This is a difficult topic however, I think I can make some headway.

First, what kind of consciousness are we talking about?

There are 2 types I think that people refer to.   One type is a spiritual kind that refers more to enlightenment.  Here is a link to a description of these types of consciousness.

The kind of consciousness I am discussing has to do with the distinction between say a rock and an ant and a monkey and a human.  At least how we perceive the consciousness of these things is.

A rock we think has no consciousness.  It is a fixed set of molecules not responding to the world around it.   A human has consciousness of the world and has a model of the world in his/her head.  We empathize with other people.  Conscious entities make creative leaps.  They have memory of the past and can relate it to current reality.  They react to the world and external stimuli with creative answers.  They perceive beauty in the world, They can create abstraction after abstraction of how the world works and communicate this level of understanding to other people through writing, speech or acts. We perceive the world and others in it and our place in it.

The human body has some obvious physical systems criticial to “consciousness” but it is not clear if all these characteristics are required or some are frosting on the cake.  Let’s consider human consciousness and some of the features of it.

  1. Memory
  2. Memory Linking
  3. Reasoning and planning
  4. Creativity and Curiosity
  5. Proprioception
  6. Senses
  7. Emotions and Priorities
  8. Concept Building
  9. Learning
  10. Empathy
  11. Pattern Recognition And Convolutional Abilities
  12. Spatial Awareness
  13. Time Awareness

The Elements of Consciousness?

1. and 2. Memory and Memory Linking

Memory is the ability of an organism to record and recall not only the stimuli that are presented to senses but also the internal deliberations, emotions and thoughts.

The memory linking feature is critical. One way of thinking of this is that at each point in time our memories record the related events and experiences from all our senses and internal processing in a holistic manner. Some of these linkages seem more important and are remembered better but the extent of our ability to store this recursively incredibly large amount of information is staggering.

I remember when I first read the book Dune I was listening to an Elton John album. I remember my room and the colors. I remember the time of day and if I thought hard enough I could relate it to other memories and probably pull out more stuff. For instance, just now thinking about it I remember the turntable I used to play the music.  How we store and cross-link this stuff is completely black box at this time.

A computer doing this would rapidly use up incredible amounts of memory as it would deterministically store every link and every sense. The size of this database would grow exponentially up to a point and would be impossible to use because there would be too much detail.

Not only that but the processing of memories would become exponentially more difficult as the size of the memory pool grew.   It’s not as simple as simply forgetting certain class of information or time frames.  So, the brain does a fantastic job of trimming and choosing what to remember.

Part of the memory system and linking system is some kind of prioritization system based on emotions, the significance of the memory and possibly other things we don’t know.

Without memory there can be no consciousness at least none that is intelligent. Memory is not simply memory of events, facts or senses but is also the internal cogitations, feelings and introspections. Without that there is no consciousness either just a database.

3. Reasoning and planning

One of the things we have no idea how the brain does is planning or executive functions. We think we know where in the brain this might happen but how or why is completely unclear.

This is highly related to consciousness since the ability to “think” is essentially this planning and reasoning function as well as the actions that result.  A thing cannot be said to be conscious if it only has an internal representation but cannot act on the results in any way we can relate to.

Sometimes we learn by simple pattern recognition and concept building but sometimes we also consciously think through and come to a new realization which can be just as important as through other mechanisms. The way the brain learns is very plastic.

This is not like computer planning and reasoning. First, computers don’t have any planning. Humans have planning, write computer code which directs a computer to do something.

The computer can only plan or think what a human thinks and the extent of its logic is totally limited at this time to the code that is written.   Thus the “planning” of computers is totally derivative.

When a computer plans to win a chess game it literally examines every possible move by either player and exhaustively computes which results in a better situation. A human brain can work “linearly” like this but it is not its best when it does this. It is impressive to see someone reason their way through the logical possibilities but this is simpler than the creative process that our human planning uses.

The human mind makes leaps like the things Penrose talks about. This is not something today we can imagine how a computer could do. We can only say if a computer can be programmed to be like a brain then we must be able to build a computer program to do it but Penrose says this is actually impossible because the creative leap of some things is theoretically impossible for a deterministic machine to do. You need to read his proof if you are interested.

The reasoning and planning process is distinctly different than the recognition and memory functions. Recognition serves to help learn but simply collecting information without planning an organism would get nothing done. Planning therefore is the process of living and reacting to the environment.

Intially we can imagine life simply reacted to stimuli. Using memory the response to the stimuli could be modified to reflect experience. Somehow this process of remembering responses, remembering stimuli and reaction led eventually possibly to a more comprehensive response which involved multi-step reactions.

Planning could be multi-step reactions. As the brain grew probably a key aspect of human brains is the ability to plan many steps ahead, to respond in more and more complex behaviors to stimuli and recognized patterns.

Nature clearly has some ability to pass on behaviors

The behavior of animals is incredibly complex sometimes. Frequently the theory is that the animals have behaviors tied to genetics. However, genetics change over millennia. The world changes rapidly. New threats emerge rapidly. In order to survive “the brain” emerged to be able to adapt faster. Tying the brain to genetics would slow it down. So, the brain must have an independent system of storage and replication.

Some people believe that the brain has built in programming. Some of this is true. For instance. Hit my knee in a certain way and the leg will fly up. However, storing lots of information this way using genetics would rapidly run into a combinatorial problem.

There is no way to store in the 3 billion base pairs information such as this. 3 billion base pairs may seem like a lot but to a computer and to the kinds of memories we are talking about 3 billion is nothing.

We also know no link tying the behavior or memories to genetics. The idea that certain penguins would have stored in genetics to go to a specific place, to get food at a specific place, how to get there, regurgitate it, hold the egg and the behavior of love would be baked into genes is hard to believe. How the genes would encode such behavior and produce neurons which caused the corresponding behavior is not only unknown it is hard to imagine how it could work.

Such a link would be dangerous as it is not clear how this would evolve rapidly or evolve at all. Clearly there is some information and behavior that is rudimentary and hard to change and a large amount that is influenced later and learned.

Consider how giraffes learn to walk. It takes humans 12 months to learn to walk. It takes giraffes 12 seconds. Coordination of limbs, nervous system all must be baked in somehow. Nobody has explained this.  How can patterns and behaviors even as simple as muscle movements be programmed into a brain before it emerges from the womb considering it takes a human 12 months to do the same?

This points out the complexity of this and the lack of our knowledge of the brain and genetics.

Planning can be as complex as imagining how to colonize mars or as simple as swinging a bat to hit a ball and win a game.

Why we would do either thing and how do we do either because it is not clear how or why we do either. What causes humans to reach for the stars? Is curiosity an aspect of consciousness?

We can program a computer to try to hit a ball. We would have sensors that would watch a ball, measure its velocity, its movement in all 3 dimensions carefully, incorporate physics to know how gravity and wind resistance effect things. We would also need to understand the dynamics of a human body down to the detail of voltages necessary to produce this kind of movement of this motor and that motor. We would have to elaborately plan the set of motor voltages to induce the motion. We would calculate where we wanted to put the ball.

If the computer had human level of information and dexterity to perform the task the computer could be programmed to work but this is not how a human works and it is likely a computer with similar sensory skills and muscular skills would be much worse than a human.

A human takes into account the context of the pitcher throwing the ball, understanding of the situation in the game to make a guess what kind of pitch it will be allowing the human to make a guess about the pitch that exceeds the human’s sensory information capability and the human has years of experience hitting the ball and practicing the movements which somehow are learned and then able to be improved.  This process is also not understood.

Going beyond sports imagine dancing. Dancing also involves art which means that the figures and shapes chosen and the combinations of movements depend on a creative element tied to an unknown qualia having to do with beauty which we have no way of describing to a computer. Planning a dance would be possible with a computer but would miss the creative element. The injection of new style that each dancer brings to their work.  The sense of beauty we see.

4. Creativity and Curiosity

Creativity is a critical and maybe the most critical aspect of consciousness. A purely un-creative consciousness would be a deterministic robot similar to what we think of as a bee or flea.

Interestingly, recent studies have shown that individual insects have their own personality. Insect don’t choose randomly to do something. Different individual insects will choose to do behaviors differently than others. In other words each insect has a personality.

Even a creature as tiny and having minimal brain capability and a very small number of neurons shows significant variation from individual to individual.    This variability is undoubtedly part of how creatures survive the competitive landscape around them.

I can’t say if some creatures are creative but as we get to more complex creatures we can definitely see how some can seem to reason and apply creative solutions.  There is a video of a dog which carrying a large stick back to its owner. The dog is repeatedly faced with the problem that the bone is too large to pass through some posts.   The posts are placed at the entrance to a bridge so the only way to proceed is for the dog to figure out how to get the stick past the posts. The dog repeatedly tries to pass the stick through in a brute force way but failing that eventually comes up with a way to turn the stick so it fits through the aperture.

There is video of a jellyfish climbing out of a pool and going to a fish tank nearby to eat creatures.

What I am saying is that there is a continuum of consciousness and creativity.   When we think of using computers to replace humans in jobs it is mainly jobs that require no creativity.  Getting from A to B on the road shouldn’t require creativity.  What is most problematic about driving is dealing with human beings who are creative on the road and do unexpected things.

Humor is one aspect of creativity I find very intriguing. The government has spent a considerable amount of money trying to discern textually the difference between the use of “bomb” as a humorous device and as a terrorist device. Being able to tell the difference would be very helpful to narrow down people engaged in nefarious activities. Unfortunately it is impossible to tell so far.

Computers fail at humor both to understand it or recreate it. It is possibly one of the most creative aspects of human intelligence. In Star Trek “Data” the robot struggled with humor. It is not simply a matter of making illogical statements to generate humor. Humor depends on a deep understanding of culture and events.

Penrose claims that our intelligence is beyond computer intelligence and even beyond quantum intelligence as we understand it. Creativity is the critical element we have never seen a computer do.

Something can appear creative by exhaustively searching all possible ways to do something but while that works to come up with solutions it is not what a brain does at least not consciously.

5. Proprioception

This one is easier.  Our bodies have internal sensors that tell us its operating condition and state.  This includes things like the placement of our limbs in space, the pain at a joint, the condition of our stomach, etc.

Does internal perception of our own selves bodies constitute a necessary part of consciousness?  I think you could argue both sides.

Feeling like you have a “self” and have pain or needs is separate from emotions (this is a separate category in my breakdown of consciousness.) .  If you don’t know if you are hungry then you can’t have a motive to find food to eat.  Without these kinds of basic motives it’s not clear you can relate to other living things or have any purpose.   I am not sure how this might be crucial to consciousness.

It is also hard to imagine consciousness without any connection to self, i.e. a physical body.  Pure consciousness might be an interesting concept but without the limitations of a body and the ability to interact with the world which requires feedback and the ability to control your body might not work.

When computer scientists speak of consciousness they are frequently referring to it as some abstract thinking thing that could perceive and perform logic and recognize and all the things in this taxonomy but not the physical ones.  I don’t think most computer science AI types would think a physical body was necessary for consciousness but maybe it is.  That’s why it’s been so hard to replicate.

6. Senses

These are your eyes, ears, nose, taste and touch.  It is not clear which are necessary for consciousness but a conscious being must interact with the world which means they have to have some senses.

We see good examples of conscious humans who don’t see or hear or can’t smell.   So, it is likely you need some senses but not all.  Other senses could be useful to and possibly substitute.

7. Emotions and Priorities

In my view an unemotional conscious entity would be impossible.

Emotion drives planning.   It also is key to learning.  One of the biggest problems with AI is that there is no emotion.  A computer has no reason to favor one thing to learn over another.  That unbiased learning means it is very hard for computers to decide what are important abstractions and what to learn or when learning something to decide it is important.

We have no way to represent emotion in computers today.

I am not sure we even know what emotions are.   However, emotions like love, sorrow, joy and pain are critical to consciousness, empathy, motivation and art or creativity.

I have no idea how to represent these emotions as a computer scientist.

In addition, the desire to survive, to procreate, to learn are important characteristics.  Creatures may have the ability to learn and become more aware or conscious and to make connections but without a drive to do so it is not clear how a creature would become aware. Emotions help drive priorities in every aspect of learning, consciousness and behavior.

8.  Concept Building / Abstractions

A key part of learning and the brain is “concept or abstraction building.”  One of the key successes of recent AI work has been in neural nets which simulate the first and second level abstraction similar to a human brain.

A human brain can do hundreds of levels of abstraction.  Possibly more.  Our abstractions are complex with multiple linked qualia associated with the abstraction not just a single neuron that is able to recognize some abstraction.

It may be that the limitation of dogs and other animals to become more intelligent is related to the number of levels of abstraction that can be built. Maybe a key distinguishing characteristic of the human brain is a breakthrough in how many abstraction levels can be built.

An abstraction is something that is learned from patterns and is a big part of pattern recognition but I associate much more significance that our concept building is very robust and huge.

It is not simply a matter of applying convolutions and optimizing some parameters to get to a better recognition. Concepts are associated with a sudden flush of deeper understanding that can influence everything we have learned before.

Abstractions can be built up through sheer thinking.

9. Learning

Consciousness learns.  It evolves based on experiences.  A non-evolving thing cannot be said to be conscious almost by definition.

Almost all living things learn.  That is required to survive and implies that all living things have some level of consciousness.

The faster something can learn the more advanced its consciousness.

Learning means that a conscious being must change and improve based on experiences.  You can’t have a penultimate consciousness that is all intelligent because it wouldn’t evolve or learn.  It already knows everything which by definition means it is not conscious.

The world is not static therefore if you don’t learn you aren’t conscious because you aren’t aware of the changing world.

10. Empathy

A conscious entity must not only be aware of other creatures around it but must be able to relate to the other creatures in its purview.  It should be able to recognize the problems of other creatures that are conscious.

Emotions and empathy are tied together. Empathy also is part of learning. By watching and relating to what some other creature is doing you can learn.

11. Pattern Recognition And Convolutional Abilities

This is one of the areas humans using computers have spent a lot of time working on.

One thing to understand is that we are surrounded by an almost unbelievable amount of information around us in the form of moving molecules and radiation. Our bodies evolved to be able to detect some of these forms of information.

We don’t see cosmic rays because there was no evolutionary purpose to seeing them. Instead we see color which is an interesting thing because it doesn’t exist in nature as we see it. Our eyes combine 3 sensors for light to produce a thing we call color.

This is very useful because color combines characteristics of something that otherwise might be hard to discern. It allows us to identify things better almost like a spectrometer might do. Color is not real in the sense that there is no orange in nature. It is made up by our brains.

We associate good feelings with some colors and some shapes. It’s not clear why. Beauty is not well understood.

Our eyes have convolutional ability in the initial neurons enabling them to recognize images with similar features independent of color, size, orientation.

It has been postulated that human recognition works by comparing current input from senses and matching against previous inputs. This matching occurs at an abstract level. At each point the brain predicts what the next expected input is. When the input differs from the expected input the brain goes into action.

Our current pattern recognition algorithms don’t work this way.

12. Geographical Awareness

Awareness of your physical place on the Earth or in relation to other things in the conscious beings world.

It is clear that almost all living things have a pretty amazing understanding of the physical world around them.  In order to survive you have to know where you and other things in the environment exist.  Even if you don’t have sight you may need something like GPS or magnetic detection.

In addition you have to conceptually put yourself in that place in the world.  There are indications there are parts of the brain that help us locate ourselves geographically.

13. Time Awareness

One thing all living things seem to share is the idea of the passage of time.  We feel the passing of time.   There is a belief in physics there may be no absolute reference of time but there is still a perception of time.


The 13 key elements of consciousness may not be exhaustive and some may be redundant or derivative of other elements. However, in general our ability to perceive the world and interact with it is incredible.

Humans have been able to discern amazing things about the world around us from very little information. First, our senses give us false information and very little information.

With our learning, pattern recognition and other skills above we have been able to construct experiments and build equipment that give us an understanding that is quite broad. Certainly humans were conscious before we understood the world was round or knew the sun was mostly a giant ball of hydrogen under nuclear fusion.

Our consciousness is partly a feeling. A feeling that we are aware, thinking, independent creatures who exist. That we have a separate existence from the universe around us.

This idea of consciousness and awareness of the world is different than what rocks have and there are gradations of consciousness.

The next article I will try to take these elements of consciousness and categorize them into levels or categories of consciousness. The purpose of this is to help us think about computer intelligence and consciousness.