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A Squared - a new theory of human consciousness

By Nanook - Posted on 14 November 2010

[ This information is summarized from Scout to the Pole Chapter 18. Nanook is talking to George.]

“It was stated that symbols were the key to discriminating human animals from non-human animals. The A squared concept further describes how symbols make human reasoning different from animal reasoning.

A key to understanding this is the human ability for SELF REFLECTION. Self reflection means the ability for someone to think about their own actions, or their own thoughts, or the thoughts and actions of others. But this is much more complicated than it first appears. To think about your own actions, you need a way to describe them that can be stored in your brain. And this can’t just be a record of a visual input. It has to be a SUMMARY or CATEGORIZATION of many experience elements that are somehow similar or related. For example, you need to be able to capture, in your mind, a concept for the action of running. You need a different concept for jumping. In short, humans needed to develop the whole principle of abstraction. And abstraction is a set of symbols that represent actions or concepts.

Stated differently, most animals don’t have the ability to THINK about their own BEHAVIORS as categories. The word BEHAVIORS is important because behaviors are characteristics of the lower brains. So there is something new going on in humans that allows their multiple brain elements to interact with each other in a way that they don't in animal brains. However, due to the recent work with sign language in great apes, the distinction between humans and animals may have to place apes in a "transition" category.

To understand this further, it is helpful to use another word for consciousness that has a narrower focus: AWARENESS. Awareness and consciousness are often used interchangeably. To narrow the definition down some, let's focus 'awareness' to mean being conscious of some kind of stimulation or perception; i.e. stimulus consciousness. So, if an animal is AWARE of something, this just means the animal perceives it, like hearing a sound, or feeling a poke. But, when we consider HUMAN AWARENESS, we have to expand it to ‘choice consciousness’, not just stimulus consciousness. That means, the human brain, having human awareness, is capable of choosing some action based on the awareness.

One day, it occurred to me, that humans had the special ability to be CONSCIOUS OF THEIR PERCEPTUAL AWARENESS. Then another day while reading a book called The Moral Society by John Garcia (it’s actually a pretty hard book to read; very dense) I noticed he also used the term ‘awareness’ in his book, in a very interesting way:”

"The life forms in turn become increasingly organized and complex; those species better able to predict and control their environment supplant the lesser species until MAN—the FIRST known life form AWARE OF ITS OWN AWARENESS—appears and begins to supplant all other species. "

“I realized that the word ‘conscious’ in my observation was almost interchangeable with awareness. So, we could restate the observation I made as follows: HUMANS HAVE THE SPECIAL ABILITY TO BE AWARE THAT THEY ARE AWARE. Thinking about this statement from the standpoint of a mathematician allowed me to make a very profound jump!” This was the jump that became A squared ( A2 ). That immediately led to the questions, "what is A3? What is A4?" In fact, if we could measure this thing, I'd want to know if there was something meaningful for values like A2.2 or A3.3. And what exactly do A0, and A1 mean?

The importance of this observation is that it gives us a simple new way to describe WHAT MENTAL ABILITY distinguishes humans from animals. It’s the HUMAN ABILITY TO BE AWARE OF BEING AWARE.

So far, I’ve been able to imagine 4 distinct levels:

The A0 level

The first and most primitive level is A0. At this level, there is no ‘awareness’ of any kind. This is the level that would categorize stones. It may also be the level to categorize plants. Maybe we can rate plants A 0.5.

The A1 level

The second level is A1. At this level, creatures perceive their surroundings and take actions to respond to changes. This is a good level to categorize the lower animals.

The A2 level

The third level is A2. At this level, creatures also perceive their surroundings and take actions to respond to changes. But they are also AWARE of their OWN ability to perceive their surroundings. That means they now have the ability to PLAN their own actions. They can visualize the concept of time and place memories of the past and future in the span of time.

While having this additional ability, the A2 level is still limited to childish thinking. It lacks an ability for concepts like a statistical view of life, or that results can be probabilistic rather than certain, or that null results can have value. A2 can only deal with simplistic social principles, like there must be a winner, something must always be best, the best is determined by a race or competition. A2 cannot isolate or limit variables or establish significance. It can only understand a system, as a whole, from the results that the system produces.

Self Identification

There are some very important human traits that appear to turn on at this level. One is the ability of humans to conceive of ‘SELF IDENTIFICATION’; an I or ME, that appears to them as going beyond just their flesh and bones. Our lowest level brain functions probably don’t participate in this. Our middle level brain functions surely do because they clearly capture social interaction memories and place the self in those memories. But I don’t think the middle level operates at the A2 level.

This view gives new meaning to Descartes' proposition: 'I think, therefore I am'? And to help explain it even better, what if the word ’ I ’ is actually understood as being the result of the thinking process itself? That is, because of the WAY humans think, because of the ability of the human conscious brain to view ITSELF, to view its own processes as it processes data, as well as to view all of our perceptions, it captures an in-depth CHARACTERIZATION of the body and mind of the person it is in. This is what you mean when you feel you are yourself. ‘I think, therefore I am’ just means, because of the form of thinking that our brain can do, it creates a feeling of self identification.

Ability for abstraction

The second trait is the ABILITY FOR ABSTRACTION. For one brain to remember the observations it makes of another brain, it has to have the ability to capture its observations in some abstracted form and store those abstractions. We can think of these as symbols or concepts that stand for emotions, perceptions, actions or other symbols or concepts.

Language associated with abstraction

The third trait is the development of language. While we want to associate language with speech, that isn’t a real requirement. Deaf people can communicate with sign language. Some researchers have recently reported observing what they call sign language among some of the great apes. But whether it is sign language or Congo drums or speech, it is essentially a symbolic or abstract driven process.

The A3 level

Now let’s talk about the fourth brain level: A3. Basically, at this level, humans have the ability to be AWARE that they are AWARE of being AWARE. Note, the awareness process is now stacked three levels high! Simply stated they have the mental capability to describe what goes on at level A2 in symbolic form and manipulate those symbols to some higher goals. What does this look like in practice?

In relation to human activity, at level A3, humans are able to conceive PLANS and ORGANIZATIONS for other humans. These are the planners. In relation to knowledge, they are able to organize and manipulate symbols that represent entities outside their personal life. They are able to look at the world broadly and understand logical relationships. AND, it should be obvious, not all humans have this ability.


Where in the 3 brains is the A square structure located? I think the key to answering this is to focus in on the key to what builds awareness as a hierarchy. And that KEY is RECURSION. It’s the awareness of itself, or at least something like itself that is the key.”

Thinker 1 and 2

[To understand the following discussion, read the discussion about the three brains to understand the three brain concept and vocabulary.]

“Hulk gets life forms to A1. Hulk is aware and takes action based on a priority system loosely summarized by Maslow. But Hulk depends on totally inherited programming.

The next brain to develop after Hulk was Grim. Grim captures external perceptions, processes them and sends messages to Hulk, who previously just responded to internal conditions. Grim allowed creatures to learn from experience. Freud thought that Grim, the super ego, was just an extension of the ego. I don’t think so. I think Grim preceded the ego. But Grim and Hulk were just two brains with a similar goal – controlling the body they were in, using a similar strategy – acting on perceptions to generate actions. Grim added the ability to learn from experience, but still just controlled basic functions.

What DEFINED the arrival of humans, was a new Thinker brain. Thinker was able to process the external perceptions captured and pre-processed by Grim, but also TO PROCESS IT’S OWN PROCESSES as well as the resulting body behaviors caused by the other brains. Thinker also had the property of sleep. The key is, Thinker is able to monitor all the brains, including itself. What ever process caused Thinker to evolve, and let me now call that brain Thinker-1, that process may also have created Thinker-2, which is similar to Thinker-1, but able to oversee Thinker-1. Thinker-2, which is aware of Thinker-1 created level A3.

So I believe that A2 and A3 are functions of the Thinker brain. Not that there aren’t interconnections between all three brains. But it is the RECURSION, the ability of Thinker to monitor itself that is the key.”

The A4 level

“Given explanations for levels A0 through A3, we can now try to visualize level A4. But it may not actually be possible. If there were any humans that have been born with an A4 brain, we might be able to get them to describe it to us. But if we are only A2 and A3 creatures, how can we imagine what it might look like? It’s like the inhabitants of the imaginary Flatland trying to understand the 3rd dimension. But we can make some generalizations about it.

A key structure in the A-square hierarchy is that each level is able to deal with the principles of the level below it in a symbolic form. So at level A4, planning, organizing and cooperation among cultures would all have to be small parts of a much larger puzzle. Gardner Murphy spoke about this in his book Human Potentialities, 1958:”

“Man’s ability to learn entails at least five processes:
1.   Association of action with observation
2.   communication via symbols
3.   capacity to think abstractly
4.   association of feelings to objects and causes
5.   organization of systems to promote social sharing

“Notice that processes 1 through 4 are already present at level A2. Process 5 is A3. So, in his analysis, he stops short of level A4. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t anticipate higher levels.”

“… human nature of the future cannot possibly be predicted by a sheer extension of the trends of the past . . new components and new interactions will produce a kind of human nature and human experience which will be as far from the present as our own is from that of our earliest Old Stone Age ancestors.
Since all human beings … known through history and archaeology have a great deal in common … it might be assumed that the known cultural arrangements sample fairly well the various kinds of cultures which might exist…
This is misleading. All past and existing societies have arisen within a rather narrow range of possibilities . .
… man, in becoming a culture making animal, has often sacrificed one of his potentialities – the capacity for exploratory perceiving and thinking – to the … consolidation of ways of perceiving and thinking under the pressure of WANTS and beliefs.
… in any enduring society, behavior tends away from chaos or happenstance to a code, a norm, an accepted “right” way of living. Without such an accepted way, there is nothing to count on, to lean upon, to model life upon. But with such an accepted way, rigidity, even ossification sets in. One of the most challenging problems facing man kind in discovering itself is how to provide for the perennial flow of drives with specific channels without getting stuck in the mold.”

Limited more by what we know

A way to summarize Murphy’s point, ironically, is to see that the forward progress of humanity is limited MORE by WHAT WE KNOW than what we don’t know. We call it the "LEGACY" problem. That is, once society puts down some infrastructure, the mold is set for a long time. One example is the Qwerty keyboard. The entire human race is still penalized by that design. The English measurement system is a similar fiasco. And this does not only apply to mechanical things. It applies across the board – to physics, politics, medicine, culture – you name it.”