On Philosophy

June 7, 2006

Two Observations on Consciousness

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 4:50 pm

Already the title should indicate to you that I am going to make some statements about consciousness based on my experience of it. But analyzing how the mind works via introspection is notoriously unreliable, so you may wonder why I bother trying to understand consciousness in this way. It is well known that you can’t fully understand yourself simply by sitting in your chair and thinking hard; there are significant unconscious processes that contribute to your mental states, and definition you cannot be aware of them. This doesn’t mean that introspection is entirely useless however. When studying the nature of consciousness our self awareness is one of the best resources we have for determining the nature and limits of consciousness, even if its operation, depending partly on the unconscious, is inaccessible to us. As long as we restrict our investigation to when we are conscious and what we are conscious about, and not erroneously assume that we have access to what is going on all the time, we should be ok.

One interesting feature that introspection can reveal to us is that while we are conscious of our thoughts we are not conscious of the process that causes one thought to lead to another. If we are asked to of course we can make a good guess about why one thought followed another, but the real process is hidden from us. You don’t have to take my word for it however; there have been experiments that have confirmed this as well. For example, subjects were put into a room (individually) with two hanging ropes, spaced far enough apart that the subject could not grab them at the same time (while hanging onto one rope they could not reach the other). The experimenter then asked the subject to tie the ropes together. Some subjects figured out the solution by themselves, and were discarded from the experiment, but after waiting for a decent amount of time some subjects remained. When this situation arose the experimenter, in half the cases, bumped into the rope, “accidentally” making it swing back and forth. After the experimenter did this the subjects were much more likely to arrive at the solution (as compared to those who didn’t see the rope bumped), namely to set one rope swinging and then to bring the other one close enough to grab the swinging rope on part of its arc. The experimenter then interviewed subjects from the group that had been exposed to the experimenter bumping the rope about their experience solving the problem. Very few of the subjects reported the experimenter’s bump as the source of their inspiration, even though we know that it must have been. Many subjects told complicated stories about how they came to the solution, stories that we know are false, at least in some of the cases. This is possible because the unconscious processing that leads from thought to thought took in the information about the swinging rope and produced the solution that was experienced consciously. Thus when the subjects attempt to explain how they got to the solution they don’t actually know, but since we are used to “living in our own heads”, and thus usually can figure out where our thoughts come from, we attempt to form a reasonable explanation, which in this case happens to be wrong.

Another interesting observation is that it is nearly impossible to have complex thoughts and carry on a conversation, or pay attention to the world at the same time. If you don’t believe me try it out, go have a conversation about the weather with someone, and at the same time try to plan your vacation to the tropics. You will notice that you either end up not doing one of the tasks or you do both, but usually slowly and with great difficulty (as you are alternating between the two), and this may cause your colleague to ask if something is wrong with you. From this we can guess that the channels we use to consciously perceive the world are being co-opted for our thoughts. For example normally we have an experience of vision, but if we are visualizing something we no longer consciously perceive the outside world and instead are conscious of the image we are creating in our minds. Another experiment you can perform for yourself then is to try to imagine something that is not there (like a voluntary hallucination). You end up either seeing normal reality or constructing a mental image of what you were seeing with your modification thrown in, but never an alteration to your perceptions “in real time”.* Since the same channels carry information from the external world or from our internal thoughts we are unable to both perceive and consciously think at the same time. Of course the information from the external world still makes its way to the unconscious processing, which is why if you “space out” while driving you will suddenly “snap back into reality” if something unexpected happens, such as the car in front of you rapidly breaking. This is because you unconscious mind has been paying attention all along and is able to force those channels to carry information about the external world instead of your internal thoughts.

So what does this tell us about consciousness? First of all it tells us that consciousness exists in a kind of feedback structure. We have a conscious thought, it is processed unconsciously, and as a result we have another conscious thought. Secondly, it tells us that this feedback occurs though channels that normally provide us with our perceptions of the external world. This observation also explains how dreams are possible; our minds are using the internal mental “feedback loop” to create the stimuli that we perceive in our dreams, but unlike our normal experience of imagination we aren’t aware that these perceptions are our thoughts instead of our experiences. This also explains why dreams seem to carry us forwards without much conscious thought, because if we began to think consciously we would no longer be able to experience the dream environment, since our thoughts and our dream reality need to use the same channel, and they can’t both use it at the same time. Finally this model explains blind sight, the phenomena where a person is unable to consciously see part of their visual field but the information is still available “unconsciously”, allowing them to make “guesses” that turn out to be extremely accurate. In this case the “conscious” visual inputs have been damaged. However the information still reaches the unconscious, and since the unconscious carries out the process that generates new conscious thoughts, occasionally the lost information may make its way into a conscious thought, which feels like an unsupported guess to the patient with blind sight, since it doesn’t follow from any previous conscious experience.

Why did I bother making these observations? Well ideally these are some of the first steps describing how to tell objectively when a system is conscious. Already we see that there must be some kind of feedback from coconscious thoughts to unconscious processing and then back to conscious thoughts, and that this loop is carried out using the same channels as perception. This statement however is completely objective despite having its basis in subjective observations, and it is my hope that more work in this area will lead to a criterion for determining when a system is conscious.

* Obviously of course hallucinations do occur. If I am right how can we explain them? A little investigation into vision reveals the answer. Experiments show that our vision is extensively preprocessed before it reaches our consciousness, for example our blind spot is filled in with details even though we don’t actually have visual input corresponding to them. A hallucination then is new and erroneous information being added in the unconscious preprocessing stage, before it ever reaches our awareness.

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