Note: To see what the 5 Minute Month is all about, click here to read the first post in the series.
The New Yorker has a fascinating article on “The Riddle of Consciousness,” written by NYU researcher Gary Marcus. The point of Marcus’ article seems to be to publicize an upcoming discussion on consciousness-related topics, taking place at the NYU World Science Festival, and including perspectives from the likes of Christof Koch and Colin McGinn. What I found more interesting, however, was the attention drawn to a recent study, published in Science, that suggests (broadly) that infants begin to form what we might define as “consciousness” at around 5 months. As Marcus suggests,this is of course a very tricky assessment, as there are wide-ranging disputes as to just “what” consciousness is. This is addressed via a nice basic gloss of the long-standing (and often largely philosophical) debate about how the brain produces consciousness, famously referred to as the “hard problem,” following David Chalmers’ use of the phrase to suggest the difficulty of describing something as deeply subjective as the experience of states of consciousness (click here to jump to Chalmers’ article on the issue).
One of the reasons I found this article so interesting is that my personal experience suggests to me that consciousness and autobiographical identity begin forming at a very early age, at least in some people. I have vivid memories that run deep into my infancy; my earliest is of laying in a basket on the living room floor of my parents’ home, looking at a variety of objects placed around the floor, and watching my mother’s cat, a Siamese, slowly approach the basket and sniff my face closely; this took place, as near as I have been able to estimate, at around 9 months or so. Memories begin stacking up a little more densely from my first birthday on up — I have many vivid memories from the period of 18 months on in particular. My mother has always scoffed at this, and suggests that I’m piecing my memories together from photo books and old Super 8 reels — and it’s hard to deny the validity of her point. After all, the brain is a narrative-making machine, using recent visual stimuli as thread to sew together scraps of non-visual sense-data into an autobiographical story. Did I imagine the “cat” episode based on viewing a photograph of myself as an infant, in a basket on the living room floor, with the cat visible in the edge of the photograph? It’s possible; but, like Mulder, I choose to believe otherwise because I want to. Also, because I’m not yet willing to admit that my mother may be right. 😉