a story lives forever
Sign in
Form submission failed!

Stay signed in

Recover your password?
Form submission failed!

Web of Stories Ltd would like to keep you informed about our products and services.

Please tick here if you would like us to keep you informed about our products and services.

I have read and accepted the Terms & Conditions.

Please note: Your email and any private information provided at registration will not be passed on to other individuals or organisations without your specific approval.

Video URL

You must be registered to use this feature. Sign in or register.


An experiment to test re-entry


A theory of consciousness: Language
Gerald Edelman Scientist
Comments (0) Please sign in or register to add comments

You can distinguish things that are real, unreal, patterns, all kinds, in a very high dimensional space. Remember the numbers of connectivities that I mentioned before about the graphs of the brain. So this animal had an advantage. What was the advantage for? Well, the idea was: with those discriminative capabilities an animal could plan. It could not only just respond to the immediate present; it could have a remembered present. It could actually plan ahead to some degree. Now here I made the distinction between what I call primary consciousness and higher order consciousness and the reason it's important is, if you discuss the subject without making the distinction, you very rapidly become confused. Primary consciousness is just what I described. In that case the consciousness for planning and the scene that's created of discriminations is like a flashlight in a dark room: wherever the flashlight is you light up that but not the whole room. But a certain time later – perhaps a couple of I don't know what, million years ago, not exact – in hominid and hominine evolution, a new set of re-entrant circuits connected conceptual and the parts of the brain responsible for language to these other systems, these perceptual systems, and thus you could have higher order consciousness and be freed from the prison of the remembered present of primary consciousness.

[Q] And perhaps made language possible?

 Indeed that may have come.

[Q] It may not have arisen from language but...

 It didn't originate from language at all because in fact language is probably an invention based on these... these and other evolutionary events; in which, for instance, your larynx dropped down, you had a super-laryngeal space, you had the capacity for imitation; all kinds of things of that kind. In any event, when you have higher order consciousness you have what are the equivalent of words, let me call them tokens. You now can replace the input from the outside world with your own internal input of the named or token objects. Now chimps have this. Chimps have that semantics; they have meaning attributed to objects or codes but they don't have syntax. They can't recombine the whole thing in a structural way that we do with grammar. So they have higher-order consciousness but not like ours. By the time you get to us, after we've invented language during evolution – I don't know when, 70,000 years ago, 100,000 years ago, whatever it is – there's an explosion of terminology as it were, you have the stuff in your head and you can imagine all kinds of fantasies and your qualia or even more. Now let me settle that question.

People make a great fuss about qualia... they call it the explanatory gap. How can the firing of neurons give rise to these warm sensations, these green sensations, etc.? Well, that question is ill-posed in my opinion because it misunderstands what science does. I'll get to that. But let me make a flat statement. According to this theory based on the neural Darwinism and the theory of neuronal group selection, consciousness is the qualia; the qualia are the discriminations. And you differ from a thermostat when you record heat in the following way: with the thermostat it's two positions – with you it could be oh, you just crashed your car or had someone bump into your car, you just had a problem about collecting a cheque, you were thinking of this and, God, isn't it warm in here? You have an immense multi-dimensional interaction of discrimination states and those states are exactly those discriminations and we know, neurologically speaking, why they're discriminant, because the nerves that come from this, from the visual centers are not the same patterns as the nerves that come from the auditory ones and their targets are not the same. So what have you got here? Well, what you have is what we call a dynamic core. This thalamocortical system is essential for consciousness. It's known that if you have a stroke in the thalamus you can become completely vegetative and not have any consciousness ever again. If you have a stroke in the cortex – for instance, the V1 where you handle vision primarily, on the path from the thalamus, V1 – you're blind, okay, but you're not losing consciousness. To get the cortex to have you lose consciousness you'd have to obliterate most of the cortex. But the thalamus is another story. The thalamus has particular nuclei which are responsible for setting the thresholds of these discriminations. That is the theory and the key part of the theory is this key event having to do with re-entry.

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: brain, consciousness, language, chimps, semantics, syntax, grammar, qualia, explanatory gap, neural Darwinism, temperature, nerves, stroke, thalamus, discriminations

Duration: 4 minutes, 38 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008