Suggesting that we create something like the Tree of Souls from the film Avatar may sound a little flippant. What would it really mean?
When we held some roundtable discussions about LondonScape one of the things that became clear as being unknown was how awareness of our collective mood, or being more aware of our interconnections, might effect us. In essence some of what we want to do through LondonScape is make what was previously non-conscious brought to a level of awareness. This led us to reflect on what consciousness even is.
If we take the concept of LondonScape and the idea of collective consciousness back to a single human being for a moment…..
Consciousness: it’s a word that combines richness, complexity and wonder but that can be simplified in to a three-part system: we perceive, process and behave.
- perceive the world through our senses, both internally and externally, in order to collect information.
- evaluate the information we gather based on our genetics and conditioning.
- behave in response to our perception and evaluation of information.
Self, identity and personality are not things, they are biological processes built within the brain from numerous interactive components, step by step, over a period of time. They are like an ongoing performance and as such are subject to variation and highlight how the human self has many levels. There is the protoself level that corresponds to a gathering of information regarding the state of the body. It is constructed in the brain stem and it generates feelings that signify our existence, therefore in its absence one cannot be conscious. The next level, the core self, is also indispensable for consciousness. It exists through an interaction between our brain and an object, when there is dialogue between two parts, like the brain stem and cerebral cortex. It creates a sense of the "here and now", devoid of historical perspective. It's like a consciousness of the moment. The third level, the autobiographical self, creates the more or less coherent picture of our history, a narrative with a lived past and an anticipated future. The narrative is composed of real and imaginary events, and from past interpretations and re-interpretations of events. Identity emerges from the autobiographical self.
This is where I imagine neuroscience could link back to LondonScape. The autobiographical self is not just about one person but about all the others that a person interacts with. It incorporates the culture in which the interactions took place and contains multitudes ― other people, other places and requires the brain to draw on the partnerships between varied parts of the cerebral cortex and the brain stem. This process is ongoing and incredibly complex. It branches and loops back to the beginning constantly. The brain manages to put a spectacular combination of images together in the same way that I hope LondonScape can link a whole combination of data sets together.
Poet Fernando Pessoa (I'd recommend his writings) says that each of us is "many". He describes it as “ I can only recognize myself as symphony" and I love this description for evoking the astonishing complexity of a brain engaged in producing the symphonic results we call the conscious mind. The symphonic result is easily recognizable but the brain instruments behind it have been elusive and are only now being understood and highlighted by neuroscience research.
Similarly, finding the instruments and infrastructure required for data provenance, as well as learning how we’re shaped by data as more of it is generated, opened and linked, is an ongoing process of discovery. I hope to keep connecting LondonScape with neuroscience as we develop the project, as by understanding the essential elements of the system governing each of us individually I also hope we can begin to understand more about our collective state.