Lots of thinking on consciousness and what it’s about around at the moment: some comments and links

English: Neural Correlates Of Consciousness
English: Neural Correlates Of Consciousness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s lots of interesting work around on the psychology, neuroscience and philosophy of consciousness at the moment, including issues to do with volition and free will. I sometimes make the observation to my students when we discuss consciousness and the brain that ‘our consciousness is at the centre of almost all that matters to us as humans, but our consciousness is not all that matters to our brains’. By this, I mean our brains do lots of not especially obvious things for us – breathing, controlling our sleep-wake cycle, standing, seeing, control of balance, control of thermogenesis, hearing, language processing, pupillary control, orienting reflexes, and on and on. The list is endless, and we don’t notice these things until something goes wrong. And our brains do consciousness too. After all, to know ourselves, to know others, to know and experience anything, we must be conscious.

All of the other stuff is not under conscious, volitional control to any great extent. Try holding your breath until you become unconscious and see what happens. So, here’s at least one paradox: what is most important to us as humans is merely one among the many functions performed by the organ at the centre of our humanity – the brain. 

Here’s a selection of some recent material I’ve found especially interesting:

Lots of good sense here from John Searle on the biology of consciousness: John Searle: Our shared condition — consciousness | Video on TED.com

Here’s a different take from Dan Dennett (who introduced the phrase (appropriated from Dilbert) that we consist of ‘moist robots’ – the cells that we are made of are just that nonconscious, moist robots): Dan Dennett on The illusion of consciousness

My colleague Ian Robertson suggests here that a thought is as real as an atom.

Here are a couple of great essays from Aeon Magazine:

Michael Hanlon who says ‘Consciousness is the greatest, most troubling mystery in science. Don’t believe the hype: the Hard Problem is here to stay’;

Michael Graziano who is optimistic that the problem has been (or soon will be) cracked;

David Barash who asks a different question: Human awareness of our own minds and others’ is unlike that of any other animal. But why did consciousness evolve?

Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have a different take in a great pair of papers:

In this first paper, they review the empirical evidence on a simply-stated central question: Do conscious thoughts cause behavior? [Abstract below: paper here]

Annu Rev Psychol. 2011;62:331-61. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.093008.131126. Baumeister RFMasicampo EJVohs KD.

Everyday intuitions suggest full conscious control of behavior, but evidence of unconscious causation and automaticity has sustained the contrary view that conscious thought has little or no impact on behavior. We review studies with random assignment to experimental manipulations of conscious thought and behavioral dependent measures. Topics include mental practice and simulation, anticipation, planning, reflection and rehearsal, reasoning, counterproductive effects, perspective taking, self-affirmation, framing, communication, and overriding automatic responses. The evidence for conscious causation of behavior is profound, extensive, adaptive, multifaceted, and empirically strong. However, conscious causation is often indirect and delayed, and it depends on interplay with unconscious processes. Consciousness seems especially useful for enabling behavior to be shaped by nonpresent factors and by social and cultural information, as well as for dealing with multiple competing options or impulses. It is plausible that almost every human behavior comes from a mixture of conscious and unconscious processing. [emphasis added]

PMID: 21126180

In this second paper, they suggest that ‘Conscious thought does not guide moment-to-moment actions-it serves social and cultural functions.’ [The paper]

Front Psychol. 2013 Jul 26;4:478. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00478. eCollection 2013.

Masicampo EJBaumeister RF.

Humans enjoy a private, mental life that is richer and more vivid than that of any other animal. Yet as central as the conscious experience is to human life, numerous disciplines have long struggled to explain it. The present paper reviews the latest theories and evidence from psychology that addresses what conscious thought is and how it affects human behavior. We suggest that conscious thought adapts human behavior to life in complex society and culture. First, we review research challenging the common notion that conscious thought directly guides and controls action. Second, we present an alternative view-that conscious thought processes actions and events that are typically removed from the here and now, and that it indirectly shapes action to favor culturally adaptive responses. Third, we summarize recent empirical work on conscious thought, which generally supports this alternative view. We see conscious thought as the place where the unconscious mind assembles ideas so as to reach new conclusions about how best to behave, or what outcomes to pursue or avoid. Rather than directly controlling action, conscious thought provides the input from these kinds of mental simulations to the executive. Conscious thought offers insights about the past and future, socially shared information, and cultural rules. Without it, the complex forms of social and cultural coordination that define human life would not be possible.  [emphasis added]

PMID: 23898318 PMCID: PMC3724120

Finally, to round-out this grab-bag, this from Patricia Churchland looks great – but I have yet to read it.

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist

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