Michio Kaku: Consciousness Can be Quantified

Dr. Michio Kaku returns to Big Think studios to discuss his latest book, The Future of the Mind. Here, he explains how the quantifying approach common in physics can be used to model consciousness.

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In the entire universe the two greatest scientific mysteries are first of all the origin of the universe itself. And second of all the origin of intelligence. Believe it or not, sitting on our shoulders is the most complex object that Mother Nature has created in the known universe. You have to go at least 24 trillion miles to the nearest star to find a planet that may have life and may have intelligence. And yet our brain only consumes about 20-30 watts of power and yet it performs calculations better than any large supercomputer. So it’s a mystery. How is the brain wired up? And if we can figure that out what can we do with it to enhance our mental capabilities.

When you look at the brain and all the parts of the brain they don’t seem to make any sense at all. The visual part of the brain is way in the back, for example. Why is the brain constructed the way it is? Is this nothing but an accident of evolution? Well one way to look at it is through evolution. That is, the back of the brain is a so-called reptilian brain. The most ancient primitive part of the brain that governs balance, territoriality, mating. And so the very back of the brain is also the kind of brain that you find in reptiles. Now when I was a child I would go to the science museum and look at the snakes sometimes and they would stare back at me. And I would wonder, “What are they thinking about?” Well, I think now I know. What they’re thinking about was, “Is this person lunch?”

Then we have the center part of the brain going forward and that’s a so-called monkey brain, the mammalian brain. The brain of emotions. The brain of social hierarchies. And then finally the front of the brain is the human brain, especially the prefrontal cortex. This is where rational thinking is. And when you ask yourself a question where am I anyway. The answer is right behind your forehead. That’s where you really are.

Well, I have a theory of consciousness which tries to wrap it all up together. There’ve been about 20,000 or so papers written about consciousness and no consensus. Never in the history of science have so many people devoted so much time to produce so little. Well, I’m a physicist and when we physicists look at a mysterious object the first thing we try to do is to create a model. A model of this object in space. And then we hit the play button and run it forward in time. This is how Newton was able to come up with the theory of gravity. This is how Einstein came up with relativity. So I tried to use this in terms of the human brain and evolution. So what I’m saying is I have a new theory of consciousness based on evolution. And that is consciousness is the number of feedback loops required to create a model of your position in space with relationship to other organisms and finally in relationship to time.

So think of the consciousness of a thermostat. I believe that even a lowly thermostat has one unit of consciousness. That is, it senses the temperature around it. And then we have a flower. A flower has maybe, maybe ten units of consciousness. It has to understand the temperature, the weather, humidity, where gravity is pointing. And then finally we go to the reptilian brain which I call level 1 consciousness and reptiles basically have a very good understanding of their position in space, especially because they have to lunge out and grab prey. Then we have level 2 consciousness, the monkey consciousness. The consciousness of emotions, social hierarchies, where are we in relationship to the tribe. And then where are we as humans.

As humans we are at level 3. We run simulations into the future. Animals apparently don’t do this. They don’t plan to hibernate. They don’t plan the next day’s agenda. They have no conception of tomorrow to the best of our ability. But that’s what our brain does. Our brain is a prediction machine. And so when we look at the evolution from the reptilian brain to the mammalian brain to the prefrontal cortex, we realize that is the process of understanding our position in space with respect to others — that is emotions — and finally running simulations into the future.


35 thoughts on “Michio Kaku: Consciousness Can be Quantified

  1. NO.
    The thing is, the only thing we (may) know about consciousness is this; consciousness emanates from the brain. That's it. But that tells us NOTHING about WHAT the consiousness IS; we only know "Where?"; _not "What?"_.
    So basically Kaku decided to say: "consciousness is the tool for thinking" WITHOUT ANY PROOF. That's the sign of a bad
    scientist; a bad physisist also : )
    1) consciousness is a necessary byproduct from a "smart", developed brain; you can't make "smart" brains without it; "much like the whistle of a train; it tells us that the engine is on but doesn't necessarily make the train move" — not my analogy btw.
    2) consciousness actually does something on its own (like Kaku implied, it seems); maybe it's related to "free will" for instance (this is religion, opinions, sorcery and simply stupid speculation and so I won't give you further examples)
    3) the consciousness is a redundant byproduct of a "smart" brain; highly unlikely IMO; what's the chance of that???
    In any case; we still don't know WHAT it is, where it begins or where it ends or how it relates to the perceivable in vivo action of the presumably "feeling" or "thinking" things such as humans, and we can't be sure where it really "is" or "isn't"; no specific "thinking" or "feeling" brain (or other) cells exist (I've read one study). ALSO; so far we have no way to find out for sure, unless we find out "consciousness particles" or "mediators" or the like, the measuring of whom would give us scientific = logical, experimental (empirical) proof.

  2. Why does our consciousness change when using psychedelics? Time changes, perception changes, feelings change, we can even visit other places? I believe conscioismess is more than a feedback loop to our environment.

    In short: computers are NOT conscious. IF we can make one that's capable of exactly the same things as conscious humans, that would quite simply mean that THERE IS NO POINT IN CONSCIOUSNESS, IT'S EVOLUTIONAL GARBAGE!! That's as simple as it gets!

    Either consciousness is 1. an essential Byproduct from a complex brain, OR 2. it has some evolutionary advantage, OR 3. it's pure chance, it might just as well not exist.
    1. If it's a byproduct, why is it this Complex? Why does it even feel like it might make "sense", if the sense-making or real thinking (the exact same thing that computers do without being conscious) happens elsewhere than in the consciousness itself???
    2. Advantage: a) Free Will. That is the first explanation that comes to mind, but that pretty much means that in this case we would now understand Nothing about even physics so far. Maybe quantum processes also affect the macrocosmos, for instance?
    b) as said before, maybe for some otherworldly reason it's impossible to construct a machine like the human brain Without it feeling "conscious" about itself – whatever that means…
    3. Lady Fortuna decided that today everything is upside-down. Highly unlikely in my opinion. Why have a human with the FEELING of consciousness and free will, if you can have one WITHOUT?!?!? That would be the most unlikely thing as a result of evolution EVER unless "consciousness" is none energy consuming and harmless. SO it would be 1) totally pointless 2) free, harmless 3) benefitless 4) perhaps easier to achieve than non-consciousness w/higher brain activity. So as I said, UNLIKELY.

  4. So, is there a Level 4? 5? Seems to me that if our brain matter is enlarging towards the front of our skulls as we have developed in our evolution, that suddenly the depictions of aliens with bulbous foreheads no longer seems farfetched. So what would a Level 4 brain be capable of I wonder?

    It's almost like the brain is a living computer that is adding components; better memory, faster processor, newer OS with increased capabilities, that kind of mimics Moore's Law but on a time scale not of decades but millenia.

    Maybe Brian Green is right.

  5. At first , when he said that, I was thinking the same thing. Even squirrels stash food for the winter.
    But I don't think it has anything to do with it.
    Just a thought ..
    If I was to transfer this into computer processing, a program/entity 'squirrel' would be given a function called 'stashFood()' and within some interval over the year he would trigger the same function again, because that's how he was 'programmed' . On the other hand, humans could of been programmed with a machine learning style of programming in the first place, which would make them a program that could potentially learn to write a new function on the fly asynchronously.
    So if a pre-built 'builder' function consciousness() could accept multiple arguments such as memory object, time object etc. we could potentially trigger a whole lot of different functions like saveScreenshotToMemory(), touchTheSkin() and then perhaps load the last image, or whatever medium we call it from memory, to remind us, we do exist or we did that and so on.
    It only depends how complicated this function is and what is its potential in order to build or just execute another functions and also whether that specific species have enough computation power.
    Now I'm not saying, it's only humans who can do this, it's just a thought and my way to distinguish a conscious being from the rest. And if there are many different levels of consciousness, then we could say, we have much more advanced and complex program with capability of self learning.

  6. At the end of the day, I think it still comes down to the question of how we define consciousness. To me, he did a great job of defining levels of awareness, but is awareness all there is to consciousness, or is it simply a facet of the more more abstract definition of what consciousness truly is?

  7. Dr. Kaku, can you also somehow describe the level of consciousness of beings that are higher than us? What can they do that is beyond our capability? Do they have superpowers that are beyond physics?

  8. What is the material basis of consciousness ?
    The Vacuum and Electron are the material basis of Consciousness.
    Today  nobody knows what the Vacuum and Electron are.
    " The problem of the exact description of vacuum, in my opinion,
    is the basic problem now before physics. Really, if you can’t correctly
    describe the vacuum, how it is possible to expect a correct description
    of something more complex? "
    / Paul Dirac ./
    You know, it would be sufficient to really understand the electron.
    / Albert Einstein./
    Tell me what an electron is and I'll then tell you everything.
    / Somebody./
    == .
    When we understand the Vacuum and Electron
    we will know the Ultimate Nature of Reality, it means we
    will know the material basis of consciousness too.
    == .
    The Information ( some basis of Consciousness) can be transfer
    to you in our terrestrial world only by Electromagnetic waves.
    Lorentz proved: there aren’t Electromagnetic waves without Electron.
    Therefore I say,
    only Electron can be the Quantum of Information/ Consciousness.
    We don’t have any other theory of Information’s transfers.
    More details.
    "… indeed an understanding of psi phenomena and of
    consciousness must provide the basis of an improved
    understanding of quantum mechanics."
    /Evan Walker /
    In my opinion it means that to answer to the question
    ‘ where the consciousness come from?’
    we must understand not only the brain but electron too.
    Once again.
    Human brain works on two levels:
    consciousness and subconsciousness. The neurons of brain
    create these two levels. So, that it means consciousness and
    subconsciousness from physical point of view ( interaction
    between billions and billions neurons ). It can only mean
    that the state of neurons in these two situations is different.
    How can we understand these different states of neurons?
    How does the brain generate consciousness?
    We can understand this situation only on the quantum level,
    only using Quantum theory. But there isn’t QT without
    Quantum of Light and Electron. So, what is interaction between
    Quantum of Light, Electron and brain ?
    According to Pauli Exclusion Principle
    only one single electron can be in the atom.
    If the atom contains more than one electron
    (for example – two), this atom represents " Siamese twins".
    Save us, the Great God, of having such atoms, such cells.
    And therefore the human brain has only one Electron.
    Each of us has an Electron, but we do not know it.
    As the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ says:
    Fools deride Me when I descend in the human form.
    They do not know My transcendental nature and
    My supreme dominion over all that be.
    / Chapter 9. Text 11./
    ================== .
    Best wishes
    Israel Sadovnik Socratus

  9. Sadly, there are just concepts that we will never be able to fully grasp. There is no way of telling what is conscious and what isn't. For all we know every other living thing but ourselves has no consciousness. Consciousness could, like he explains in the video, be a matter that takes place in the brain. It could also be a matter of something that we have an even further limited understanding of, such as our inner energy, or soul, spirit, whatever you want to call it.

  10. 04:00 This is total bullshit. My cat can definitely plan. If he wants to go out, he can go upstairs to wake me up and then bring me to the door downstairs to let me open it for him. So not only he knows the entire map of my house (and probably a whole of its surroundings as well), but also can project the entire plan in time to execute it step by step and achieve what he wants. He knows what sequence of actions he needs to execute to get the door open for him, and he knows who can do it for him and where to find that person in the house at any particular time of the day.
    I can understand that Mr. Kaku wants to feel superior over other human beings. But over animals too? 😛

  11. How can human beings talk about consciousness while being part of it ? a fish can't talk about a 3D world only a land mammal knows how to discribe it , that simply means we've got something above Time and Space

  12. you can choose to predict. it's not something that's is normal to do.its programmed behaviour. it brings nothing but misery. constantly living for a future that hasn't happened yet and then when your there, your in another future. yes the front of the brain can do this but in a deluded way if you are not we'll disciplined.

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