Ask Ray | A little thought experiment on cognitive functions

August 15, 2013 by Ray Kurzweil

Image created with the Connectome Mapping Toolkit (credit: University of Lausanne and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne)

Dear Ray,

After finishing reading The Singularity Is Near and How to Create a Mind I have a few questions about some higher level cognitive functions in regards to your theory of pattern recognizer construction of the brain.

First, you believe that all forms of organized information systems have some form of consciousness albeit at varying degrees of magnitude.

More importantly there seems to be a positive correlation with the number of levels of hierarchy to the magnitude of consciousness.

Could consciousness be partly explained by a downward travelling wave of lowered thresholds among the highest levels of hierarchy?

Let’s do a little thought experiment: if a person is thinking of an intangible idea, arguably one of the highest levels of hierarchy, then all lower levels of hierarchy associated with this pattern will have their thresholds lowered.

If a person were thinking of the idea of freedom per se, the pattern recognizers for the different forms of freedom would all become more likely to fire.

Both democracy and freedom of speech would most likely be considered pattern recognizers associated with freedom. If both of these pattern recognizers fire they could excite another higher level pattern recognizer which has recently had a lowered threshold.

Say for instance there was recent media coverage on human rights violations in Iran; the pattern recognizer for the Iran would fire due to the massive parallelism of the brain circuitry in that both freedom of speech and democracy are most likely connected to Iran. This would lead to associating freedom with Iran (or in reality the lack of freedom).

Now the brain probably already had connection between freedom and Iran but let us assume it didn’t for the purpose of this thought experiment as I’m sure there are better examples than using freedom and Iran. Then all lower level pattern recognizers associated with Iran would have lowered thresholds leading to another connection through the cycle above.

Thus connecting freedom to a new idea though the pattern recognizer of Iran, but specifically through jumping between hierarchy levels like checkers on a checkerboard. This recursive cycle could be interpreted as train of thought.

Under this assumption, consciousness would be defined as this cycle within the highest tiers of hierarchy while the subconscious (in regards to the psychology meme of the subconscious) is this same cycle only at the intermediate and lower levels of hierarchy. This would support your hypothesis of consciousness as a direct measure of hierarchical information systems in that all such systems are conscious to a varying degree.

If that assumption is correct then all such systems are conscious and each system has its own conscious and subconscious facets. This also means consciousness to humans can only be modeled by the human brain and understood at levels that is the same or nearly similar to our own. We cannot imagine the consciousness of snail any more than we can imagine the consciousness of a super intelligent system.

I have performed many more such thought experiments pertaining to higher level cognitive functions such as imagination, focus, doubt, intelligence (human and swarm), and the internal narration of thought, however I do not want to take too much of your time.

My question is whether the aforementioned thought experiment is logically sound or have I made an erroneous assumption? Any response would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,


There are two levels to your analysis, one having to do with how the neocortex would handle different levels of abstract ideas (e.g., democracy and freedom of speech) in terms of processing information. The other has to do with consciousness.

I think your thought experiment works on both levels.