Turning on the light to see how the darkness looks
Note: Do not
In Consciousness: Its Nature and
Given a curious property of introspection, some common assumptions made about the nature of consciousness may be false.
Inquiring into one’s own conscious experience “now” produces different answers from inquiring into the immediate past. “Now” consciousness seems to be unified with one conscious self experiencing the contents of a stream of consciousness. This implies a mysterious or magic difference between the contents of the stream and the rest of the brain’s unconscious processing.
By contrast, looking back into the immediate past reveals no such unity, no distinct contents of consciousness or coherent stream, but multiple backwards threads of different lengths, continuing without reference to each other or to a unified self. From this perspective there is no mystery and no magic difference.
I suggest that the assumed difference between conscious and unconscious events is an illusion created by introspection into the present moment. So is the persisting self who seems to be looking. Most people are not introspecting this way much of the time if ever. Yet whenever they do the mystery appears. Looking into those times when we are not deluded is like turning on the light to see how the darkness looks.
Whenever I ask the question “Am I conscious now?” the answer seems to be “Yes”. But what about the rest of the time?
Here, it seems to me, is a gigantic clue to help us with the mystery of consciousness. It has been staring us in the face all the time but, like so many other useful clues, it seemed either too obvious or too unimportant to take seriously. Perhaps you’d like to try it now. Ask “Am I conscious now?” and watch what happens.
Most likely you will look, listen and feel what’s going on around you, and conclude that of course you are conscious: How could you not be? If you ask “What am I conscious of now?” you will find plenty of things springing to mind as the answer –sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings or just the sense of being someone who is inquiring.
But what about the rest of the time? What about when you are not asking these questions? How is it then?
It seems easy and natural to jump to the conclusion that all the rest of the time is like this too – that all day long, whenever you are awake and responsive, there are some things that you are conscious of and some that you are not. It is natural to jump to this conclusion because every time you ask yourself about consciousness it seems to be this way. This does not, of course, prove that it is.
I am here suggesting something very curious about the nature of consciousness – that looking into consciousness reveals only what it is like when we are looking into it – and most of the time we are not. So introspection on our own minds, which are, after all, the subject of our inquiry, is thwarted by the very fact that we are introspecting.
William James described something similar when he tried to observe the “flights” as well as the “perchings” in his “stream of consciousness”. He said “The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.” If we do catch the moment “it ceases forthwith to be itself” (James 1890, 244).
I love James’s idea of trying to use light to see into the darkness. I imagine what fun it would be to show him electric lights so that he could turn them on even faster to see how the darkness looks. Or he might like the modern equivalent of looking into the fridge to see whether the light’s always on (O’Regan 2011). This analogy is perfect for the problem I am trying to describe. Asking “Am I conscious now?” or “What am I conscious of now?” can feel like turning on a light, but is that light always on? And if not then what is the darkness like inside the fridge?
This is the question I set myself to tackle and my explorations have led me through intellectual inquiry into the science and philosophy of consciousness as well as personal inquiry into the darkness of my own mind. The result of this inquiry is that I have come to question some of the most conventional and ubiquitous assumptions that are made in the science of consciousness. I believe that much of what people take for granted about their own consciousness is in fact untrue and that we shall make real progress in solving (or dissolving) the “hard problem” of consciousness only when we abandon those assumptions and take a different tack.
There are obvious dangers in my making any claims based on my own introspection, but I do this with caution and in light of the history of introspection which shows how easy it is to be misled by one’s own prior beliefs and expectations. Before describing my adventures I shall lay out the way I see the problem of consciousness, and some of the current attempts to solve it.
Consciousness is a curious illusion. When I say this some people seem to think I mean that consciousness does not exist. So to be as clear as possible – I do not mean that it does not exist – at least, I do not mean that there is no problem to be solved – rather, I mean that consciousness is not what it seems to be. In this I am simply using an ordinary dictionary definition of “illusion”. For example Webster’s dictionary defines illusion as “the state or fact of being intellectually deceived or misled.” The Oxford English Dictionary describes a “state involving the attribution of reality to what is unreal; a deception, delusion, fancy – something that deceives or deludes by producing a false impression.” In other words an illusion is something that is not what it seems to be. Consciousness, I suggest, is not what it seems to be.
Our starting point, then, is how it seems. Here I sit at my desk contemplating the colourful, flickering flames and the roaring and crackling sounds of my wood-burning stove, the room full of books and papers around me, and the stiff coldness of my legs under my desk.
Here is the problem as it seems to me. As I look at the dancing flames I seem to be over here and they seem to be over there. I seem to be looking at them from somewhere inside my head. I can stretch out my feet and look at my own toes. Those are my feet down there, and this is my body and even my head. I can think about my heart and my brain even though I have never seen either of them. All this implies that I am not equivalent to this body but am more like some kind of owner or inhabitant of the body who experiences the world through its senses and who controls its movements.
I can change my perspective in some ways. For example I can mentally expand myself out so that I fill my whole body and even reach beyond it. Even so, with my eyes open there is a distinct and hard to eradicate feeling that I am in here and the world is out there, and the me in here is experiencing a stream of conscious impressions of that world and of my own inner thoughts and feelings.
If I stare at the orange, flickering tongues as they curl around the dark logs I can get extremely bothered about that orange sensation. This orangey, orange is surely private to me. This is what is meant by the philosophical term “qualia”, those private and ineffable sensations of red or wood smoke or crackling. No one else can experience these flames exactly as I do and I cannot adequately explain how they look to anyone else. Indeed, there seem to be two distinct kinds of thing in the world: my private, ineffable experiences of the orange flames – and the physical flames themselves; my thoughts about the fire – and the fire itself; my inner self – and its physical body. The harder I stare into that orangey orange the more divided the world seems to be.
This is what creates the fundamental mystery of consciousness. It is the temptation of lapsing into dualism that bedevils every attempt to understand it. Dualism, in its many forms has been endlessly debated and widely rejected. Substance dualism, the idea that there really are two kinds of stuff in the world, as Descartes thought, fails largely because either the two worlds can interact, in which case they are not entirely distinct, or else they cannot, in which case there can be no explanation of why mind and brain, or subjective and objective, seem to correspond. As Dennett puts it “dualism is forlorn” (1991 p 33).
The modern incarnation of this problem is what David Chalmers calls the “hard problem” of explaining consciousness itself. This “is the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience” Chalmers 1995, p 63). Note that he uses the phrase “gives rise to”. This already implies a kind of duality, in that one thing (the objective processes in a physical brain) gives rise to another (the subjective experiences). Chalmers (2010) is indeed a kind of dualist, although not a substance dualist. Others reject this idea altogether, claiming that subjective and objective must really be the same thing even though they do not appear to be. Many thinkers reject the whole idea of the “hard problem” even deriding it as a “Hornswoggle problem” (Churchland 1996). Even so, many see its solution as the Holy Grail of consciousness studies and are avidly trying to solve it.
Another problem concerns the apparent unity of our experiences. As I stare into the flames it seems to me that I am having a unified stream of experiences – indeed that there is also one “me” experiencing them. Yet the more we learn about the brain the less possible it seems that everything ever comes together to create the unified experience I seem to be having right now, or that there is any conscious self that could be the recipient of the brain’s perceptual workings. The brain is a massively parallel system, with endless streams of activity flowing from place to place, carrying out multiple functions of perception and action all at once. This suggests that that they are never all brought together to create what we naturally think of as the “vivid picture I see in front of my eyes” (Crick 1994, p 159) or the “movie-in-the-brain” (Damasio 1999)
As James explained long ago, there is no ‘pontifical’ neuron to which our consciousness is attached; “no cell or group of cells in the brain of such anatomical or functional pre-eminence as to appear to be the keystone or centre of gravity of the whole system” (James, 1890, i, 179-180). In more modern terms “there is no terminal station in the cortex” (Zeki 2001 p 60-1), no final integrator station in the brain, and no need for microconsciousnesses (as Semir Zeki calls them) to be reported to a ‘center’ for consciousness.
We know all this, and yet our own experiences seem to lead us, time and time again, into imagining our minds as like a kind of mental theatre in which our personal experiences appear for our benefit on the brightly lit stage of consciousness. When I turn my attention to those orange, flickery flames they seem to come into my consciousness when before they were not.
A century after William James, Dennett described this tempting fantasy as the “Cartesian Theater”, that mythical place into which perceptions, sensations, thoughts and feelings come to be experienced by the audience of one. Nearly everyone rejects Cartesian dualism, he said, yet “When you discard Cartesian dualism, you really must discard the show that would have gone on in the Cartesian Theater, and the audience as well, for neither the show nor the audience is to be found in the brain, and the brain is the only real place there is to look for them.” (Dennett 1991 p 134). Those who claim to be materialists while still hanging onto the Cartesian Theatre with all its alluring imagery, he says are trapped in “Cartesian materialism”, “the view that there is a crucial finish line or boundary somewhere in the brain , marking a place where the order of arrival equals the order of ‘presentation’ in experience” (Dennett 1991 p 107). This is “the view that nobody espouses but almost everybody tends to think in terms of …” (Dennett 1991 p 144).
They do indeed. For example the simple phrase “the contents of consciousness” is used frequently, without comment, in both scientific and popular writing. Yet this idea of “contents” tempts us to imagine consciousness as a space or container into which perceptions, thoughts and feelings come and go – or a stage in the theatre of the mind on which perceptions, thoughts and feelings are illuminated by the spotlight of attention. But surely consciousness is not some kind of container, and if it is not then this common phrase is deeply misleading (Blackmore 2002).
Some current theories and research
Theatre imagery is implicit in many theories and explicit in some. Possibly the most popular theories of all are variants on Global Workspace Theory (GWT) first proposed by Bernard Baars (1988, 1997) and later extended in various versions including neuronal global workspace theory (Dehaene 2002). These suggest that the architecture of the brain includes a global workspace, something like a working memory space, in which some information is processed and then broadcast to the rest of the (unconscious) system. By virtue of this global availability the contents of the workspace are conscious, while the rest of what is going on in the brain is not.
Baars’ version of GWT uses explicit analogies with a theatre, and the idea of the stage being lit by the spotlight of attention, but Baars insists that his is not a Cartesian theatre and he is not a Cartesian materialist. To work out whether this is true it helps to realise that there are two fundamentally different ways of interpreting GWT’s proposed relationship between consciousness and global availability.
The more tempting interpretation is that when information reaches the global workspace and is broadcast then something else – something special – happens. Then, and only then, does the information become the “contents of consciousness” or turn into subjectively experienced qualia or in some other way become conscious. This interpretation leaves all the familiar problems in place, yet is undoubtedly the more popular.
The alternative is that being globally available simply is what we mean by being conscious. That is, information having access to verbal report or to other forms of behaviour is all there is to consciousness. This interpretation entails no dualism but for most of us it is difficult to accept – we feel that consciousness is something more. As Dennett explains, the hardest part to understand is that global availability does not cause some further effect “igniting the glow of conscious qualia, gaining entrance to the Cartesian Theater, or something like that.” “Those who harbour this hunch are surrendering just when victory is at hand.” (Dennett 2005 p 134). Consciousness is like “fame in the brain”, he says, or “cerebral celebrity”; fame is not something in addition to being well known and nor is consciousness.
Based on his version of GWT, Baars urges us to adopt the method of “contrastive analysis”. That is, he urges neuroscientists to compare the same activities or perceptions when they happen consciously with the same events when they happen unconsciously. We should, as he puts it, “consider comparable conscious and unconscious events side by side” (Baars 1988).
This, I suggest, is a huge mistake. The proposal rests entirely on the supposition that there really is a difference between conscious and unconscious events (or perceptions or actions or feelings or thoughts). It may seem peculiar, if not downright bonkers of me to deny this, but I do deny it.
The same applies when the distinction is made between events going on in the brain. Since Baars first proposed this approach in the 1980s, the field of consciousness studies has progressed extraordinarily fast and the most popular experimental approach has become the hunt for the “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCC). The basic idea is to take a comparable conscious and unconscious event and look for neural correlates using EEG, functional MRI or other forms of brain scanning, to see what the difference is. This has proved enormously productive in the sense that we now know, for example, that when someone looks at an ambiguous figure and their conscious perception flips from seeing it one way to the other, no changes are seen in the early parts of the visual system but there are changes in higher visual areas. (Lumer 2000) . This tells us where the processing that leads to verbal report is going on but what does it really tell us about consciousness?
I suggest that this whole enterprise is based on fantasy – on a form of unworkable Cartesian materialism – because looking for brain correlates of consciousness assumes a difference between “conscious” and “unconscious” events; between those brain events that “give rise to” consciousness and those that do not; between those neurons firing that produce (or create or give rise to) qualia and those that do not (Blackmore 2010/2011). It is as though the hard problem has been shifted so that it applies only to some brain events and not others. Yet all brain events entail the same kinds of processes – waves of depolarisation travelling along axons, chemical transmitters crossing synapses, summation of inputs at cell bodes and so on. What could it mean for some of these to be “giving rise to” or “creating” conscious experiences while all the rest do not? If the hard problem really is insoluble or meaningless then shifting it to apply only some brain events does not help at all. This is why I refer to this distinction as the “magic difference”.
It seems to me that both the most popular theories and the currently most popular research programs are based on this false distinction and ultimately must fail. My purpose here is to explain why, and to think about how we might proceed in a different way.
A first person science?
All the problems I have discussed above really come back to one problem: the temptation to think of consciousness as something other than the workings of a complex brain, body and world – to think we have to solve the problem of “consciousness itself”. Indeed the very noun “consciousness” tempts us into thinking of consciousness as something independent.
This temptation and its consequences for understanding the mind underlies what is probably the greatest split between theorists working on consciousness. Daniel Dennett divides them into the “A team” and the “B team” with himself as captain of the A team (of course), and David Chalmers as captain of the B team. The distinction began with a disagreement over whether there can be a first-person science of consciousness. Chalmers argued that consciousness is a scientific problem quite unlike any other and requires a special kind of first-person science in which we collect first-person data. For him, and for others including John Searle (1997), first-person data (our own private subjective experiences) are irreducible to third-person data (our actions or the things we say about experiences). By contrast Dennett argues that there can be no first-person data. All we can ever do is observe what we and other people do and say about experiences. Science is intrinsically a public, shared activity and there can be no such thing as a special first-person science relying on first-person data.
Although the argument began this way, it nicely captures a fundamental split between theories of consciousness (Blackmore 2010/2011). For the B team, including John Searle, Thomas Nagel, Joseph Levine and perhaps Jeffrey Gray, consciousness is something separate from the processes of perception, learning, memory, and cognition. There really is a “hard problem” that is distinct from the “easy problems”; if all the “easy problems” were solved and we really understood how learning, memory, perception and cognition worked, there would still be the problem of “consciousness itself”.
For the A team, including Patricia and Paul Churchland, Andy Clark, Douglas Hofstadter, Kevin O’Regan, Alva NoŽ and many others, consciousness is not separate from all these processes. If ever we thoroughly understood perception, learning, memory, and cognition we would also know all we needed to know about consciousness, for it is not something separate from them. There is no such thing as “consciousness itself” and no “hard problem”.
Those in the B team not only agree that we need a new kind of science to study consciousness, but think that studying third-person data leaves something out, that Mary the Colour Scientist learns something new when she steps out of her black and white room (Jackson 1982, Ludlow et al 2004), and that zombies are possible (Dennett 1991, Chalmers 1996). They agonise over the problem of the evolution of consciousness because they must find a function for consciousness itself apart from all the other processes and adaptations that did evolve (Blackmore 2010/2011).
By contrast the A team tends to think that no special kind of science is needed, that nothing will be left out in a future third-person science of the mind, that Mary learns nothing new when she emerges from her room, and that falling for the “Zombic hunch” (Dennett 2001) is understandable but wrong-headed, for zombies (though easy to imagine) are impossible. There is no special problem surrounding the evolution of consciousness because whatever consciousness is, it necessarily came along with all those functions and adaptations that did evolve for a reason.
I am firmly behind the A team. Given all I have said above it should be clear that I do not think consciousness can be something separate from the workings of our brains and bodies in their complex environment. I do not think there is such a thing as consciousness itself, and I do not think the idea of a first person science of consciousness makes sense. Yet I am still deeply perplexed by consciousness. This appearance of a world when I open my eyes, this flood of thoughts and ideas that appear out of nowhere and seem to stream through my mind, this self who seems to be the subject of these experiences; what are they? I cannot (yet?) see how understanding perception, learning, memory, and cognition can explain all this.
My perplexity has only been increased by my years of Zen practice, which have taught me how to sit still and experience phenomena as they arise. I would like to suggest that the problem is so difficult that we might usefully go right back to the beginning and take a fresh look at subjective experience. This is the role that I believe disciplined methods of first-person exploration can play. The whole problem of consciousness concerns subjectivity, or “what it is like to be”. So perhaps a serious attempt to look into “what it is like to be” might be useful.
Note that I am not here siding with the B team and suggesting a first-person science of consciousness. I do not think there can be any such thing because science is intrinsically a public activity. We all have to try things out, suggest theories, test them, carry out experiments, criticise those experiments and then agree, or not, on what we find. I am, however, suggesting a role for first-person methods in a science of consciousness. That role is a limited but potentially important one. It may allow us to gain a clearer picture of the phenomena we are trying to explain and from that to challenge some of the basic assumptions on which the current science of consciousness, with all its apparently insuperable problems, rests.
The assumptions I have come to challenge can be roughly summed up by some of the most common phrases used in the literature of consciousness. There are:
The contents of consciousness
The stream of consciousness
The unity of consciousness
The neural correlates of consciousness (NCCs)
Elsewhere (Blackmore 2009) I have spelled out further assumptions but I think these four, apparently innocuous, phrases reveal all the problems I have found in my personal explorations of consciousness. I will therefore describe how I have set about my investigations and then explain why I think all of these phrases are deeply misleading and need to be abandoned (or at the very least re-interpreted) if we are to make progress.
If the aim is to explore consciousness through disciplined first-person methods, which method should we use? There have been many notable attempts in the past, including the notoriously failed introspectionism of the late nineteenth century, the methods of phenomenology based on the work of Edmund Husserl in the early twentieth century, and various currently more popular varieties of phenomenology (see e.g. Gallagher 2007, Stevens 2000, Thompson and Zahavi 2007). The closest to my own approach is possibly the work of Francisco Varela who used meditation as part of his discipline of neurophenomenology (Varela and Shear1999).The major problem facing these attempts is that each explorer can proclaim their own discoveries to be right and other people’s to be wrong – their own minds to be typical and others’ aberrant – a problem tackled in different ways by these various disciplines.
I make no such claims, for my purpose is different. I shall merely describe what I have done, what it seemed to me to reveal, and how what I found is relevant to some of the common assumptions I listed above. Others may decide whether or not they agree with me that this could or should have any impact on our current science of consciousness.
The method I used was meditation in the tradition of Chan Buddhism (the Chinese precursor of Japanese Zen). Since the term “Zen” is far better known, and the methods are very similar I shall refer to this as Zen throughout.
My training in Zen began in the mid 1970s when I attended meditation classes first in London, and then in Bristol with John Crook, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Bristol and a Zen teacher. I went on my first Zen retreat at the Maenllwyd, John’s farmhouse deep in the mountains of mid-Wales, during the exceptionally cold winter of 1982. Subsequently I have attended roughly one week-long retreat a year, although in some years I have done more, as well as several shorter weekend or day retreats. I have also worked with other Zen teachers including Reb Anderson and Stephen Batchelor. I began regular daily meditation practice in 1986. Although I have been training in Zen for more than thirty years, and to a lesser extent in Tibetan practices, I have never taken any vows or joined any Buddhist group. I do not consider myself to be a Buddhist (but see Crook 2009).
In 1997 I did my first solitary retreat at the Maenllwyd, basing my routine on typical Zen retreats but with rather more sleep allowed! This means spending most of the day in half-hour sitting meditation sessions with ten minute breaks for walking meditation or exercises, as well as time for preparing food, doing jobs around the house or outdoors, and a walk in the hills each day. With no lectures, interviews, or ceremonies this amounts to rather more meditation than on a typical group retreat and obviously silence is easy when there is no other human being within miles.
In 2002 John initiated a new kind of “koan retreat”. Participants are given a list of koans (short Zen stories or questions) and asked to choose one which they then work with for the whole week. The idea is to keep the koan constantly in mind, whether sitting in meditation, washing up, walking or doing anything else. Koans are not meant to be questions to be answered but are more of a stimulus to the mind’s revealing itself. I attended two such retreats, working on the koans “There is no time, what is memory?” and “When is this?” (Blackmore 2009).
For more than ten years I taught a third-year course on consciousness first at Bristol University and then at the University of the West of England, Bristol. During these courses (the UWE course was 24 weeks long) I set the students homework each week which was to ask themselves a given question as many times as they could every day (Blackmore 2010/11). I did the homework myself along with them and we discussed what happened at the start of the next week’s lecture. I have also given many public lectures in which I have asked people these and similar questions.
When writing a book about Zen questioning (Blackmore 2009) I did several short solitary retreats of a few days, both at Maenllwyd and at home, concentrating on questions including: Am I conscious now? What was I conscious of a moment ago? Who is asking the question? and How does thought arise? All these have contributed to the findings I wish to discuss here. So the effects I describe here come from a wide variety of sources.
“Am I conscious now?” appears to be too simple a question to provide much enlightenment but when I began giving it to students as their first week’s question I quickly learned that it can have strange and interesting effects. Students told me that when I asked them “Are you conscious now?” they felt almost as though they were waking up, or becoming more conscious. They naturally began to wonder what was going on before they were asked the question, leading them on to ask “Was I conscious a moment ago?”
This second, apparently simple, question typically provokes two contrary reactions. One is “Yes, I must have been conscious because I am awake, alert, thinking and feeling, and I know I have been like that since I got up this morning.” The other is “No, I can’t have been conscious because when you asked me the first question it felt as though I was waking up, or becoming conscious in a way that I was not a moment before. Something changed.”
How can we resolve these two apparently contradictory findings, bearing in mind that if the subject herself says she does not know the answer we have no independent way of checking? This is where looking into the darkness seems to be the appropriate analogy – the darkness is that of the immediate past moment.
Over many years I set both the students and myself two further questions, variants of the first two. They are “What am I conscious of now?” and “What was I conscious of a moment ago?”. These have interestingly different effects from each other. Typically, if you ask about “now” what happens is that you latch onto some feeling, perception or thought and are sure that you are conscious of that. When your attention switches to something else you assume that the “now” has also moved on, so this readily gives rise to the sense of a “stream of consciousness” the idea being that at any moment there is something or other (or several things) that you are conscious of and these change as time flows on. So there is always something or other in the stream of consciousness.
Asking “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” has quite a different effect. When you first ask this question the answer does not seem to be too difficult. Something or other comes to mind as what you were thinking about or feeling a moment ago, and it is easy to imagine that this was the content of the flowing stream of consciousness back then. However, deeper inquiry throws this simplicity right out. A telling event can occur if someone else asks “Were you conscious of …. (that clock ticking, the hum of the air conditioning, the birds singing outside, the loud drill over the road)? What can happen then is that you listen for that sound only to get the distinct impression that someone or something had been listening to it for some time. You can remember the sound going along before the question was asked.
Once again the question provokes two contrary reactions. One is “No, I hadn’t noticed that sound until you pointed it out to me, so obviously I was not conscious of it.” The other is “Yes, now that you mention it I can remember how it sounded a little while ago, as though I, or someone, had been listening. So I was conscious of it (or someone or something was).”
Because of these peculiar effects I set myself the task of meditating systematically on this question. I did this in several solitary retreats at home in Bristol, where I spent approximately six hours a day in sitting meditation and some further time in walking meditation or mindfulness. I began each day with an hour or so calming the mind and then allowed the question to arise. With much practice the question would pop up from time to time and I would then watch what happened. I should add though, that it is difficult to write about this clearly because I find myself writing “I watched” when it might be more accurate to say that watching occurred. Doubt about who or what is watching arises naturally within this kind of practice.
The task of looking backwards in this way has very odd effects. At first it may seem as though there is a unified self looking back into immediate memory to answer a meaningful question about the past. After much practice this feeling dissipates and the effect is more like being several observers or several streams of experience at once. Indeed it seems that whenever I ask the question “What am I conscious of now?” there is only one answer – this. But when I ask the question “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” there are several answers.
Here is a typical example of an exercise practiced many, many times. I am sitting still with a calm mind, looking gently at the grass in front of me and aware of the walls of the hut I am sitting in, and the sounds of the birds around me. Now the question pops up “What was I conscious of a moment ago?”. I look back, as it were, to a moment ago. The grass and birds remain but what else? It feels as though my mind is opening up to a myriad threads that reach back into “a moment ago”. With surprise I note the drone of the traffic, which seems very obvious now I have noticed it. I can remember the sound stretching back into the past and even recall an especially loud lorry, now gone, as it laboured up the hill. It occurs to me that had I not asked “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” this brief sound would never have been remembered. Almost simultaneously with this I realise that I (or someone?) has been listening to the gentle sound of my cat purring at my side. Indeed now that my attention has turned to her, I feel her warmth against my leg, and that too seems to have been going on for some time. I can even sense a memory of her having slightly shifted position just a moment ago. And there is more: the feel of my bottom on the stool, that slight ache in my knee, the insect crawling across the grass (surely I have been watching that since it emerged into my field of view some time ago) and then, with some horror, I realise I am breathing. I can look back as though I have been watching the slow in and out of air through my nose as my chest rose and fell but I know that if I not asked the question all this memory would be gone. Was I really conscious of any of these a moment ago?
All this takes a long time to write but happens in a fraction of a second. The sensation is as of realising that there were multiple backwards threads of sensation and perception. All seem to have been conscious in the sense that I can now recall them as though I had been aware of them at the time. All seem to have been unconscious in the sense that it took this question to provoke any memory of them, and when they were evoked they seemed to have been going on quite separately from the grass, hut and birds that I was aware of before I asked the question.
There is a powerful tendency to grasp onto one of the backwards threads and call it “me”, and to imagine that it is part of “my” stream of my consciousness, but this tendency weakens with time. Maintaining this peculiar state means continuously letting go of any temporary stream of experience and any temporary self or observer that arises with it. Indeed it is all about letting go.
And who is letting go? This natural question is, of course, just another aspect of the same old tendency to construct a self. A little trick I have used when this happens is to remember that this brain and body is a complex system doing multiple parallel things at once with no central controller or experiencer. Rather than there being anyone inside who is letting go, there is just a complex system learning how not to grasp onto one stream at a time or to construct the idea of a single experiencing self.
When practicing in this way, the sense of time and space sometimes changes so that streams of perceptions, thoughts or images seem to arise in their own time and space without reference to any others or to any underlying pre-existing time and space. I have not come to this very often, and I imagine that others may be more practiced at it than I am. From this extraordinary state the threads can then be gathered together again, reconstituting the sense of a single self experiencing particular things ordered in time. Normality is restored.
I have described here the consequences of asking just two main questions and their simplest variants. Elsewhere I have described the effects of several other questions (Blackmore 2009), including more about self, space, time and action. Nevertheless I think these two provide sufficient basis for my intention here, which is to challenge some common assumptions and sketch out a new way of thinking about consciousness. I am very well aware of the limitations of claiming anything at all from one person’s explorations. Yet I think it worth pointing out the possible implications of looking back into the darkness in this way.
These observations suggest a different way of looking at the problem of consciousness based on distinguishing between two different states of mind, only one of which creates the appearance of the hard problem. We might want to call these the “thinking about consciousness” state and the “ordinary state of consciousness”, but I think they are better described as the “self-reflexive state” and the “scattered state”.
Self- reflexive mind.
Most of the time our minds are a scattered mass of barely interconnected ongoing processes but just occasionally something special happens. Some of these many threads are gathered together along with a model of a self experiencing them. When this happens it seems obvious that there is a self experiencing some things and not others. This change may take an intellectual form as when we ask ourselves “Am I conscious now?” or start wondering about the problem of consciousness or the nature of qualia or self. If we ask “What am I conscious of now?” one or more of the ongoing processes can be chosen to provide an answer. Whatever we do in this state, whichever way we direct our attention, we are sure that there is a self who is subjectively experiencing certain contents of consciousness. This is because a temporary self has indeed been constructed, and some of the streams are available to this self while others are not.
In this state there seems to be a magic difference between conscious and unconscious processes; there seems to be a self who is separate from the conscious processes; and there seems to be a duality between the subjective world and an objective world. In other words, it is in this state that all the familiar problems of consciousness seem troublesome.
This state is not a common state of mind for most people – or even for philosophers and consciousness researchers. Indeed it may happen rarely and last only a short time. Yet it causes all the trouble.
Most of the time our minds are not in this asking-about-consciousness or self-reflexive state. They are scattered. We go about our lives without worrying about the nature of consciousness, while our complex bodies and brains do lots of things at once; seeing, hearing, thinking, walking, talking, calculating, making decisions about what to do next and so on and on. If we had fabulously high resolution scanners we would be able to see the underlying neural activity of thoughts, perceptions and actions. We would see whole systems operating more or less independently of others (although nothing in the brain is completely independent of anything else).
For example, there might be streams of visual and auditory information leading to accurate walking over rough ground while other streams sustain a conversation with a friend. There might be streams of tactile information leading to controlled grasping of a cup of tea while other streams maintain body posture and yet others process the sights and sounds of a television programme. We might see the evidence of circles of repetitive thoughts, sudden ideas flickering and fading out, tiny rushes of activity in response to sounds too faint to be noticed or those blocked by attentional mechanisms.
There is nothing here to cause any concern about “consciousness itself” and no need for any worry about dualism, the magic difference between conscious and unconscious processes, or the hard problem. All these appear only when we flip into the self-reflexive state.
Yet those who are searching for the NCCs will ask which of these many streams is really “conscious” or which make up the “contents of consciousness”. I suggest that this is a mistake, and there is no point in asking these questions because they have no answer. Dennett (1991) reached similar conclusions through philosophical argument, but I came to this conclusion by looking back into the darkness of the immediate past. This seemed to me to reveal lots of backwards threads of experience that appeared only because I looked for them. I could not say which ones I was conscious of and which I was not. If I could not say then who or what could?
From scattered to self-reflexive
Most people, most of the time, have scattered minds and do not think about self or consciousness, but there are many events that can provoke the switch to a self-reflective state in which both self and consciousness seem real. These can be quite ordinary events, not just difficult questions like “what am I conscious of now?”. They include those that give rise to the familiar sensation that something has just come into my consciousness or that I have just become aware of something I was previously not aware of.
Here is a simple example. Suppose you are sitting comfortably by the fire, reading a book with your favourite music on in the background. As you become engrossed in the story the music suddenly changes pace and your attention is drawn attention to it. You have the distinct impression that the music has “come into consciousness”.
What has really happened here, and what needs explaining? If someone could look inside your brain they would see all sorts of complicated streams of activity including two especially extensive and stable ones: one corresponding to your reading, taking up parts of visual cortex, language areas, and parts processing the meaning of what you are reading. I have used the word “streams” here but we might equally call them “coalitions” (Koch 2004). Neither word quite does justice to them. Imagine a great spreading, branching, ever-changing octopus (or multipus, or mega-bush) of activation.
Simultaneously there is another large octopus evoked by the music, infiltrating not only auditory cortex but various emotional areas too, and even reaching out to the autonomic system, hormone levels and other bodily effects. These two may go on for some time, occasionally overlapping and influencing each other but mostly independently. This basic pattern might go on for five minutes, or ten minutes, or even longer, but eventually will break up. Here are two possible directions the change may take.
First, let us suppose that the story in the book reaches a particularly gripping point. The first octopus grows stronger and more extensive, invading the emotional parts of the brain, taking over influence of the autonomic system and spreading into new parts of the visual cortex as you visualise the dramatic events of the unfolding story. The other octopus grows weaker and its tentacles and their influences shrink. Then the music changes and you are surprised – sufficiently surprised to wonder what is going on and to ask yourself about consciousness and what you were aware of.
Now the two previously independent streams come together, along with new processes modelling a self as experiencer. From the perspective of the much larger book-reading stream, it seems as though you have just noticed the music. You might think “I was conscious of reading my book but suddenly the music came into my consciousness”. That’s how it feels. As soon as you construct a sense of self or start thinking about consciousness that is the story you will tell.
Alternatively, let us suppose that the music is coming to a particularly lovely and moving passage, while the book is getting a bit boring. The music stream grows in power and extent while the book-reading stream shrinks. Suddenly something draws your attention to the book. If you think about consciousness at that point you may say “Oh, I was enjoying the music so much that I forgot all about the story but then suddenly I became conscious of it again.”
What has happened in the brain during what seem to be these changes in consciousness? Here is the critical point I want to make. I have described, in crude outline, all we need to know to answer that question. If we could see in great detail the two shifting coalitions we would not see one “becoming conscious” or one giving rise to consciousness or creating qualia. Such shifts happen all the time, often with multiple streams. Only occasionally do we also start thinking about consciousness or asking ourselves “what was I conscious of a moment ago?” On those rare occasions a new stream or octopus starts up, using verbal and self-modelling structures, constructing the idea of a self who was conscious of one stream and not another.
All these streams have neural correlates – or perhaps it would be truer to say that they are neural processes, for there is no duality here. And which of the streams was really conscious? This question makes no sense. Consciousness was only an attribution made after the fact by the self-reflexive processes. If we go back to the time before you wondered about whether you were conscious of the story or the music there is no answer to the question which was “in consciousness”. There were just two streams using up more or less of the brain’s resources and then a third that compared them. That’s all.
Note that I have described this example as though when the critical question was asked the answer depended on the size or strength of the two streams. I think the decision may be made on other grounds, depending on what provoked the questioning. This may be close to what Dennett means by the effects of different probes. As he puts it “there are no fixed facts about the stream of consciousness independent of particular probes.” (1991 p 138)
The important point here is that whenever you ask yourself “what was I conscious of a moment ago?” or have the experience of something “coming into consciousness”, it is natural to think that something called “consciousness” has changed or that things that were previously unconscious have now become conscious. But consciousness is no more than an attribution made at that time. If you ask “but which was really conscious?” there is no answer.
I suggest that when we have methods for looking at brain activity with sufficient resolution in both space and time, we will be able to see all these processes occurring, including those associated with asking questions about consciousness. Then we will no longer ask such silly questions as “which process was really conscious?”, “which was in consciousness?” or what were the NCCs? The duality between conscious and unconscious processes will have disappeared and with it the magic difference. In addition we will understand how the illusion of consciousness comes about. The curious stream, theatre and container-like qualities of consciousness will then make sense.
Consciousness is still a mystery, largely because dualism creeps into almost every attempt to explain subjective experience. Given the subject matter – subjectivity itself - it is understandable that people make assumptions based on looking into their own experience. Yet these assumptions may be false given a curious property of introspection on consciousness.
Inquiring into the nature of one’s own consciousness in the present moment produces quite different answers from inquiring into the past. In the present moment consciousness seems to be unified. There is one conscious self experiencing the contents of consciousness. As the inquiry continues those contents change giving the appearance of a stream of consciousness. From this perspective the task ahead seems to be to explain the difference between the contents of the stream of consciousness and the rest of the brain’s unconscious processing.
By contrast, looking back into the immediate past reveals no unity of either self or contents and no coherent stream. Rather there seem to have been multiple backwards threads, continuing without reference to each other and with no unified self experiencing them. From this perspective there is no mystery because there are no contents of consciousness and no difference between conscious and unconscious processes or events.
This suggests that the difference between conscious and unconscious events is an illusion created by introspection into the present moment. Since most people are not introspecting this way much of the time, or indeed ever, the science of consciousness is built on false premises.
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