Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Complexity, Self-Organization, Emergence

Neural circuits in the brain are capable of generating new ideas, fresh insights. Most of us can think more clearly and have fresh perspectives after a night’s sleep. Then too, after pondering over a problem for several days, researching all aspects, and feeling in a quandary, it’s often helpful lay the problem aside for a few days and pursue a completely different activity. Then all of a sudden, some day while you’re doing something else, or when you wake up one morning, a fresh idea pops into mind, and there’s a reasonable solution to your problem. The vast neural circuits in the brain seem to exhibit the functionality of Chaos: Complexity, Self-Organization, Emergence.

Brain dynamics constantly shift from the complex to the predictableNeuronal ensemble activity shuttle back and forth between the interference-prone complexity and robust predictable oscillatory synchrony. (Buzsáki - Rhythms of the Brain, 111)

Complex systems -- involve nonlinear interactions between a large number of simple elements. The interactions between the large number of elements can result in (1) chaos or a (2) self-organization into complex structures. Boundary between chaos and self-organization is called the ‘boundary of chaos’.

Self-organization -- matter's incessant attempts to organize itself into ever more complex structures, even in the face of the incessant forces of dissolution of the second law of thermodynamics. (Waldrop; Complexity, 102)

Emergence - incessant urge of complex systems to organize themselves into patterns. (Waldrop; Complexity, 118)


Complex behavior and chaos

Chaos -- tiny change in the initial conditions can produce large change and resulting behavior

Often controlled by a feedback loop for homeostasis

Self-organization -- patterns can develop


Nature 478, p.58, 13 October 2011

Systematic, Top-Down View of Science

Jean-Marie Lehn

Chemist at the University of Strasbourg in France.

Shared the 1987 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for development and use of molecules that recognize and interact with each other. Coined 'supramolecular chemistry', it is an area of chemistry that exploits non-covalent interactions.


We are all made of molecules. All we do is the result of a very complex system, but we can in principle deduce from these components what we are able to do. Higher level properties and behaviours emerge from higher levels of complexity.

The example I usually give is taking an isolated molecule of water, which cannot freeze or boil, yet a glass of water can freeze and boil. A property has appeared at a higher level of complexity, which emerges from the fact that molecules interact in a supramolecular way and act together as a system. Thus as complexity increases, new properties and behaviours emerge at each step that cannot be reduced to what is below, but which can be deduced from it.

Biology is based on molecules; it is the highest expression of the molecular world. It is a demonstration that the simple molecular world can generate great complexity through self-organization.

[end of paraphrase]



Chaos and Creativity

Chaos is essential to cognitive freedom and creativity. (Hobson; Dreaming as Delirium, 217)

The spontaneous tendency of complex systems to change state from chaos to self-organization is relevant to our understanding of dream consciousness. (Hobson; Consciousness, 19)

Chaos theory maintains that unpredictability is balanced by an equally intrinsic capacity for self organization. (Hobson; Dreaming as Delirium, 24)

Physicists refer to as the "edge of chaos" in dynamical systems: the emergence of "complexity" at the boundary between stability and chaos. (Ramachandran; Illusions of Body Image, 55)

Dynamic, self-organizing binding process, different partners. (Singer; Neuronal Synchronization, 104)

Distributed groups of neurons, synchronous activity. (Singer; Neuronal Synchronization, 109)

Individual cells change partners. (Singer; Neuronal Synchronization, 113)

Neural processes underlying creativity have nothing to do with rationality. Creativity is not born out of reasoning. (Llinás; I of the Vortex, 170)

Sleep and Dreaming and Creativity

Sleep and dreaming may provide the function of breaking up thoughts into smaller bits and pieces. This continual fragmentation process may eventually lead to forgetting unless we refresh the thought during waking with fresh sensory data from the world. During sleep, while sensory data from the world is blocked, neural circuits in the brain are still active, very active in REM sleep and less active in non-REM sleep. Dreaming may in fact be a somewhat random, although not completely random, synthesis of fragments of former thoughts.

Synaptically connected neural paths of the thalamocortical system, synapses reinforced as memories, paths fragmented by sleep and dreaming, can then provide the fodder for the functionality of Chaos. These fragmented neural paths constitute interacting, non-linear objects of Complexity that have the ability to Self-Organize and exhibit Emergence. New ideas, fresh insights, and creativity can be the result.

Dreaming may be our most creative conscious state, one in which the chaotic, spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces novel configurations of information -- new ideas. (Hobson; Consciousness, 45)

Chaos and Self Organization

All complex systems -- and the brain-mind is certainly a complex system -- are characterized by constant, dynamic interplay between chaos (unpredictability) and self-organization (orderliness). (Hobson; Dreaming as Delirium, 216)

All complex systems with chaotic properties can self-organize. Self-organization is more likely to be achieved in undirected states, such as meditation, fantasy, or reverie, that border on waking. Dreaming serves to loosen associations lest they become obsessively tight. Francis Crick theorized that we dream in order to forget. Dreaming may be our most creative conscious state, one in which the chaotic, spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces novel configurations of information, that is, new ideas. (Hobson; Consciousness, 42-45)

How do cell networks achieve both stability and flexibility? Networks may accomplish this by achieving a kind of poised state balanced on the edge of chaos. (Kauffman; At Home in Universe, 86)

Stuart Kauffman calls this self-organization that arises naturally ‘Order for free.’ (Kauffman; At Home in Universe, 71)

Global Self-Organization of Local Interactions

The process of network self-organization is fundamental to the organization of the brain. (von der Malsburg; Self-Organization, 840)

Organization takes place in systems consisting of a large number of interacting elements. (von der Malsburg; Self-Organization, 841)

A fundamental and very important characteristic about organizing systems is the global order that can arise from local interactions. (von der Malsburg; Self-Organization, 841)

By the associative property of memory, neural assemblies aggregate via the laws of Gestalts into the sparse but widespread neural assemblies of the dynamic core of consciousness.

Neurons may be connected in a vast associational network, similar to a relational database. (Crick & Koch; Consciousness and Neuroscience, 48)


Chaotic Systems and Gestalts in the Neural Network

Rapid change in state is typical of chaotic systems where there is a systematic order that is nonetheless so complex that it defies analysis. (Greenfield; Centers of Mind, 159)

In systems as elaborate as gestalts, where there are many influences all interacting to produce a certain outcome, a seemingly minor change can have large-scale consequences. (Greenfield; Centers of Mind, 159)


Complex Systems, Self-Organization, Emergence

Brain is an example of a self-organizing system. Precise point-to-point wiring cannot occur; the variation is too great for the information stored in the genome. (Edelman; Bright Air, 25)

Study of complex systems that involve nonlinear interactions between simple elements. Consciousness is an emergent property arising from the self-organization of concurrently active but spatially distributed regions of the brain; there is no central organizer and no unique location where it comes into existence. Quote from Susan Greenfield, professor at Oxford University: Consciousness is spatially multiple yet effectively single at any one time. It is an emergent property of non-specialized and divergent groups of neurons (gesalts) that is continuously variable. (Johnston; Why We Feel, 123-124)

Life is an emergent phenomenon arising as the molecular diversity of a prebiotic chemical system increases beyond a threshold of complexity. (Kauffman; At Home in Universe, 24)

Consciousness is the most baffling problem in the science of the mind.  There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, yet there is nothing that is harder to explain. (Chalmers; Problem of Consciousness, 5)

The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. (Chalmers; Problem of Consciousness, 6)

What Chalmers calls the "hard problem" of consciousness is the problem of explaining how subjectivity can arise from complexly organized material stuff. (Flanigan; Dissolution of hard problem, 148)

It is amazing that consciousness can emerge from brain processesExplaining the mechanisms that give rise to the different types of waking consciousness, NREM, and REM mentation, is all  there is to solving the "hard problem." (Flanigan; Dissolution of hard problem, 148)


Research study — Complexity Evolution at the Molecular Level

Research study — Complex Systems, Growth and Preferential Attachment, Self-Organization


Brain As a Self-Organizing System

Human brain is perhaps the most superb example of a self-organizing system.  It is constantly and spontaneously generating new thoughts.  [Gestalts] (Andreasen; Creating Brain, 62)

Self-organizing systems draw heavily on chaos theory, because they view the self-organization process as dynamic and nonlinear.  Dynamic means that the system is not in equilibrium. (Andreasen; Creating Brain, 61)

One reason for complexity is the interactions among elements, especially the feedback from one component to another. (Andreasen; Creating Brain, 62)

The brain is a mass of feedback loops. (Andreasen; Creating Brain, 62)

Brain is a self-organizing system that can create novel linkages on a millisecond timescale. (Andreasen; Creating Brain, 64)

Producing sequentially ordered speech is a conscious activity drawing on our brains capacity to act as the self-organizing system. (Andreasen, Creating Brain, 67)

Neuronal assemblies in the waking brain  self-organize themselves into temporal packages of 15--30 ms. (Buzsáki; Rhythms of the Brain, 246)

The spontaneous, self-organizing ability of cortical networks is what gives rise to originality and freedom in the brain. (Buzsáki; Rhythms of the Brain, 370)



(paraphrase of Ramachandran; Illusions of Body Image, 55)


The dialectic between the opposing tendencies of the two hemispheres that we are proposing as an analogy to anosognosia also bears a tantalizing resemblance to what physicists refer to as the "edge of chaos" in dynamical systems: the emergence of "complexity" at the boundary between stabil­ity and chaos. Chaos arises in deterministic systems that show a highly sensitive dependence on initial conditions. This is not unlike the sensitivity to perturbation (or "anomalies") that I have postulated for the cognitive style of the right hemisphere. In marked contrast, the left hemisphere is relatively insensitive to change and tries to preserve stability. "Interesting" or "complex" types of behavior, on the other hand, seem to emerge spontaneously at the boundary between the two—a place where there is just enough novelty to keep things interesting and unpredictable but also just enough stability, to avoid complete anarchy and it is precisely these little eddies of "complexity" at the border zone that may correspond roughly to what we call human caprice, innovation, and creativity.


(end of paraphrase)




Emergence – physical properties of water as an example

The molecular origins of the physical properties of water continue to puzzle scientists. The hydrogen-bonding structure changes over ultrafast time scales.

The structure of liquid water is generally conceived as a disordered network of molecules connected by hydrogen bonds. This structure fluctuates and reorganizes on time scales between 10 fs (10-14 s) and 10 ps (10-11 s). This hydrogen-bond dynamics is at the heart of the unique physical, chemical, and biological properties of water. (Science 6 July 2007, pp. 54 )

The physical properties of water are emergent properties of the molecular properties.


Research study — Complexity, Self-Organization, Emergence — Recent Research



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    Link to — Consciousness Subject Outline

    Further discussion — Covington Theory of Consciousness