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No. 138: NOV-DEC 2001

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Unconsciousness And Its "Zombie Agents"

We all harbor so-called "zombie agents" that rapidly and automatically perform actions without our conscious mind being aware of the stimulus and physical response. Normal people experience this in dancing, fencing, etc. Extreme examples include sleepwalkers who can even drive cars and carry out other complex actions without remembering what they have done! Of course, sleepwalking is not a normal condition; nevertheless, rigorous experiments demonstrate that normal people will respond to scary pictures of snakes and spiders even though they are not consciously aware of them. The zombie agent is acting autonomously.

Zombie agents are characterized as on-line systems that act at speeds that far outpace conscious reactions. Since the zombie agents incorporated in our unconsciousness work so well, why did consciousness ever evolve? Conscious actions take milliseconds longer to calculate and activate. Consciousness would, therefore, seem to be a bad evolutionary gambit.

But, C. Koch and F. Crick may have an answer. They speculate that:

It may be because consciousness allows the system to plan future actions, opening up a potentially infinite behavioural repertoire and making explicit memory possible.

(Koch, Christof, and Crick, Francis; "The Zombie Within," Nature, 411:893, 2001.)

Questions. Could our zombie agents, primitive though they may be, be the source of those flashes of genius that appear out of nowhere, or perhaps that "dreamwork" from which solutions to problems appear fully formed upon wakening?

The quotation from the Nature article presumes that consciousness does have survival value, else it would not have evolved. What sort of highly innovative genetic changes would lead to such a remarkable brain function? Did consciousness evolve in small Darwinian steps or in some grand, lucky mutation? Did any nonhuman animals progress beyond their inheritance of zombie agents?

From Science Frontiers #138, NOV-DEC 2001. 2001 William R. Corliss

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