Are our spaces made of words?

Jonathan Edwards

University College London

Journal of Consciousness Studies, 15, No. 1, 2008, pp. 63-83

The author’s concept of consciousness appears to be closely aligned to the ideas of David Bohm. Edwards proposes that the elements of the universe are best viewed as dynamic processes that transfer and in some cases experience ‘pure’ or ‘active information, when they interact with one another. He accepts the conventional view that what we experience is a model produced by our brain, rather than the external world as it actually is. He refers to evidence (1. Smythies, 2003) that our spatial experience is based on models or maps that are based on selected aspects of the external world.

In contrast to a lot of mainstream consciousness studies, Edwards takes the view that there is something in the brain that has access to already-interpreted information, such as the mapping of external events, memory and emotional responses. In fact, in his own words, he is bringing the homunculus back into the mind, in defiance of the rulings of Dennett. Edwards concept of the homunculus is something receiving inputs, not from the external world, but from internal maps and information. The brain is seen as having maps in many areas, and he takes the view that there is probably no single place in the brain where everything comes together.

Edwards sees the interaction of fundamental as the type of event that produces active information. As an example of this, radio waves being diffracted by buildings are seen as an indivisible process distributed in spacetime. Nothing pushes or pulls. The process just happens according to the fundamental law. It is a pattern of probabilities that something will occur, and as such represents pure information, or what Bohm and Hiley called active information.

Edwards goes from the idea of pure or active information to the suggestion that human subjectivity is itself a fundamental process. He looks for something in the brain that could be regarded as such a fundamental process. Modern physics suggests the oscillation of quanta as a fundamental process. He sees the best candidates for this as being an elastic phonons in the dendritic trees of neurons with a wave length close to the distance between synapses, and coupled to the electrical potential across the cell membrane. A recent study of neuronal membrane excitation (2. Heimburg & Jackson, 2005) suggests that this is dependent on coupling to an elastic wave for the propagation of the action potential. The author suggests that anaesthetics decouple the elastic wave and in doing this remove consciousness. In this model, consciousness in the form of the elastic wave, is seen as crucial to neuronal function.

Edwards admits that while this may serve as a theory of consciousness, it still does not actually solve the binding problem. We may be conscious of a circle, and we may be conscious of blue, but how do these two qualia become integrated into a blue circle? Edwards suggests that this integration may be similar to the integration of a series of words into an overall meaning. Unfortunately, this process is also not properly understood. One suggestion is that there is a pattern of electrical perturbations in the dendrites that is a code for producing an integrated experience. It is suggested that this would involve phonons in the neuronal dendrites.

In summary, the active information in the brain forms the basis of the appearance of the world to us in our subjective experience. The exchange of active information in the brain is determined by fundamental processes, which can be observed to be governed by the laws of physics. The fundamental process may handle bits of the active information in an analogous manner to the way that words are handled in a language.


1.) Smythies, J. (2003) – Space, time & consciousness – Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, (3), pp. 47-56

2.) Heimburg, T. & Jackson, A. (2005) – On soliton propagation in biomembranes and nerves – Proceedings of National Academy of Science USA, 102, pp. 9790-5

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