An Ecological Perspective

Allan Combs
University of North Carolina at Asheville
Saybrook Graduate School

Sally Goerner
Triangle Center for the Study of Complex Systems
374 Wesley Court, Chapel Hill, NC 27515 


The evolution of consciousness is seen in the context of energy driven evolution in general, where energy and information are understood as two sides of the same coin. From this perspective consciousness is viewed as an ecological system in which streams of cognitive, perceptual, and emotional information form a rich complex of interactions, analogous to the interactive metabolism of a living cell. The result is an organic, self-generating, or autopoietic, system, continuously in the act of creating itself. Evidence suggests that this process is chaotic, or at least chaotic-like, and capable of assuming a number of distinct states best understood as chaotic attractors.

Key Words

autopoiesis, chaos, consciousness, energy, evolution, information, states, system

1. Introduction: Information, life and self-organizing processes

Old ideas of information as "neg-entropy" were steeped in the Mechanistic Age thermodynamic notion that the universe is losing organized energy and running down directly toward disorder. In this framework, the occasional outposts where systems swim upstream like salmons against the entropic current were understood to be in some sense unnatural. These recalcitrant systems included living organisms of all types, and evidently ecological systems as well. Today, at the dawn of the Age of Evolutionary Systems (Laszlo, 1987), it is increasing apparent that such salmon-like systems are not only common, but the natural and inevitable result of inherent self-organizing processes grounded in the basic architecture of the cosmos (Fox, 1988, Goerner, 1994).

To be more specific, we are now coming to understand the innate tendency of energy systems to evolve into structures that capture energy and use it to organize even more complex, flexible, and tenacious structures. New understandings of interdependent dynamics (commonly called chaos and complexity) are helping explain the mechanisms by which such structures self-organize. It turns out that systems which exist far from equilibrium are the natural product of the self-organizing tendencies of energy currents throughout the universe to move toward greater complexity. Such complexity can be defined in terms of information as well as thermodynamics. Thus these systems are information intensive, capturing free but patterned energy from the environment and using it to enrich their own complex structures.

Energy driven evolution has been conceptualized as represented at several levels of increasing complexity. The first is morphogenesis, or shape changes that increase the efficiency of energy flow (Abraham, 1985). Examples include tornadoes, whirlpools, Benard cells, and reproductive chemical networks (Csanyi, 1985). The second major level of complexity is life, living systems beginning with the simplest single cells that not only use energy to maintain their shape and internal dynamics (metabolism), but also follow energized trails of molecules toward new energy sources that provide the resources they need (Swenson, 1991). Thus, life is unique because it adds intentionality--movement toward energy concentrations needed to sustain itself, and relative autonomy from the immediate gradients that maintain simpler morphogenic systems.

The following of fine-grained energy patterns that lead to the resources needed to survive represents the first use of "information" of the practical variety. This being the case, early life can also be conceptualized as an elementary type of mind, one that uses information to pursue intelligent, life-sustaining behaviors. Hence, as Maturana and Varela put it, "to live is to cognize" (Maturana & Varela, 1987; see also Pattee, 1982). From these beginnings life has evolved toward increasingly complex organization and energy utilization, leading in a direct line to increasingly complex minds. The human brain itself seems to leverage the greatest amount of energy with the least effort of any known system in the universe.

The third major level of complexity is that of supra-living, or social systems. These include human societies with their economies and technologies. They organize and direct much larger energy flows than the living organisms of which they are composed (i.e., individual human beings). Each of these three levels comes into being and advances by complex energy-driven interdependent dynamics (Goerner, 1994, forthcoming). In all this it seems clear that the motif of energy-driven complexification is virtually a universal organizing principle throughout cosmos. In this paper we hope to take a first step toward applying it to one of the most enigmatic aspects that cosmos, consciousness itself.

2. Consciousness and information

Let us momentarily adopt a subjective stance. Doing so we will discuss consciousness itself, then connect the resulting ideas with notions of energy, information, and evolution.

Consciousness always has an object. In other words, it is always about something (Combs, 1995b). We are not just conscious, we are conscious of the taste of food, the smell of the sea, a tooth ache. We are conscious of joy, of boredom, of the meaning of words on the page in front of us, of the sound of music playing in the next room, of our own thoughts, of memories. The point is that virtually all experience is experience of something. This has been a given in psychology and philosophy for a long time. Now let us also consider the situation from the point of view of the brain. The exact relationship between consciousness and the brain is not known, and is unlikely to become known in the immediate future. It is generally understood, however, that the two are intimately connected. In particular, events in consciousness do not occur without corresponding events in the brain, though we may not know their precise nature. (There are, of course, events in the brain that do not registrar in consciousness.) Let us go one step further and note that events which lead to increased complexity in conscious experience also must in their own way lead to increased complexity in brain processes. To look at a tree in bloom presents the mind with a picture of pleasing complexity. Likewise, we cannot doubt that the brain is treated to a similar upgrade in complexity, and that electrochemical changes there support our experience of pleasure as well. New abilities to measure the degree of complexity of perceptual processes are now beginning to confirm that this is the case (Gentry & Wakefield, 1990).

In the above example it is apparent that looking at a tree in bloom in-forms both the brain and the mind, or conscious experience, in a way that increases their complexity. Their information level has been enlarged. Here we see the interchangability of experience and information. Consciousness would seem to be intimately involved with the informing of the brain and mind by objects of attention. Moreover, on the brain side we see that the complexification associated with a conscious experience also involves an increase in energy, though this may be only be of a small amount. Here again the connection with neg-entropy comes into play as a decrease in disorganization and an increase in order. These ideas can be developed much further (e.g., Germine, in preparation), but would take us away from our present course.

With the understanding that conscious experience does not occur without the presence of correlated events in the patterns of brain processes, we now turn our attention to the self-organizing nature of mind, or consciousness. However, we will keep in mind that mental processes are bankrolled by energy-driven brain processes which evolve from moment to moment in the exquisitely complex process lattices of the nervous system.

3. An ecological understanding of consciousness

Consciousness is perhaps best understood from an ecological perspective in which the ongoing events that structure it are seen as a rich interacting complex of informing cognitive, perceptual, and emotional information subsystems analogous to the interactive energy driven metabolism of a living cell. The result is an organic, self-generating, or autopoietic, system constantly in the act of creating itself.

Informal introspection reveals the overall fabric of conscious experience at each moment to be constructed of a variety of undergirding psychological processes such as memory, perception, and emotion (e.g., James 1890/1981; Combs, 1993b; Combs, 1995b). This idea is consistent with Tart's (1975, 1985) view that states of consciousness, including dream and non-dream sleep, various drug-induced and ecstatic states, as well as ordinary waking consciousness, are formed of unique patterns of psychological functions, or processes, that fit comfortably together to make something like a gestalt. We may suspect that this comfortable gestalt represents an energy minimum from the brain's point of view.

There is increasing evidence on many fronts that such psychological processes, as well as the neurological events that undergird them, are partially chaotic or, if they do not meet the formal criteria for chaos (e.g., Kellert, 1993), at least chaos-like (e.g., Abraham & Gilgen, 1994; Basar, 1990; Freeman, 1995; Pribram, 1995; Robertson & Combs, 1995). That is, they appear to be deterministic and nonlinear, exhibiting globally predictable patterns of behavior that never exactly repeat themselves, and are not predictable in detail. In other words, these psychological processes can be modeled as chaotic attractors. From this it seems reasonable that consciousness itself, as a whole fabric, can be understood as a complex system comprised of chaotic or chaotic-like psychological processes (Goertzel, 1994; Goertzel, 1995). The advantage to this state of affairs is added flexibility. For instance, in a memory search the injection of chaos keeps the process fluid, so the memory attractor, which can be viewed either psychologically or neurologically, is not permanently distracted into small incorrect minima, or in other words, so that incorrect items are not selected and the search terminated before the correct one is recalled.

Bringing the above ideas together, we suggest that each state of consciousness, mood, or frame of mind, represents a unique and coherent--minimal energy--fit for the in-formation streams represented by the many psychological processes which comprise it, producing a stable pattern or gestalt. Further, the stability of the pattern arises from its autopoietic tendency to self-organize. How this works on the level of experience is discussed at length elsewhere (Combs, 1993a, 1995a), but need not be subtle. For instance, an ordinary episode of depression is usually accompanied by behaviors that actively feed that state of mind, or at least don't rally against it. In the mean time, cognitive processes such as thought, perception, and memory become tilted toward depressing outcomes. Research suggests, for example, that when we are depressed we tend to recall unpleasant episodes from our past (Bower, 1981). These recollections in turn feed the mood of depression, and so perpetuate a continuous cycle of memory and mood. To disrupt such a self-perpetuating circuit one needs to engage in activities that can up-end the dominant depressive attractor. For instance, one can visit friends, listen to a rousing piece of music, eat a good meal, or take a brisk walk in the forest.

The essential notion here is that the whole cloth of consciousness is woven of a tightly knit informational patchwork of subprocesses, each made possible and supported on all sides by the totality of the cloth itself, while at the same time contributing its own part to the creation of that totality. To put it another way, consider two discrete states of consciousness, the ordinary waking state and dream sleep. Each is an entire world of experience. Each carries its own intrinsic styles of thinking, its own forms of memory, feelings, thought and perceptions--its own possibilities. Dream thought, for instance, arises from the total experience of the dream and cannot be sensibly separated from it. At the same time, it contributes its unique quality to the dream.

Recently, a few neuroscientists (e.g., Freeman, 1995; Sulis, 1996) have extended the above line of thought to include an understanding that the human brain did not evolve in isolation, but in the community of other such brains. Thus for human beings, processes such as thought, perception, emotion, and even memory, are usually shared events within tribal, family, and community groups. Exceptions are rare and sometimes celebrated, but do not represent the customary basic mode of human experience. Thus it would seem that we need to seek a more complete understanding of social systems, from dyads to civilizations, in the context of the informational systems that nest the conscious experience of individual minds within much larger dynamic community systems. These systems are, in fact the "supra-living" systems seen earlier in the article. Here, however, we note that such systems do not represent a hierarchically higher and separate category of energy organization, but in fact are interpenetrated by human experience and consciousness itself.


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