This trippy ’80s video effect might help explain consciousness


Explaining consciousness is one of the hardest problems in science and philosophy. Recent neuroscientific discoveries suggest that a solution could be within reach – but grasping it will mean rethinking some familiar ideas. Consciousness, I argue in a new paper, may be caused by the way the brain generates loops of energetic feedback, similar to the video feedback that “blossoms” when a video camera is pointed at its own output.

I first saw video feedback in the late 1980s and was instantly entranced. Someone plugged the signal from a clunky video camera into a TV and pointed the lens at the screen, creating a grainy spiralling tunnel. Then the camera was tilted slightly and the tunnel blossomed into a pulsating organic kaleidoscope.

Video feedback is a classic example of complex dynamical behaviour. It arises from the way energy circulating in the system interacts chaotically with the electronic components of the hardware.

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As an artist and VJ in the 1990s, I would often see this hypnotic effect in galleries and clubs. But it was a memorable if unnerving experience during an LSD-induced trip that got me thinking. I hallucinated almost identical imagery, only intensely saturated with colour. It struck me then there might be a connection between these recurring patterns and the operation of the mind.

Brains, information and energy

Fast forward 25 years and I’m a university professor still trying to understand how the mind works. Our knowledge of the relationship between the mind and brain has advanced hugely since the 1990s when a new wave of scientific research into consciousness took off. But a widely accepted scientific theory of consciousness remains elusive.

The two leading contenders – Stanislas Dehaene’s Global Neuronal Workspace Model and Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory – both claim that consciousness results from information processing in the brain, from neural computation of ones and zeros, or bits.

I doubt this claim for several reasons. First, there is little agreement among scientists about exactly what information is. Second, when scientists refer to information they are often actually talking about the way energetic activity is organised in physical systems. Third, brain imaging techniques such as fMRI, PET and EEG don’t detect information in the brain, but changes in energy distribution and consumption.

Brains, I argue, are not squishy digital computers – there is no information in a neuron. Brains are delicate organic instruments that turn energy from the world and the body into useful work that enables us to survive. Brains process energy, not information.

Recognising that brains are primarily energy processors is the first step to understanding how they support consciousness. The next is rethinking energy itself.