Why exogenous electric fields are not a problem for electric consciousness

October 29, 2008 at 2:08 am (Uncategorized)

With this post, I am addressing issues of more specific consciousness modeling, notably one raised with respect to my model of consciousness.  Mainly this is done because of confusion with JohnJoe McFadden’s “electromagnetic theory of consciousness,” which is a non-starter from the beginning.  Susan Pockett’s model may suffer from exogenous fields also, but it is hard to say, since her model is hardly one that deals with physical causation to any satisfactory degree.

McFadden’s “model,” as I understand it (be warned, I have not studied it in depth, because it has quite evident problems from the start) involves fields which supposedly escape the relative “confinement” of the action-potentials which create them, and then are supposed to generate action-potentials at some rather hazy point.  He also intends to model “free will,” and apparently not “weak free will” (which most of us would allow on some level), rather the sort that has no basis in physics, nor evidence to support it.

Because his model involves “fields” which are supposed to interact across macroscopic distances, the problem of exogenous electric fields has been used to criticize his claims.  He, in turn, has tried to argue that the brain is shielded (via dialectric materials?) from exogenous electric fields.  This could hardly be the case, since electric fields from the brain are detectable outside of the skull.  If those relatively low-voltage fields can get out, much stronger electric fields can also enter into the brain–there is no way of getting around that fact.

But it is likely that exogenous electric fields are not even the biggest problem with such a model anyway.  The fact is that McFadden’s “electromagnetic consciousness” would have completely unrelated information interacting within the electric fields, which is neither anything that one can imagine could be desirable, nor is it our conscious experience.  Adjacent, related (or at least contextual), data appear to interact in consciousness, while unrelated and distant information apparently do not.  Furthermore, the slight electric fields attending the action-potentials encoding particular data would be remarkably ineffective at macroscopic distances.

It was primarily because of the limits of electric field strength in its particulars, and the very undesirability of distant interactions between the data in the brain, that I modeled consciousness on fairly short-range interactions.  I am not sure of how short-range it would be, but surely an action-potential would not affect those existing beyond a few adjacent nerve cells in any one direction (partly because other cells of the brain also take up space).

I should just add that I have not modeled conscious electric field interactions to induce action-potentials (it may happen very occasionally, of course), but only to affect the timing of them (by affecting voltage-gated channels with electric fields).  In this way both similar and dissimilar encoded information could interact in order to both blend and to contrast information, and thus to coordinate the flow of data in the nerves.

I had not worried much about exogenous electric fields, largely because I knew that interactions between close action-potentials would be hard to disrupt.  The exogenous fields tend to be fairly uniform by contrast with close-by fields attending action-potentials, but it is also true that the voltage of the exogenous fields could in fact be rather larger than the voltages involved in interactions between close action-potentials, and still would cause little disruption to close-range interactions between the fields of action-potentials.  This is true because an electric field from, for instance, a power line, will tend to affect all fields with a similar charge virtually the same–although this would not be nearly so true of fields in the front and back of the brain of a powerline worker that is close to a live high-voltage current (again, this is why short-range interactions are not a problem, while large-range interactions would be).

And, of course, action-potentials tend to have the same charge overall, with a positive peak driving the action-potential along.  There are also negative charges, and a variety of positive voltages, in the action-potential, meaning that interactions with exogenous electric fields will be complex.  Overall, though, nearby positive peaks should continue to repel each other (also continuing to slightly alter the speed of opening of the voltage-gated channels on nearby nerves, affecting timing) regardless of exogenous electric fields, just like two close repelling magnets (of high coercivity) will continue to repel each other even though a very strong magnetic field is close by.  It would not matter to the magnets if the exogenous magnetic field was stronger than the magnetic fields interacting between the two magnets, because they are held close together and the exogenous field is affecting each magnet nearly the same as the other one.

Even so, it is true that brains and consciousness are affected by high alternating voltages in powerline workers, which I do not think is at all surprising.  The shifting voltages likely affect electrical activity in the brain more than would the same voltages if they were static.  Yet I am not certain that conscious electric field interactions would be much affected directly, since it is the differential force between the action-potentials that I model as causing consciousness (it is not the field that is conscious, rather it is the information-rich interactions within the field that is conscious), as forces acting within the larger, overall (combined) electric fields of the brain. 

The question some people would ask is, if consciousness is caused by such relatively short-range effective forces, why does consciousness seem to exist in fields which span macroscopic distances in the brain?  The point is that electric fields actually do combine via the relatively short-range effects between action-potentials, into much larger fields–without there being any need for the fields to substantially affect each other across macroscopic distances.  The short-range fields “stitch together” the larger fields by interacting at short distances across the whole field, the same way that chemical bonds can create massive objects by interacting with only close neighbors (the difference is that electric fields do interact significantly at greater distances than do most chemical bonds).

This is a subject that has tended to bug me, because it was never a problem for my model, and yet I have had to answer it over and over, as if my model has the same flaws as McFadden’s does.  That is why I went ahead and discussed it in the second post of this blog.


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