Why is there unity of consciousness?

We experience consciousness as a unified whole, rather than as flickering fragments, except perhaps when waking up or returning to consciousness. Why should this be, when we know that the sensory world is not really unified, and that our awareness of it is more partial and flawed than it seems?

There are two main aspects of the unity of consciousness, in terms of underlying mechanisms. The first relates to the structure of persistent storage. Persistent storage does not hold information in isolation to be separately queried, because if it did it would be meaningless. Its primary effect is to ‘wire up’ transient processing by using what is currently available in sensory data, or in persistent storage itself, to set up options for attention and action. Therefore persistent storage can be seen as the current wiring diagram for transient processing.

In this sense, what we are able to be conscious of is unified because it is a single information structure that we can navigate in order to determine what to pay attention to and what action to take. We are not unifying the real world, nor even an internal representation of the real world. What is unified is a representation of the internal choices available to transient processing.

The information structure is always unified, because it is what it is – the wiring diagram for transient processing - even if it is flawed or incomplete.

There is a second aspect of the unity of consciousness in respect of valence and the cognitive cycle. On each cognitive cycle transient processing must determine which mutually compatible set to select from the attention and action options available (or to do nothing). Making a single decision across a distributed brain is equivalent to assigning a measure of goodness to each option and picking the biggest. Even if the decision is actually made by a different mechanism, the bottom line is that a single choice has to be made in a distributed system. This is where valence comes in (discounted for probability, delay and cost).

The second aspect of unity of consciousness is therefore that on every cognitive cycle a single coherent set of attention and action options is selected, to be deployed on the next cognitive cycle, such as to maximise expected future valence. This forces the brain to make a choice on every cognitive cycle that maximises the organism’s chances of survival and reproduction.

In this sense, the conscious self is sparked into existence in the moment that this selection process completes, having given every part of the brain time to participate.

For a fuller description of my model of the mechanisms of consciousness, read my e-book On the Mechanisms of Consciousness: How consciousness works.

Peter Martin

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