“One doesn’t actually have to have a brain to be conscious.” says Prof. Shimon Edelman, Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, in his address for The CogTalk – an interdisciplinary platform for interactive sessions by distinguished speakers related to mind and brain sciences hosted by the Centre for Neural and Cognitive Sciences (CNCS), School of Medical Sciences, University of Hyderabad (UoH) on February 10, 2022. CogTalk aims at spreading awareness of research areas in cognitive science asking innovative questions and using truly interdisciplinary ideas to answer these questions.

All of us experience being conscious, but none of us can really put a finger on how we know that. The complexity of such a faculty makes it the primal area of research in the field. Owing to the multidisciplinarity of cognitive science, there are numerous approaches to studying consciousness; Prof. Edelman takes a computational route and presents his Dynamic Emergence theory of consciousness (DET)defines the amount and structure of phenomenal experience in terms of the intrinsic topology and geometry of a physical system’s collective dynamics.

As posited by the theory, if the baseline criteria for a system to be conscious is being able to differentiate between two states intrinsically, even the “useless box” would carry the tag of being conscious, and so would any single-celled organism that is navigating its environment. You are not alone if you find it hard to believe that an amoeba, your pet dog, the bonsai in your backyard, and you fall under the same category of consciousness; which does not seem to be the case. The hierarchical levels of consciousness guide us in understanding its weakest definition, in its basal form – which Prof. Edelman claims to be the most difficult aspect to studying consciousness. He addresses the ontology of consciousness, not just what consciousness is but also what it means to have conscious experience. Prof. Edelman convinces that the amount of experience of a system can be computed if we understand the relationship between different transient states of the system.

The Q & A session commenced with a riveting observation by Prof. Mishra about the explanatory power of the model and extended into a discourse about the exogenous stimulation of the contended-to-be-conscious systems discussed in the talk. Indeed, most often, our mental states are driven by us; we decide when to and when not to pay attention to something. However, as Prof. Edelman points out, any approach to study a phenomenon comes with underlying theoretical assumptions and its own philosophical tenets which the researcher abides by. The computational approach to modelling, taken in this scenario, is based on materialism and physicality of mind. Consequentially, we can only hope to progress towards a unified understanding of consciousness that can account for all the levels of a conscious mind.

An analogy, between an atomic structure that maintains its structural stability intrinsically and the theory proposed, was drawn by the audience which intrigued the speaker. Further, questions were posed about how one could approach or model the deeper, inter-connected, mental states which occupy human consciousness, in response to which, Prof. Edelman shared his view of how DET could extend to even complex thought structures which when disintegrated, become simple internal states. Epiphenomenality is not all there is to consciousness; it needs to be causally effective. However, can it really be studied devoid of its epiphenomenal attributes such as awareness and the sense of agency, or by reducing them to physical states?

The session concluded with a tete-a-tete between Prof. Edelman and Prof. Mishra on teaching different courses at Cornell and the various books, literary as well as philosophical, that Prof. Edelman had authored. Being an avid writer, it is a feat to be able to manage time to write amidst teaching multiple courses. He was only more than happy to share his experiences writing them, especially ‘The Happiness of Pursuit’. As was promised by our speaker initially, it was a ‘happy’ ending after all.

Contributed by Ms. Aswini Madhira, PhD Scholar, Centre for Neural and Cognitive Sciences

The complete CogTalk Video can be seen at the following link: