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Is the immune system the seat of consciousness?

Bill Gates is constantly in the news but his erstwhile partner-in-crime in founding Microsoft, Paul Allen, doesn’t get as much press. But he’s used his untold billions for a succession of causes, some quixotic, some not. At this stage it’s not sure where his Allen Institute of Brain Science fits into this spectrum.

But its recent announcement, that it is closing in on a theory of consciousness, might make one a little skeptical. Good luck with that anyway I say. It’s probably up there with the Singularity but I guess someone’s gotta do it.

So what is this theory? I’ll spare you the details. Just let’s say it’s all about the brain and the way it organizes and processes information. What a shock! I guess it goes a bit further than Descartes who posited that consciousness originates in the pineal gland. But not as much as I would expect, from a paradigmatic perspective from an apparent thought leader in this area.

If you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. So I guess that an institute of brain science has to discover that consciousness just happens to be located in the actual organ, no kidding, that it’s being paid handsomely to study. But why should we have to believe that consciousness must be in the brain only just because it happens to be an awesome piece of smart jelly? Isn’t that kind of limiting?

Where else could it be, you might ask? Well here’s a meme for you. The last couple of years have seen an explosion in studies about cephalopods and especially octopuses. Do you know that these creatures happen to have two-thirds of their neurons outside their “brain”, in their tentacles? In other words, they have distributed intelligence.

Despite all the neuro-literati out there, no-one has yet come up with a compelling theory about consciousness, other than platitudes such as it’s an emergent property of intelligence or a consequence of our information processing machinery. So I guess I might as well offer my humble opinion. Here’s a clue; it has a lot to do with octopuses and embodied cognition.

I’ve blogged about embodied cognition before (The Uncanny Valley in Leadership: Don’t Think like a Sphinx). Basically the theory says that much of our thinking takes place outside our brains and in our bodies, especially our limbs.

Sounds weird right? But there’s plenty of evidence. How about kinesthetic intelligence for a start? After all, if an octopus can think that way, why can’t we? It certainly suggests that in looking for the organ of consciousness we shouldn’t just be looking at the brain. It might even suggest that we could be barking up the wrong tree, so to speak.

And there’s some curious findings emerging from recent research that can’t be explained by conventional models of thinking and consciousness. The findings that have had most impact are those that show that when we make take an action, say we move a finger, the brain only makes that decision after the movement has been executed, with a lag of around 7 seconds.

In other words, it looks like in taking at least some actions, the brain is a follower, not a leader. The research has been widely (probably wrongly) interpreted as meaning that there can be no such thing as free will (Wikipedia, “Neuroscience of free will”). This research is only one of many approaches suggesting the importance of embodied cognition.

Ok so what is this all about – the immune system being the seat of consciousness? Surely it’s just a collection of molecular mopper-uppers of nasty bacteria and viruses (maybe prions and other nasties too). What has that got to do with the finer points of higher consciousness?

The immune system is a vast network of molecules that continuously monitor all molecular threats to our bodies. When they see them they organize the defense. This might range from destroying the enemy to figuring out how to build from scratch new defenses against the threat.

In so doing this vast number of molecules, which occupies every nook and cranny of our bodies, is in constant communication amongst themselves. I’m not aware that there has been any research on the volume of this communication but I guess it could be in the range of terabytes of information every day.

That’s kind of like the information flux out of an atomsmasher such as the Large Hadron Collider. The primary focus of this information is to mobilize other defenders in the network – T-cells, lymphocytes and the rest - to do their piece. In other words, the focus of the flow is the other front-line defenders, the first responders if you like.

Where does the brain come in all of this? Well, it’s like headquarters anywhere; you need a corporate bureaucracy to keep tabs on things and keep other parts of the organism in the know so that they too can mobilize when necessary, even if they are not first responders.

The immune system soldiers basically mainly talk to each other, but keep the brain in the loop. Most of their communications are to each other but with a carbon copy to the brain, just so it doesn’t punish them for not telling them what’s going on. Familiar right?

Doesn't that sound a lot like the MRI studies I referenced above? The periphery does what it has to do and the brain confirms and authorizes it a little later. It’s a perfect model of embodied cognition.

Here though the periphery is not limbs per se but the vast archipelago of cellular defenders which have to take action rapidly, well before the brain can tell them what to do. And since the defenders are local, they have the situational awareness that the brain cannot, due to its lofty perch at the apex of the organization.

You can see where this is going right? This vast army of molecular defenders is constantly exchanging messages about the state of both the external and internal environment. There’s a huge information flow about all of this which the brain has to constantly monitor and evaluate.

Doesn’t this sound like consciousness? In this model the brain is a part of the process, but not the most important part, albeit it’s still very necessary. That would explain why people can be missing part of their brain and still have full consciousness. If we take the information analogy, maybe two-thirds of the information is coming from the immune system and the rest is coming from our “traditional” senses such as vision, hearing, feel and touch.

But someone could complain that there’s no central point here, somewhere like the brain that actually “registers” consciousness. That’s the point. There isn’t one. The data and intelligence is fully distributed throughout the immune system and other receptors, although the immune system plays the major part. It’s an octopus model of thinking, embodied cognition on a grand scale.

Ever read the 1957 book The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle, the astrophysicist and Nobel Prize winner? His sci-fi novel is about a massive Black Cloud that threatens the Earth. It turns out it’s actually a living being on a massive scale, with fully distributed intelligence spread through its entire particle cloud. The immune system is the same thing.

But you might also ask where are the neurons? Surely you need neurons for consciousness? Otherwise how would communications even occur?

Well here’s another area in which consciousness research still hasn’t caught up. We know that there is a massive system in the brain and body that uses chemicals for signaling as well as neurons. We understand some of the functions of these signals. But we don’t understand the big picture yet.

What if the chemical signaling in the body is a vital part of the mechanism we call consciousness? And these chemical signals throughout the immune system are a key part of this data flow?

Maybe chemical signaling is actually the majority of information flows in the body with electrical signaling being a vital part but with much less information? Maybe chemical signaling is the key mechanism behind consciousness? Maybe consciousness is a hybrid mechanism, like a hybrid auto, that relies on electricity to drive the first few miles and chemical energy (stored in the battery) to get the rest of the way?

If at least some of this is true, all animals have some level of consciousness since they all have immune systems. And if we wanted to develop consciousness in-silico, we would have to devise an immune system that would have a huge number of nano-sensors that are constantly monitoring threats to the organism, and that are constantly in communication with each other using both electrical and chemical signaling mechanism. Once we give it some sort of CPU, voila, we should get some form of consciousness, albeit on a reduced scale relative to humans (or maybe not).

While I was doing some research for this blog I found that the idea is not totally new. A couple of Italian researchers at universities in London and Milan have published a similar thesis, albeit without the twist in embodied cognition (Chiara Porcelluzzi and Luca Albergante “How conscious can the immune system be?” Private paper published by Academia, October 2010).

So we can all rest easy in the certainty that there’s one born every minute.









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