amphibians have no cerebral cortex, the outer layer of neural tissue of the cerebrum in the brain. The cerebral cortex is thought to be the principal control center of more complex behavior. Let’s just consider what some measures of brain and cerebral cortex differences among the animals suggest. Although neuron counts only provide a rough indication of brain power, they do suggest potential, so I have listed them for certain vertebrates:

AnimalTotal NeuronsCerebral Cortex Neurons
fish, amphibians 0.02 billion none
small rodents 0.03-0.3 billion 0.01-0.04 billion
cats, dogs, herbivores 0.5-2.5 billion 0.2-0.6 billion
monkeys 3-6 billion 0.5-1.7 billion
smarter birds 0.8-3 billion 0.8-1.9 billion
elephants 250 billion 6 billion
apes 10-40 billion 2.5-10 billion
cetaceans (dolphins, whales) ? 5-40 billion
humans 86 billion 16 billion

  • By total number of neurons, humans have substantially more at 86 billion than any animals except elephants and probably dolphins and whales.7
  • By total number of cerebral cortex neurons, humans have the most (about 16 billion), except that some whales may have more. Elephants have about 6 billion, which is only bested by cetaceans and primates.8

Consciousness as the Top-Down Logical Perspective

That the brain must control the body as a logical agent that pursues discrete tasks implies that it needs to maintain a top-down logical perspective about the world that defines it in terms of the functions it needs to perform. So, for example, it must distinguish its own body from that which is not part of its body, it must distinguish high-level categories like plant food, animal (prey) food, predators, members of the same species (conspecifics), relatives, mates, offspring, other plants and animals, terrain features (ground, water, mountains, sky, etc.), and so forth. While these are all things made from matter, they are functionally distinct to animals based on their expected interactions with them. It is more accurate to say that we define these things, and in fact all physical things, principally in terms of what they can do for us and only secondarily in more purely compositional or mechanical terms. However, brains can only gather information about the world outside them by looking for patterns in data collected from senses. So how can they maintain a top-down perspective when information comes to them through bottom-up channels? The answer is consciousness, aka the mind.

We can thus separate information processing into two broad categories, bottom-up and top-down:

  • Bottom-up processing finds patterns locally in data one source at a time
  • Top-down processing proposes functional units to subdivides the world

The brain manages these two kinds of processing through two logically-distinct subprocesses:

Technically, what we call the conscious mind comprises only our subjective awareness at one moment, including our current sensory perceptions, emotions, and thoughts, which have access to our short-term memory, which reputedly holds about four chunks of information and fades out after a few to at most thirty seconds. However, this is not the definition of consciousness I will be using in this book, as it is too narrow. While I do certainly mean current awareness and attention, I also include the scope of past and future awareness and attention. In other words, I also include the long-term memory that is reachable by consciousness. Technically, our long-term memory is part of our nonconscious mind, which also includes every other cognitive task that we surmise must be happening but of which we lack awareness. We infer the existence of the nonconscious mind by process of elimination — it is the tasks that need information processing that we can’t feel happen. Some nonconscious tasks are fundamentally outside the reach of conscious awareness, while others just don’t happen to be in our awareness right now, but we could bring them into consciousness if the need arose. In other words, they are within the scope of conscious processing. Conscious processing is structured around all the information that can be made conscious, not just around current information, which lacks sufficient context to accomplish anything by itself. So while memory itself is a nonconscious process, much of what we store in our memory is shaped by conscious processing. We have an excellent sense of its content, scope, and implications for our current thoughts even though we can’t pull much of it into our awareness at a time. Furthermore, the way we perceive our conscious thinking processes is, of course, part of consciousness, but that perception hides a lot of nonconscious support algorithms that we take for granted, which notably include recognition and language, but also many other talents whose mechanisms are invisible to us. Consciousness is coordinated using many nonconscious processes, and this makes it hard to say where one leaves off and the other begins.

My distinction based on the scope of conscious reach is sufficient to call the conscious and nonconscious minds distinct subprocesses, but they are highly interdependent so it would be overreach to label them independent subprocesses. All information in the conscious mind comes from the nonconscious mind, and, to the extent the conscious mind has executive power, the subconscious takes much of its direction from it. It is analogous to the CEO and other employees of a company. It has been estimated that 90 to 99 percent of mental processing is nonconscious based on neural activity10 but we can’t quantify this precisely because they blur into each other. Vision is processed nonconsciously for us in parallel. Each part of the image at a pixel-like level is simultaneously converted in real time from an input signal to an internal representation, which is then also often converted in real time into recognized objects. In addition to this nonconscious parallel processing of the input, our conscious perception of the output uses built-in (nonconscious) parallel processing because we can simultaneously see the whole image at once even though we feel like we are doing one thing at a time.11

Before going further, let me contrast “nonconscious mind” with the more commonly used term “unconscious mind” coined by Sigmund Freud. Freud’s unconscious mind was the union of repressed conscious thoughts that are no longer accessible (at least not without psychoanalytic assistance) and the nonconscious mind. He saw the preconscious, which is quite similar to what we now call the subconscious, as the mediator between them:

Freud described the unconscious section as a big room that was extremely full with thoughts milling around while the conscious was more like a reception area (small room) with fewer thoughts. The preconscious functioned as the guard between the two spaces and would let only some thoughts pass into the conscious area of thoughts. The ideas that are stuck in the unconscious are called “repressed” and are therefore unable to be “seen” by any conscious level. The preconscious allows this transition from repression to conscious thought to happen.12

Freud either didn’t contemplate or was not concerned with neural processing that happened below levels that could be understood were they to become conscious, repressed or not. Instead of the big room/reception area analogy, my nonconscious and conscious are much more like film production and finished movie — lots of processing with tools unfamiliar to consciousness is done to package information up in a streamlined form that consciousness can understand. In any case, the parts of the mind permanently outside conscious scope arguably don’t matter to psychoanalysts, but if they help explain how the conscious mind works they matter to me. In any case, the term unconscious also refers to a loss of consciousness, which can be confusing, so I will only use the term “nonconscious” going forward. Originally, Freud used the term “subconscious” instead of unconscious, but he abandoned it in 1893 because he felt it could be misunderstood to mean an alternate “subterranean” consciousness. It now persists in popular parlance as a synonym for intuitive, which is the word I will use instead to avoid any confusion.

To summarize, I am saying two different things about consciousness that don’t necessarily go together:

  • 1. Consciousness is one of two subprocesses in the brain, namely the one that works from the top down, and
  • 2. We are aware of consciousness (but not nonconsciousness).

This begs some bigger questions, namely, why does awareness exist, and why is it limited to the conscious part? The answer is that awareness is how consciousness maintains its top-down perspective. An agent must ultimately put one plan into effect: a cheetah decides to chase down a specific gazelle. But to do that, a myriad of bottom-up information must be condensed into relevant factors to create the top-down view. How can this information be condensed to a single decision while maintaining a comprehensive grasp of all the details, any of which might impact the next decision, e.g. to call off the chase? The answer is awareness and attention. Awareness simplifies bottom-up information into a set of discrete information channels called qualia, which I will discuss in the next section. Attention prioritizes qualia and thought processes to bring the most relevant factors into consideration for decisions. It is not a coincidence by any means, but the information processing that takes place to do this simplification of bottom-up data into top-down digestible forms is the same thing as conscious awareness. Awareness is just a specific kind of information processing, and it coincides with the consciousness subprocess (and not nonconsciousness) because it is the kind of processing that consciousness needs to do and is set up to do.

Consciousness feels like a theater because that is the approach to managing this information that works best. Once we recognize that this approach has been used, we can cite any number of good reasons why this approach evolved. Just from common sense, we know animals have to be aware and alert to get things done and to stay safe. Consciousness is clearly an extremely effective strategy for them. Of course, we can’t tell what consciousness feels like to them, but we can draw analogies to our own experience to see when and how they experience comparable sensory, emotional, and cognitive states. This does not mean that any top-level decision-making process, be it a computer program, a robot, or a zombie, would therefore have conscious awareness. The theater of consciousness is a user interface set up specifically to feed bottom-up information into a top-down algorithm that can continuously reassess priorities to produce a stream of decisions. The algorithms we associate with computers, robots, and zombies are just not in the same league of functionality as what animal minds do. We can’t even remotely imagine how to design such algorithms yet. But if we could devise such algorithms that used nonconscious and conscious subprocesses to take the same kinds of things into consideration for the same kinds of reasons to produce the same kind of stream of decisions, then it would be fair to say that it would have awareness comparable to our own. Could we instead design intelligent robots that are not conscious? Yes, undoubtedly, and we arguably have already started to do so, but it would not be a comparable kind of intelligence. Many tasks can be done very competently without any of the concerns that animals face.

Most of my focus in this book is on the processing done by the consciousness subprocess or for it by nonconscious processes because these are the aspects of the mind that matter the most to us. I’m going to take a closer look at these processes, starting with qualia.

Qualia – A Way to Holistically Manage Incoming Information

Living organisms are homeostatic, meaning they must maintain their internal conditions in a working state at all times. Animals had to evolve a homeostatic control system, meaning that it had to be able to adjust its supervision on a continuous basis. But it still needs to be able to fulfill tasks smoothly and efficiently and not in a herky-jerky panic. Karl Friston was the first to characterize these requirements of a homeostatic control system through his free energy principle.13 This principle says that a homeostatic control system must minimize its surprise, meaning that it should proceed calmly with its ongoing actions so long as all incoming information falls within expected ranges. Any unexpected information is a surprise, which should be bumped up in priority and dealt with until it can itself be brought back into an expected range. It would really be more accurate and informative to call it the surprise-minimization principle because it isn’t really about energy or anything physical at all. This principle says the control system must try to know what to expect, and, beyond that, it must also minimize the chances that inputs will go outside expected ranges. Animals have to follow this principle simply because it is maladaptive not to. Unlike machines we build, which are not homeostatic or homeostatically controlled, animals must have a holistic reaction strategy that can deal with control issues fractally, that is, as needed and at every level of concern.

Simple animals have simple expectations. Even a single-cell creature, like yeast, can sense its environment in some ways and respond to it. Simple creatures evolve a very limited range of expectations and fixed responses to them, but animals developed a broader range of senses, which made it possible to develop a broader range of expectations and responses. In a control arms race, animals have ratcheted up their capacity to respond to an increasing array of sensory information to develop ever more functional responses. But it all starts with the idea of real-time information, which is, of course, the specialty of sensory neurons. These neurons bring signals to the brain, but what the brain needs to know about each sense has to be converted logically into an expected range. Information within the range is irrelevant and can be ignored. Information outside the range requires a response. This requirement to translate the knowledge into a form usable for top-level control created the mind as we know it.

From a logical standpoint, here is what the brain does. First, it monitors its internal and external environment using a large number of sensory neurons, which are bundled into specific functional channels. The brain reprocesses each channel using a logical transformation and feeds it to a subprocess called the mind that maintains an “awareness” state over the channel that it ignores. These channels are kept open because a secondary process in the brain called an “attention” process evaluates each channel to see if it falls outside the expected range. When a channel does that, the attention process focuses on that channel, which moves the mind subprocess from an aware (but ignoring) state to a focused (attentive) state. The purpose of the mind subprocess is to collect incoming information that has been converted into a logical form that is relevant to tasks at hand so that it can prioritize and act so as to minimize future surprise. Of course, its more complex reactions complete necessary functions, and that is its “objective” if we view the problem deductively, but the brain doesn’t have to operate deductively or understand that it has objectives. All it needs to be able to do is convert sensory information into expected ranges and have ways of keeping them there.

Relatively simpler animal brains, like those of insects, use entirely instinctive strategies to make this happen. But you can still tell from observing them that, from a logical standpoint, they are operating with both awareness and attention. This alone doesn’t make their mind subprocess comparable to ours in any way we can intuitively identify with, but it does mean that they have a mind subprocess. They are very capable of shifting their focus when inputs fall outside expected ranges, and they then select new behaviors to deal with the situation. Do they “go back” to what they were dong once a minor problem has been stabilized? The free energy principle doesn’t answer questions like that directly, but it does indirectly. Once a crisis has been averted, the next most useful thing the animal can do to avoid a big surprise in its future is to return to what it was doing before. But for very simple animals it may be sufficiently competitive to just continually evaluate current conditions to decide what to do next rather than to devise longer-term plans. After all, current conditions can include desires for food or sex, which can then be prioritized to devise a new plan on a continuous basis. Insects have very complex instinctive strategies for getting food which often depend on monitoring and remembering environmental features. So even though their mind subprocess is simple compared to ours, it must be capable of bringing things to attention, considering remembered data, and consulting known strategies to prioritize its actions to choose an effective logical sequence of steps to take.

People usually consider the ability to feel pain as the most significant hallmark of consciousness. Insects don’t have nociceptors, the sensory neurons that transmit pain to the brain, so they don’t suffer when their legs are pulled off. It is just not sufficiently helpful or functional for insects to feel pain because their reproductive strategy is to make lots of expendable units. More complex animals make a larger investment in each individual and need them to be able to recover from injuries, and pain provides its own signal which is interpreted within an expected range to let the mind subprocess know whether it should ignore or act. Every sensory nerve (a bundle of sensory neurons) creates its own discrete and simultaneous channel of awareness in the mind. If you have followed my argument so far, you can see that what we think of as our first-person awareness or experience of the world is just the mind subprocess doing its job. Minds don’t have to be aware of themselves, or have comprehension or metacognition, to feel things. Feelings are, at their lowest level, just the way these nerve channels are processed for the mind subprocess. Feelings in this sense of being experienced sensations are called qualia. We distinguish red from green as very different qualia, but we could never describe the difference to a person who has red-green color blindness. The feelings themselves are indescribable experiences; words can only list associations we may have with them.

We don’t count each sensory nerve as its own quale (pronounced kwol-ee, singular of qualia), even though we can tell it apart from all others. Instead, the brain groups the sensory nerves functionality into a fixed number of categories, and the feeling of each quale as we experience it is exactly the same regardless of which nerve triggered it. Red looks the same to me no matter which optic nerve sends it. The red we experience is a function of perception and is not part of nature itself, which deals only in wavelengths, so our experience seems like magic as it is supernatural. But it isn’t really magic because there is a natural explanation: outside of our conscious awareness in the mind subprocess, the brain has done some information processing and presented a data channel to the mind in the form of a quale. The most important requirement of each sensory nerve is that we can distinguish it from all others, and the second most important requirement is that we can concurrently categorize it into a functional group, its quale. The third most important requirement is that we monitor each channel for being what we expect, and that unexpected signals then demand our attention. These requirements of qualia must all hold from ant minds to human minds, and, in an analogous way, for senses in yeast. But the detective and responsive range in yeast is much simpler than in ants, and that in ants is much simpler than in people. As we will see, the differences that arise are not just quantitative, but also qualitative as they bring new kinds of function to the table.

The way the brain processes qualia for us makes each one feel different in a special, customized way that is indescribable. More accurately, we can describe them, but words can’t create the feeling. One can describe colors to a blind person or sounds to a deaf person, but the meaning really lies in the experience. Where does this special feeling come from? The short answer is that it is made up. The longer answer is that everything the mind experiences is just information; the mind can only access and process information. But not all information is the same. Because the brain is creating complex signals for the qualia which are designed to let us instantly tell them apart, it has invested some energy in giving each of them a special data signature or “look and feel” which only that quale can produce. To some degree, we can remember that look and feel, but it is not as convincing or fresh as first hand experience of it. Synesthesia is a rare brain condition which allows some qualia to trigger other qualia. Most commonly, synesthetes who see letters or numbers or hear certain sounds then see colors or shapes they associate with them, or think of colors they associate with them. This indicates that some internal malfunction has allowed one quale’s channel to overlap or bleed into another. The overlap almost always goes beyond simple sensory qualia to include words, numbers, shapes or ideas, which suggests that other data channels feed these into our conscious awareness as well. But more to my point at hand, it suggests that the brain invents qualia but generally shields the mind from the details.

Our sensory perceptions provide us with information about our bodies or the world around us. The five classic human senses are sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Sight combines senses for color, brightness, and depth to create composite percepts for objects and movement. The fovea (the highest-resolution area of the retina) only sees the central two degrees of the visual field, but our weaker peripheral vision extends to about 200 to 220 degrees. Smell combines over 1000 independent smell senses. Taste is based on five underlying taste senses (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami). Hearing combines senses for pitch, volume, and other dimensions. And touch combines senses for pressure, temperature, and pain. Beyond these five used most for sensing external phenomena, we have a number of somatic senses that monitor internal body state, including balance (equilibrioception), proprioception (limb awareness), vibration sense, velocity sense, time sense (chronoception), hunger and thirst, erogenous sensation, chemoreception (e.g. salt, carbon dioxide or oxygen levels in blood), and a few more14. Most qualia are strictly informational, providing us with useful clues about ourselves or the world, but some are also dispositional, making us feel inclined to act or to take a position regarding them. Among senses, this most notably applies to pain, temperature, some smells, hunger, thirst, and sex. Dispositional senses are sometimes called drives.

We possess another large class of dispositional qualia called emotions that monitor our mental needs. If we recognize a spider or a snake, that is just a point of information, but if we feel fear, then we know we need to avoid it. Emotions give us motivation to act on a wide variety of needs. Emotions are metaperceptions our brain creates for us by forming perceptions about our conscious mental states. You could say our brain reads our mind and reacts to it. Our nonconscious mind computes what emotions we should feel be “peeking” at our conscious thoughts and feeding its conclusions back to us as emotions. It needs our conscious assessments because only the conscious mind understands the nuances involved, especially with interpersonal interactions. Emotions react to what we really believe, and so can’t be fooled easily, but thanks to metacognition we can potentially bring ourselves to believe things on one level that we don’t believe on another and so can manipulate our emotions.

If everything meets our default expectations, no emotion would be stirred because no further action is needed. But if an event falls short of or exceeds our expectations, emotions may be generated to spur further action. Negative emotions motivate us to take corrective action, while positive emotions motivate us to take reinforcing action. We may be aware of rational reasons to act (that ultimately tie back to motivations from drives and emotions), but reasoning lacks urgency. Emotion will inspire us to act quickly. Most emotions are intense but short-lived because quick action is needed. They can also be more diffuse and longer-lived to signal longer-term needs, at which point we call them moods.

We have more emotions than we have qualia for emotions, which causes many emotions to overlap in how they feel. The analysis of facial expressions suggests that there are just four basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, and anger.15 While that is a bit of an oversimplification, it is approximately true. Dozens of discernible emotions share these four qualia, but they affect us in different ways because we know the emotions not just by how they feel but by what they are about. So satisfaction, amusement, joy, awe, admiration, adoration, and appreciation are distinct emotions that all feel happy, while anguish, depression, despair, grief, loneliness, regret, and sorrow all feel sad, yet we distinguish them based on context. The feel of an emotion spurs a certain kind of reaction. Happiness spurs reinforcement, sadness spurs diminishment, fear spurs retreat, and anger spurs corrective action. Sexual desire has its own qualia that spur sex. So emotions that call for similar reactions can share qualia, and in some sense, an emotion can be said to feel “like” the action they inspire us to take. Fear and anger make us feel like doing something, happiness feels like something we want more of, and sadness makes us feel like pulling away from its source, which, in the long run, will help us overcome it. Wikipedia lists seventy or so emotions, while the Greater Good Science Center identifies twenty-seven16. Just as we can distinguish millions of colors with three qualia, we can probably distinguish a nearly unlimited range of emotions by combining the four to about twelve emotional qualia with an almost unlimited number of objects at which they can be directed. For example, embarrassment, shyness, and shame mostly trigger qualia for awkwardness, sadness, anxiety, and fear, but also correspond respectively to social appropriateness, comfortability around others, and breaking social norms.

Awareness and attention themselves can be said to have a custom feel to them and so can be called qualia. Awareness is informational while attention is dispositional. Their quality is just a sense of existence and interest, and so is not as specific as senses and emotions, but they are near permanent sensations in our conscious life. Qualia are the special effects of the theater of consciousness that make it feel “first-person” and so seamless and well-produced that we believe it shows us the world around us “as it really is”. We know that our visual, aural, tactile, and other sensory ranges are highly idiosyncratic and only represent a very biased view of the world around us, but because that view is entirely consistent with our interactions with that world, it is real for all intents and purposes. The world we are imagining in our heads counts as real if our interactions with it are faithfully executed. We recognize our senses can be fooled, and, more than that, we know that they fill in gaps for us to keep the show on the road, which invariably introduces some mistakes, but we also know we can reconfirm any information in doubt as needed.

  1. Matthew Cobb, “Why sponges are animals“, Why Evolution is True blog by Jerry Coyne, 2009
  2. The enteric nervous system can function pretty well even if the vagus nerve connecting it to the central nervous system is severed, see Function of the Vagus Nerve
  3. When Gut Bacteria Changes Brain Function, David Kohn, June 24, 2015, The Atlantic
  4. Pochu Ho and David A. Ross, More Than a Gut Feeling: The Implications of the Gut Microbiota in Psychiatry, Biol Psychiatry. 2017 Mar 1; 81(5): e35–e37. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2016.12.018
  5. Bee learning and communication, Wikipedia
  6. We don’t yet know how much of a role this advantage played in animal evolution. An ingenious hypothesis from Arturo Casadevall is that warm-bloodedness evolved as a near-perfect protection against fungal diseases, which plague cold-blooded animals. But whatever benefits drove warm-bloodedness, more capable brains are a result.
  7. List of animals by number of neurons, Wikipedia
  8. List of animals by number of neurons, Wikipedia
  9. Conclusions of the Research on Nonconscious Information Processing, Pawel Lick, Psychology Department, University of Tulsa, Tulsa, OK
  10. “An enormous portion of cognitive activity is non-conscious, figuratively speaking, it could be 99 percent; we probably will never know precisely how much is outside awareness.” (Dr. Emmanuel Donchin, director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Psychophysiology at the University of Illinois).
  11. My analogy to pixels is only meant to distinguish that the vision system processes details in parallel, not to suggest that anything as digital as a pixel is involved. Vision is more analog than that, and furthermore resolution and color is strongest in the center of the eye. Also, additional layers that distinguish shapes and objects intervene to help make the final image we see.
  12. Preconscious, Gillian Fournier, Psych Central, 2018
  13. Friston, Karl, The free-energy principle: a rough
    guide to the brain?
    , The Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, Queen Square, London WC1N 3BG, UK
  14. Other internal senses, Wikipedia
  15. New Research Says There Are Only Four Emotions, Julie Beck, The Atlantic, 2014
  16. Yasmin Anwar, How Many Different Human Emotions Are There?, Greater Good Science Center, Sep 8, 2017

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