Friday, August 10, 2012

More Schemata

Consider this:  your digital camera has a prodigious memory capacity but as it has no consciousness, its millions of pixels never "see" a photo. However, your mind can "see" the eyes' images because your brain actively constructs scenarios, tableaux and even simple perceptions from the integrated inputs of myriad specialized circuits.

Such is the central thesis of Guilio Tononi's book Phi. Tononi, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has developed a computational theory that describes consciousness as arising from "integrated information", a quantity he denotes with the Greek character Φ.  Reviewing the book in NewScientist, Mark Pagel explains that Tononi's approach can explain some curious phenomenology of consciousness. Why do we lose consciousness when we go to sleep?  Tononi would say that this is a time when information from the brain's specialised circuits is no longer integrated. Why are brain seizures associated with a loss of consciousness?  Again, seizures seem to block complex informational exchange. These ideas move us closer to grasping what consciousness is because, if Tononi is right, he can in principle measure varying degrees of consciousness among different people, or even different organisms.

This concept of consciousness arising from the constructed scenarios, tableauxs, and integrated perceptions of the mind is a thesis put forth by the Buddha 2,500 years ago.  Consciousness, the Buddha taught, arises from samskara, also known as schemata or those constructed scenarios, tableauxs, and integrated perceptions described by Tononi.  As the creation of samskara is a subconscious process, or more precisely occurs prior to consciousness, we are unaware of their formation, so the Buddha taught that samskara arises from ignorance.  This chain of events, ignorance giving rise to schemata giving rise to consciousness, form the first three links in what the Buddha called the Twelve-Fold Chain of Dependent Origination, which ultimately culminates in sickness, old age and death, the twelfth link in the chain.

Since the chain is broken when any individual link is destroyed, as a practical matter if one wants to avoid the suffering of sickness, old age and death, one merely needs to eliminate consciousness, the strategy of choice for self-medicators, the depressed, and certain schools of meditation.  But as addicts, the sleeping, and bliss-seekers soon discover, since the creation of samskara is an subconscious process, consciousness always arises again, even (especially) when we're not paying attention. Thus the cycle of samsara (not to be confused with samskara) continues.

It's interesting how cutting edge science, be it neurology or quantum physics, seems so often to be arriving at the same conclusions of Siddharta Guatama in 500 BC.

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