In an earlier post, I referred to my idea that human consciousness consists of a highly evolved piece of software, which I like to call the Human Consciousness Program (HCP). As I also expressed earlier, I believe that the HCP consists of modules. An example of a module would be Marriage, which I believe to be an instinctual module. Another would be Hearing, a module responsible for the processing of sound information. Many of these modules also have a bit of hardware associated with them. For example, Hearing obviously has some hardware in the form of the ears, auditory nerve, and sound processing center of the brain.
The most basic of all of the modules, though, is the Temporal Module. This guy also has a piece of hardware: The Temporal Processor. Functionally, the Temporal Processor observes the passage of time. The mechanism whereby the brain is able to do this is poorly understood, but we know that it is associated with the part of the brain known as the Temporal Lobe, because if this part of the brain becomes damaged, that poor person is no longer able to experience the passage of time. Bummer! Also, the way I perceive of the passage of time is closely linked to my age: The older I am, the faster it seems time passes to me.
The reason I consider the Temporal Module to be so foundational is because all human perception is ultimately temporal: Every experience either becomes a memory – or it doesn’t. In which case that experience is lost. In either case, the term “experience” is defined as the output of a module (say, Eating) which is running in the Foreground at the time.
Here’s how it works, at least in my head. My brain focuses on one or more things in an area I refer to as the Foreground. If I am really paying attention (as I am right now as I write this blog), then I pretty much only experience one thing. However, I can (as I did tonight) simultaneously eat and watch TV. This means my awareness is at least partially on both. Although I may remember less of both the black berries with Greek Gods Honey Vanilla yoghurt and the movie One For the Money with Katherine Heigl as a result of giving less attention to both.
The “one or more things” that my brain focuses on are, of course, modules as well. Take Eating. Definitely an instinctual module, i.e. a built-in. I certainly did not have to be taught to eat. I had to be taught how to eat, that’s table manners. I also had to be taught to cook, that’s cuisine. Both table manners and cuisine are examples of human culture. But eating? It’s not that hard: Just put nutrients in my mouth, chew and swallow. Repeat often and so forth.
The form of entertainment I was enjoying, though, that’s Art. There is an Art Module, of course. Every human on planet Earth makes art in some way every day of their lives, even if it’s only a PB&J. But Art gets turned into more varied and wonderful forms of culture than any other module that I know of.
Anyway, I take the output from modules like Eating and Art. These flow through the Foreground Processor. Intimately associated with this is the perception of time, again the Temporal Processor.
These experiences are eventually stored in two places: Short term memory and Long term memory. These are two of the most fascinating parts of the brain of all. I have spent a lot of time observing the way my memory works and how I learn. Basically, what I see is a rather small storage space for short term memory. The exact size of this space is variable, depending on a lot of factors, including fatigue, overall health, genetics, etc. It can also be trained. I find that I am able to dramatically enhance the size of short term memory by simply using it a lot. I engage in games like Scrabble which exercise this part of the brain for this reason.
About 90% of my experiences are stored in my short term memory, and I am told that’s pretty good. Then the Short Term to Long Term Memory Module (ST2LTMM) kicks in. This guy is interesting: It’s his job to sift through my short term memory and decide what’s important enough to keep. About 99% of all of my experiences simply get chucked.
I heard a fascinating piece on NPR about folks who have a photographic memory. These guys (and gals) can literally repeat a narrative of every experience they have ever had (at least after long term memory starts work at around 3 or 4). In fact they talked about that on the piece: These folks literally remember when their long term memory started firing, because that’s the first experience they can remember.
This condition can be thought of as a dysfunction of the LT2STMM, because it simply stores everything in long term memory. (Probably folks with this condition have a redundant short term memory, but the ST2LTMM simply copies everything into long term memory.) This works because the human brain is vastly over-sized for the amount of data I need to store. The estimate in this article is around 2.5 PB of space, enough for around 300 years of experiences, even assuming all of them are stored.
Anyway, as my experiences in long term memory age, they decay over time. Refreshing them again by washing another similar set of experiences through short term memory helps make them retain longer. Eventually, if I repeat the same data stream often enough (like watching the movie Gladiator 20 times), I know the whole thing by heart.
That’s just how the Foreground stuff works. I used to think the Foreground was one experience at a time, effectively single threaded. But now I know there is limited multi-threading. Still the number of modules I can run in the Foreground at a time is very small, maybe 2 or 3 max. And some of them effectively steal your entire awareness. Sex for example. Ever tried to have a conversation, eat, watch TV or anything else, while having sex? Impossible. Sex takes full and complete control of my entire Foreground space, which is one reason why it is so enjoyable.
There are also a class of modules I call Awareness Stealers. These modules are constantly clamoring for my attention. Examples include things like Itching, Pain, Worry, and so forth. Sex is also an Attention Stealer, assuming that I am randy.
In the Background space there are hundreds (possibly thousands) of modules all running at the same time. I am still in the process of figuring out many of these, and the task is rather daunting. Lots of background modules are completely autonomic, although they also respond to commands from the brain.
An excellent example of this type of module is the Immune System, which has lots of dedicated hardware, but definitely also responds to commands from the brain. That’s the reason why the placebo effect works, of course. I think that the saw palmetto that I am taking is going to help my seasonal allergies. And lo and behold: It does! That’s because my brain fired a module called Faith. Faith allows me to believe things which my senses may not agree with at the moment. I may think saw palmetto is hokey, but if I exercise my faith, I might just catch a healing!
Other deep background modules include Heartbeat, Breathing, Sweating, UV Response, and others. Heartbeat is a fun one. Of course the brain controls my heartbeat: We all know that! But Heartbeat can actually be trained. I have done a bit of this, and have met folks who have done far more. Practitioners of Buddhist meditation obtain some limited control over their heart rate. Thus, Heartbeat has at least a bit of conscious control, since it can be trained.
I am trying to develop a system to diagram all of this. If any of my readers has a handle on the best way to diagram the structure of modules in the human brain, please let me know.