BIOLOGY / PSYCHOLOGY OF CONSCIOUSNESS: A CIRCULAR PERSPECTIVE

By Jane Cull and Massimo Bondi

It is generally accepted by the mainstream that there is an entity inside the body, distinguished as the self, that is doing perception and language. The assumption is that the self is conscious and is located in the head, the brain specifically, where information of an external reality is stored and processed. The mind is responsible for ‘memory’ and ‘thinking’, and representations, words and pictures are believed to be floating around in the brain and the nervous system. Furthermore, areas of the brain have been pinpointed as definitive reference points, locations, where phenomena such as perception and language are said to be taking place, usually distinguished in either the left or right hemisphere of the brain.

This view implies that there is a separation between the mind (brain) and body. The body is associated with emotions, which are often denied or minimized in western culture. In this paper we show that there is another way of understanding human experiencing. It is an understanding that is natural, circular, and systemic, that enables us to see how we experience consciousness and being conscious as a result of biological circular, cyclical processes. It is an understanding of how we are as biological living systems. It is a view that is consistent with how nature and the cosmos operate as a vast interconnected and interrelated whole.

We are living systems. All living systems/organisms operate according to their structures, according to their components and the relations among them: how they are made or put together. This is called structural determinism. It is the structure that determines what the living system does. Thus, the structure of our bodies and every other living organism operates as a vast interconnected network of activity among the components and their relations. It operates as a unified and interconnected whole.

In order for the biology to operate in that way, a boundary or closure is needed, because it is the boundary that holds the components and their relations, the structure, of any living or non-living system together. As such, the boundary is like a container. For example, if we look at any organs (heart, liver, kidneys etc), muscle and bone structures, arteries, veins, dendrites, axons, cells, molecules, particles and atoms, they all have one thing in common and that is boundaries. Without the boundary, the structure of any component would fall apart.

Moreover, a living system could not co-exist, change and adapt with its medium or environment without a boundary. An interface or surface is needed between the structure of a living system and the medium in order for the living system to operate and move as a totality. That is, the living system could not interact and adapt in congruence with the medium, without a surface or boundary because that is where we see change and adaptation taking place, at the boundary.

The boundary is not a surface of separation between the organism and the environment, on the contrary. The boundary is a relational surface between the operation of the structure and the medium, environment. It is a sensory/motor surface that is triggered, perturbed, in interactions with the medium. It is a surface that is always coupled with the medium, environment, whilst the organism, living system is alive. This is where we see changes (adaptation) in patterns of behavior in recurrent interactions with the medium, environment, taking place, i.e. at the surface or boundary. This process of change and adaptation, where the organism’s structure changes and adapts with the environment in recurrent interactions, is distinguished as structural coupling.

In The Tree of Knowledge, Maturana & Varela, 1992, define structural coupling in the following way. “….it will become clear to us that the interactions (as long as they are recurrent) between unity [organism] and environment will consist of reciprocal perturbations. In these interactions, the structure of the environment only triggers structural changes in the autopoietic unities (it does not specify or direct them), and vice versa for the environment. The result will be a history of mutual congruent structural changes as long as the autopoietic unity and its containing environment do not disintegrate: there will be a structural coupling.

The boundary, the extension of the network and the structure (the components and their relations) are created through the processes of autopoiesis or cellular, molecular self production.

Francisco Varela described this process in his paper on “The Creative Circle: Sketches on the Natural History of Circularity (1984).” There he states that the specification of boundaries is accomplished through molecular productions made possible through the boundaries themselves. There is what he termed a “mutual specification” between chemical transformations and physical boundaries.

Varela pointed out that a cell distinguishes itself from the surrounding “molecular soup” only by means of creating boundaries that set it apart from what it is not. If the boundary production process is interrupted, the cellular components cease to be a unity and they gradually diffuse back into the soup. He emphasized the importance of the closure of these operations in the following diagram and quote.

Figure 1. Redrawn fromVarela, 1984

“This configuration is the key: closure of operations whereby the products are in the same levels as productions. In fact, without this organization, the usual distinctions between producer and product, beginning and end, or input and output cease making sense.”

In understanding these dynamics at the cellular level, we can begin to see that the components and their relations that constitute the brain and the nervous system also arise through the same processes of autopoiesis.

The brain has a surface, a membrane or boundary. Moreover, the membrane or boundary of the brain enables the components and their relations to operate as a vast interconnected network. They are all interrelated as a result of the processes and dynamics of autopoiesis. In this way, as Humberto Maturana (1978) has noted, “neurons exhibit properties common to all other cells” including the capacity to be perturbed.

These processes and dynamics can also be seen in the work of Bondi and Bondi. They have distinguished a channel like structure referred to as the USC, (Unified Synaptic Channel).

(Please Note: This image does not appear in the published version due to lack of space. The image has been included here as a visual understanding for the reader.)

This channel, a densely looped labyrinth, extends over the entire cortex of the brain. The USC is considered as a “virtual space” (200 Angstrom, equivalent of 1/50 of a micron) and arises as a formation through synaptic fissures merging together. Through this merging, the neurons, 100 billion of them”, form a boundary or surface, like a riverbed of a stream. The synapses, interneuronic connections in the cerebral cortex of both hemispheres, add up to about to one million times a thousand million. It has been calculated that if we count a synapse per second, it would take 32 million years to come to the end of the count.(!)

In the model proposed by Bondi & Bondi (1997), the totality of molecules present in each synaptic fissure in any given instant follows their diffusion along the USC. In more detail, they saw that molecules can bond with the appropriate receptors present on the post-synaptic membrane as well as being reabsorbed by the pre-synaptic and glial membranes or else they could stream at a very slow pace. This pace if compared with the speed of synaptic impulse transmissions along the ‘ribbon’, the USC, where the molecules become connected with nearby or even further away synapses where they could instantly become involved in impulse regulation. Thus, the constant flow of changing molecular concentrations along a formation such as the USC could determine a subtly regulated transmission of all incoming pre-synaptic impulses, thus, giving rise to a low level, low noise effect, and simultaneous (non-hierarchical) activation of all neuronal networks.

In this model, the molecules are relevant not only for the synaptic fissures in terms of bonding and reabsorption, but by moving on, they induce concentration changes in other portions of the cortex, thus creating a synchronous map of neuronal activity and inhibition. This process occurs throughout the enormous extension of the USC (about 160,000 kms or 4 times the earth circumference).

Through this process of diffusion and streaming, the molecules and neurons trigger concentration changes, which in turn trigger changes in neuronal activity within the network. This is a circular process of ongoing change and adaptation in which cells (neurons) are constantly being formed and transformed into components, relations of components or become part of another component through reabsorption. Thus, it appears that in order for these kinds of processes and dynamics to take place, a histological structure such as the USC is required.

These understandings are important in relation to consciousness, perception and cognition. As Maturana (1978) has remarked, “Yet, for the operation of the nervous system (and organism), there cannot be a distinction between illusions, hallucinations, or perceptions, because a closed neuronal network cannot discriminate between internally and externally triggered changes in relative neuronal activity." As such definitive reference points and spatial locations become difficult to pinpoint.

The need to see/distinguish such phenomena as processes or patterns of activity becomes obvious because the brain and the nervous system and the structure as a whole, operates as a vast interconnected network that is closed on itself. Thus, we can only speak of relations of activity taking place among the components and their relations, because we cannot know the source or origin of where the activity is taking place.

Sometimes we may experience not knowing the source of our experiences. These experiences usually appear sensorially, hence, sensory perception and cognition. The following examples are from experience, the awareness of sensory perception and cognition, what we are distinguishing as consciousness.

If we pay attention to how our bodies feel, or to the tones, sounds (auditory) or colors (visual), of distinguishing, languaging, we can recognise patterning, relations of neuronal activity. Knowing, cognition, appears in patterning in several ways: as particular sensorial feelings, biological sensations, either on the boundary, the skin; in the doing, natural spontaneous patterns of behavior in which intuitive distinguishing also appears as languaging; relationally as visions, sounds, smells and dreams. The doing of knowing is like a natural ability, a talent or gift that is not learnt, that appears spontaneously and naturally in which we feel passion and desire or something that we love to do and care about. Intuitive distinguishing, languaging, is the recognition of sounds, or the tone of sounds. The sounds are usually softer and either occur in a steady flow or at a fast pace and appear relationally (just out of nowhere) or in the emotioning of trust and acceptance, the emotional dynamics of being in the flow or the natural way of being. In these examples, the focus is on the tone, the sounds, not on the words, i.e. language.

Intuitive distinguishing also occurs visually. Visions appear relationally, out of nowhere, or in the flow. They also occur in dreams - the dream is remembered upon waking. Both visual images and sounds are experienced as expansions of awareness, innate knowing. Innate knowing is felt in the body and not in the brain.

The experience of these feelings is quite different to emotions. That is, we do not distinguish happiness, love, joy, sadness, anger etc., such as we do with emotions. In fact, more often than not, it is difficult to distinguish these feelings as anything in particular; they are just feelings. However, there is a knowing to the feeling. That is, you don’t know how you know, but you just do. The feeling feels right or natural. Knowing is instinctive or innate.

There is also another example of the biology of knowing. Sometimes we experience strong feelings or desires to contact people or to do something in particular. This is what we distinguish as ‘gut feelings’. In these cases we find ourselves in the doing driven by a biological urge, a sense of urgency that we have to follow. In this way we are not choosing the doing according to time or other criteria such as goals and objectives.

There is no sense of time, goals or choice in the doing. Moreover, the doing feels natural even though the ‘knowledge’ of doing is not there. That is, we don’t know how we are able to do what we do. We cannot explain how we know what we know. Thus, knowing, sensory perception, cognition is not about facts or knowledge of objective truth or reality. Also, knowing or sensory perception cannot be remembered. It is difficult to repeat what shows up intuitively, and as such does not pertain to memory in the context of mind. Rather knowing comes and goes, appearing and disappearing, momentary and fleeting - the ebb and flow of natural cyclical patterning that changes according to the relations of activity occurring in the brain/nervous system.

The experience of being conscious also appears in cycles. We wake up and go to sleep according to a biological cycle. Whilst we are awake, conscious, we also do varying perceptual/behavioral patterns, what we distinguish as habits. We perform the same tasks day after day after day. We also do the same perceptions with variations day after day. These variations in perceptual/behavioral patterns occur as shifts in our emotions, moods or feelings.

Emotions come and go, shifting and changing according to our interactions as well as to what is occurring biologically. Moods on the other hand have long or short time constants and can be difficult to shift or change. The pattern is the pattern. The mood shifts, changes, by itself. Moods also occur according to cycles. Most women experience this on a monthly basis as part of their menstruation cycle.

All of these experiences of sensory perception, cognition, fit with the biology of consciousness. The worldview is consistent with how the biology is constituted and how it operates as a result of that constitution. This worldview also fits with the daily experiences of circularity. That is, the cycles that appear in being conscious and the shifts, changes in moods and emotions in which we do perceptual/behavioral patterns.

Every living organism, system, does cyclical patterns. Thus, there cannot be any differentiation between living systems such as ourselves and other living organisms, as we are all constituted through the same processes, namely autopoiesis. It is as a direct result of these processes that our biological structures and boundaries, such as our skin surfaces, are constituted and defined. The only difference is the boundary configuration (skin, surface characteristics); the process, however, is the same.

Consciousness, cognition and perception all arise from the same processes and dynamics, from how the structure, the brain and the nervous system is made and configured.

We are not alone. We are not separate individuals. We are interconnected. We all share the same patterning through our emotioning, our feelings and moods and also through our emotions (patterns). In patterning, we sense and feel what we cannot explain, a biological/relational knowing that is the biology of consciousness, the circularity of living and relating. As part of this circularity we also conserve perceptual/behavioral patterns (paradigms/worldviews).

These patterns change and vary according to our emotions, to how we are distinguishing and relating (interacting) with each other and the environment. When the biology changes our interactions and distinguishing changes. As our interactions change, our biology changes. Our structures change and adapt. It is a process of systemic mutual transformation that occurs in recurrent interactions, a recursive circular process. In this process we experience a change or shift in paradigms from our current objective, linear, dualistic worldview to that of circularity, cycles and sensory perception/cognition.

We have come full circle. The end of this paper is where it began. Such are the processes of the doing of knowing, intuitive distinguishing, in the biological circularity of knowing and consciousness. A knowing that not only reflects how we are, but also other living organisms, nature and the cosmos.

It is a knowing or sensory feeling that we are part of something that is much larger than ourselves that reflects systemic interconnectedness from the particle level to organisms, plants, planets, galaxies, and the universe. It is all the same. Everything is constituted in the same way, in circular cyclical autopoietic processes. That is nature. We are nature. As such this is a humanistic natural vision of the world as we recognise our sameness.

In sensory perception we are united together as a whole, as one race that is interdependent and interconnected with nature and the cosmos. This experience of biological human consciousness however cannot be proven empirically. It is an experience that is felt and cannot be quantified, hence, we can never know definitively the source of such experiences. It is like an unfolding spiral, all encompassing, that is the nature of circular cyclical processes.

References

Bondi M.-Bondi M.Junior (1998). ‘The Role of Synaptic Junctions in the Identification of Human Consciousness’, Pubblicato su; Rivista di Biologia, Biology Forum 91, pp. 329-334.

Cull, J, (1996), ‘In Search of the Mind’, Life’s Natural Solutions Web Site, http://www.ozemail.com.au/~jcull

Cull, J, (2000). “The Circularity of Living Systems: The Movement & Direction of Behavior”, The Journal of Applied Systems Studies, 1 (1), pp 51-65.

. Cull, J & Hoath, S. B, (1997), ‘The Boundary of an Autopoietic System: The skin as a Biological and Psychological Interface’. A poster co-presented at the International Symposium on Autopoiesis, Biology, Cognition, Language and Society, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Varela, F. J, (1984). ‘The Creative Circle: Sketches on the Natural History of Circularity. In P. Watzlawick (Ed.) The Invented Reality, Norton Publishing, New York, pp 309 - 323.

Maturana, H. R, (1978). ‘Essays in Honor of Erick Lenneberg, Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought. Biology of Language’ The Epistemology of Reality, Academic Press, pp 27 - 63.

Maturana, H.R.. Varela, F.J. (1992). The Tree of Knowledge, Shambhala Publications, p 75 (revised edition).