Attack of the Phenophages

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: If you think of knowledge in fractal terms, you can see yourself as a wane reflection in the bottom of a rain drop as fat as the cosmos.

Or is that just me pissing on your leg?


Imagine a viscous, gelatinous alien species that crawls into human ear canals as they sleep, then over the course of the night infiltrates the conscious subsystems of the brain. Called phenophages, these creatures literally feed on the ‘what-likeness’ of conscious experience. They twine about the global broadcasting architecture of the thalamocortical system, shunting and devouring what would have been conscious phenomenal inputs. In order to escape detection, they disconnect any system that could alert its host to the absence of phenomenal experience. More insidiously still, they feed-forward any information the missing phenomenal experience would have provided the cognitive systems of its host, so that humans hosting phenophages comport themselves as if they possessed phenomenal experience in all ways. They drive through rush hour traffic, complain about the sun in their eyes, compliment their spouses’ choice of clothing, ponder the difference between perfumes, extol the gustatory virtues of their favourite restaurant, and so on.

Finally, after several years, neurologists detect the phenophages, and through various invasive and noninvasive means, discover their catastrophic consequences. Even though they have no way of removing the parasites, they are able to reconnect the systems that allow the infected to at least cognize the fact they have no experience. The problem is that doing so seems to drive a good number of these patients, who they term ‘phenophagiacs,’ insane, when they had evinced only psychologically well-adjusted behaviour before.

This scenario raises a number of questions for me, but I thought I would start with the most basic: Are unwitting phenophagiacs actually conscious in any meaningful sense? Are the witting?

A twist on this scenario involves the rise of a psychological condition called ‘phenophagic hysteria,’ where numbers of uninfected individuals, perhaps unduly affected by the intense media attention garnered by the alien infestation, come to believe they are infected even though they are not. They act in all ways as if they had experience, but when queried, they (unlike preoperative phenophagiacs) insist they have no experience whatsoever, that they simply ‘know’ in the absence of any conscious ‘feel’ of any sort. When these individuals are tested, researchers discover that they indeed exhibit a set of activation patterns that are unique to them, and conclude that somehow, these individuals have ‘blocked’ the circuits enabling conscious awareness of their conscious awareness.

So the follow-up question would be: Are phenophagic hysterics conscious in any meaningful sense?