, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp 193–210 | Cite as

Consciousness is Cheap, Even if Symbols are Expensive; Metabolism and the Brain’s Dark Energy

  • Seán O NualláinEmail author
  • Tom Doris
Original Paper


Use of symbols, the key to the biosemiotics field as to many others, required bigger brains which implied a promissory note for greater energy consumption; symbols are obviously expensive. A score years before the current estimate of 18–20% for the human brain’s metabolic demand on the organism, it was known that neural tissue is metabolically dear. This paper first discusses two evolutionary responses to this demand, on both of which there is some consensus. The first, assigning care of altricial infants with burgeoning brains (and in human infants the metabolic demand peaks at 65% of the total) to “allomothers” is not unique to humans. The second, using relatively small neurons as primates do, risks misfires past a certain minimal value. Moreover, in apparent paradox, there is an increasing consensus that large “Von Economo” neurons are critical for communication. This paper’s main contribution is the discussion of two further evolutionary tricks. The first is the use of self-similarity in the cortex, both in structure and process, to allow the cortex readily—and in energetic terms, parsimoniously—to shift between states in a high-dimensional space. This leads to discussion of the kind of formalism appropriate to model these shifts, a formalism which—it is tentatively suggested—may do double duty for the modeling of symbolic thought. The second trick is the superimposition on the background “white noise” of neural firing of EEG-detected waves like gamma. The paper describes a method, using the Hilbert transform, of calculating the dips in energy consumption as the brain is transitioned by gamma waves. It is hypothesized that consciousness may be a spandrel, the incidental result of a neurodynamic imperative that the brain enter a maximally sensitive (in sensory terms) “zero power” state a few times a second. If that is the case, then there are obvious benefits for health in meditation, which can be viewed as a state of consciousness extended over time by limiting afferent stimuli.


Neurodynamics Thermodynamics Evolution Consciousness Biosemiotics 



Many thanks to Marcello Barbieri for his encouragement, and to Tom Doris and Hal Cox for fruitful discussions


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI)Stanford UniversityPalo AltoUSA
  2. 2.Nous Research, University College Dublin (UCD)DublinIreland
  3. 3.Ardrex ResearchLondonUK

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