On the Edge of Consciousness

Consciousness may be a delicate balancing act between two states of being: ordered and disordered (entropy). On the ordered side, everything must be a certain way. On the disordered side, nothing must be a certain way. Does my consciousness reside in a “zone” on the edge between order and entropy – a state known as criticality?

Woodrow Shew of the University of Arkansas explains criticality like this:

We experience phase transitions every day when liquid water evaporates and turns into vapor or freezes and turns into ice. Your brain can go through a phase transition, as well…

Of course I don’t mean that the brain can melt or freeze, but it can switch from orderly to disorderly behavior. Both states or phases are less than optimal. An epileptic seizure is an example of an extreme level of order; all your neurons are doing the same thing together and that’s not good. You need a little bit of disorder for your brain to work effectively.

…there’s a natural process by which [the brain] adapts, tuning itself so that it is back to a state where it can make sense of the input. That state is right at the boundary between two phases. That’s what we mean by criticality, the tipping point between two very different ways of working. Somehow this system tunes itself not to one phase or the other but into the boundary between two phases.’

In effect, my consciousness may be resident at a point where it can quickly and efficiently transition from one way of thinking to another. The tiniest shift to either side creates a cascading effect farther in that direction without using lots of energy to accomplish it. The point at which the tiniest change can signal cascade is like a plate balanced atop a pin.

I like to think of the tipping point as the zero point or balance point. The point at which the brain is neutral – neither too ordered or too disordered – the critical “Goldilocks Zone.”

Criticality, Wessel said, is in the “Goldilocks region,” where the brain is neither too sluggish nor too reactive. Its hallmark is firing avalanches that follow what is known as a power law, where smaller avalanches occur more frequently than larger ones. (Lutz)

I wonder if my zero point (criticality) is not static. Could it move according to my moods and attitudes in such a way as to make me hypersensitive to order (too reactive) or disorder (too sluggish) depending on where my zero point resides?

According to Shew, that’s exactly what happens – in the example he gave of an epileptic seizure, the zero point moved substantially into the ordered state area such that everything became too ordered, too reactive.

Could this affect who I think I am from moment to moment? Because much of my behavior is governed by who I think I am, I gotta wonder how a change in zero point might appear in what I do!

It seems to me that my hardware is optimized for me to most nimbly react to my environment. On the other hand, because the “Goldilocks Zone” is fluid – changeable depending on many factors – what I eat, what I drink, what I focus attention upon, ALL affect how my hardware (brain) functions.

This could explain why and how I behave as I do – and why I can experience a grouchy mood sometimes when I’m well on my path to enlightenment.


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