Jeff Lieberman’s Evolution and Future of Consciousness

Posted in philosophy, transhumanism on October 20th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

Recently I attended a presentation at MIT by Jeff Lieberman called “It’s Not What You Think: An Evolutionary Theory of Spiritual Enlightenment.”

jeff lieberman

Lieberman is a science-educated artist and host of a TV show called Time Warp. He’s a relatively good presenter, and given his credentials, one would expect him to juxtapose disparate fields of science and art. However, the downside is that one is not left with a single solid believable conclusion or theory—or at least I wasn’t. Of course, this was also the first time Lieberman gave this talk, so he might improve it in the future.

I think that there are really four different themes woven in his presentation:

  1. Evolution of consciousness.
  2. Future directions of human consciousness.
  3. The concept of consciousness having existed for billions of years in all things, and that human-level consciousness is simply a more complicated construction (this is the weakest point).
  4. The common psychological goal of faiths underlying the world’s popular religions.

I will attempt to describe the first three themes below. I won’t say anything about the fourth—it’s a neat concept in which Lieberman interprets religious stories to have themes about human consciousness. For instance, human thinking we have compared to our animal relatives, however I am not well read in mythology / religious texts.

Please note that I’m leaving out a lot of his talk…he covered a lot of ground.

1. Evolution Of Consciousness

The premise is that human consciousness evolves—and that seems to be a sound statement given animal evolution thus far.

Lieberman gives us a 15-minute compressed history of the universe relevant to consciousness. Our universe starts with undifferentiated energy, then we end up with these various layers of organization emerging from previous layers: energy->particles->atoms->molecules->cells->animals.

Human perception does not by default work so well for layers that are smaller/larger than our little world. We can’t even perceive these other worlds without the help of technology. The perception we have is the result of evolution, as Lieberman puts it:

What we take for granted as real on a day to day basis is completely determined by what was functional for our evolutionary past.

This means not only are we not able to observe outside our small window of perception (unless we use technology), our brain is actually “creating a lie” to operate with. The brain constructs patterns. Lieberman shows some examples, such as a visual illusion and how viewing a symbol in slow motion shows the waves which we can’t see with normal vision.

Lieberman didn’t mention this, but he gets into some subjects I’m very interested in, such as affordability and perception as an interface. I am also reminded of the excellent book Visual Intelligence by Donald D. Hoffman, which describes the rules our vision systems use to construct reality. And, as Hoffman himself suggests in that book (and expounds in his paper “The Interface Theory of Perception”), the construction of reality may not actually be a reconstruction. The phenomenal sense of something need not resemble the relational sense. Our perception builds fictions that are useful for the organism to survive.

Anyway, Lieberman goes on to talk about consciousness in evolutionarily older organisms, especially cavemen, and that we should not assume that we are the apex of consciousness. I.e., who knows what potentially better (depending on the context of “better”) consciousness will become widespread in the future.

2. Future Directions Of Human Consciousness

Lieberman has a concept called the “new mutation,” which would operate at a social level, not just at an individual level. Certainly speculation about the future of consciousness should include this possibility of going to the level of the nesting of organizations.


Lieberman mentioned a lot of the old-fashioned mind hackers such as Buddhist monks, etc. He mentioned a world full of Ghandis or something like that. There’s a premise that these kinds of self applied brain wetware changes are a way to achieve “true” consciousness, if there is a such thing. However, I’m not sure if that kind of consciousness leads to future pathways. Let’s take a monk who is selfless and full of compassion—that’s great, and maybe there is some game model in which all or a certain percentage of the world’s inhabitants could operate like that for a better all around experience for humankind, but is it a method that will work as the basis for the “new mutation”…or is there some much better way? Or are existing meditative states not even scratching the surface of useful consciousness modifications?

Lieberman seems to that existing methods for “enlightenment” are:

  1. A way to access the “lower levels of the self” and that this is in fact the primitive consciousness that he thinks is really interesting and useful to experience.
  2. The side effects of that particular method are also desirable.

I, however, would not assume such things. The way Lieberman describes this more basic consciousness makes me think of a metaphor of a computer program which can look at its own execution and data (introspection) but normally does not.

This metaphor might also let me describe a potential danger: imagine the program completely abandons its normal operation and spends all its time doing introspection. The first question is…does motivation change? Can it change its own motivation? And is it in jeopardy of dying because it’s no longer paying attention to the outside world?

Lieberman said how the self disappears when we are in dreamless sleep. So “you” as you think of yourself are essentially nonexistent quite often. One way to look at this state of mind of awareness of lower consciousness is to think of it as being aware of yourself in deep sleep. You would be disconnected from the interfaces to the real world, and, as I said previously with the computer metaphor, be in an introspection mode.

Something Lieberman omitted to mention is the overlap with mindfulness, such as described by Ellen Langer in her various books on the subject.

Lieberman did mention Flow, however I am not convinced by his interpretation that true flow means that the self is not existent. And it doesn’t really sync up with his descriptions of being aware of oneself. It seems, in fact, to be two opposite states of mind…one of being completely immersed in an interactive cycle with the real world, and the other an internal inspection that is not synced to real world events.

3. The Concept Of Consciousness Having Existed For Billions Of Years In All Things

According to Lieberman:

And consciousness is not something that comes out of the human; it starts at the bottom and is built into the complexity and form of a human.

Now, I totally understand the strategy of trying to turn a concept on its head in order to find a new path for investigation and/or new theories. So when he says this, I am still on board with the general strategy, especially since I’m very interested system-oriented explanations for consciousness and cognition.

Lieberman tells us that this view somehow makes subjective experience much easier to explain. I suppose his talking about perception and whatnot was supposed to support that claim, but I am not grokking it. He could be on the right track, or the presentation may be a shell without enough data and/or theories to fill it in.

He tries briefly to explain this by saying consciousness is composed of “attraction and repulsion.” He gives an example of electrons having attraction and repulsion via fields. But I am not sure how that is equivalent to consciousness at any level. He says that at the higher, more complicated, levels of human emotions and thought that, “it’s still attraction and repulsion to different informational structures.”

Well, that’s a nice start, but it’s not even close to a real theory. Perhaps Lieberman got this from some other source and/or decided to cut out elaboration in this beta version of his presentation. He seems to have included it as a basic assumption though, weaving it into the presentation at various points. Perhaps he is attached to it because it lets him link every human’s mind all the way back to the big bang.

Whatever the case, he could cut this theme out or isolate it, and his historical view of evolution of consciousness is still valuable (and entertaining), and his speculations on the future of consciousness is still reasonable and thought-provoking. Likewise with his suggestions for what religious faiths are about at their unadulterated core.


Hopefully Lieberman isn’t gunning to be the next pseudo-scientific spiritual guru. At the very least, talking about future directions of consciousness, especially where we might want to go as a social system, is fruit-worthy.

Image credits:
[1] Discovery Channel
[2] RambergMediaImages

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Tron:Legacy and Isomorphisms

Posted in artificial intelligence, culture, philosophy on December 21st, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

One of reasons I like Tron:Legacy is the existence of ISOs.  ISOs are “isomorphic algorithms”, which are lifeforms that emerged–unplanned–from the artificial environment of the grid.  Besides being a cool movie manifestation of ALife and emergent phenomena, there is also an association with certain philosophical and AI ideas via the word “isomorphic.”  The introduction to ISOs may have sounded like a brief moment of technobabble to some, whereas to me it was a brilliant reference to Gödel, Escher, Bach.

In this famous (in some circles) 1979 book by Douglas Hofstadter , the author suggests that since isomorphisms produce meaning in simple formal systems (they act as the link between symbols and real world objects) they might be behind all meaning in humans.

Hofstadter says (p. 82):

In my opinion, in fact, the key element in answering the question “What is consciousness?” will be the unraveling of the nature of the “isomorphism” which underlies meaning.

The other awesome element of Tron:Legacy is the digital DNA.  This can be repaired by manipulating the holographic interface of an entity’s identity disk.  In the movie this was demonstrated when Flynn fixed the digital DNA which then somehow resulted in the regeneration of Quorra’s missing arm.  Although this is Hollywood’s presentation of hacking incredibly complex system of codes (note that unlike most movies, Tron:Legacy shows actual UNIX commands being entered in the real world 2010 scenes, saving the fake interfaces for the Grid), it makes one wonder–what if repairing DNA and/or physical body parts really was that easy?

The concept of the ISO’s digital DNA is also a provocative idea aside from the ID disk interface.  Is this DNA better than biological DNA?  Are ISOs truly better than humans?  Or are they simply the Grid isomorphism of “real” world humans?  Flynn talks about all the improvements he can make in the world from Grid projects.  However, Flynn tells his program CLU (which is a partial copy of himself) that there’s no such thing as perfection.  So we are left in the middle ground, and anybody who thought this movie was a simple black and white good vs. evil epic Hollywood effects regurgitation has missed the important grey areas.

Quorra, an ISO

Cross-posted with Science 2.0.

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Multitasking, Consciousness, and George Lucas

Posted in interaction design on August 8th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

Humans can only be conscious of one task at a time.

Tasks that user experience and interaction designers are concerned with are usually relatively complex.  Tasks that require you to think about them.  Generally this means you are aware of what you are doing.  Later on you might be so familiar with a standard task that you don’t have to be aware of it, but at first you have to learn it.  You might think this means consciousness is only needed for learning tasks.  However, in many cases not being aware during a task can result in failure–because your consciousness is required to handle new problems.

And yet it seems like we are multitasking all the time.  I routinely have 3-4 computers and 5-6 monitors with dozens of applications running at work, typing a line of code while somebody asks me a question.  In this photo you can see me multitasking while teleoperating a robot (this was my old office in 2008 with only 4 monitors…)

But I’m not consciously attentive of all that simultaneously.  I just switch between them quickly.  Typing while listening to someone talk is difficult without accidental cross-pollination, but it is easy if you have a buffer of words/code already in your head and you’re just unconsciously typing it while your attention is now focused on the completely different context of listening to a human talk.

Task switching and flipping between conscious and unconscious control happens so quickly and effortlessly that it’s hard to believe that there is really just one task getting “processed” at a time.  For some strange people, like computer engineers, this makes perfect sense, since that’s how basic CPUs work–one simple instruction at a time, millions of times per second.  Multiple programs can run on serial computers because the computer keeps all the programs in memory, and then hops between them very fast.  A little bit of this program, then a little bit of that program, and so on.

As Missy Cummings, a former Navy pilot and human factors researcher, puts it: “In complex problem solving tasks, humans are serial processors in that they can only solve a single complex problem or task at a time, and while they can rapidly switch between tasks, any sequence of tasks requiring complex cognition will form a queue…” [1].

For this reason, Cummings has warned people of the dangers of cell phone use while driving.  However, you can in fact drive while using a cell phone.  You can do lots of things while driving.  Have you ever been spaced out while driving (or walking) and found yourself transported to another location?  Who was driving in the interim?  You have trained yourself to drive enough that your mind can actually do it unconsciously.  However, if there is a problem or an unexpected event you will be alerted to that consciously–or you will not be alert and crash into something or someone.

But, since we can get close to multitasking–by switching quickly and letting learned tasks run unconsciously–why would user interaction designers be worried about multitasking?

Well first, as we already mentioned, often you need to be snapped out of auto-pilot to handle a new or emergency situation.  In some situations, not being conscious most of the time on the primary task can be very dangerous.  Do you want your ambulance driver to be playing GTA IV and polishing his/her nails on the way to rescue you (from your texting-related auto accident)?

Second, the more you multitask, generally the less efficient you become at all the tasks.  Personally, I have also found that if the tasks are in very different contexts, the context switching itself uses a lot of energy.

As Dave Crenshaw said (quote via Janna DeVylder) [2]:

When most people refer to multitasking, they are really talking about switchtasking. No matter how they do it, switching rapidly between two things is just not very efficient or effective.

And see DeVylder’s blog post “Save Me From Myself: Designing for Multitasking” for a good intro to the design considerations of multitasking.

Why is it Serial?

I think that serial consciousness evolved in animals because they are situated and embodied.  It wouldn’t work to have two conscious threads trying to drive one body in different directions.  Multiple threads have to share resources.  Having one thread conscious at a time gets closer to guaranteeing that multiple threads don’t conflict.  I would expect that when the system breaks down it would be very confused and might hurt itself.

Note: If the term “thread” is too computerese for your liking, then perhaps you can think of trains.  Consciousness is like a train station with only one track.  The metaphor breaks down pretty quickly, but hopefully that will get us on the same page.

Certainly there is parallelism in the brain–indeed that is touted as one of the brain’s great advantages.  The parallelism is also very different from most of our digital computers (for those who like to compare brains to computers).  But cell networks are at a much lower level in the skyscraper of the mind.  

What about behaviors?  Somewhere in the middle levels of the mental skyscraper, we do have parallel behaviors, but they are automatic.  The autonomic nervous system (ANS) keeps everything running–breathing, heart rate, sweating, digestion, sexual arousal, etc.  You can be conscious about some of these behaviors, such as breathing, but you don’t need to do that.  And I would venture that if you could, and tried, to turn off the ANS and control all those functions consciously at the same time, you would die quickly.

It may be trite but it’s worth invoking a manager hierarchy metaphor: The top manager is consciousness, and as you go lower, things become more automatic and less directly controllable by the higher up manager.  And this top manager is not director George Lucas, who supposedly micro-manages the tiniest details in his movies.  This manager is more like the other George Lucas, the one who oversees a vast empire–he doesn’t care about details (fast-forward to 08:15 in the video below for the relevant discussion).


[1] Cummings, M.L.,& Mitchell P.J., “Predicting Controller Capacity in Remote Supervision of Multiple Unmanned Vehicles”, IEEE Systems, Man, and Cybernetics,Part A Systems and Humans, (2008) 38(2), p. 451-460.

[2] D. Crenshaw, The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done.  Jossey-Bass, 2008.

Crosspost with my other blog, In the Eye of the Brainstorm.
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Lucid Dreaming and Consciousness

Posted in artificial intelligence, culture on June 28th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

Arising at the crack of 1pm last Saturday, I remembered the last thing I dreamt. I was in a classroom setting, designing part of another class by making a list of movies to view and discuss for that subject. And I was in control, making this list consciously, so the dream was at least partially lucid.

The reason I say partially is that my experience with lucid dreams is that sometimes I’m aware that I’m dreaming. And sometimes I can control what I’m doing. But other times I’m in control and conscious but I’m not quite at that point of realizing I’m in a dream. It’s possible those are full lucid states, but I simply wasn’t paying attention to the signs of unreality as I was focused on something else.

A recent New Scientist article [1] points out publications last year (primarily of Ursula Voss and Allan Hobson) that try to find neurological correlations of lucid dreaming.  Furthermore, these researchers want to use lucid dreaming to explore a primary-secondary theory of consciousness. As Jessica Hamzelou explains in the New Scientist article:

Gerald Edelman at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, proposed that there are two possible states of consciousness, which he called primary and secondary consciousness. Primary consciousness is the simple subjective experience of sensory perception and emotions, which could be applied to most animals. It’s a state of “just being, feeling, floating”, according to Ursula Voss at the University of Frankfurt in Germany.

The mental life of your common or garden human, however, is a lot more complicated. That’s because we are “aware of being aware”. This allows us to reflect upon ourselves and our feelings and, in an ideal world, make insightful decisions and judgments. This state, dubbed secondary consciousness, is thought to be unique to humans.

So, on the premise that there is secondary and primary consciousness, lucid dreaming may be dreaming with secondary consciousness active, whereas non-lucid dreaming involves only primary consciousness.

The study of Ursula Voss et al [2] conducted at Frankfurt University found differences in the brain patterns (measured with EEG and CSD (current source densities)) between lucid sleep, REM sleep, and waking with eyes closed. It’s only a small amount of data, but it helps show that lucid sleep is not just a part of REM sleep, but shares correlations with waking.

Some other info that may be of interest to those who want to conduct lucid experiments: Only half of the subjects could enter lucid states in the laboratory, even though all of them claimed to have lucid dreams beforehand in non-laboratory settings. The researchers were not able to induce lucid dreaming in the subjects with machines–the only reliable way was for the subjects to self-induce lucidity. The duration of lucid states was ambiguous. This experiment ended up with only three recorded lucid episodes. As the report admits, there are still major methodological issues.

Due to the types of measurement, Voss was not able to test the hypothesis that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPfC) would light up in lucid dreaming, as compared to REM sleep in which the DLPfC takes a break. If DLPfC is a site of “executive ego” than it should be active in dreaming when one is lucid but not otherwise and may correlate with Edelman’s secondary consciousness.

Allan Hobson of Harvard Medical School, another researcher mentioned in the New Scientist article, wrote a paper last year about the pros and cons of using lucid dreaming as a tool for investigating the neuroscience of consciousness [3]. He references the Voss experiment, and like Voss points out the untested hypothesis that the DLPfC should activate in dream states that are lucid. Hobson also references studies led by Michael Czisch that used MRI to measure differences in lucid dreaming (according to Hobson). The imaging showed that certain frontal, temporal, and occipital regions have increased activation during lucid sleep–regions distinctly human as compared to macaque monkeys. Since those regions might be key for consciousness research, we might have a way to test aspects of consciousness built into our brains that we have hardly exploited.

A commentary of Hobson’s paper by Don Kuiken of the Department of Psychology, University of Alberta, was recently published [4]. A possibility Kuiken points out is that perhaps in non-lucid states the brain uses an alternate form of self-regulation similar to that in musical improvisation. It is interesting that the brain might be using the same patterns when playing jazz as when in REM sleep–going with the flow. So, as Kuiken offers, non-lucid sleep regulation and “responsiveness to ‘what comes'” might also be important for consciousness research.


[1] Hamzelou, J. “Want to find your mind? Learn to direct your dreams,” New Scientist, no.2764, 15 June 2010.

[2] Voss U, Holzmann R, Tuin I, Hobson A. “Lucid dreaming: a state of consciousness with features of both waking and non-lucid dreaming,” SLEEP, vol.32, no.9, pp.1191-1200, 2009.

[3] Hobson, J.A. “The neurobiology of consciousness: Lucid dreaming wakes up,” International Journal of Dream Research, vol.2, no.2, pp.41-44, 2009.

[4] Kuiken, D. “Primary and secondary consciousness during dreaming: Commentary on ‘The neurobiology of consciousness: Lucid dreaming wakes up’ by J. Allan Hobson,” International Journal of Dream Research, vol.3, no.1, pp.21-25, 2010.

Crosspost with my other blog, In the Eye of the Brainstorm.
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