Cracking at Consciousness: Why I Love Lucy

Cracking at Consciousness: Why I Love Lucy

Luc Besson’s 2014 film Lucy garnered criticism even before it premiered. This criticism stems from the movies foundational claim that “we only use 10% of our brain.” It is an obvious myth that anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of neuroscience could debunk. The famous case of railroad construction foreman Phineas Gage is enough to debunk this nonsensical claim. Our brains play a huge role in decision making, regulating digestion, and hydration.
However, this film — despite its scientific flaws — provides a more novel and nuanced way to think about how consciousness works. In the philosophy of mind, one of the most pressing issues is the hard problem of consciousness formulated by the philosopher David Chalmers. To be clear, I am not a neuroscientist and I actually don’t believe that neuroscience will “solve” Chalmers’ hard problem. The purpose of this essay is to provide intuition as to how to understand consciousness and the problems with Chalmers’ understanding. In a 2014 TED Talk, Chalmers described consciousness as a “movie in your head,” saying:
At the heart of this movie is you, experiencing all this directly. This movie is your stream of consciousness…consciousness is one of the fundamental facts of human existence.

It may seem small but the last word of the first sentence in the quotation above is a dead giveaway for how he frames consciousness: directly. Chalmers’ framing does not recognize human consciousness as a point on a potentially infinite continuum. It is this anthropocentrism which is at the heart of many intuitions about consciousness, but fortunately for us Besson’s Lucy provides us with a way of tackling it.

Like Besson’s film, Chalmers’ framing of consciousness falls prey to a myth. In this case it is “the myth of the given,” the idea that experiences come to us with a sort of foundational unmediated certainty, a notion that is attacked in Wilfrid Sellars’s seminal work “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” (1956). However, one can expound upon this concept to realize that consciousness can exist at different levels and that our consciousness is just one of many levels. Here are just a few examples:

  1. The change-blindness experiments of psychologists Daniel Simon and Christopher Chabris show that even adult consciousness is susceptible to perceptual blindness.
  2. V.S. Ramachandran’s and Colin Blakemore’s studies of blindsight in patient Graham Young show that human consciousness can be rendered to that of an cognitively lower animal (like an octopus) as unconscious perceptions can demonstrably influence behavior such as when one is driving.
  3. For patients with associative visual agnosia we can clearly see that such patients have an ability to clearly perceive familiar objects but be unable to articulate what they are.

The late philosopher James Cornman has more on this subject for those interested but it is worth noting that we are not always directly conscious in the way Chalmers thinks. But even when we are not afflicted with the aforementioned neuropathologies our consciousness is still not absolute. Our experiences become more vivid with our increasing capacity for conceptualization. The figure below is meant to illustrate this notion. Apprehension of an environmental percept is specific to the conceptual and psychological context of the perceiver.

One could describe apprehension as how much meaning or “conceptual weight” a specific percept carries.

In taking with the ten percent of the brain myth, the film begins with Lucy, the protagonist, who has been captured by the goons of a Korean mob boss to be a drug mule and to transport a blue powdery drug called CPH4 to Europe without getting caught. A bag containing the drug is surgically implanted in her abdomen. While in captivity awaiting transport via flight her captor kicks her in the stomach, releasing the drug inside of her. It is at this point, roughly twenty-six minutes into the film, that the following title card appears on the screen:

Lucy’s first brain spurt

Her brain usage has “doubled” and she is now “twice” as conscious as the average human. She experiences the world differently. Chinese characters automatically decipher themselves before her very eyes. She no longer feels pain. She can even feel the taste of her mom’s breast-milk in her mouth!

In this world, Chalmers’ hard problem of consciousness would be reframed as “the hard problem of 10%.” In examining this framing, we see that such a framing benefits us because the “hard problem” is now one of a third-person phenomenon — using one-tenth of the brain — instead of a nebulous first-person experience of “a movie in [the] head.” The film progresses with several similar title cards showing Lucy’s increasing cerebral capacity and her new abilities. But as faulty as the film’s premise is, it marvelously takes a sledgehammer to the binary of conscious vs. unconscious by centering a character who is a step above us “normal humans” in consciousness.

What’s worse for Chalmers’ framing is that such a binary does not even make any sense at a human level. We know that the brain develops both in uterō and ex uterō. Does a fetus taste amniotic fluid? Does a two-month-old have a subjective experience? Is a two-month-old conscious? Does a three-month-old perceive green? Such questions are meant to show that human consciousness is not clear and absolute, but rather messy and murky. In an interview with Robert Lawrence Kuhn for Closer to Truth, science writer and prominent skeptic Michael Shermer described consciousness thusly:

…a quantitative difference from all other living organisms and their thought processes generated by their brains. I wouldn’t say it’s anything qualitatively different from anything else in the biological world.

While this is a good description I nevertheless lament that even when human consciousness is correctly framed as gradations anthropocentrism still finds a way into the picture. The gradations are often made with comparison to other animals rather than to other humans like infants. We are not the same as who we were at the age of three weeks. This is to say that the existence and emergence of our current consciousness is entirely contained within our own development from the womb!

From the womb, we begin with our sense of proprioception, our sense of our bodies’ relative position and the first sense of which we make extensive use. (It seriously remains a mystery to me how this sense was not included in our elementary understanding of ‘five senses’). Repeated use of this sense builds connections into our brain to form our sense of self. Thus our consciousness is ultimately the sum total of the constant neuronal stimulation created by our repeated exposure to the world in which we live. These connections are additionally strengthened through an acquired conceptual scheme, a language, and an acquired ability to abstract. The figure below from a publication on the development of human somatosensory cortical functions shows what goes on behind the scenes of our “inner movie.”

A timeline of neurological development from the beginning of the fetal stage to adulthood

Like Chalmers in his talk, one might nevertheless still be tempted to ask why we have these “inner movies” in the first place. Why don’t these experiences “occur in the dark?” This question is misleading as is so much of the language used to describe consciousness. Calling them “inner movies” or even “experiences” is not rigorous; it does not get at what one even means by consciousness. As I outlined in the first graphical plot above, what is really going on is a vivid conceptual apprehension of perceptual phenomena, our ability to not only ‘sense P’, but also to ‘sense P as P.’ This ability is built up through conceptualization through language, our ability to understand ourselves as perceiving subjects, and repeated familiarity. A five-year-old might not have a conception of a C-major chord as a C-major chord, but Beethoven certainly did.

Chalmers’ absolutist notion would assume that the degree to which our brain is constantly stimulated while we are awake is at its peak. Additionally, his framing treats consciousness as foundational, making any sort of explanation impossible. If consciousness is just there what is there to explain? How can one provide a foundation for something that is thought to be without foundation? Lucy, in placing “normal” human consciousness on a spectrum, serves as a more entertaining and action-packed rebuttal to Protagoras. Man is not the measure of all things, not necessarily.

What I love about philosophy is its ability to teach one to question everything, including questions. Understanding where a question is coming from and the assumptions that are woven into it provides a way of tackling a problem from the outset. It’s even better when one can use examples from art, film, music, etc. to do this. Such examples and references thereto not only make philosophy fun, they also serve as good ways to avoid spinning one’s wheels in confusion and head-scratching. After all, there is already enough of that in today’s time, but especially in philosophy.

Humans consider themselves unique so they’ve rooted their whole theory of existence on their uniqueness.

 — Lucy, Lucy

Cornellian, Wahoo, electrical engineer, philosopher, composer, runner, friend, and brother.

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