Thinking about the next move: 350 million years of consciousness

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Consciousness as we know it took a giant leap - 350 million years ago.

The metamorphosis involved improved animal visual systems after fish-like creatures transitioned from water to land some 350 million years in the past.

Living on land led to an increase in sensory space, a necessary step in the evolution of consciousness, according to Northwestern University neuroscientist Malcolm MacIver.

MacIver presented current scientific thought on consciousness, a key issue relating to his research on animal intelligence. He shared the latest wisdom at a Science Café gathering at Evanston's Firehouse Grill Wednesday.

Consciousness began to evolve as animals moved from water to land and had more options to consider, according to Northwestern University neuroscientist Malcolm MacIver. Tyler Smith/MEDILLConsciousness began to evolve as animals moved from water to land and had more options to consider, according to Northwestern University neuroscientist Malcolm MacIver. Tyler Smith/MEDILLMacIver used video, photographs, and props such as blindfolds and an ancient animal skeleton to help explain the idea of consciousness and how it has evolved.

The fossilized bones belonged to a fish-like amphibian that some call the missing link in the evolution of animals as they made the move from water to land. Known as Tiktaalik, these animals could breathe in water but also had some ability to move on land. The ancient amphibian is proof of the transition that was fundamental to the evolution of consciousness, MacIver said.

“Simply by taking our visual systems out of the water and into the air, we gained this enormous amplification of the sensory envelope,” he said. “We can then start to plan, if there is sufficient evolutionary pressure to do so.”

The improvement of animal visual systems and the subsequent increase in sensory information presented animals with additional behavioral options. Animals were able to see greater distances, which gave them more of an opportunity to plan their behavior. The opportunity to choose different behaviors is the basis of MacIver’s theory of consciousness.

“Consciousness is about surveying internal states of mind to pick one of several behavioral options for the future,” he said. This enables animals to better survive by choosing enbvironments that protect them from prey, for example.

After MacIver's presentation, audience members were able to ask questions. “How are you going to use this to make robots?” one person asked. MacIver explained to him that research must first attempt to make robots more reactive to external stimuli.

MacIver uses a multidisciplinary approach to study and quantify such difficult ideas. In his research, MacIver collaborates with scientists in mechanics and robotics, neuroethology and computational modeling. He himself has a background in computer science and philosopy as well as neuroscience and engineering. He looks at animals with a holistic view.

He is currently studying a fish from the Amazon that produces its own electric field to sense and attract prey. For this particular fish, there is little separation between sensing and reacting to a stimulus.

MacIver said our nervous system has evolved to deal with more immediate concerns. “This is a hallmark of our biological ancestry,” he said. “Our empathy is limited to what we can think and see in our near future."

This short-term focus, however, can be problematic. “What about the problem of taking care of the environment for future generations or taking care of greenhouse gasses?” he asked. “These are problems that are transgenerational. Our awareness doesn’t seem to be very well suited to work on temporal scales beyond our lifetime.”

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