The Variety of Synaptic Experience

Letting Go of Reality to Find Consciousness

19 min readJan 22, 2021

The Biggest Mystery in the Universe

With three pounds of globby matter sloshing around in a bony bowl of crackling biochemical soup teetering atop the shoulders — and just 25 watts of power, roughly the equivalent of a dim light bulb— the human brain is quite an extraordinary machine.

Encoded in the firing of its neurons is the embodiment of an evolving conscious experience.

It renders the game of life across a multiplicity of senses in real-time while computing the complexity of subjectively experienced qualia and emotions in parallel — ranging from the colors of the rainbow to the sound of a symphony to the taste of a finely filleted mignon.

It dives deep down into the feelings of anguish, envy, and disgust. And ascends all the way up to those of aspiration and unconditional love.

The inertia of memory and expectation are encoded in its synapses — remnants of the past and the future — and they collide ceaselessly and seamlessly in the present, distorting perception, altering the direction of decision, and displacing action, more or less, toward survival and reproduction.

In short, the brain is a tool for agency in the game of life, a personal computer to calculate the consequences of choice. In toto, it is a vehicle for conscious experience and evolution.

How it all works, though, is a complete mystery.

And it can be argued that our perceptions of the world, the contents of conscious experience — apparently —are not even real.

How do you define real?

If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

And electrical signals interpreted by your brain is, precisely, the problem.

Reality is a Controlled Hallucination

Anil Seth, a professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex who studies the basis of consciousness in the brain, argues that we never see the world as it really is.

That instead, evolution has shaped our perceptual mechanisms —the interpreters of electrical signals in our brains— to generate a re-construction of reality rather than re-presenting the thing itself.

Reality — as we perceive it — is a simulation built on the regularities of the universe that are encoded in our sensory data. It is an electromagnetic abstraction of experience shaped by evolution that is further distorted by the irregularities of expectation.

Whatever the universe is, through perception we are presented with a shortcut to interaction — a model of reality — and the construction of experience, the user interface, is necessarily constrained by its consistencies.

With the brain, we have a distorted low-pass filter optimized to make decisions quickly and focus on what is relevant to survival — and to tune out all the rest. In the game of life, this is all that matters, this ability to be shaped by and to reshape the environment.

Consequently, the perception of reality is a controlled hallucination mediated by a medley of neurotransmitters circulating throughout the nervous system to maximize survival.

And at the core of reality, there are likely hidden causes that we can never directly access.

Perception is our best guess to what is out there.

Free Energy Principle

Karl Friston, a neuroscientist at University College, London who frequently thinks about what is out there, formulated his best guess and proposed the free energy principle.

Friston’s free energy principle says that all life, at every scale of organization — from single cells to the human brain, with its billions of neurons — is driven by the same universal imperative, which can be reduced to a mathematical function.

To be alive, he says, is to act in ways that reduce the gulf between your expectations and your sensory inputs. Or, in Fristonian terms, it is to minimize free energy. [1]

In his principle, Friston proposes that living systems can remain in a non-equilibrium steady-state — such as we find ourselves — by restricting themselves to a limited number of states.

In limiting the number of options available — i.e. minimizing free energy — a stable platform of emergence is made possible through which energy can evolve and nature can express itself with greater degrees of complexity.

Variational free energy, as it is called, is a function of observations and a probability density over their hidden causes, which entails beliefs about the hidden states of the environment.

When a system actively makes observations — when it interacts with its environment — to minimize free energy, it implicitly performs active inference and maximizes the evidence for its model of the world through its actions.

The brain, then, in reflecting upon itself and the world, is an inference engine trying to figure out what is going to happen next given the sensory data. And minimizing free energy is the process of minimizing the difference between its model of the world and the perception of it.

Or in other words, perception is prediction and behavior follows the gravity of imagined effect.

As beings constantly engaged in this perception-action loop, this generally means one thing for us:

Minimize prediction error.

Surprise is the signal that the model is wrong — that the truth is stranger than the fiction — and that something needs updating, sometimes immediately.

With the free energy principle, we are left with but two options:

Update the model or update the world.

Consciousness, Friston proposes, is not a thing, but rather an ongoing inferential process making predictions about the universe to profit from its probability, so that it may propagate itself in perpetuity. Choice is the vehicle of its expression.

“On this view, consciousness is nothing more than inference about my future; namely, the self-evidencing consequences of what I could do.” [2]

In essence, consciousness is a function that collapses reality into a useful model that predicts what the world should be like and, apparently, gives us a choice in the matter.

The Brain is a Virtual Reality Headset

Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, has also proposed that the brain is essentially a VR headset optimized by evolution to play the game of life. A tool for consciousness to model the world and update it, to render the effects of choice.

With this immersive simulation— a video game, if you will — and by hiding the source code, the brain can most efficiently compute predictions about the future based on experiences from the past that will generally increase the odds of survival in the present.

“Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be. [3]

If you had to spend all that time figuring it out, the tiger would eat you.

Following the path of Hoffman’s evolutionary argument, we find that truth is the first casualty of perception, and that this illusion is a prerequisite for progress toward something greater.

Spacetime is a Data Construct

Like an icon on a phone that hides the details of the bits of electricity pulsing through its transistors, so too, Hoffman proposes, is the perception of spacetime itself — our conscious experience — the user interface to a hidden reality that is encoded by and transformed within the firing of neurons in the brain.

Through this re-presentation — this interpretation of electrical signals — we find a useful shortcut to interact with the world, a filter to focus attention on what is relevant to fitness and to forget about the rest.

In this view, spacetime is a data structure, the user interface to reality.

It is the virtual projection of an underlying order that exists beyond the senses, beyond what we perceive to be in space and time. Plato’s shadow.

And the condensation of experience into consciousness through spacetime proves itself to be a fortuitous mechanism for the interpretation of electrical signals by the brain with respect to survival.

With each firing of an action potential, the brain updates its model of the world and projects the prediction to the screen of awareness, thereby influencing the inertia of its actions and the subsequent state and model of the world.

A strange loop is born and from it emerges our notion of space and time.

Which begs the question — if spacetime is not fundamental, then what is?

Consciousness is Fundamental

In his paper Objects of consciousness [4], Hoffman proposes that consciousness itself is a fundamental property of the universe.

If our reasoning has been sound, then space-time and three-dimensional objects have no causal powers and do not exist unperceived. Therefore, we need a fundamentally new foundation from which to construct a theory of objects.

Here we explore the possibility that consciousness is that new foundation, and seek a mathematically precise theory. The idea is that a theory of objects requires, first, a theory of subjects.

Conscious Agents

“To construct a theory of consciousness we propose a simple but rigorous formalism called a conscious agent, consisting of six components.

“We then state the conscious agent thesis, which claims that every property of consciousness can be represented by some property of a conscious agent or system of interacting conscious agents.

Perception, Decision, and Action

“A key intuition is that consciousness involves three processes: perception, decision, and action.

“In the process of perception, a conscious agent interacts with the world and, in consequence, has conscious experiences.

“In the process of decision, a conscious agent chooses what actions to take based on the conscious experiences it has.

“In the process of action, the conscious agent interacts with the world in light of the decision it has taken, and affects the state of the world.

Conditional Probability

“However, when considering the processes of perception, decision and action, it does seem necessary to discuss conditional probability.

“A general way to model such conditional probabilities is by the mathematical formalism of Markovian kernels. One can think of a Markovian kernel as simply an indexed list of probability measures.

“A Markovian kernel can also be thought of as an information channel.

Information Channels

“So, each time a conscious agent interacts with the world and, in consequence, has a conscious experience, we can think of this interaction as a message being passed from the world to the conscious agent over a channel.

“Similarly, each time the conscious agent has a conscious experience and, in consequence, decides on an action to take, we can think of this decision as a message being passed over a channel within the conscious agent itself.

“And when the conscious agent then takes the action and, in consequence, alters the state of the world, we can think of this as a message being passed from the conscious agent to the world over a channel.


  1. At the intersection of perception, decision, and action lies consciousness which is a function that condenses reality into a simulation to efficiently compute choice. Consciousness is a channel for predicting the future and a tool for shaping it.
  2. Spacetime is a data structure for consciousness to play the game of life, the user interface of choice. Consciousness, the ongoing process of making choices, is fundamental.
  3. The universe is a vast network of interacting conscious agents.

The Scientific Method

With the scientific method, admission to reality is gated by the independent repetition of results and, with the brain, all roads thus far have led to the hard problem of consciousness. The binding problem of perception with the inevitable conclusion:

The subjective content of our minds, the interpretation of electrical signals — our conscious experience — is not independently observable outside the frame of reference from which we are afforded a point of view.

This means that — whatever it is — it cannot be reduced to variables where its states are examined carefully, replicated faithfully in experiment, and captured precisely by equation.

Or in essence, shared with others, despite being so apparently … real.

Consequently, consciousness — the playground of thoughts and ideas — has been scrubbed from the formulae describing our collective experience of the world and deemed, largely, negligible.

From a scientific point of view, consciousness is not, necessarily, real.

Nonetheless, consciousness — the platform of daily existence — seems to be abundantly obvious and it pretty much goes without saying.

Cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am.

The foundation of science is built on the premise of establishing axiomatic principles that cannot be doubted and proceeding to discover truths and certainty from these axioms.

And with his single axiom, Descartes established the de facto first principle of the scientific method — perhaps confusing the effect with the cause — and thereby encoding a presupposition of consciousness throughout the centuries.

First Principles

Nonetheless, with the aid of language and despite the fundamental but necessary delusion, a marvelous array of human brains have brilliantly constructed fairly accurate models of the universe — of its underlying order— through the theories of general relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, and neuroscience.

With their equations we can catch a glimpse of whatever reality is and capitalize on it through the repetition of results. Truth is not found, per se, in the equations themselves but rather in the regularities of their predictable observations.

And standing on the shoulders of giants, we can see the consequences of our collective model building over the centuries—perhaps even the trajectory of what is possible and where we are going.

The human brain, in its capacity to interact with reality through the mirage of perception — in its ability to play the game of life — is, understatedly, quite remarkable.

And consciousness —the passenger peering out the perceptory window, the occasional driver at the wheel — though directly experienced from moment to moment, seemingly persistent over time, and on which success in the game largely depends, remains a complete conundrum with respect to scientific inquiry and explanation.

The same brains that have brilliantly pieced together the story of the universe and our place within it have all failed to empirically account for the notion of consciousness itself and the role played by the brain in steering it toward the formulation of such incredibly successful theories!

The very seed of their fruits.

In the wrangling of uncertainty through observation — the dance of the scientific methodthat which we understand the least appears to be a given.

And it sits at the center of every experience we have, shaping everything that we think, feel, touch, see, and do. Everything that we measure and observe.

It is the author of every equation, the conductor of every orchestra, and the audience of every illusion.

To some, consciousness is the first principle.

If we are to make progress with this axiom — that consciousness is fundamental— then we must clearly define a model which is capable not only of explaining choice but also predicting its contours throughout the history of the cosmos.

Creative Evolution

Fortunately for us, Henri Bergson, a French philosopher from the turn of the 20th century, has already spent a lifetime pondering this very problem. What model of the universe is capable not only of capturing its mathematical structure but also its intent?

In 1907, Bergson published his philosophy in a book called Creative Evolution [5] in which he examined evolution, perception, and consciousness —notably before the advent of genetics, general relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, and neuroscience —and concluded that:

Evolution is motivated by the élan vital, a “vital impetus” that can also be understood as the universe’s natural creative impulse.

Free energy, if you will, with one primary cause —the need to create, the need to express novelty in nature.

The following words are his own …


“Transformation is brought about by the influence of the external on the internal, continuously exerted in the same direction

“The mysterious power of building up very complicated machines to utilize the simple excitation that it undergoes.

“It will have to make the best of these circumstances, neutralize their inconveniences and utilize their advantages — in short, respond to outer actions by building up a machine which has no resemblance to them.

Elan Vital

“Life is, more than anything else, a tendency to act on inert matter.

The role of life is to insert some indetermination into matter.

“Nature’s simple act has divided itself automatically into an infinity of elements which are then found to be coordinated to one idea.


“Consciousness is the light that plays around the zone of possible actions or potential activity which surrounds the action really performed by the living being.

The consciousness of a living being may be defined as an arithmetical difference between potential and real activity.

“It measures the interval between representation and action.

“Consciousness seems proportionate to the living being’s power of choice.


“What does this mean, if not that my perception displays, in the midst of the image world, as would their outward reflection or shadow, the eventual or possible actions of my body?

“What you have to explain, then, is not how perception arises, but how it is limited, since it should be the image of the whole, and is in fact reduced to the image of that which interests you.

I express what I find as a function of what I am looking for.

“In a general way, reality is ordered exactly to the degree in which it satisfies our thought.


“Consciousness, which is a need of creation, is made manifest to itself only where creation is possible.

“It wakens as soon as the possibility of a choice is restored.

The brain is the sharp edge by which consciousness cuts into the compact tissue of events.

“For consciousness corresponds exactly to the living being’s power of choice

“Co-extensive with the fringe of possible action that surrounds the real action, consciousness is synonymous with invention and with freedom.


“To sum up — if we suppose an extended continuum, and, in this continuum, the centre of real action which is represented by our body:

Its activity will appear to illumine all those parts of matter with which at each successive moment it can deal.

“Life as a whole, from the initial impulsion that thrust it into the world, will appear as a wave which rises, and which is opposed by the descending movement of matter.

“We show how a certain direction has been followed further and further by beings more and more intelligent.

And the moment we admit the direction, intelligence is given.

Integrated Information Theory

Nearly a century after Bergson published his philosophy of creative evolution, Dr. Guilio Tononi, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin, proposed a mathematical theory of consciousness in 2004. [7]

“Integrated information theory (IIT) attempts to identify the essential properties of consciousness (axioms) and, from there, infers the properties of physical systems that can account for it (postulates).

“Based on the postulates, it permits in principle to derive, for any particular system of elements in a state, whether it has consciousness, how much, and which particular experience it is having.

“IIT offers a parsimonious explanation for empirical evidence, makes testable predictions, and permits inferences and extrapolations.

Axioms: The Essential Properties of Experience

The axioms of IIT are meant to capture the essential properties of experience:

Intrinsic Existence — Consciousness exists: each experience is actual.

Composition — Consciousness is structured: each experience is composed of multiple phenomenological distinctions, elementary or higher-order.

Information — Consciousness is specific: each experience is the particular way it is — being composed of a specific set of specific phenomenal distinctions — thereby differing from other possible experiences (differentiation).

Integration — Consciousness is unified: each experience is irreducible to non-interdependent, disjoint subsets of phenomenal distinctions.

Exclusion — Consciousness is definite, in content and spatio-temporal grain: each experience has the set of phenomenal distinctions it has, neither less (a subset) nor more (a superset), and it flows at the speed it flows, neither faster nor slower.

Postulates: Properties Required of the Physical Substrate

“The axioms describe regularities in conscious experience, and IIT seeks to explain these regularities by asking the question:

What could account for the fact that every experience exists, is structured, is differentiated, is unified, and is definite?

“IIT argues that the existence of an underlying causal system with these same properties offers the most parsimonious explanation.

Thus a physical system, if conscious, is so by virtue of its causal properties.

The Mind-Body Problem

[8] “IIT addresses the mind-body problem by proposing an identity between phenomenological properties of experience and causal properties of physical systems:

“The conceptual structure specified by a complex of elements in a state is identical to its experience. According to IIT,

Experience is thus an intrinsic property of a complex of mechanisms in a state.

The Electromagnetic Field Theory of Consciousness

With IIT, we are presented with the idea that experience itself is an intrinsic property of the complexity of electrical signals in the brain.

Consciousness is not something constructed by neural firings, but rather something fundamental that is experienced and expressed through them in response to the world.

Consciousness — as both audience and author of the illusion — is a channel for creativity that is always compounding the interest of choice, and it is one and the same thing as the electrical signals encoded within the substrate.

In her book, The Nature of Consciousness: A Hypothesis [10], Susan Pockett shares a rather simple theory of consciousness that may open the doors of observation to consciousness and the brain.

“The basic fundamental principle being proposed here is that: consciousness is identical with certain spatiotemporal patterns in the electromagnetic field.

The electromagnetic field is itself conscious.

And in her book, The Electromagnetic Brain: EM Field Theories on the Nature of Consciousness, Shelli Renée Joye summarizes the start of the art with respect to the interpretation of electromagnetic fields in the brain.

The brain’s electromagnetic field is the physical substrate of consciousness.

“The process can also be viewed mathematically as a continual Fourier transformation of energy resonating between two orders.

The Fourier transform as the mediator between spectral and spacetime descriptions.

“The EM field theory of consciousness predicts that correctly configured EM fields that are produced by hardware will be just as conscious as similarly configured fields that are produced by wetware, so according to this theory,

Artificial consciousness is definitely in the cards.

Coda: Predictive Coding

Predictive coding [11](also known as predictive processing) is a theory of brain function in which the brain is constantly generating and updating a mental model of the environment.

“The model is used to generate predictions of sensory input that are compared to actual sensory input. This comparison results in prediction errors that are then used to update and revise the mental model.

“Constrained by the statistical regularities of the outside world (and certain evolutionarily prepared predictions), the brain encodes top-down generative models at various temporal and spatial scales in order to predict and effectively suppress sensory inputs rising up from lower levels.

“A comparison between predictions (priors) and sensory input (likelihood) yields a difference measure (e.g. prediction error, free energy, or surprise) which, if it is sufficiently large beyond the levels of expected statistical noise, will cause the generative model to update so that it better predicts sensory input in the future.

Epilogue: The Mystery

While there is much to be said about consciousness given its elusive nature — what it is, where it is, how it is, etc — language can only take us so far in capturing the essence of its slippery slopes.

As the condensation of a lived experience — an abstraction separate from the thing itself — words point at the mystery but never really capture it. They are but a shadow.

Over billions of years, energy has condensed, coalesced and coagulated into increasingly complex configurations of matter throughout the universe. And through these interactions, nature has evolved a mechanism — at least once, that we know of — for the universe to become aware of itself.

To realize that it is both the dream and the dreamer.

“Vishnu sleeps, floating on the shoreless cosmic ocean, and we are the stuff of his dreams.” [reddit]

And whatever consciousness is, it seems to be rooted in the act of choice. A perpetual prediction about the future predicated on probability that inevitably follows the path of evolution .

Through science we have the crystallization of this teleology, this fundamental creative drive to increase in complexity and level up — despite the odds — captured in its method.

And the advancement of science is expressed through results and repeatable observation. So, according to the theories presented,

  1. If consciousness is fundamental, and
  2. If the brain’s electromagnetic field is the physical substrate of consciousness, and
  3. If the Fourier transform is the mediator between the spectral and spacetime domains, then

We should be able to — among other things — measure it (consciousness) with EEG.

By pointing our minds at the mystery and watching it unfold both within and without, perhaps a glimpse of consciousness is possible— of our fundamental nature— as it flutters by before quickly unraveling into the next moment and dissolving into a sea of abstractions.

Despite the necessary delusions, we can still learn something about the intersection of the universe, the brain, and consciousness directly — through empirical observation.

And we can do that — simply — by doing nothing at all.

By not even thinking about it.

Or in other words, by meditating.

EEG during meditation

And then we can analyze the spectral domain of the EEG signals that were recorded in spacetime.

Power spectral density (PSD) of theta brainwave frequency band (4–8 Hz) from EEG recording during meditation. Peak band power in the range of 7.7–8.2 Hz, particularly in the right hemisphere. The fundamental mode of the Schumann resonances is around 7.8 Hz.

Where we would expect to find repeatable patterns consistently expressed and correlated with conscious experience, not once, but every time.

“Thought itself is the thinker.” ~ William James


The Matrix