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Thread: Consciousness as a way to fight off parasites

  1. #1 Consciousness as a way to fight off parasites 
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    Greetings! Not sure if this is really the kind of forum to actually discuss these kinds of questions, but I was wondering what you think.
    I'm currently a student of artificial intelligence, and one of the things we're studying right now is the human (or rather, machine) consciousness.
    There is a lot of debate about the purpose of consciousness, especially how it would "evolve" to what is it today.

    I also have a morbid interest in zombie-like parasites, like the emerald wasp and several types of fungi, which actually force another creatures (living or dead) to do their bidding by directly controlling their brains. I recently watched a Ted clip which claims that humans also carry such "brain parasites" with them which has been proven to lead to an increase in depression, suicide and other negative consequences.

    So I was thinking, what could nature possibly come up with, to protect your brain from being "taken over" by a brain parasite?
    From my AI-background, I have learned that many scientists believe that consciousness is in many ways just "being able to know what choice you made, and why you made that choice".

    Could it be that consciousness has evolved in order to protect us from brain parasites? That we can, in fact, register when our brain is doing things that it shouldn't, because we are consciously "checking" the reasons why we make choices? It would not exactly stop the brain parasite already there, but it would make for humans to be a less-then-ideal animal for brain parasites to attach themselves too, which means that no type of parasite will evolve to specifically influence human beings - which certainly must have evolutionary virtues.

    I have tried to find information about this on google, but as far as I know this is not something that scientists believe, so there must be a pretty big flaw in this idea. But I'm wondering what you think of this idea.

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    Paul-Luuk Profijt


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    So I was thinking, what could nature possibly come up with, to protect your brain from being "taken over" by a brain parasite?
    What it always does - evolution. People who are susceptible to such things die. The more such people who die and who are therefore unable to reproduce, the fewer people in the population there will be. Eventually.

    The fact that there are so few parasites that can make it past the various physical barriers to get into the brain suggests that the design as evolved works pretty well.


    "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." Winston Churchill
    "nature is like a game of Jenga; you never know which brick you pull out will cause the whole stack to collapse" Lucy Cooke
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    Quote Originally Posted by adelady View Post
    So I was thinking, what could nature possibly come up with, to protect your brain from being "taken over" by a brain parasite?
    The fact that there are so few parasites that can make it past the various physical barriers to get into the brain suggests that the design as evolved works pretty well.
    Right, which is what I'm saying. I'm not claiming that there is no physical protection to keep out parasites, I'm saying that consciousness may have been part of the evolution towards protection of the brain from foreign entities. Besides, it's already been proven that in some areas up t 95% of humans walk around with parasites that directly affect their brains, so the physical protection isn't working that great either. (source)
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    Quote Originally Posted by adelady View Post
    What it always does - evolution. People who are susceptible to such things die. The more such people who die and who are therefore unable to reproduce, the fewer people in the population there will be. Eventually.
    i have read where sexual reproduction is a evolutionary response to protect against parasites. the contribution of two different gene sets.
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    Quote Originally Posted by paulluukprofijt View Post
    Could it be that consciousness has evolved in order to protect us from brain parasites? That we can, in fact, register when our brain is doing things that it shouldn't, because we are consciously "checking" the reasons why we make choices? It would not exactly stop the brain parasite already there, but it would make for humans to be a less-then-ideal animal for brain parasites to attach themselves too, which means that no type of parasite will evolve to specifically influence human beings - which certainly must have evolutionary virtues.


    Regards,
    Paul-Luuk Profijt
    I dont see how being consciously aware of a parasite is the same as being able to protect yourself from a parasite. Firstly in order to be consciously aware you have one then its already there.

    I dont follow your reasoning that consciousness will make humans a less than ideal animal for brain parasites. How? And if as you state in your later post that up to 95% of certain populations are walking around with parasites then consciousness obviously isnt a deterrent. Your reasoning also implies that a parasite would need to be aware of which prospective host has consciousness and to what level - dont forget that all animals have conscious awareness to a certain degree.

    Personally I think your hypothesis is a non-starter.
    "And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh" Nietzsche.
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    There were some cultures that left their dead exposed to the elements, where birds of prey would pick the bones clean. In that situation a parasite could establish a life cycle if somehow those birds of prey are directly or indirectly consumed later by humans.

    Cats come close to establishing this loop. Cat faeces can have toxoplasmosis spores (oocysts) in them that may infect humans. This could be the start of a parasite life cycle, but we tend to bury or cremate our dead so the potential life cycle is stopped through humans at least.
    So the Toxoplasma gondii parasite in humans is not allowed to refine traits that by natural selection that might make us behave differently advantageous to their life cycle.
    Unless it was something like Toxoplasma infected humans are more likely to own infected cats there by perpetuating the cat - lamb life cycle. Even then it is difficult to see it getting off the ground.
    Yet some people do seem to go crazy on cats!
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    Aside from the fact that are probably other, much greater benefits to consciousness, (such as monitoring and comparing results with ones intentions or actions, and learning from experience) I'm not sure consciousness would offer very good protection from parasites. As Lucidreaming pointed out, once it was in the brain, being conscious of it would be a bit like closing the barn door after the horse is out. But also, I just don't think it would work because brain damaged people tend to confabulate or make up reasons that explain behavior. You can see this in split brain experiments, where the connection between the left and right brain has been severed, and the halves are not sharing information with each other. The left side will make up reasons to explain behavior initiated by the right side, because it doesn't know what initially prompted the right half to, for example, point at an object, or walk across the room. Or perhaps a better example would be schizophrenia, in which a person interprets the hallucinations or delusions of a malfunctioning brain as being "real."

    Even non-brain damaged people confabulate. If you inject someone with adrenalin and they don't know it's adrenalin (or sometimes even if they do know) they will look for reasons in their immediate environment to explain why they suddenly feel extremely alert or anxious, and their heart is pounding. They interpret the physiological effects of adrenalin as fear, and feel compelled to find a reasonable explanation for that intense feeling.

    It's kind of a catch-22. If the parasite was altering behavior in a very subtle way, one would probably invent a reason to explain it (as Pee-wee Herman used to say "I meant to do that.") If the change in perception and thinking was extreme, the brain probably wouldn't be functional enough to diagnose its own problem.
    Last edited by DianeG; March 31st, 2014 at 04:43 AM.
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    PAul-Luuk, several members have told you why your idea is probably a non-starter. I wouldn't abandon it just yet. My initial reaction, on reading the title of the thread, was to think "nutcase theory from someone who may have a brain parasite". Your brief summary of the speculation was, however, intriguing. I see what you are getting at and think it could merit a closer look. How might you go about testing the idea?
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    One could argue that there are already zombie parasites in the brain, and they are us. That is, if you think of the brain as a system of modules running different programs and vying for control of the orgainism's actions, consciousness may be part of the process that mediates or shifts control from one to the other. eg, I'm really hungry, and that cake looks delicious, but I want to lose 20 lbs. Or that is a very attractive person but I'm already in a relationship with someone I care about. I'm tired, but I promised I'd finish this project on time - or what the heck, I'll ask for an extension on the project, and get some rest. So in that respect, consciousness might help veto any kind of decision that wasn't in our overall best interests.
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    Quote Originally Posted by adelady View Post
    So I was thinking, what could nature possibly come up with, to protect your brain from being "taken over" by a brain parasite?
    What it always does - evolution. People who are susceptible to such things die. The more such people who die and who are therefore unable to reproduce, the fewer people in the population there will be. Eventually.

    The fact that there are so few parasites that can make it past the various physical barriers to get into the brain suggests that the design as evolved works pretty well.
    Not to support the hypothesis and with due regards to the shallowness of my knowledge of this area I think it is established that a successful parasite is often one that doesn't kill its host but "farms" it.

    If I wanted to divert this thread to a paranoid conspiracy thread I could suggest that the conscious attribute to our mentation (if that is the right term) might be us "reporting in" to the lads who had created our civilisation and were logging our every decision for the purposes of quality control perhaps (I am joking of course) .
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    Quote Originally Posted by LuciDreaming View Post
    I dont see how being consciously aware of a parasite is the same as being able to protect yourself from a parasite. Firstly in order to be consciously aware you have one then its already there.

    I dont follow your reasoning that consciousness will make humans a less than ideal animal for brain parasites.
    Based on this reaction and others, I feel I should clarify my theory a bit more.

    Parasites are generally thought to be very simple creatures, who don't actually know what they are doing. There are of course the theories of parasites taking over humankind and such speculation, but I care not for such theories and if possible I would like to keep this discussion within the more "scientific" realm.
    These parasites typically turn off a specific brain area that is responsible for a certain reaction -- let's use, for example, the automatic "withdraw" response when you feel pain, like when you accidentally touch something very hot. There is evidence of mice purposefully seeking out cat (or rather, cat's urine) due to a direct change in the "flee from cat urine" behavior.

    Now, I do not claim to be either a neuroscientist or a biologist, but I can think of no reason why similar reactions in the human brain could not be "reversed". For example, that when you feel pain you might actually feel a strong urge to keep your hand in the fire. However, I believe that humans would have the "common sense" to know there's something strange about that reaction, much in the sense that someone who can not feel pain will still realise it's a bad idea to walk into fire.

    Parasites typically breed by influencing it's host to do something it normally wouldn't, which allows them to breed. For example, if might influence a human to walk into flames so that it dies, only to get eaten by an animal that specifically goes for burned human bodies (which is not the best example, but you can see what I'm shooting at here). When I say that humans make for a "less then ideal animal for brain parasites", I mean that if humans can somehow resist the urge to walk into fire, simply because they are consciously aware that it's still a bad idea to walk into fire no matter how much you want to, then the parasite which drives them to do so will never get to complete it's lifecycle, and thus not reproduce.

    I concede that this whole theory is of course pure speculation, but that's what I'm going for. Not wether it's likely - but rather if it's a possible explanation at all.
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    Quote Originally Posted by John Galt View Post
    I see what you are getting at and think it could merit a closer look. How might you go about testing the idea?
    I have no intent of testing this idea at all, but hypothetically one might try to turn off specific parts of a human brain using advanced tools that have already been developed in the neurosciences, which can apparently target specific areas of the brain of even specific cells in the brain. If you were to use on of those machines to turn off the automated reaction to withdrawing from pain, then you could test if someone will still be "conscious" enough to realise that you should probably withdraw from the pain anyway.
    Now that would not prove my theory that consciousness was evolved as a way to fight off parasites, but it would prove that we could potentially "override" or at least "obstruct" a parasite's effect on our brain using our consciousness (or "common sense").
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    I read this guys story a while back but I cant find the original article. According to him toxoplasmosis makes people unable to see the danger in dangerous situations - Your cat is making you crazy, says scientist | Toronto Star which seems to suggest you cant consciously override the effect a parasite has on you.

    If you were to turn off neurons that stopped people from withdrawing from pain they wouldnt be able to withdraw from pain - you cant override damaged neurons with conscious will. Consciousness arises from the physical workings of the brain - an emergent property - it isnt something that works independently of the physical brain. So that is why I say that if the parasite has taken hold its too late.

    See below for a whole raft of research on consciousness and the brain although you will probably find you need to pay for some of these:

    C. Vanderwolf (2000). Are Neocortical Gamma Waves Related to Consciousness? Brain Research 855 (2):217-224.
    Walter J. Freeman (2007). Roles of Allocortex and Centrencephalon in Intentionality and Consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30 (1):92-93.
    Lucina Q. Uddin, Jan Rayman & Eran Zaidel (2005). Split-Brain Reveals Separate but Equal Self-Recognition in the Two Cerebral Hemispheres.Consciousness and Cognition 14 (3):633-640.
    R. C. O'Reilly, R. Busby & R. Soto (2003). Three Forms of Binding and Their Neural Substrates: Alternatives to Temporal Synchrony. In Axel Cleeremans (ed.), The Unity of Consciousness. Oxford University Press. 168--192.
    Phan Luu, John M. Kelley & Daniel Levitin (2001). Consciousness: A Preparatory and Comparative Process. In Peter G. Grossenbacher (ed.), Finding Consciousness in the Brain: A Neurocognitive Approach. Advances in Consciousness Research. John Benjamins. 247-275.
    Björn Merker (2008). Consciousness Without a Cerebral Cortex. In Hans Liljenström & Peter Århem (eds.), Consciousness Transitions: Phylogenetic, Ontogenetic, and Physiological Aspects. Elsevier.
    N. Kleitman (1955). The Role of the Cerebral Cortex in the Development and Maintenance of Consciousness. In H. A. Abramson (ed.), Problems of Consciousness: Transactions of the Third Conference. Josiah Macy Foundation.
    Melvyn A. Goodale (2004). Perceiving the World and Grasping It: Dissociations Between Conscious and Unconscious Visual Processing. In Michael S. Gazzaniga (ed.), The Cognitive Neurosciences. Mit Press. 1159-1172.
    Johan Eriksson, Anne Larsson, Katrine Riklund Åhlström & Lars Nyberg (2007). Similar Frontal and Distinct Posterior Cortical Regions Mediate Visual and Auditory Perceptual Awareness. Cerebral Cortex 17 (4):760-765.
    David B. Edelman (2007). Consciousness Without Corticocentrism: Beating an Evolutionary Path. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30 (1):91-92.
    "And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh" Nietzsche.
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    Quote Originally Posted by LuciDreaming View Post
    I read this guys story a while back but I cant find the original article. According to him toxoplasmosis makes people unable to see the danger in dangerous situations - Your cat is making you crazy, says scientist | Toronto Star which seems to suggest you cant consciously override the effect a parasite has on you.
    I would have to disagree that this suggests that all parasites can not be overriden. For example, sometimes when I touch a very hot pan, I have a strong urge to let go, but at the same time I know that if I drop the pan, I will spill it's hot contents all over myself and the floor. Thus I can resist a strong urge even when it's coming from my "unaffected" brain. I don't see how, if a parasite were to simply reverse that effect (making me want to hold on to the pan) can not also be overridden with the knowledge that even though you want to hold the pan, you don't want to have permanent burns on your hands.


    Quote Originally Posted by LuciDreaming View Post
    If you were to turn off neurons that stopped people from withdrawing from pain they wouldnt be able to withdraw from pain - you cant override damaged neurons with conscious will. Consciousness arises from the physical workings of the brain - an emergent property - it isnt something that works independently of the physical brain. So that is why I say that if the parasite has taken hold its too late.
    I think that here, you are talking about an entire area of the brain, and about more complex functions. True, you can not consciously force yourself to do math once the area of your brain that usually does math is damaged. Nor would you be able to do math when a parasite has somehow taken out that entire area of the brain. So to shift the paradigm of my question, I would zoom in on much smaller effects, such as turning on, off or reversing very specific reactions to very specific events.
    I'm not talking about a futurama brainslug or a half-life headcrab, but rather a small and simple parasite that only targets one specific part of the brain.

    As above with the example of the hot pan, I believe that consciousness is not so much just an emergent property that just sortof registers what you're thinking, but rather that it weighs all the sub-functions of your brain and consciously allows you to favor one sub-behavior (holding on to the hot pan) over the other (letting go of the hot pan). Because is consciousness really is just an emergent (and by extention, passive?) property of the brain, then how can you explain that I did not drop the hot pan?
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    In a way, parasites do take advantage of some of our vulnerable behaviors. I'd say it's normal for humans to take care of weak or helpless members of the group, and since this care often involves touching, carrying, or feeding someone, it spreads the infectious agent. We've learned to shun or quarantine sick strangers, and to be cautious when caring for sick loved ones, even before germ theory was well understood, but this knowledge and experience probably came pretty late to the game, as far as consciousness goes.

    You might argue, though, that intelligence or learned cultural practices have been reinforced by combating parasites - dietary laws or sanitation practices, perhaps even burying the dead or cooking meat.
    Last edited by DianeG; March 31st, 2014 at 09:27 AM.
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    actually force another creatures (living or dead) to do their bidding
    It is projection to imagine that a parasite (larvae/fungi) are consciously imposing their bidding, these lifeforms have no consciousness as we experience it.


    Could it be that consciousness has evolved in order to protect us from brain parasites?
    No, not Imo.
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    Here is an example of a parasite that may modify human behavior, although not by directly infecting the brain. The infamous guinea worm is transmitted by drinking water contaminated by infected fleas. The worm forms a painful, burning blister on the skin, usually the leg, and the pain is relieved by immersing the limb in cool water, and larvae are released, contaminating the water supply. Dracunculiasis - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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    Quote Originally Posted by icewendigo View Post
    actually force another creatures (living or dead) to do their bidding
    It is projection to imagine that a parasite (larvae/fungi) are consciously imposing their bidding, these lifeforms have no consciousness as we experience it.
    Nowhere did I ever state that parasites have any consciousness at all, but perhaps we are lost in translation (I am not a native english speaker).
    By "force another creature to do their bidding" I merely mean to imply "affect the host to act in such a way that is beneficial to the parasite".
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    Nowhere did I ever state that parasites have any consciousness at all, but perhaps we are lost in translation (I am not a native english speaker).
    By "force another creature to do their bidding" I merely mean to imply "affect the host to act in such a way that is beneficial to the parasite".
    Ok
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    Quote Originally Posted by paulluukprofijt View Post
    I would have to disagree that this suggests that all parasites can not be overriden. For example, sometimes when I touch a very hot pan, I have a strong urge to let go, but at the same time I know that if I drop the pan, I will spill it's hot contents all over myself and the floor. Thus I can resist a strong urge even when it's coming from my "unaffected" brain. I don't see how, if a parasite were to simply reverse that effect (making me want to hold on to the pan) can not also be overridden with the knowledge that even though you want to hold the pan, you don't want to have permanent burns on your hands.
    But now you are talking about two different things. A reflex reaction can be consciously over-ridden - even the reflex reaction that forces a sharp intake of breath when a body is submerged in freezing water can be over-ridden with practice. A parasite damaging a part of your brain has nothing to do with reflex reactions and what Dr Flegr was suggesting was that people's perception of danger was altered by the parasite. If in your example you no longer perceive the pan to be dangerous you wouldn't bother letting go.

    Quote Originally Posted by paulluukprofijt View Post
    I think that here, you are talking about an entire area of the brain, and about more complex functions. True, you can not consciously force yourself to do math once the area of your brain that usually does math is damaged. Nor would you be able to do math when a parasite has somehow taken out that entire area of the brain. So to shift the paradigm of my question, I would zoom in on much smaller effects, such as turning on, off or reversing very specific reactions to very specific events.
    I'm not talking about a futurama brainslug or a half-life headcrab, but rather a small and simple parasite that only targets one specific part of the brain.
    Now you are assuming the brain is entirely modular and it isnt - there are areas that correlate with specific functions such as Broca's and Wernicke's that correlate with language but consciousness is thought to be a whole brain cortical function - again, an emergent property that arises from the accumulated activity of the brain.

    Quote Originally Posted by paulluukprofijt View Post
    As above with the example of the hot pan, I believe that consciousness is not so much just an emergent property that just sortof registers what you're thinking, but rather that it weighs all the sub-functions of your brain
    No - you cannot possibly consciously weigh up all the functions and sub functions of your brain - this is an entirely sub-conscious operation. Your brain monitors vast quantities of internal and external data every second - you can only consciously choose to focus your attention on external stimuli.

    Quote Originally Posted by paulluukprofijt View Post
    and consciously allows you to favor one sub-behavior (holding on to the hot pan) over the other (letting go of the hot pan). Because is consciousness really is just an emergent (and by extention, passive?) property of the brain, then how can you explain that I did not drop the hot pan?
    Consciousness is not passive - again, over-riding a reflex reaction is not the same as over-coming a damaged area of the brain.

    Could I make a suggestion - and I want you to understand I am not trying to be offensive but it seems clear to me from what you have said that you are slightly muddled about consciousness and the way the brain is thought to work and if you want to propose a theory about consciousness you need to understand it and the brain fully first.

    There are a few reasons I think your hypothesis is unlikely - other species have a level of consciousness very close to ours just without language. Primates, dogs, crows, elephants, dolphins amongst others all show a level of conscious awareness and have a level of theory of mind and sophisticated languages. You would need to be able to show that all these creatures have a level of protection against parasites.

    The other difficulty you have here is the direction of causation - does protection against parasites arise because we have consciousness or does consciousness arise in part to help protect against parasites?

    It is very unlikely consciousness arose for one reason alone and more likely it arose through the sheer complexity of neural networks and complex social interaction.

    One of my professors told me to always strive to prove yourself wrong when considering a hypothesis because proving ourselves right is a reflex reaction - in other words dont believe everything you think.
    "And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh" Nietzsche.
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    Quote Originally Posted by LuciDreaming View Post
    One of my professors told me to always strive to prove yourself wrong when considering a hypothesis because proving ourselves right is a reflex reaction - in other words dont believe everything you think.
    excellent ! this is the scientific method. thank you for posting this.
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    Quote Originally Posted by LuciDreaming View Post
    Could I make a suggestion - and I want you to understand I am not trying to be offensive but it seems clear to me from what you have said that you are slightly muddled about consciousness and the way the brain is thought to work and if you want to propose a theory about consciousness you need to understand it and the brain fully first.
    No worries, I do not take anything in this discussion personally, I was merely testing how well the hypothesis would hold up in a discussion!


    Quote Originally Posted by LuciDreaming View Post
    One of my professors told me to always strive to prove yourself wrong when considering a hypothesis because proving ourselves right is a reflex reaction - in other words dont believe everything you think.
    Of course this is true when working on an idea yourself, but on the internet there is a rule that supercedes this; everyone knows better then you, and you should never expect anyone in a discussion to agree with anything you say, even if they do. I mean, I've only seen one person post that it is even an interesting topic at all

    As for your counter arguments, it only becomes more and more clear to me that I need better definitions for the terms of my topic of discussion, but there has not been an argument that actually contradicts what I say. For example, apparently we have a different idea of what a parasite does, and while I admit I know little about them I assumed that all the parasites we know actually only affect reflex-reactions, which as you said yourself can be consciously surpressed. Which brings me to your argument that I've got consciousness all wrong. You speak of consciously over-riding a reflex, which is the type of consciousness I am talking about. Do you retract your opinion that we can consciously over-ride reflexes, or do you feel my definition of consciousness (the ability to make conscious choices about your behavior such as over-riding a reflex) is an entirely different definition of what you describe as consciousness?

    Consciousness is actually a topic of major discussion in neuroscience, psychology and philosophy alike, so I really do not think you can make very strong claims about animal consciousness at this point.

    I feel you are attempting to attack my arguments on nuances in terminology, not the point I'm trying to bring across. Which is fine but I would also like to hear an argument why the main concept must be false, which I will try to redefine as this new point in the discussion:
    The ability to consciously ignore reflex reactions [, which is a direct result of consciousness,] might have evolved (partially) as a way to reduce human susceptibility to brain parasites affecting reflex reactions which are disadventageous to humans. (let me know if you feel this new hypothesis better suits our past conversation)

    Having said all that, I do in fact doubt any of this is real, at this point. At best, it's a possibility. But a less likely one then many other hypotheses for the reason consciousness has evolved to the entire human population. One strong counter argument I would come up with myself, is why would only humans develop consciousness (assuming animals are not conscious - which you seem to disagree with) even though they also suffer from parasites, to which I have no reply other then random luck in the very nature of evolution.
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    OK - I have to go out now so I havent got time to answer all your points but a couple of questions (and a bit of diversion from the topic) - why do you think animals are not conscious? What is your definition of consciousness that you make such a statement?
    "And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh" Nietzsche.
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