The “binding problem” is the question of how our various senses blend and synthesize into a smooth, unified flow. Nobody knows how right now. Francis Crick came up with the 40 hertz synchronization theory to explain the biological causes of consciousness but it seems very empty and thin. And unlikely.
All neurons process something. So at some level, each neuron is an experience and in a tiny way, an experiencer. We know different areas of the brain specialize in different areas and kinds of processing but these areas are not simple lumps of processing material, they are massed armies of neurons …gigantic rock concert crowds talking to each other and responding to the show on stage in front of them. When the band yells out “Hello Cleveland!” and the crowd roars back…it becomes like a single entity, made of millions.
The mistake we make in imagining neurons is seeing them as essentially passive wiring that signals are flowing along like an old telegraph or telephone system with a caller at one end and a receiver at the other. In reality, that level of transmission doesn’t require anything like the amount of neuronal population and activity we have going on. The information coming into the system has to be batch processed, and blended with information from other “departments” to derive the basic picture/sound/smell combination and this has to be refreshed at a rate that feels instantaneous and flowing to the observer. But that’s just organizing the core feed into coherent sensory information. That raw feed has to be examined for context, meaning and nuance constantly while not flooding and overwhelming the human thinking their thoughts, doing their chores, socializing and planning. This is an astounding feat especially since that same brain is the one thinking those thoughts, doing those chores, planning and socializing.
Briefly, my theory (= baseless speculation) is that neurons group their efforts into areas of task specialization. The tasks being the thousands of jobs a brain has to handle. These groups are then further associated with elementary types of sense processing (visual, auditory, contextual, etc. ) at higher levels of organization becoming “modules” which are available for use by high-level applications common to all humans via the HOS (*Human Operating System).
<Neuron groups with a focus> + <associated with sense data> + <Dynamically available to multiple cognitive needs>
For example, the processing of sound existing as a lower-level module can be directed to higher-level apps like Danger Awareness (terrifying loud noise!) or Beauty Perception (lovely red wing blackbird whistle) which can be handed off to appropriate branching apps like [(danger over there) (warn everyone) (shutdown irrelevant processes) (run)] or in the case of the blackbird, [(Safety) (beauty) (feel the unity) (communicate it socially)].
If this is going to work there has to be an automatic shunting system from very simple, nearly raw processing; through a series context gates which handle priorities and then to the more generalized higher cognitive functions. From here it has to emerge into a common area, a meta-synthesizer which is our (apparently) seamless sense of the world going on around us.
As a colorful way to imagine it:
- Picture multiple groups of people in fenced-off areas of a field, adjacent to each other. They are playing with a bunch of extra large beach balls, mysteriously dropping toward them from the sky. Each of the balls is color-coded into distinct sections. when one of these balls is falling toward a group of our fenced off players they have some simple rules to follow. If the ball is coming down with yellow displayed bounce it to the group behind you. If it is coming down blue, bounce it to the group in front, red goes left and green goes right.
- But that’s just one group, each has different rules, but all the rules are equally simple. The people represent grouped neurons directing their combined processor power to handle a common task. The balls are sensory information coming in raw. Now if we imagine pulling back and seeing miles and miles of such fenced off groups each following simple rules we can see a system where each signal can get to the places it needs to go through a simple series of if/then gateways. This makes each individual transaction nearly effortless, getting messages where they need to go.
- When the “beach balls” end up massed together where the system shunted them, a similar but higher-level group of players naturally classifies that massed message and automatically forwards it yet again to a higher cognitive “task force” based on context and importance.
All of the “task forces” have to have a common area to overlay their work and that area is our experience of the world. This is the blending, the binding. There has to a system like this to allow feedback upwards and downwards to account for our ability to feel the environment AND respond to it.
*See Hugh Miller: Making Shit Up.