E-mail communication of Francis Heylighen on 29 May 2018:
Inspired by the notion of autopoiesis (“self-production”) that Maturana and Varela developed as a definition of life, I wanted to generalize the underlying idea of cyclic processes to other ill-understood phenomena, such as mind, consciousness, social systems and ecosystems. The difference between these phenomena and the living organisms analysed by Maturana and Varela is that the former don’t have a clear boundary or closure that gives them a stable identity. Yet, they still exhibit this mechanism of “self-production” in which the components of the system are transformed into other components in such a way that the main components are eventually reconstituted.
This mechanism is neatly formalized in COT’s notion of “self-maintenance” of a network of reactions. I am not going to repeat this here but refer to my paper cited below. Instead, I’ll give a very simple example of such a circular, self-reproducing process:
A -> B,
B -> C,
C -> A
The components A, B, C are here continuously broken down but then reconstituted, so that the system rebuilds itself, and thus maintains an invariant identity within a flux of endless change.
A slightly more complex example:
A + X -> B + U
B + Y -> C + V
C + Z -> A + W
Here A, B, and C need the resources (inputs, or “food”) X, Y and Z to be reconstituted, while producing the waste products U, V, and W. This is more typical of an actual organism that needs inputs and outputs while still being “operationally” closed in its network of processes.
In more complex processes, several components are being simultaneously consumed and produced, but so that the overall mixture of components remains relatively invariant. In this case, the concentration of the components can vary the one relative to the other, so that the system never really returns to the same state, only to a state that is qualitatively equivalent (having the same components but in different amounts).
One more generalization is to allow the state of the system to also vary qualitatively: some components may (temporarily) disappear, while others are newly added. In this case, we no longer have strict autopoiesis or [closure + self-maintenance], i.e. the criterion for being an “organization” in COT. However, we still have a form of continuity of the organization based on the circulation or recycling of the components.
An illustration would be the circulation of traffic in a city. Most vehicles move to different destinations within the city, but eventually come back to destinations they have visited before. However, occasionally vehicles leave the city that may or may not come back, while new vehicles enter the city that may or may not stay within. Thus, the distribution of individual vehicles in the city changes quantitatively and qualitatively while remaining relatively continuous, as most vehicle-position pairs are “recycled” or reconstituted eventually. This is what I call circulation.
Most generally, what circulates are not physical things but what I have earlier called challenges. Challenges are phenomena or situations that incite some action. This action transforms the situation into a different situation. Alternative names for such phenomena could be stimuli (phenomena that stimulate an action or process), activations (phenomena that are are active, i.e. ready to incite action) or selections (phenomena singled out as being important, valuable or meaningful enough to deserve further processing). The term “selections” is the one used by Luhmann in his autopoietic model of social systems as circulating communications.
I have previously analysed distributed intelligence (and more generally any process of self-organization or evolution) as the propagation of challenges: one challenge produces one or more other challenges, which in turn produce further challenges, and so on. Circulation is a special form of propagation in which the initial challenges are recurrently reactivated, i.e. where the propagation path is circular, coming back to its origins.
This to me seems a better model of society than Luhmann’s autopoietic social systems. The reason is that proper autopoiesis does not really allow the system to evolve, as it needs to exactly rebuild all its components, without producing any new ones. With circulating challenges, the main structure of society is continuously rebuilt, thus ensuring the continuity of its organization, however while allowing gradual changes in which old challenges (distinctions, norms, values…) dissipate and new ones are introduced.
Another application of circulating challenges are ecosystems. Different species and their products (such as CO2, water, organic material, minerals, etc.) are constantly recycled, as the one is consumed in order to produce the other, but most are eventually reconstituted. Yet, not everything is reproduced: some species may become extinct, while new species invade the ecosystem. Thus the ecosystem undergoes constant evolution, while being relatively stable and resilient against perturbations.
Perhaps the most interesting application of this concept of circulation is consciousness. The “hard problem” of consciousness asks why information processing in the brain does not just function automatically or unconsciously, the way we automatically pull back our hand from a hot surface, before we even have become conscious of the pain of burning. The “global workspace” theory of consciousness says that various subconscious stimuli enter the global workspace in the brain (a crossroad of neural connections in the prefrontal cortext), but that only a few are sufficiently amplified to win the competition for workspace domination. The winners are characterized by much stronger activation and their ability to be “broadcasted” to all brain modules (instead of remaining restricted to specialized modules functioning subconsciously). These brain modules can then each add their own specific interpretation to the “conscious” thought.
In my interpretation, reaching the level of activation necessary to “flood” the global workspace means that activation does not just propagate from neuron to neuron, but starts to circulate so that a large array of neurons in the workspace are constantly reactivated. This circulation keeps the signal alive long enough for the different specialized brain modules to process it, and add their own inferences to it. Normally, activation cannot stay in place, because of neuronal fatigue: an excited neuron must pass on its “action potential” to connected neurons, it cannot maintain activation. To maintain an activation pattern (representing a challenge) long enough so that it can be examined and processed by disparate modules that pattern must be stabilized by circulation.
But circulation, as noted, does not imply invariance or permanence, merely a relative stability or continuity that undergoes transformations by incoming stimuli or on-going processing. This seems to be the essence of consciousness: on the one hand, the content of our consciousness is constantly changing (the “stream of consciousness”), on the other hand that content must endure sufficiently long for specialized brain processes to consider and process it, putting part of it in episodic memory, evaluating part of it in terms of its importance, deciding to turn part of it into action, or dismissing or vetoing part of it as inappropriate.
This relative stability enables reflection, i.e. considering different options implied by the conscious content, and deciding which ones to follow up, and which ones to ignore. This ability to choose is the essence of “free will“. Subconscious processes, on the other hand, just flow automatically and linearly from beginning to end, so that there is no occasion to interrupt the flow and decide to go somewhere else. It is because the flow circulates and returns that the occasion is created to interrupt it after some aspects of that flow have been processed and found to be misdirected.
To make this idea of repetition with changes more concrete, I wish to present a kind of “delayed echo” technique used in music. One of the best implementation is Frippertronics, invented by avant-garde rock guitarist Robert Fripp (of King Crimson): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frippertronics
The basic implementation consist of an analogue magnetic tape on which the sounds produced by a musician are recorded. However, after having passed the recording head of the tape recorder, the tape continues moving until it is read by another head that reads and plays the recorded sound. Thus, the sound recorded at time t is played back at time t + T, where the interval T depends on the distance between the recording and playback heads. But while the recorded sound in played back, the recording head continues recording all the sound, played by either the musician(s) or the playback head, on the same tape. Thus, the sound propagates from musician to recording head, from where is is transported by tape to the playback head, from where it is propagated in the form of a sound wave back to the recording head, thus forming a feedback loop.
If T is short, the effect is like an echo, where the initial sound is repeated a number of times until it fades away (under the assumption that the playback is slightly less loud than the original sound). For a longer T, the repeated sound may not be immediately recognized as a copy of what was recorded before given that many other sounds have been produced in the meantime. What makes the technique interesting is that while the recorded sounds are repeated, the musician each time adds another layer of sound to the layers already on the recording. This allows the musician to build up a complex, multilayered, “symphonic” sound, where s/he is being accompanied by her/his previous performance. The resulting music is repetitive, but not strictly so, since each newly added sound creates a new element, and these elements accumulate so that they can steer the composition in a wholly different direction.
This “tape loop” can be seen as a simplified (linear or one-dimensional) version of what I called circulation, where the looping or recycling maintains a continuity, while the gradual fading of earlier recordings and the addition of new sounds creates an endlessly evolving “stream” of sound. My hypothesis is that consciousness corresponds to a similar circulation of neural activation, with the different brain modules playing the role of the musicians that add new input to the circulating signal. A differences is probably that the removal of outdated input does not just happen by slow “fading” but by active inhibition, given that the workspace can only sustain a certain amount of circulating activation, so that strong new input tends to suppress weaker existing signals. This and the complexity of circulating in several directions of a network may explain why conscious content appears much more dynamic than repetitive music.