1. The movement of BB’s into the careenium is controlled by conditions outside of the careenium. The pattern of BB’s entering the careenium in turn controls the formation of symmballs (groups of BB’s) within the careenium. The careenium associates each internal symmball arrangement with its corresponding external stimulus. This process allows the careenium to use its ability to sense its internal conditions in order to perceive external events.


2. Concepts are patterns of BB’s contained in symmballs. Since symmballs change much more gradually than the chaotically moving free BB’s, they can preserve concepts over long periods of time with relatively few changes (for example in the case of memories).1 Concepts develop as certain symmball patterns are continuously favored by the moving BB’s, causing the patterns to become more and more stably ingrained in the careenium.


3. Rudimentary self-awareness originates in the ability of symmballs to react to changes in their own arrangement. In order to develop a more complex sense of “I,” careeniums must be able to ascribe beliefs to themselves through analysis of their symmball patterns, disregarding the background movement of BB’s that both controls and is controlled by these patterns.


4. Children learn words through imitation. They see an object or a situation, hear people speaking the associated word, and then attempt to mimic the sound of the word for themselves. Children hear what their own voices sound like compared to the sound produced by other people, and they improve their imitation until eventually they can pronounce the word correctly.


5. Decisions are the result of the collective movement of a multitude of the careenium’s symmballs and BB’s. Competing patterns of BB movement around symmballs represent the potential outcomes of the decision. Whichever pattern eventually becomes the dominant BB pathway is the result of the decision.


6. Desires come from the arrangement of symmballs in the careenium and how these symmballs channel the movement of the BB’s. There will inevitably be one path along which the BB’s are most inclined to move. Whatever concept or course of action is associated with this path will be the primary desire of the careenium.2


7. External stimuli cause internal rearrangements of symmballs. The careenium’s awareness of its own internal conditions (for example hunger) also cause further symmball rearrangements. Between these two factors, symmball patterns changed constantly. These patterns, and the movement of BB’s through the patterns, determine the behavior of the careenium.


8. Different people have different personalities because each person’s “careenium” has a unique structure of symmballs within it. In other words, each person’s brain has slightly different arrangements of neural connections that favor slightly different patterns of behavior.


9. An organism can either analyze its surroundings or itself. The first case is physical analysis; the second case is personal analysis. Physical analysis follows a linear sequence. Conditions in the external environment affect conditions within the organism, but the act of perception does not affect the conditions in the environment. Personal analysis, on the other hand, takes the form of a feedback loop. Once an organism perceives its own beliefs and identity, it can perceive its perception of these beliefs, and perceive the perception of the perception, and so on. With each turn around this loop, the beliefs become more and more ingrained in the organism’s identity.3


10-11.  I am dissatisfied, but I cannot tell if Hofstadter’s explanation of consciousness is genuinely insufficient or if I just don’t understand it fully. I sense that there is something oddly circular about the logic underneath his metaphors, but I can’t quite articulate what it is. And in some ways the circularity of his explanation— conglomerations of BB’s simultaneously control the movement of free BB’s and are controlled by the movement of free BB’s —is its strength, since it balances the power that Achilles and his molecules have to “shove each other around.” Maybe what is bothering me is that I do not see clearly how the metaphor of BB’s and symmballs translates back into neurons.

Metaphors can be a powerful tool for illustrating abstract concepts, but even the best metaphor is never a perfect match for reality. When metaphors are relatively simple, it is possible to identify these disparities, and to learn from the metaphor without being deceived by it. In Hofstadter’s dialogue, he builds a teetering tower of metaphors so enormously complex that I find it impossible to keep both the entire metaphor and all the parts of reality to which it corresponds in my head at the same time. This makes it exceedingly difficult to identify the disparities between metaphor and reality, and to keep the valid parts of the metaphor in mind without being misled by the inevitable rough edges. I would feel better about the symmball/careenium metaphor if I was sure that it was a good match for actual human brains, rather than just an elegant but permanently abstract fiction.4




1. One flaw in the analogy is the seeming solidity of symmballs when it is known that memory recollection and memory maintenance are much more fluid processes.


2. Desires are a case where it seems the symmballs are largely created and installed by evolution and exist fully-formed at birth.  One might say that of emotions in general.


3. Hofstadter once remarked on his disappointment that this careenium idea was not sufficiently appreciated in the cognitive science community.  He may have attempted to rectify this with I Am a Strange Loop, but the analogy still seems apart from the current standard models.


4. Like his Godel, Escher, Bach, the ideas can be fairly dense.  I’m guessing if one taught this reading in a college course and read it once or twice a year over decades, it would become much more second-nature and accessible to analysis and criticism.