These things seem, to me, to be deeply related and interconnected. I don’t know why. Call it a hunch. I couldn’t find very much literature on the neural correlates of these six aspects of our cognitive functioning, so it seems to be not much studied, or the terms are too nebulous to study, given our current understanding of the brain and our investigative technology. I don’t know which.
They are, however, remarkable characteristics of our species. It’s not clear why we even have them.
Consciousness – When you think about it, it’s amazing that some parts of the universe are not self-aware, but other parts of it, its organisms, can be. It is also pretty amazing that there is a spectrum of self awareness, whereby organisms alive in the universe are not only self-aware, but capable of curiosity and speculation. They investigate and theorise about the nature of the rest of the universe. That’s an amazing phenomenon, if you stop to consider it, for a moment. Why should a bag of molecules of various kinds actually exhibit curiosity? Why would a part of the universe want to know about itself?
It is exceptionally difficult to create a genuinely self-aware mechanism or organism, if its DNA blueprint doesn’t naturally do that for you. In fact, I don’t think it has ever been done and I doubt very much that it will be done, let alone soon. I don’t think our models and understanding of consciousness are complete enough to achieve that. I don’t think our models and understanding of consciousness are anywhere near complete at all. They’re primitive. Those that propose making a system with enough neuronal connections, simulated by computers and software, as being necessary and sufficient conditions for the emergence of consciousness are barking up the wrong tree, in my view. I can’t prove it. Nobody can. There are a lot of people, though, that make decisions that impact lives on the basis that consciousness can be created, if only we have a computer big enough and connected enough. It feels like arrogance and hubris to me.
Curiosity – Why do we care how things work or how to make things that don’t yet exist? What drives our need to know? We seem to have a cognitive proclivity to investigate, to wonder, to create models of understanding about what we’re investigating and to make predictions, based on our understanding and mental model. What a peculiar thing for an organism to do.
We understand curiosity so poorly that we do a very poor job of fostering it, in our children. If anything, kids are educated to suspend their curiosity and take, as read, things that are told to them by figures in authority. Yet, some people cannot fight the need to investigate for themselves, to understand things in depth and to uncover the truth. Truth seems to be a big concept, in curiosity. We want to know the actuality and the reality. Knowing that we have imaginative powers and creative powers, which enable us to see and make the world in any manifestation of our choosing, it is remarkable that we distrust the ability to create mental illusions that we, ourselves, use all the time and instead go looking for the root of what we seek to enquire about. We aren’t satisfied with imaginary models of the universe. They have to actually work. We need to know that what we think is reliably mirrored, in the universe around us. We seek the truth about things, through our curiosity, relentlessly.
Sometimes, our curiosity is aided and abetted by our intuition and our ability to imagine scenarios, but plausible ones, that reflect ultimate reality. This is why when the official explanation for traumatic events doesn’t satisfy the test of whether or not this can work in reality, those with curiosity begin investigating deeper, imagining other, more plausible explanations and attempting to prove their alternative explanation. Conspiracy theories are just curiosity trying to find a satisfactory explanation for events that works, in relation to the real world, better than the unsatisfying, fictitious accounts given by the authorities. Curiosity is our inner sceptic. It’s our believability filter.
Creativity – It’s one thing to be self-aware, to enquire about how things work and to ruminate, speculate and ponder, but quite another thing for an organism to decide to shape the world, according to its understanding of how other substances and structures in the universe around them work. Being able to have a tangible effect on the universe is a remarkable characteristic. It seems that the greater your ability to think, with a more attuned consciousness than other organisms, the broader and more ambitious the scope of what you create.
That creativity sometimes runs amok and out of control, but generally only because of the limits of our current understanding of the rest of the universe. As much as we think we know, using our consciousness as thinking guide, it never seems to be enough. Creativity is one of our greatest gifts, but also one of the things that inadvertently get us, as a species, into the most difficulties. Again, I’ve not seen a computer programme even approach the ability to create something truly original. Even the work computers create, derived from human creations, still fail to hit the mark. It’s an interesting question why that should be.
Intuition – We don’t really know where hunches come from, but there are people that learn to rely on them as a guide to what to investigate analytically and methodically. Intuition seems to defy physics, in that it is predictive of the future, in many cases. Or so it seems. Intuition is not well understood at all. Those that have a highly developed sense of intuition seem to be able to harness it in order to do science, to invent, to create the thing that will resonate most with other people, to avoid bad relationships and so on, but nobody really understands if it’s pure chance, with a healthy dose of self-justification, or a genuine ability to sense the universe in one more way, beyond sight, sound, touch and smell.
Artists seem to use their intuition all the time, as a group. They love to follow the leads given by their hunches and to explore the intellectual territory beyond. It seems to guide their artistic, creative decisions and they are consciously aware of what their intuition tells them, but not conscious of why, or how their intuition came up with its results. Intuition is more mysterious than consciousness and creativity, both of which are poorly understood, from the point of view of how they work, yet obviously and generally recognised by everybody. They work together, in concert, but nobody has a model of how and why.
Dreaming – There have been numerous studies on dreaming and rapid eye movement sleep, yet it’s still baffling why a piece of the universe, an organism, should have developed this ability. Does it play a role in natural selection and evolution? What is dreaming for? Does it merely flush out the waste products of thinking that accumulate in our brain, does it provide a way of organising our thoughts and filing away our memories, or is it a creative act, taking place while we’re unconscious, by the brain, in an attempt to entertain us while we sleep. Does it inform our intuition, or report on it, in a distorted, yet visibly lucid way? Do dreams have meaning and predictive power, or are they random side shows, serving no good purpose? Nobody really knows.
Daydreaming seems to be a deliberate dream state that we can induce in ourselves, more or less at will, but sometimes because we’re not paying attention of concentrating, whereby even though we are awake, self-aware and conscious, we can enter a twilight zone, where we dream, often in graphic detail, without full conscious control of what we daydream. Sometimes we kick our daydreaming in a particular direction, deliberately, and then our minds take over and develop the daydream in surprising and delightful ways. Why should organisms, such as us, possess this ability? There are no convincing and thorough answers. It’s not even studied, very much.
Imagination – This is akin to daydreaming, but much more consciously directed. Your intuition might tell you that something good lies in a region of your imagination and so you attempt to access it, deliberately and with the purpose of bringing it to the fore. Imagination is where the blueprints for the things you create are drawn up. What you imagine could have come from an unconscious dream, or a semi-conscious daydream. Imagination needs input, like a fuel, which it then turns into something that you can physically realise, if necessary, or which you deliberately cannot, so that it remains a pure mental construct. We cannot physically exceed the speed of light and visit far off galaxies instantly, or travel back in time, but we can easily imagine both. Why should that be?
I’ve never yet seen evidence of machine-made imagination. Even creative outputs that come from algorithms, which can be realistic looking and convincing, still fail the imagination test. Artificial intelligence is incapable of producing something imaginative. It can create a pastiche, it can provide the illusion, but it cannot actually do it. Imagination is one of our more mysterious and amazing cognitive abilities and also one of our most useful. How it actually works remains unknown.
These characteristics, Consciousness, Curiosity, Creativity, Intuition, Dreaming and Imagination, all seem to work together and draw upon similar motivations. Together, they allow us to become artists. They permit science and engineering. They are the basis for all human progress.
Why an organism, alone (as far as we know) in the universe, should possess these remarkable neurological abilities, defies all rational explanation. It is nothing less than astonishing. We have found precious little evidence of these abilities, to the same level of proficiency, in any other organism on earth, or elsewhere in the universe. That may be due to our limited understanding of the range of expression of these abilities in other structures in the universe, or it may be the truth.
Think long and hard about the fact that each and every member of the human race is capable of these remarkable abilities, before you write somebody else’s life off as not worth living, regarding somebody else as sub human, denigrating or degrading another human being or thinking that killing and maiming any other human is justifiable on any grounds. Be aware that other structures in the universe might share these abilities, but we haven’t found a way to access, understand or observe them yet.
Whether we, alone in the universe, are uniquely capable of consciousness, curiosity, creativity, intuition, dreaming and imagination, or whether those abilities are everywhere in the universe, in different guises, both ideas are truly breathtaking. More amazing yet, though, is despite those astonishing abilities, we still don’t know the answer to that question.