by Brian Tomasik
First published: 19 Feb. 2017; last update: 21 Feb. 2017

Summary

This piece draws an analogy between the activity of a brain and the activity of a corporation. I use this analogy as a lens through which to interpret statements in Ward (2011), a review article about one neuroscientific theory of consciousness. My goal is to make it easier to think intuitively about consciousness by sketching a picture of it in a familiar, macroscopic context. Asking the silly question of what processes in the corporation "give rise to its corporateness" helps to expose the implicit dualism that bedevils most neuroscientific consciousness theories. This analogy also has practical value in allowing us to clarify our intuitions about whether a being has consciousness based on asking whether a human-organization analogue of that being has corporateness.

While this piece clarifies the content of my eliminativist-style view on consciousness, it doesn't delve into the details of the philosophical rationale behind this view. For that, I recommend

Introduction and caveats

In this piece, I outline some parallels between Ward (2011)'s account of consciousness and the functioning of a corporation. A corporation is but one of many possible models with which to compare consciousness; other forms of organized communication would also work, such as the United States (Schwitzgebel 2015), a hypothetical "society" of simple agents (Minsky 1986), or other group minds. Moreover, the corporate analogy is hardly original (e.g., Dehaene 2014, p. 92; Eagleman 2013).

I chose to comment on a single article, Ward (2011), in order to restrict the scope of this piece, but similar points would apply to many other modern neuroscientific theories of consciousness, such as some of those listed by Seth (2007). I haven't read most of the papers that Ward (2011) cites, nor did I understand everything in Ward (2011)'s article. However, if we take a functionalist approach to consciousness, then something like my corporate model must be going on in the brain, and any errors that I've made when drawing analogies are probably peripheral to the main thrust of the idea. If you think I've misinterpreted Ward (2011) or have other suggested changes, let me know.

Consciousness and corporateness

"Consciousness" is the quality or state of being conscious. Meanwhile, "corporateness", according to Merriam-Webster, is "the quality or state of being a corporate body". In this piece, I draw analogies between the consciousness of a brain and the "corporateness" of activities at a corporation. In particular, I imagine a hypothetical Acme Corporation that produces widgets in factories. Most of what Acme Corp does is blue-collar labor in factories, which we can compare with a human's body. However, in this piece, I focus on the white-collar employees in the two symmetrical buildings of Acme Corp headquarters.

But what is corporateness? What does it even mean to talk about the corporateness of different parts of an organization? This is exactly the same question that I intend to fire back at those who believe that consciousness is a thing. Thus, the unclarity of "corporateness" is part of my point in this essay. Nonetheless, as we go along, the idea behind corporateness will be clarified by analogies with consciousness.

In this piece, quotes from Ward (2011) appear in purple, and my own analogies appear in green.

The corporate structure

Ward (2011) focuses on the interplay between the cortex and thalamus. In my analogy, the cortex is compared with lower-level employees in the corporate pyramid, and the thalamus is compared with mid- and upper-level managers. The thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN) is connected to both cortex and thalamus (Ward 2011, p. 467). I don't have a single fitting analogy for it, but we can roughly think of it as other people who play modulatory roles, including consultants, Human Resources, the spouses/children/friends of the managers, etc. The following figure sketches the basic idea. The left side is a (sloppy) simplification of Fig. 1 (p. 467) from Ward (2011), showing the brain as seen looking down from above; if I were better at drawing, it would be symmetrical. The cortex is the entire outside of the brain, and the thalamus is under the cortex (one of the "subcortical" regions).

Ward (2011) explains:

The thalamus is parcellated into about 50 nuclei and subnuclei, which do not communicate directly with each other. Rather, each nucleus has reciprocal connections with a specific cortical area, as well as with the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN). [...] Such cortico–thalamo-cortical circuitry is ubiquitous among mammals, and is augmented in the ‘‘higher’’ mammals by the addition of entire cortico-thalamic units, rather than by elaboration of only cortical circuits. Thus, each new cortical area ‘‘added’’ by evolution has been accompanied by the addition of its specific nucleus to the dorsal thalamus. [...] Moreover, given the recently recognized reciprocal relationship between various thalamic nuclei and many subcortical areas, such as the basal ganglia, the striatum, the amygdala, the cerebellum, etc., the thalamus interacts directly with, or is a target for, nearly every other part of the brain. It is thus possible that it can represent and integrate the outputs of all of the functional areas of both hemispheres of the brain: sensory, cognitive, limbic, and motor (cf. Edelman, 2004). (pp. 467-68)

Here's my analogy for Acme Corp, preserving the sentence structure of the above quote:

The Acme Corp management is parcellated into about 50 managers, who do not communicate directly with each other. Rather, each manager has reciprocal discussions with a specific set of subordinate employees, as well as with consultants and other side influencers. [...] Such two-way communication between managers and subordinates is ubiquitous among corporations, and is augmented in the more advanced corporations by the addition of entirely new manager-employee teams, rather than by expansion of only direct communication among subordinates. Thus, each new corporate department ‘‘added’’ by corporate evolution has been accompanied by the addition of its own new manager to the set of managers. [...] Moreover, given the recently recognized reciprocal relationship between various managers and many lower-status corporate employees, such as the secretaries, security guards, etc., corporate management interacts directly with, or is at least informed about, nearly every other part of the company. It is thus possible that management can represent and integrate the outputs of all of the functional areas of both office buildings of the company: reporting, analysis, administrative, and factory workers.

From now on I'll place the original text and its "translation" one after the other:

The thalamic neurons have larger cell bodies and more extensive dendritic proliferation, where, along with cholinergic, noradrenergic, and seratonergic inputs from the brainstem, they receive the excitatory axonal synapses from layer 6 of their associated cortical area and from layer 5 of an ‘‘earlier’’ cortical area, as well as inhibitory synapses from nearby interneurons and from the associated area of the TRN to which they in turn also project (Jones, 2002). (p. 468)
The managers have larger offices and more extensive subscriptions to corporate email threads, where, along with inputs from the factory overseers, they receive updates from their subordinates, as well as modulating advice from consultants, Human Resources, etc.

Functional cortical areas interact with each other in a ‘‘small world’’ fashion via an extensive system of reciprocal axonal connections comprising the white matter of the brain. [...] whereas the primary sensory projection areas of the cortex are relatively small, their unimodal association areas, where higher order computations are carried out and modality-specific information is integrated, are very large, in particular for vision. The multi-modal association areas, where information from all sensory systems is integrated as well as memory storage and retrieval and other kinds of computations are carried out, are also very large. The prefrontal cortex, which receives a massive flow of information from much of the rest of the cortex, comprises the largest single associative region except for the visual association areas. [...] Each of the cortical areas [...] is also reciprocally connected to a particular thalamic nucleus [...]. Layer VI of each area sends thin fibers with many small synaptic boutons to the specific thalamic nucleus from which that area received thalamic projections[...]. (pp. 468-69)
Corporate departments interact with each other in a ‘‘small world’’ fashion via an extensive system of email/IM discussions. [...] whereas the data-gathering staff size is relatively small, the data-analyst teams, where higher order computations are carried out and domain-specific information is integrated, are very large, in particular for those watching the widget market. The cross-domain analysis areas, where information from market, public-relations, and technology analysts is integrated as well as archiving and retrieval and other kinds of IT operations are carried out, are also very large. The strategy group, which receives a massive flow of information from much of the rest of the analyst staff, comprises the largest single analysis region except for the market-research department. [...] Each of the analysis departments [...] is also reciprocally connected to a particular manager [...]. The senior analyst subordinate employee of each department sends reports to the specific manager from which that department receives supervision[...].

Mumford (1991) pointed out that most thalamic nuclei[...] receive the vast majority of their input from the cortical area(s) to which they are reciprocally connected (the remainder being from other cortical and subcortical areas). He asked: What information could these nuclei be processing, since they receive no direct sensory input? To quote Mumford (1991, p. 139): ‘‘. . . the thalamo-cortical fibers convey to the cortex the current picture of those aspects of the world with which that area of the cortex is concerned... (whereas)... The cortico-thalamic fibers convey to the thalamus proposed additions and revisions to this picture arrived at by many computations carried out in the cortex[...].’’ Essentially, these thalamic nuclei could be ‘‘displaying’’ the results of cortical computations from moment to moment, acting as an active blackboard that is constantly being updated as new information arrives and new computations are performed. (p. 469)
Mumford (1991) pointed out that most managers[...] receive the vast majority of their information from their subordinates (the remainder being from other departments). He asked: What information could these managers be processing, since they don't delve into technical details? To quote Mumford (1991, p. 139): ‘‘. . . the manager's announcements convey to the subordinates the current picture of those aspects of the company with which that department is concerned... (whereas)... The reports submitted by subordinates convey to the managers proposed additions and revisions to this picture arrived at by many analyses based on technical, low-level details[...].’’ Essentially, these managers could be ‘‘reporting’’ the results of analyses by their subordinates, acting as an active blackboard that is constantly being updated as new information arrives and new analyses are performed.

Section 6 of Ward (2011) explains that the picture is a bit more complex than what was previously described. For example, the thalamus has both "core" and "matrix" neurons (p. 475), which we can think of as different types of managers within Acme Corp. Like corporations, brains have lots of specialized quirks that don't fit neatly into a simple description. As Dennett (2001) said (p. 234): "The recent history of neuroscience can be seen as a series of triumphs for the lovers of detail."

Inhibition and modulation

Jones (2001, 2002, 2009) [...] emphasized the two major modes of action in the thalamo-cortical circuitry: burst mode promoting drowsiness and sleep and tonic mode promoting wakeful consciousness and action. The former occurs when the brainstem arousal system is quiescent and the core and matrix neurons are suppressed by inhibition from the TRN. The latter occurs when the brainstem arousal system is active and reticular inhibition is at its weakest (although not absent). During the tonic mode, thalamo-cortical synchronization, as well as cortico–cortical synchronization, are promoted by the binding influence of the matrix neurons. In this scheme the TRN, in combination with the brainstem arousal system, plays the role of determining whether the thalamus will promote thalamo-cortical synchronization at 40 Hz (consciousness) or at much lower frequencies, in the delta (2–3 Hz) range (sleep). (p. 476)
Jones (2001, 2002, 2009) [...] emphasized the two parts of the diurnal cycle in the manager-employee relationship: the end of the workday and the beginning/middle of the workday. The former occurs before people's morning alarm clocks go off and the managers are busy with their families at home. The latter occurs when the alarm clocks go off and family/domestic needs are at their weakest (although not absent). During the workday, communication between managers and subordinates, as well as among subordinates themselves, are promoted by company overseers. In this scheme managers' families, in combination with their alarm clocks, play the role of determining whether the managers will demand interaction with their subordinates at work (corporateness) or will only communicate at lower frequencies at home in the evening.

The TRN is organized in a mosaic of sectors that connect with one or more functionally-related cortical areas and their associated thalamic nuclei (e.g., Crabtree, 1999). The sensory sectors contain topographic maps that mirror the organization of the associated cortical and thalamic regions. They form open loops with their associated thalamic nuclei and appear to receive modulatory inputs from associated cortical regions. (p. 477)
The consultant team is organized in a mosaic of sectors that connect with one or more functionally-related departments and their associated managers (e.g., Crabtree, 1999). The consultants who work on the company's data-gathering operations have simplified PowerPoint slides of the organization of the departments they advise. They regularly talk with department managers and appear to receive advice from subordinate employees as well.

Crick (1984) suggested that the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN) is the locus of the ‘‘attention spotlight.’’ He proposed a mechanism involving short-term synaptic plasticity in which the TRN created temporary bindings of the contents of diverse cortical areas constituting the contents of the focus of attention. Although the exact mechanism by which this was supposed to happen has not been confirmed, the proposal that the TRN is involved in modulating the firing of thalamic neurons is now widely accepted (e.g., Sherman & Guillery, 2006)[...]. (p. 477)
Crick (1984) suggested that consultants are the locus of the corporate prioritization. He proposed a mechanism involving short-term relationship building in which the consultants created temporary coordination between diverse departments as part of implementing the company's current prioritization strategy. Although the exact mechanism by which this was supposed to happen has not been confirmed, the proposal that the consultants are involved in modulating the behavior of managers is now widely accepted (e.g., Sherman & Guillery, 2006)[...].

Meetings

Section 7 of Ward (2011) discusses the role of neural synchrony in consciousness. This is the topic I understand least well, so I won't attempt a detailed analogy. However, my basic impression is that when groups of neurons fire synchronously, they can often have more influence because their spikes are coordinated: "groups of neurons firing synchronously at around 40 Hz have greater downstream effect on their targets (e.g., Singer, 1999)" (Ward 2011, p. 481). My guess is that this can be likened to the situation where a protest with 100 people can have more impact than 5 protests that each have only 20 people at a time.

Ward (2011) also explains (p. 481):

in the present view conscious contents are computed by both sustained and transient communication among various and ever-changing groups of neurons. Recently Fries (2005) pointed out that such neuronal communication is best accomplished through neuronal coherence that allows groups of neurons to influence each other when their excitability peaks are aligned (phase locked) but not to do so when they are not aligned.

So at a high level, it seems that neural synchrony is a way to improve communication effectiveness and impact among groups of neurons. A corporate analogy could be holding a lecture or meeting, or using instant messaging or Skype. These are all forms of synchronous communication among people, in contrast to asynchronous (time-lagged) communication methods like email and forum posts.

Losses of corporate managers

there are only two places in the CNS where very small bilateral lesions (those involving less than 1 g of neural tissue) abolish the state of consciousness[ one of which is the] the intralaminar nuclei of the thalamus. Moreover, the intralaminar nuclei are connected to much of the rest of the brain through diffuse reciprocal connections, making this a candidate for a central clearinghouse or modulator of cortical and subcortical activity. (p. 466)
there are only two places in the corporate headquarters where lethal bomb explosions will abolish the state of corporateness. One of them is the floor of the building where managers sit. Moreover, the manager floor is connected to much of the rest of the office building through assorted IT communication infrastructure, making the managers' floor a candidate for a central clearinghouse or modulator of employee activity.

loss of neurons from the dorso-medial nucleus was associated with the worst outcomes, and vegetative patients had suffered the most loss of nucleus area and of neurons (approximately 30% smaller/fewer) relative to normal controls. [...] Moderately disabled patients, on the other hand, had suffered only a minor loss (<5%) of dorsomedial and ventral posterior neurons. (p. 473)
loss of employees from the manager floor was associated with the worst outcomes, and corporations with poor communication and functioning had suffered the most loss of managers (approximately 30%) relative to normal corporations. [...] Moderately ineffective companies, on the other hand, had suffered only a minor loss (<5%) of managers.

What gives rise to corporateness?

Put simply, the hypothesis of this paper is that the cortex computes the contents of consciousness whereas the thalamus displays, and thus experiences, the results of those computations. In line with Mumford’s (1991) proposal that the higher-order thalamic nuclei form an active blackboard for the cortical areas to which they are reciprocally connected, I propose that the primary neural correlate of consciousness is a dynamic core of coordinated (synchronous) neural activity within the dendrites of a subset of higher-order thalamic nuclei, particularly those serving frontal areas [...], modulated and/or gated by the TRN, the pulvinar nucleus, various subcortical inputs, and diffuse cortico-thalamic projections, a thalamic dynamic core. (p. 481)
Put simply, the hypothesis of this paper is that the subordinate employees compute the contents of corporateness whereas the managers display, and thus instantiate the corporateness of, the results of those analyses. In line with Mumford’s (1991) proposal that the higher-order managers form an active blackboard for the departments to which they are reciprocally connected, I propose that the primary correlate of corporateness is a dynamic core of coordinated (synchronous) communication by a subset of higher-order managers, particularly those serving strategic departments [...], modulated and/or advised by consultants, Human Resources, and diffuse reports by subordinates, a management team.

Although the dendritic trees of all neurons perform an integrative function relative to their synaptic input, the extensive dendritic proliferation of the dorsal thalamic neurons, plus their central location in the brain, makes them seem ideally suited to integrate information from cortical computations along with modulations sent from subcortical sites and to generate the neural activity most closely associated with conscious experience. (p. 481)
Although the minds of all employees integrate the information they receive in their email inboxes, the extensive time spent reading emails by managers, plus their central location in the office, makes them seem ideally suited to integrate information from subordinate analysts along with modulation by other teams and to generate the employee activity most closely associated with corporateness.

the purpose of the present proposal is to focus attention on the role of synchronous thalamic activity in generating primary consciousness rather than to propose exactly what it is about this activity that comprises subjectivity. I do believe, however, that none of the previous proposals has been able to show that subjectivity is entailed by the particular aspect of neural activity they spotlight (cf. Chalmers, 1996). (p. 482)
the purpose of the present proposal is to focus attention on the role of coordinated work by managers in generating primary corporateness rather than to propose exactly what it is about this activity that comprises corporateness. I do believe, however, that none of the previous theories of corporateness has been able to show that corporateness is entailed by the particular aspect of employee activity they spotlight (cf. Chalmers, 1996).

cortical computations are necessary but not sufficient for consciousness (cf. Kanwisher, 2001; Rees et al., 2002). They are necessary in the sense that particular contents of consciousness will not be possible unless the relevant cortical computations are performed. Thus, a lesion in a particular cortical area will eliminate the particular experiences computed by that cortical area. For example, a lesion in area V5/MT in the right temporal cortex would eliminate the experience of visual motion in the left visual field, while leaving other visual experiences from stimuli in that visual field intact [...]. Moreover, activity in V1 seems to determine whether activity in V5/MT reaches visual awareness at all (Silvanto, Cowey, Lavie, &Walsh, 2005), so early cortical activity is clearly necessary to support later cortical computations. Finally, a lesion that destroys V1 bilaterally curtails visual awareness (but not awareness itself) because it eliminates input to both dorsal and ventral visual streams (but not to the tecto-pulvinar system, which seems to be sufficient to guide ‘‘blindsight’’; e.g., Weiskrantz, 1986), which compute the contents of visual awareness. Such observations were previously taken to indicate that cortical activity in the lesioned area constitutes the experience. In the present proposal such cortical activity supports the experience but the experience actually occurs as a result of informing the activity of the associated thalamic nuclei of the results of the cortical computations and integrating those results into the thalamic dynamic core. Theoretically, it would be possible to reconstitute the experience, e.g. of visual motion, by performing the relevant computations externally and then stimulating the thalamus in the same way it would have been stimulated by the associated disabled cortical area[...]. This would be a potentially falsifying test of the present theory. (p. 482)
analyses by subordinates are necessary but not sufficient for corporateness (cf. Kanwisher, 2001; Rees et al., 2002). They are necessary in the sense that particular business knowledge aspects of corporateness will not be possible unless the relevant analyses are performed. Thus, an employee exodus from a particular department will eliminate the particular business intelligence produced by that department. For example, an exodus in the market-trends department would eliminate the knowledge about market trends, while leaving other market knowledge produced from market data intact [...]. Moreover, the raw data collected by the market-research team seems to determine whether reports by market analysts will be read by the market-team managers (Silvanto, Cowey, Lavie, &Walsh, 2005), so raw-data processing is clearly necessary to support later analysis. Finally, an exodus by market data processors curtails market knowledge (but not all knowledge) because it eliminates input to both market-location and market-quality analysts (but not to another market data-analysis team, which seems to be sufficient to give some market guidance, even though that team's work isn't widely recognized in the company; e.g., Weiskrantz, 1986), which compute the contents of market knowledge. Such observations were previously taken to indicate that analyst activity in the abandoned department constitutes the corporateness. In the present proposal such analyst activity supports the corporateness but the corporateness actually occurs as a result of informing the activity of the associated managers of the results of the analyst evaluations and integrating those results into the management process. Theoretically, it would be possible to reconstitute the corporateness, e.g. in the form of market-trends research, by farming out the analysis to external contractors and then reporting to managers in the same way they would have been reported to by the now-abandoned internal research department[...]. This would be a potentially falsifying test of the present theory.

The last two sentences here said that we can test our theory of corporateness by seeing whether, when you replace internal employees by external contractors, the corporateness of the research is maintained. And how do we measure corporateness? Well, we measure consciousness by asking the subject. So we can measure corporateness by contacting the corporate-communications department and asking whether they're aware of the market research being done by contractors. If the news of this market-research project has propagated from those carrying it out to workers at the external-communications department, then Acme Corp will report that, yes, the market research is part of their corporation's activities, i.e., is a part of their corporateness.

One conceptual problem arises when we consider the consequences of cutting the corpus callosum. Does a split-brain patient have two consciousnesses, each confined to one hemisphere of the brain, as would be predicted by any purely cortical or even cortico-thalamic theory? Or is there only one consciousness residing in integrated thalamic activity, or perhaps even in only one thalamus, the one connected to the (usually left) language-understanding hemisphere? This is a very difficult problem to deal with, and how it is dealt with might eventually either confirm or deny the thalamic dynamic core theory. Because each hemisphere of a split-brain patient can be seen to operate independent of the other, and as each responds in complex ways to certain stimuli, it would seem that at least the appearance of two consciousnesses is sustained. There are significant limits to the abilities of the non-linguistic (usually right) hemisphere, however, and the split-brain patient acts as if there is only one integrative consciousness directing behavior. As Gazzaniga (e.g., 2000) reports, split-brain patients feel the same regarding their consciousness before and after surgery: they claim to experience no trace of a dual consciousness. Gazzaniga (e.g., 2000) believes this feeling arises because only one hemisphere, usually the left one, is capable of integrating separate stimuli into a coherent story; the left hemisphere is, in his terms, the ‘‘interpreter’’, and the only one that generates consciousness. Indeed the left hemisphere in split-brain patients easily and routinely generates explanations for the sometimes unexpected behavior initiated by the right hemisphere (see Gazzaniga, 2000, for examples). (pp. 482-83)
One conceptual problem arises when we consider the consequences of cutting off communication between the two different buildings in which Acme Corp employees work. Does a split Acme Corp have two corporatenesses, each confined to one building, as would be predicted by any purely subordinate-centered or even subordinate-manager-centered theory? Or is there only one corporateness residing in integrated management activity, or perhaps even in only one building's managers, the managers in the (usually left-side) building that does corporate communications? This is a very difficult problem to deal with, and how it is dealt with might eventually either confirm or deny the management-team theory [of corporateness]. Because each building of a split Acme Corp can be seen to operate independent of the other, and as each responds in complex ways to certain information, it would seem that at least the appearance of two corporatenesses is sustained. There are significant limits to the abilities of the non-public-communications (usually right-side) building, however, and the split Acme Corp acts as if there is only one integrative corporateness carrying on operations. As Gazzaniga (e.g., 2000) reports, split corporations maintain the same stance regarding their corporateness before and after the cross-building communication wires are cut: they claim to have no trace of a dual corporateness. Gazzaniga (e.g., 2000) believes this declaration arises because only one building, usually the left-side one, is capable of integrating separate information into a coherent corporate narrative; the left-side building is, in his terms, the ‘‘interpreter’’, and the only building whose employees generate corporateness. Indeed the left-side building in split companies easily and routinely generates explanations for the sometimes unexpected behavior initiated by the employees in the right-side building (see Gazzaniga, 2000, for examples).

Where is corporateness located?

The approach taken in this paper nonetheless does raise the issue of whether conscious experience arises from brain activity in some particular brain region, or perhaps in particular neurons, or rather arises from activity that is distributed throughout the brain. This issue has been addressed extensively by Dennett (1991). Dennett argued that the ‘‘Cartesian Theater’’ of consciousness, the idea that there is a place in the brain/mind where ‘‘everything comes together’’ with respect to consciousness, [...] is fundamentally misguided. Descartes believed that the pineal gland of the brain was the place where brain processes and (nonmaterial) mental processes interact, and thus consciousness is generated. Others have suggested other places in the brain where consciousness occurs, including nearly every part that has been identified. Modern neuroscientific views, however, favor a more distributed process (e.g., Rees et al., 2002)[...]. (p. 465)
The approach taken in this paper nonetheless does raise the issue of whether corporateness arises from organizational activity in some particular part of the company, or perhaps by particular employees, or rather arises from activity that is distributed throughout the organization. This issue has been addressed extensively by Dennett (1991). Dennett argued that the ‘‘Cartesian Theater’’ of corporateness, the idea that there is a place in the organization where ‘‘everything comes together’’ with respect to corporateness, [...] is fundamentally misguided. Descartes believed that the front doors of the company building was the place where employee activity and (nonmaterial) corporate processes interact, and thus corporateness is generated. Others have suggested other places in the organization where corporateness occurs, including nearly every entity that appears on an org chart. Modern business-school professors, however, favor a more distributed process (e.g., Rees et al., 2002)[...].

Despite sounding this warning against the Cartesian Theater, Ward (2011) seems to fall right back into the trap (pp. 471-72): "The functional segregation between computing the preliminaries of conscious experience and the actual experiencing of the higher-order synthetic construct based on those preliminaries suggests that there might be a similar segregation between brain loci or circuits where the preliminaries happen and those where the synthetic construct based on them, the experiencing, happens."

If combining together computed inputs is where "the experiencing" happens, then it's not clear why there's "experience" in the thalamus but not in, say, recurrent cortical loops. For example, Ward (2011) explains (p. 469): "Mumford (1992) later proposed that reciprocally-connected cortical areas [...] are usually of the ‘‘higher–lower’’ variety, in the sense that the ‘‘lower’’ area passes data to the ‘‘higher’’ area, which in turn passes back to the ‘‘lower’’ area hypotheses as to the properties, objects, and/or events represented by the data." Insofar as the "higher" cortical area acts like a manager to the "lower" area, why can't it also be a seat of consciousness/corporateness? Maybe it takes in a more narrow stream of information, but that just means it should have a more limited form of "consciousness", rather than none at all.

If we do think that corporateness is localized in specific parts of the company, another question arises: How does the degree of corporateness change as the complexity of various parts of the organization changes? For example, suppose we think that most of an organization's corporateness resides with the mid- and upper-level managers. Suppose we fire all the low-level employees and instead send fake progress reports and emails to the managers. Assuming the managers continue working as normal, is the amount of corporateness roughly the same as before? Or is it required that the lower-level work actually be done in order for the management to count as having a high degree of corporateness? A similar question can be asked regarding consciousness in a brain where lower-level input processing (e.g., by early visual cortices) is faked.

Measuring corporateness

How do we determine if a given organizational activity is part of corporateness? As I mentioned above, we can compare with how we determine whether given brain activity is part of consciousness. The most straightforward approach for normal subjects is to ask them. (This relies on the assumption that all aspects of consciousness are available for verbal report, i.e., that all phenomenal consciousness is access-conscious.) The analogy in the corporate realm is to ask the communications department—e.g., by emailing contact@acmecorp.com . Any news within the company that

  • is on the desk of the person who answers that email (reporting immediate information) or
  • can be found by the person who answers that email in archives of the company's internal announcements (querying short- and long-term memory)

will count as part of the organization's corporateness. This mainly applies to big-picture news that has been broadcast to all employees. In contrast, most of the detailed work done by individual analysts is never included in the company's internal email newsletter and so is not mentioned in external communications. (As is the case with humans, there's also a possibility that some internal news is available for verbal report but is not shared because it's private or embarrassing.)

However, what about companies that have no external-communications department? For example, a company might operate under the radar. Analogously, non-human animals might not answer verbal questions. Still, it seems wrong not to regard stealth companies as corporate, at least to some degree. One solution would be to observe the company's behavior. For instance, does the company strategically respond to changing market conditions? If so, that's evidence of some internal structure for observing information and making management changes in response. The analogy to non-human animals should be clear.

Moreover, whether events in a corporation get reported is a contingent rather than intrinsic property. Maybe the technical work of individual entry-level employees usually goes unnoticed by the outside world, but if one of those employees talks to a reporter or writes a viral blog post about her work, then that information will be spread more widely. In a similar way, neural processing that's inaccessible through introspection (i.e., unknown to those writing replies to contact@acmecorp.com inquiries) can be made public by neuroscientists who study fMRI patterns, single-unit recordings, etc.

It should also be noted that verbal reports aren't sufficient to establish (robust) corporateness. For example, suppose someone sets up a fake corporation on paper that doesn't actually do anything. Emailing the company to ask about its activities might produce a detailed response, but this response wouldn't track any actual corporateness going on. Analogously, we could create a simple computer program that claims to be conscious and can describe its conscious experiences without any implementation details that would render these statements substantial.

Implicit dualism

My point in this piece should already be apparent, but I'll summarize here. The above descriptions of corporateness act as if corporateness is a thing that may or may not be present in the various operations of an organization. It's obvious enough to everyone that this is a mistake, and that "corporateness" is just a label that we apply definitionally to various kinds of employee activity within certain kinds of organizations. Yet when it comes to consciousness, most neuroscientists slip back into the dualist trap.

Papineau (2003), pp. 1-2 and 7:

Many thinkers are now touting consciousness as the last unconquered region of science, and theorists from many different disciplines are racing to find a ‘theory of consciousness’ which will unlock this final secret of nature. I am suspicious about all this enthusiasm. I think that much of the brouhaha is generated by philosophical confusion. In the end, I fear, there is no special secret of consciousness, and no special key needed to unlock it. [...]

When Francis Crick, for example, says that consciousness is associated with 40-Hertz neuronal oscillations in the visual cortex, or indeed when any scientist equates consciousness with any feature of brain activity, are we to understand them as saying that some extra conscious field is generated by the brain activity, or rather that consciousness is nothing but that brain activity, described in other terms?

We can call a theory of the former kind a dualist theory, and a theory of the latter kind a materialist theory. I suspect that much work in ‘consciousness studies’ simply hasn't decided whether it is aiming at a dualist theory or a materialist theory. The indecision matters because it can lend such work an air of spurious excitement. This is because a dualist theory of consciousness, while it would certainly be exciting, is a highly implausible prospect. A materialist theory, by contrast, while it is plausible enough, is not going to yield any exciting secrets. So, by fudging the issue between these two kinds of hypothesis, theorists of consciousness can have their cake and eat it. They can present their work as sharing the excitement of a dualist breakthrough, yet at the same time denying that its claims are any more surprising than a materialist hypothesis. [...]

If we accept materialism, we will recognise that there are not going to be any breakthroughs, any crucial discoveries about what ‘causes’ consciousness. That would be like discovering what ‘causes’ life [or, Brian would add, corporateness].

Of course there is no such thing to discover. All we can do is classify the different kinds of life, and try better to understand their mechanisms. Similarly with consciousness. We should stop getting excited about the spurious question of what ‘causes’ consciousness. Instead we should settle down to the serious business of classifying kinds of consciousness and exploring their mechanisms.

Blackmore (2014):

If we believe in the 'hard problem of consciousness'—the mystery of how subjective experience arises from (or is created by or generated by) objective events in a brain—then it's easy to imagine that there must be a special place in the brain where this happens. Or if there is no special place then some kind of 'consciousness neuron', or process or pattern or series of connections. We may not have the first clue how any of these objective things could produce subjective experience but if we could identify which of them was responsible (so the thinking goes), then we would be one step closer to solving the mystery.

This sounds eminently sensible as it means taking the well-worn scientific route of starting with correlations before moving on to causal explanations. The trouble is it depends on a dualist—and ultimately unworkable—theory of consciousness. The underlying intuition is that consciousness is an added extra—something additional to and different from the physical processes on which it depends. [...]

Consciousness is not some weird and wonderful product of some brain processes but not others. Rather, it is an illusion constructed by a clever brain and body in a complex social world.

I would translate the last paragraph as follows: "Corporateness is not some weird and wonderful product of some employee activities but not others. Rather, it is an abstraction constructed by clever corporate branding and communications departments in a complex social world."

Blackmore (2012):a

We go about our lives without worrying about the nature of consciousness, while our complex bodies and brains do lots of things at once; seeing, hearing, thinking, walking, talking, calculating, making decisions about what to do next and so on and on. If we had fabulously high resolution scanners we would be able to see the underlying neural activity of thoughts, perceptions and actions. We would see whole systems operating more or less independently of others (although nothing in the brain is completely independent of anything else).

For example, there might be streams of visual and auditory information leading to accurate walking over rough ground while other streams sustain a conversation with a friend. There might be streams of tactile information leading to controlled grasping of a cup of tea while other streams maintain body posture and yet others process the sights and sounds of a television programme. We might see the evidence of circles of repetitive thoughts, sudden ideas flickering and fading out, tiny rushes of activity in response to sounds too faint to be noticed or those blocked by attentional mechanisms. [...]

Yet those who are searching for the [neural correlates of consciousness] NCCs will ask which of these many streams is really “conscious” or which make up the “contents of consciousness”. I suggest that this is a mistake, and there is no point in asking these questions because they have no answer.

In a similar way, there's no fundamental answer to the question "What are the organizational correlates of corporateness?", although the field of organizational studies certainly has a lot to say about the structures and behaviors of various kinds of organizations.

Implications

One conclusion you might draw from this piece is that corporations deserve to be seen as "conscious" to a greater degree than you might have assumed, given the high-level similarities between corporations and brains. Of course, there remains a question of how much to care about corporations (and other high-level structures) compared with brains. For instance, if we compare sending emails with neural information transfer, then it's likely that a person's neurons transmit vastly more information per second than that person's emails do (unless the person sends tons of emails containing huge attachments or something). From this perspective, a corporate mind might be much slower and simpler than a human mind, at least if we don't count all the computation going on in the minds of the individual company employees. This jibes with my intuition that corporations as entities in themselves don't matter too much. Still, there's significant leeway for legitimate disagreement and interpretation here.

Another observation is that it's often rather easy to see nested instances of a concept (Tomasik 2015). For example, while a whole company may have corporateness, subgroups within that company may also have their own smaller versions of corporateness insofar as they have their own smaller sets of managers, their own smaller email newsletters, and so on. Indeed, if we think of managers as a central location of corporateness, then when we look at a tall corporate pyramid, we see top-level managers who each supervise many mid-level managers, who each supervise many low-level managers, etc. Each set of managers could be seen as its own locus of corporateness within its own bailiwick.

"Corporateness" presumably should be seen as a matter of degree, based on the complexity and structure of an organization. It's obvious that Microsoft and Exxon Mobil are corporations, based on their size, behavior, and internal structures. But how about startup companies? Government bureaucracies? Individual freelancers? There doesn't seem to be a principled place to draw a line around what counts as a corporation. Of course, we can apply an arbitrary legal definition, but this may miss the forest for the trees. For example, a group of merchants in Ancient Greece might have counted as a corporation relative to our intuitions, but they wouldn't have satisfied the State of Deleware's legal requirements.

A final takeaway I draw from this exercise of comparing a corporation with a brain is that the basic building blocks of consciousness are ubiquitous. If we abstract away the neuroscience implementation details and focus on high-level functional behavior, we see that consciousness consists in receiving information, processing it, combining it, sending informational feedback to earlier stages of processing, and connecting different domains of information in assorted ways. In crude form, this kind of information processing can be seen in a great many places, even in simple animals and computer programs.

Using the analogy to assess consciousness

One of the benefits of the "consciousness ≈ corporateness" analogy is that it allows us to think about consciousness in a different domain—that of corporate activity—where we may not have as many prejudices about what does and does not qualify under the concept. That is, when assessing the consciousness of a given system, one component of that evaluation can be to convert the system into a corresponding macroscopic human context and ask whether that macroscopic system has corporateness.

For example, let's consider the question of whether knee reflexes are conscious when they don't trigger brain activity. Cascio (2017):

if you were to hit a fresh human cadaver’s knee with a reflex hammer[ then] If the body is not too decayed, the knee will reflex and jerk forward, because of localized stimuli processing. This obviously does not cause any pain to the cadaver, because the brain is disconnected from the nervous systems.

As an analogy, let's imagine a simpleton commodities trader who hires three farmers in the Midwestern United States to tell him whether their corn crops are yielding above or below their own informal expectations. Based on these reports, the trader executes a rule-based trade to go long or short on corn futures. Here, the farmers are like a few sensory nerves in the knee, and the mechanical trade in response to their information is like the reflex response in the knee, carried out without higher-level reflection and analysis. Our question is whether there's some degree of corporateness to this farmer-trader system.

Many people may say that "no, the farmer-trader activity doesn't have corporateness." After all, the farmers' reports are extremely simple and aren't analyzed into more complex predictions. By contrast, a serious futures-trading firm would gather comprehensive weather, environmental, and market data from across the United States and beyond and combine that information together using (possibly several) sophisticated yield and pricing models. Analysts would sanity-check these models and possibly revise them based on feedback from managers. Lower-level employees would send summary reports to higher-level employees, who would broadcast important news throughout the organization. These activities would be modulated by Human Resources, secretaries, recruiters, etc., and the company might have a communications department (although many trading firms are pretty private).

That said, my opinion is that the simpleton commodities trader's activity does still have a nonzero degree of corporateness. There's still a tiny amount of information transfer between people taking place. The person is still receiving business-relevant information and taking action based on it, even if only in a crude way. I agree that the degree of corporateness in this process is very small. But aggregating over all individual traders of this sort in the world, their collective amount of corporateness arguably exceeds that of Goldman Sachs, which had 34,400 employees as of 2016.

These attributions are obviously judgment calls where reasonable people can disagree. But at least the debate is clarified by putting it into the realm of corporateness, where we have fewer absurdity heuristics and less dualist confusion than in the realm of consciousness.

Acknowledgements

I was inspired to write this piece based on a Facebook discussion with David Cascio.b

Carl Shulman helped to kick off some of the thinking in my mind that ultimately led to some of the arguments in this piece.

Footnotes

  1. The linked page says "Do not quote" because this is an early draft of a book chapter. But the full book is super expensive, so I don't have a copy of it.  (back)
  2. In the context of a conversation about bivalve nervous systems, Cascio offered his own corporation analogy:

    To use a corporate analogy, let's say you run a major American corporation called "Sensory Reception" where your product is hypoallergenic soap. You have many respective soap products—liquid, bar, gel, powder detergent, and foam (photoreception, thermoreception, mechanoreception, chemoreception, and nociception). To make these products, you need a specific team of employees for each soap type. You need specific marketing teams to determine the best ways and locations to sell the products (one team per afferent sensory neuron type: photoreceptors, thermoreceptors, mechanoreceptors, chemoreceptors, and nociceptors). You need specific sales teams to ensure sales goals are met by relaying information between accounting and marketing (sales team: interneurons). You need specific accounting teams to make changes to the company strategy based on the information they get from sales, whether through expanding, shrinking, or simply changing (efferent neurons that communicate directly with junctions, such as a motor neuron directing a muscle to move through a neuromuscular junction). Since how well the company is doing financially affects every project, the accounting teams for each project communicate regularly via Skype in case one project's budget affects any/all other projects' budgets. (Skype: nerve fibers like commissures, so if a certain threshold is reached, nerve innervation might cause an oyster to both flinch its soft body and also activate other efferent nerves to close its shell).

    So you've got this simple, but very successful company (a closed loop, reflex-based nervous system). You're so successful, you've decided to branch out and try to take over the entire toiletry business on a global scale. You set your sights on a Chinese company called "Subjectivity" that makes soap-related gadgets (liquid dispensers, bar graters(??), gel dispensers, powder sifters(??), and foam dispensers) (Postcentral gyrus, gustatory cortex, olfactory cortex, visual cortex, auditory cortex) *side note, I am not an inventor*. Each of these gadgets has a team similar to your soaps, with different inter-, afferent, and efferent neurons.

    So, you plan to buy this company with the goal of creating a new, highly connected and advanced organization all in one building (an organism). There's just one problem. Because you want the related projects to essentially become one project (so consolidating the 10 projects into just 5) and you want everyone on the consolidated projects to work hand-in-hand, they need to be able to speak with each other, but none of the Americans know Chinese and none of the Chinese know English!

    To take care of this, you realize you need to hire skilled specific teams of interpreters, again one for each project, because the interpreters must be able to translate back and forth between your employees and understand the soap product lingo related to their project to catch the nuances (the various nuclei of the thalamus; there are nuclei for each reception). These translators are responsible for sentience, not because sentience is located in them or because the thalamus is all that is needed for consciousness, but because they are communicating with two very different systems.

    So regarding your basic argument: "If combining together computed inputs is where 'the experiencing' happens, then it's not clear why there's 'experience' in the thalamus but not in, say, recurrent cortical loops." I am saying that there are two separate companies, one for subjective analysis and one for sensory input and reflex, that require connection in the form of translation. Bivalves have one company that all speaks the same language—that's it. They do not have the highly specialized equipment, connected or disconnected, in the first place to experience sentience.

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