Psychedelic Information Theory : Chapter 03
What is Consciousness?
Since this text is about the manipulation of consciousness it is beneficial to have working definition for this term. Consciousness is defined here as a stable information processing system with specific functions and emergent operating properties, all of which are necessary to maintain system stability.1 The minimum specific functions for any conscious system are: 1) perception; 2) recognition; 3) memory; 4) recall; and 5) behavior. The minimum specific operating properties for any conscious system are: 1) modular coherence; 2) linear stability; 3) feedback control; 4) adaptability; and 5) self-awareness. When all of these functions and operating properties are working in tandem you get something resembling human consciousness.2 When one or more of the five essential functions is degraded then consciousness slides into semi-conscious, subconscious, or unconscious modes. When one or more of the five operating properties is degraded then consciousness becomes unstable and loses fidelity. A description of the functions and operating properties of consciousness follows.
Five Basic Functions of Consciousness
All conscious systems rely on five basic functions to interact with the environment in real time.
A conscious system must receive input, this input is called perception. For humans perceptual input is received as sense data moving towards the brain from the peripheral nervous system. Sensation does not become actual perception until it is routed up into higher cortical areas for processing.3 Humans also perceive internal thoughts and feelings, their own external behaviors, and small pieces of their dreams. Perception is linear, it feeds back on itself through behavior and recall, and its primary function is to observe changes in environment over time. Errors in human perception are sometimes called hallucination.
Data from perception is parsed and matched against known salient patterns; this process is called recognition. Human recognition is driven by hormonal reaction to salient patterns; patterns which have high emotional resonance. Human recognition utilizes fast nonlinear analysis over slow semantic analysis. Fast recognition has high utility but low fidelity, meaning it works quickly but must be double-checked by linear memory for accuracy.4 Recognition is contextual, multisensory, associative, and its function is to find salient data in incoming perception. Nonlinear recognition errors include false identification, misrepresentation, and deja vu.
All salient patterns are stored in memory. Patterns stored in memory are matched against incoming data for recognition; they are also matched against possible solutions for recall. In humans memory is imprinted by emotional resonance, reinforced through linear repetition, and potentiated though nonlinear contextual association.5 Human memory has many layers; semantic, eidetic, associative, and potentially holographic. Multi-layered human memory involves long-term potentiation and lossy compression, but this compression also includes indexing redundancy to serve fast recall and recognition of salient data.
Recall uses associative patterns stored in memory to make informed decisions based on logic. Unlike recognition, which is spontaneous and intuitive, recall uses negative feedback to inhibit detrimental solutions and positive feedback to stimulate advantageous solutions. Recall is cyclical and associative, meaning it can use both negative and positive feedback to cycle through and evaluate many hypothetical scenarios before resting on a final decision.6 The main function of recall is to analyze patterns stored in memory to inform intelligent decisions and behaviors in real time.
A conscious system performs behaviors based on input. Human behavior takes the form of both internal and external actions. Internal behaviors, such as thinking thoughts and feeling emotions, transform memory and recall into logical decisions; external behaviors translate internal decisions into outward actions. Human behavior is linear and serial; behaviors are performed in sequence one at a time, typically with thoughts and emotions preceding and informing the intent of action. Both internal and external behaviors feed back into perception, closing the loop on the perceptual feedback process.
Operating Properties of Consciousness
When all of the functions of consciousness are up and running the system begins to take on certain familiar operating properties. These basic properties are what we would expect from any conscious system, and any conscious system that loses these properties will also become unstable and lose fidelity of perception and memory.
In order to perform like a seamless, integrated system, consciousness must have some means of synchronizing performance between modular sub-functions. Functional cooperation between different areas of the brain is measured in terms of coupled neural oscillators, neural spike synchrony, and coherence of network oscillations.7 Waking consciousness oscillates within the alpha and beta ranges; high frequency gamma coherence is associated with the fast binding of cortical networks necessary for perception and consciousness.8 Modular coherence is the first operating property of a conscious system; precise timing between all areas is necessary for multisensory integration. Without coherence the modular sub-functions of consciousness lose interoperability and destabilize.
Consciousness can perform many different functions but it only performs one function at a time. The functional range of consciousness is linear and moves predictably from state to state with the passage of time. Consciousness transitions seamlessly from one behavior to the next. Consciousness retains state data and reacts logically to environmental change. In conscious systems the perception of the passage of time remains constant.9 The ability to remain focused on the environment and perform sequenced, goal-oriented behaviors in real-time is an operational baseline for all conscious systems.
Conscious systems must be able to monitor and control their own stability and perform behaviors to modulate system input and output. All conscious systems must have some form of feedback to retain object focus, retain state data, control behaviors, perform state transitions, and maintain linear stability.10 Without feedback control a conscious system is prone to output exuberance, memory overload, and error.
A conscious system must be able to store patterns, predict outcomes, learn new behaviors, and react to external variable change. Adaptability and the ability to learn from experience is an epiphenomena or spontaneous operating property of a functionally stable consciousness. Intelligent systems that do not exhibit adaptability only mimic some of the functions and properties of consciousness without actually achieving full consciousness.
A conscious system must be aware of itself and be able to recognize other conscious systems. Self-awareness is an epiphenomena of the functions and properties of consciousness maintaining linear stability through time. Self-awareness and the ability to recognize and interact with other conscious systems may be the truest and most objective test of any stable consciousness.
The most dramatic way to demonstrate the fragility of consciousness is to lose it. We sleep every night, and sleeping is a very limited form of consciousness where most of the functions and properties disappear. When we sleep we cannot hold state information from one moment to the next, thus we lose contextual data and self-awareness. In dreams we have perceptions and perform behaviors, but they are not linear nor do we have much control over them. In deep sleep all functions of consciousness go offline and almost entirely shut down. When we wake up these functions slowly return and then re-stabilize into an alert waking mode. Consciousness turns itself off; consciousness turns itself back on.
Sleeping and dreaming demonstrate that the basic functions of consciousness are modular and interdependent; they can operate individually as well as in specialized groupings. The modular functions of consciousness can be switched off and on in any order without affecting the long-term stability of the fully operational system. The modularity of consciousness becomes evident in cases of brain trauma or mental illnesses where the subject loses some functions of consciousness but retains others.11 When consciousness is stable we cannot tell it is modular; it runs as a seamless whole or an integrated system. When consciousness destabilizes the modular units uncouple and reveal themselves to be sub-personal pieces of a larger identity process. The loss of multisensory perception and the splintering of consciousness into multiple independent processes can accurately be described as an altered state of consciousness.
If consciousness is modular and the modular functions can interact seamlessly in multiple configurations, it is reasonable to assume there are multiple configurations of sub- and meta- consciousness that are rarely explored. The linear states of consciousness we experience daily are controlled by a top-down homeostatic regulator,12 but when we short-circuit this regulator we find that modular sub-functions of consciousness can be uncoupled and accessed in novel ways.13 EEG studies of subjects with HPPD have shown that when the visual cortex loses coherence with other areas of the brain and coherence among local visual networks increases, spontaneous hallucinations are produced.14 Sensory deprivation for as little as fifteen minutes is all that is necessary to uncouple the visual cortex and have it start producing hallucinations;15 this can also be called lucid dreaming or daydreaming. This demonstrates that when modular functions of the brain are uncoupled from top-down coherence they do not always disappear, instead they may spontaneously organize into more locally coherent configurations. This uncoupled state can produce wandering or non-linear neural activity in lower brain areas which then floats up to the top of conscious awareness as linear perception. This is a neat formal definition for states of dreaming, creative visualization, and hallucination.
Psychedelic Information Theory posits that the uncoupled sub-functions of modular consciousness, acting either alone or in novel peer groupings, are responsible for the subjective altered states classified as hallucinogenic, dissociative, and psychedelic. All hallucinogens must first destabilize top-down coherence of consciousness to produce novel states of spontaneous organization between the modular sub-units; this is how all hallucination begins. Dissociatives disrupt top-down coherence by blocking the excitatory pathways that allow the modular units to communicate. Psychedelics have a more subtle effect on top-down coherence; they periodically interrupt or excite the modulatory frequency of multisensory frame binding, causing perception to destabilize into energetic nonlinear configurations.16 By destabilizing the top-down control of consciousness, psychedelics allow the modular sub-functions to wander and/or interact with coupled peers in dedicated subsystems; similar to the dedicated circuit created between perception and memory when dreaming.
Destabilizing or splintering consciousness into novel configurations is the essence of psychedelic exploration. These novel configurations of consciousness can be described as nonlinear consciousness, complex consciousness, meta-consciousness, depersonalized consciousness, faceted consciousness, holistic consciousness, multi-dimensional consciousness, expanded consciousness, mystical consciousness, sub-consciousness, semi-consciousness, and so on. Splintering and rebuilding the modular facets of identity are techniques that may be applied in brainwashing or metaprogramming,17 but also fall under the rubric of mysticism and shamanism. By detaching modular functions of linear consciousness and allowing the sub-functions to couple in unorthodox ways, psychedelics expand the functional range of consciousness to include novel states of nonlinear complexity. These states of nonlinear complexity are the origin of hallucination, and the source of all psychedelic information that has influenced human mythology, religion, art, and culture.
 There is a popular school of thought which posits that consciousness precedes physicality, and that for there to be atoms and molecules and galaxies there must first be consciousness. This is a very broad definition which should be saved for more metaphysical discussions.
 The functions and operating properties of consciousness described here are an oversimplification of the functions of the human brain, but they are an ample enough description for modeling human consciousness in any environment.
 Meredith MA, Stein BE, 'Visual, auditory, and somatosensory convergence on cells in superior colliculus results in multisensory integration'. J Neurophysiol 56: 640-662, 1986;
 LeDoux, Joseph, 'The Emotional Brain'. Simon & Schuster, NY, 1996.
 LeDoux, Joseph, 'Synaptic Self'. Viking Penguin, NY, 2002.
 This definition of deliberative recall is simplified and based on principles of deductive and inductive reasoning. This definition compresses a much larger discussion on the various types of neural logic and does not account for human irrationality, but it is the minimum definition needed to model the output of human reasoning.
 The so-called "binding problem" of cognitive science is approached from a variety of angles, but all of them rely on measuring the strength, frequency, synchrony, and resonance of spike waves propagating through neural assemblies. There are many ways to estimate the relative cooperation between separated brain areas based on their wave properties, coherence is a term used to indicate strong signal strength and cooperation between areas. Areas that are high in coherence may act like coupled oscillators in a feedback circuit, or they may take the form of parallel circuits engaged in synchronized processing tasks.
 Meador KJ, et al., 'Gamma coherence and conscious perception'. Neurology 2002;59:847-854.
 Fox, Douglas, 'Timewarp: How your brain creates the fourth dimension '. New Scientist, Issue 2731, 21 October 2009.
 WikiPedia.org, 'Control Theory'. Internet Reference, 2010.
 The most compelling examples of mental illnesses which destabilize consciousness are Alzheimer's disease, which effects memory, and schizophrenia, which affects coherence and linear stability. These two examples compress a much larger discussion of how the degradation or loss of specific functions and operating properties of consciousness lead directly to specific pathologies.
 Top-down modulation of waking consciousness is a function of aminergic modulation in the forebrain, but total homeostatic regulation of brain states is generally considered to be a function of the hypothalamus. From WikiPedia: "The hypothalamus co-ordinates many hormonal and behavioural circadian rhythms, complex patterns of neuroendocrine outputs, complex homeostatic mechanisms, and many important behaviours."
 All altered states of consciousness begin with destabilizing top-down modulatory control of linear perception. Fasting, chanting, meditation, trance-dancing, and other non-drug visionary practices are rituals designed to destabilize top-down modulation through deprivation and repetition. Psychedelic drugs achieve more dramatic results by directly interrupting modulatory pathways at the receptor.
 Abraham HD, Duffy FH, 'EEG coherence in post-LSD visual hallucinations'. Psychiatry Res. 2001 Oct 1;107(3):151-63.
 Mason OJ, Brady F, 'The psychotomimetic effects of short-term sensory deprivation'. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2009 Oct;197(10):783-5.
 See "Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action"
 Metaprogramming is the term John Lilly chose in the text, 'Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer'. Splintering is a term used in brainwashing to describe the process of breaking the subject's identity through stress exercises, making them prone to imprinting and manipulation.
Citation: Kent, James L. Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason, Chapter 03, 'What is Consciousness?'. PIT Press, Seattle, 2010.
Copyright: © James L. Kent, 2010. Some Rights Reserved. Please read copyright information before reproducing.