What Is Consciousness

Defining consciousness is pointless without knowing what it is in the first place.

And it might help knowing whether you're talking about psychology or philosophy.

The philosopher's take on consciousness

Philosophers (eg. DavidChalmers) distinguish between psychological consciousness and phenomenal consciousness. Phenomenal consciousness has to do with what it feels like to have an experience. This takes some explaining.

You experience red, blue and yellow as three distinct colours, and Harry over there also experiences red, blue and yellow, also as three distinct colours. And through communication, you can establish a correspondence between your experience of red and his experience of red. You know that it corresponds to a certain frequency spectrum of light. You can also establish a structure to your experiences (eg, as three distinct colours). But that's not all there is to it.

How do you know that your experience of red is the same as Harry's? What if your experience of red corresponds to his experience of blue and vice versa? No amount of communication or comparison with things in the real world will ever resolve the question one way or the other. The technical term for the experience of red, blue, green, pain, pleasure, hot, cold, et cetera is qualia.

Meanwhile, psychologists work at a much higher level, where they can remain oblivious to the nature of qualia. They concern themselves with the gross properties of consciousness, not the nature of its fundamental constituents. Somewhat like biologists when compared to physicists.

The psychologist's take on consciousness

Consciousness is not being awake. There are many states in which a person is awake and capable of performing complex tasks but has severely altered or suppressed consciousness. For example, somnambulism, hypnosis and schizophrenia. Even ordinary people in ordinary situations can perform complex tasks without being at all conscious of them. For example, many people are able to drive home from work without being able to recall anything about it. That's because they weren't conscious of any of it at the time, both in the psychological and the phenomenal sense of conscious.

[How could one possibly know they weren't conscious when they don't recall the activity anyway?] That's your first clue: you can't recall it.

Further, the part of the brain that regulates being awake (the reticular activation system) is the oldest part of the human brain and is found in all animals. Yet only humans are conscious, and then not even all of the time. So it is necessary to distinguish reactivity from consciousness. Many people use the term "conscious" to refer to reactivity and that is not the sense we are concerned with here.

With that out of the way, what are some aspects of consciousness:

1. spatialization - having an internal mental 'space' in which hypothetical events can 'happen'. It is impossible to think of any events occurring in time without spatializing them, usually on a timeline running from left to right. People who are not conscious are incapable of thinking about time or putting things in a time-ordered sequence.

2. analog I - being able to see 'in' one's spatialized mind what one would 'see' if one were in a certain situation. For example, if a person comes to a fork while walking through a forest, they can 'see' 'in' their mind what they would through their eyes if they took either of the paths. It's based on this information that they can decide to take one path (perhaps more scenic) over the other.

3. analog Me - the 'I' is the subject performing actions, through whose eyes we 'see'. The 'Me' is an object 'seen' in its entirety. Contrast the first-person view in computer games with a third-person view behind the main character. One can often 'see' oneself performing actions 'in one's mind' as if one were 'outside' of one's own body.

4. excerption - the taking of a small aspect of something to stand for that whole thing. No one who thinks of their city, imagines every house, every streetcorner and every sewer. One takes something, perhaps the skyline or city hall, and let it stand for the whole thing. The same occurs for everything. Recalling one excerption after another by a chain of associations is what constitutes 'reminiscence'. For example, if one thinks of a summer trip to BritishColumbia?, the starting excerption might be a mountain lake, then the climb up to that lake, then the horse dung on the trail and the horse riding group going downwards, then the inn next to the lake, et cetera. Unconscious beings are incapable of this.

5. conciliation - something similar to assimilation of knowledge to fit a schema but done 'in' a conscious mind.

6. narratization - the constant unnoticed activity of thinking of one's life in terms of little stories, in which one is the star character.

(Taken from The OriginOfConsciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind)

See DefinitionOfConsciousness

A quick question. Using consciousness in the narrow sense, what vocabulary does one use to talk about things showing intermediate levels of behavior, like dolphins, ancient peoples, mob members, somnambulists, and so forth?

I don't think there is any such vocabulary. The psychologists might call them unconscious mental states. There's an additional complication. If someone isn't psychologically conscious and thus can't report back to us about their experiences, how do we know that they're phenomenally conscious? We know what mob members experience because they regain psychological consciousness after they leave the mob. Put another way, do qualia exist if we don't attend to them?

Well, the psychologically unconscious can still talk - at the very least, I know you accept the bicamerality stuff. But are you sure that the question makes sense? The definition above is really loose and appeals to our experience as conscious observers. If it's the best we have then my answer to whether the partly or not quite conscious feel qualia would be partly or not quite. ;)

Btw, on a different note, something that might be worth looking at would be Dennett's ConsciousnessExplained?, which comes recommended by people I trust though I have done little more than glance at it myself. It argues that consciousness is to some extent developed rather than innate, which I think might fit in nicely with some of the other theses being tossed around.

When you say that the definition appeals to our experience as conscious observers, I take it you mean that the definition of phenomenal consciousness appeals to our experience as psychologically conscious observers?

I realize that the only reason I tried to lump both types of consciousness together is to adhere to the principle of minimizing mystery. So setting aside the intuition that it might be cool to link the two concepts together, let's look at some evidence.

I've had qualia in dreams which I have never had in waking life. Since the dreaming state is usually described as not psychologically conscious, and sleepwalking has been described as experiencing a very vivid dream, it would mean that some psychologically unconscious states are phenomenally conscious.

However, my dreams seem to be a form of narratization and while I can't reminisce in them, I can certainly reminisce about them. IIRC, Jaynes writes that people in deep trances can't reminisce about their experience after the fact since the whole thing is disconnected in their minds. If I remember my dreams at all, I can always put them in some sort of temporal order. And this is all without lucid dreaming. OTOH, what relation does this have to bicameral hallucination? Do bicameral people narratize or simply hallucinate?

I won't pretend to know anything about this subject, beyond having read Jaynes on bicamerality and Janov on what he calls "primal consciousness". I don't particularly care if a definition is wrought; I don't know what the hell we'd do with it besides buffing our collective navel. But what I would like to know is what if any possible meaning might be attached to phrases like "emotional consciousness" or "consciousness of feeling". In my view, consciousness discussions are ruled by cerebral dominance and tend to involve maybe about half of human experience. Jaynes did a tremendous amount of research and analysis to come up with his model of consciousness, but I don't think it satisfied him. Towards the end of his book he lamented his inability to fluidly access his own creative centers, such that musical genius was just beyond his grasp. He glimpsed passages beautiful to him but too fleeting to satisfy. Who cares about analog I and narratization and all the rest of that cerebral glass wool when you can't feel the f*ckin' world around you? -- WaldenMathews

If by 'consciousness' you mean phenomenal consciousness, terms like "emotional consciousness" and "consciousness of feeling" are largely redundant. There is a lot of structure in feelings and between feelings. Even in something as uncomplicated as pain, there is mild pain versus excruciating pain, pain in different parts of the body, and pain versus itching. But people don't tend to think about these things. The subjective experience of pain itself is what holds people's attention. OTOH, if by consciousness you mean psychological consciousness then it's pretty clear that it bears no relation to emotion.

As for your question, it's important to understand consciousness if only to know whether it's compatible with these other things. Can consciousness absorb musical genius? If not, then what is its relation to it? Can you propose better starting points for those questions?
I fail to see in all the ruminations above a clear and concise definition of WhatIsConsciousness. If we take a look at the root of the word, "to know", we will then have a relationship we can all understand, even if the concept of red as experienced by different minds is not the same, still in each mind the knowledge of what one thinks when one thinks of red, is resolved. "I know" what it is I think about when I think about and am conscious of "red". What is confusing the issue is the ability to "relate" both internally and externally whether red is a property of light, or the color of my Explorer. It is totally resolved in my mind, "I think, therefore I know". This "effective" consciousness. How effectively I express (relate) that knowledge and genius to others is not important to the definition as I see it. But for more, consider the dictionary definition (which is in effect a consensus understanding of what a word means when it used in differing parts of speech): conĚscious Pronunciation Key (knshs)
'''Having an awareness of one's environment and one's own existence, sensations, and thoughts. See Synonyms at aware.
 Mentally perceptive or alert; awake:
The patient remained fully conscious after the local anesthetic was administered. Capable of thought, will, or perception: the development of conscious life on the planet.
 Subjectively known or felt: 
conscious remorse.
 Intentionally conceived or done; deliberate:
a conscious insult; made a conscious effort to speak more clearly.
 Inwardly attentive or sensible; mindful:
was increasingly conscious of being watched. Especially aware of or preoccupied with. Often used in combination: a cost-conscious approach to further development; a health-conscious diet.''
In psychoanalysis, the component of waking awareness perceptible by a person at any given instant; consciousness.

I have no trouble with the consensus definition, it is all the ruminations above that confuse me.

I fail to see in all the ruminations above a clear and concise definition of WhatIsConsciousness.

No shit. Have you considered that maybe this is because the page isn't called DefinitionOfConsciousness???

If you don't understand why people should wish to describe how psychologists, philosophers, et cetera use the word when investigating real world phenomena then don't butt in on a page whose sole purpose is to be helpful to people who do want to learn these things. Your own uninformed ruminations of consciousness don't shed any light on anything; if they were at all coherent or meaningful, they would be wrong, but as it is they're laughable.

For example, "I think therefore I know"? What the hell kind of crap is that? Countless philosophers have spent millennia arguing about the nature of knowledge but all of it was for naught next to the profound insight that "I think therefore I know". Ugh! Another example, "in each mind the knowledge of what one thinks when one thinks of red, is resolved" which I suspect doesn't even mean anything, being just meaningless babbling.

And dragging in a worthless dictionary definition on some misguided idea that this is "consensus" just pisses me off. Dictionaries are not and have never been made by consensus. More often than not, they have an agenda. And why should people interested in serious philosophy and psychology give a shit what society in general thinks consciousness is? Especially when society in general is too stupid to distinguish between being awake and being conscious. And you seem to be too stupid to distinguish between the two even after it's been pointed out on this page that the two are completely separate concepts!

I think this is a little harsh. It's not that society in general is wrong, but that the word conscious is being applied in two different senses, with a broad popular meaning and a narrow technical meaning (a couple, actually). A more extreme example of this is the word work - it is not wrong to say that holding up a piano is hard work, nor that the total amount of work required is zero. Or, closer to the field, I wouldn't mind saying that ants pause to think about their surroundings, though I really mean process and would say that ants can't think if asked. There's nothing wrong with such double meanings, so long, of course, as people don't try to apply one in a situation where the other is being used.

Then take a look at how this page is used via backlinks, it is used as if there were a singular concept! Which one?

The psychological one, as should be obvious from context. When talking about physics one doesn't hesitate to use the physicist's definition of work without further qualification, though if someone gets confused it doesn't hurt to remind them of it. This is more or less what happened with consciousness here.

The philosophical definition is there because a lot of people mix up the two concepts of consciousness; eg, John McCrone?. So having both definitions helps people understand what an author is saying even when the author doesn't. It also helps distinguish the good from the bad in what an author is saying, so you don't need to dismiss everything someone says just because some of it makes no sense to you.

The forwarding of Jaynesean notions of consciousness as the only (or even a single instance of) consensus on the meaning of human consciousness is a little misleading. Where does that definition bear fruit, anyway? How valuable is it to label a society "bicameral" and imagine them moving around like mindless automata? Why not develop a discussion of Jaynes' ideas in the light, inviting criticism and development of the ideas as an extension of Jaynes' work. The idea of a single meaning for "consciousness" may facilitate some future discussions you are hoping to have, but in the meantime it seems like intellectual snobbery. A platform from which to declare that so-and-so knows nothing, is too stupid to live, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

You seem to imply that coherent notions of consciousness should not be presented at all. That we should let ignorance reign free and use as fuzzy and inclusive a definition as possible. Even if that definition is self-contradictory because it includes mutually inconsistent subparts! I don't think I need to tell you what I think of those notions.

If you know of other useful and coherent notions of consciousness which have not been represented either by "the sum total of qualia", or by what you call "Jaynes' notion of consciousness", then feel free to present them. OTOH, if you just want to trash "Jaynes'" notion of consciousness, then at least do a proper job of it. Perhaps by presenting something it should include or exclude but fails to.

I can tell you right off that "Jaynes'" notion excludes animals, somnambulists, hypnotic subjects and schizophrenics in psychotic states. And making that distinction is useful.

There is also something else. Jaynes' theory meshes with Lloyd deMause's PsychoHistory. They complement each other perfectly. And together, they produce a very exciting result. PsychoHistory tells us that mental evolution due to childrearing advances will reach a theoretical limit when everyone catches up to the current vanguard psycho-group. That's because childrearing advances in the past few millennia have been based on increasing empathy and a small number of parents have already reached total empathy with their children. But these predictions only apply to conscious beings because empathy requires consciousness.

So while Jaynes seems quite ignorant of PsychoHistory, he does tell us that its model of childrearing evolution is not eternal. Rather, the model began to apply at a specific point in time, and it may cease to apply at a different point in time. In other words, after we have ceased conscious evolution, we may find an entirely different type of mental evolution. And perhaps instead of just waiting for this mental evolution to be forced upon us, we will seek it out.

I think the above goes a long way toward providing a needed context for this discussion, and I'm happy to give you credit for that and a few other things, not that you need me to do that. One area I don't give credit is the repeated decision to berate whomever doesn't seem to understand it as you do, instead of patiently looking for the helpful distinctions and repeating them. Rearing children with their dignity intact isn't much different, practically, from treating conversational "adversaries" with dignity, or is it? The dichotomy in your behavior on the subject of empathy has me puzzled, to use a term from the psycho-literature. If the "next stage" of mental evolution is something beyond the integration of thinking and feeling abilities, then what do yo need to know of empathy to begin its exploration? Perhaps I'm missing something.

As for other theories, I'll bite, but I'm not prepared to spend the time in research and exposition, so caveat emptor. Years ago, I was quite taken by the writings of Arthor Janov, who seems to have been largely on the same topics you've gravitated to here. Primal Therapy is entirely about deep empathy with "child", both the children in our midst (especially if we are parents) and the child of our own past. Janov's research took him also into the general realm of human consciousness, and he also followed a map which acknowledged brain physiology, including left and right hemispheric integrations and separations, and vertical separations as well. Janov identified prototypic responses (to "pain") as occurring at essentially three levels, mapping roughly to the ancient brainstem, the limbic system and the frontal cortex. In Janov terms, higher consciousness is described in terms of fluid interaccess among brain systems, which includes the ability to feel and to know about feeling.

Jaynes seems to focus mostly on intellectual phenomena in his attempt to categorize consciousness. Except for his minor lament about "musical consciousness" in his own case, there's little to suggest that Jaynes is interested in human feeling. His model of consciousness is the dominant hemisphere's own description of itself. How could that lead to integration, Janov-style? I think it can't.

But me, for some unexplained reason, I want to feel life as it happens, not just describe it and define it's components with dry eyes. So I'm more attracted to Janov than Jaynes, especially if we're talking about pragmatic models for helping our children grow up whole. And helping ourselves grow in a similar direction. Does that interest you?

For pragmatic models for helping children, I'd read AliceMiller?. I simply don't know enough about Janov or Primals to say anything useful about them.

Except for his minor lament about "musical consciousness" in his own case, there's little to suggest that Jaynes is interested in human feeling.

Jaynes writes at the beginning of OriginOfConsciousness that his next book would deal with the nature of consciousness and its implications for emotions. So it seems he was very interested in human feeling, but that does us little good since he died before publishing it. :/

Rearing children with their dignity intact isn't much different, practically, from treating conversational "adversaries" with dignity, or is it? The dichotomy in your behavior on the subject of empathy has me puzzled, to use a term from the psycho-literature.

The difference is that if you raise a child, then you know them. And the only thing I knew about the author I berated was that he hadn't read the page (or didn't pay attention to it despite contributing quite a bit of rambling to it) and wasn't interested in an intellectual discussion. Those aren't feelings I wish to empathize with.

You're being way too selective in that. If you had kids, you'd find they have plenty of behaviors and feelings you wouldn't "wish to empathize with". Anyway, what you're calling "feelings" in the paragraph above aren't feelings at all, while in the meantime the author you objected to so strongly undoubtedly has feelings about the harshness of your objections. A true interest in empathy would involve admitting those to your awareness, perhaps even to your consciousness, although the latter may not be necessary to achieve the desired goal of humanity. Especially if consciousness is limited to mostly left-brain symbolic activity not only bereft of feeling but actually recruited in order to displace feeling. In that sense, ConsciousnessConsideredHarmful.

It's also a lot easier to empathize with someone if you can read their emotions from seeing their face. Getting emotions across on the net is notoriously difficult. Most people think the acrimony on the net has to do with its anonymity, and its associated lack of repercussions, but it's more visceral than that. If I'm in a face to face discussion that turns acrimonious then I become distressed. In a faceless setting, talking with someone I know and whose opinion I care about, I'd become worried. And since wiki is a public forum and so any contribution is performance art, there's the emotions of embarrassment and shame to factor in. But never raw distress. It may be the physical presence of the person, or the immediacy of the situation, or it may just be seeing their face, but there is a crucial difference.

I agree that text media are a convenient place for the angry coward to spew venom from, and I've done and continue to do my share of that. Maybe what we need are faces to aid in the imagination of the real people on the other end of the link. Some don't seem to need that, though.

You're being way too selective in that.

Am I? There's a point NoamChomsky makes that applies. When Chomsky describes the evils perpetrated by his country, his compatriots often reply with "But look at the evil perpetrated by so and so. Shouldn't you be outraged about that as well?" And his answer is no, for two reasons.

Firstly, if one were to be outraged by every evil perpetrated on the entire planet, one would have no room for any other emotion. One would have no room for a life of any kind. And that's assuming it's even possible. Secondly, one should be outraged by those evils which we can most easily do something about.

Similarly, I choose to focus my empathy on those cases where it will do the most good. I doubt it's the whole answer but there's been a bunch of things on wiki lately that sapped my good will.

Yes, too narrow Chomsky notwithstanding. You don't have to converse with every soul on the planet, but for the ones you choose to converse with, there's the choice to treat them as humans without discrimination based on your immediate agenda, whatever that may be. More on the agenda would be welcome, BTW.

A good argument but with weaker consequences than you think. It assumes that one is conversing with the other person, and that one has a choice in the matter. In email, those conditions would be fulfilled so empathy requires one not to flame people by email. But in a public forum that's not so straightforward. Case in point, I wanted to justify erasing the babbling and the unhelpful dictionary definition. Of course, because of the stupid way I went about it, that's probably no longer even possible.

One always has the choice whether to converse with another, and in the present (wiki) environment there is no real danger associated with either choice (not like being forced to spill the beans at gunpoint, for example). But in case one fails to see such a choice, then we have an interesting area for investigation and a real opportunity for truth-finding.

From ConsciousnessConsideredHarmful

Janov's take on Consciousness

I recall an article about fruit bats having midwives and seeming to display empathy. But when I read that article, I got the impression that they were conscious. Other salient examples are babies. Now, with children, it seems to me like their empathy is tied to their consciousness. If babies displayed empathy, that would be something else. But if babies display empathy, it's in reaction to faces. And that's another idea that I've been pushing. :)

Fruit bat consciousness sounds more in keeping with what I would like to think consciousness means. If the fruit bat is able to respond to a wide spectrum of internal and external stimulae so as to foster its survival, especially through caring for others, then it's conscious with "fruit bat consciousness" to me. A caged animal sometimes loses its ability to escape, as evidenced when the cage is opened and it doesn't flee, and that animal has lost some of its access to inner processes, and is hence less than fully conscious for its species.


The loss of consciousness of an individual due to abuse or whatever is best modeled as a reduction in connectivity among the different systems that make up consciousness. So if you ask "what's been lost", the answer is "connection". I don't speak at all authoritatively on this subject, and have to disclaim my interpretation of Janov, but I'll attempt to paraphrase from memory what I recall of his theory. If you could "abuse" something clean out of your system, there'd be no problem from a consciousness impairment point of view. There would be less data in the system; that's all. The idea, though, is that if you simply rend connectivity between systems that need to communicate fluidly for you to fulfill your (biological) needs, then you set up an unconscious situation in which there is continuous tension to regain full consciousness. Analogous if not identical to the healing dynamic. This does not imply by what means the "lost" thing can be regained. That would be in the realm of therapy, beyond this discussion.

Janov's notion of consciousness can work at a metaphorical or physical level, but it doesn't help us (or at least me) understand what it would be like, or feel like. I can't tell whether it corresponds to the philosophical or the psychological notion of consciousness despite being certain it must. -- RichardKulisz

I have had some lucid dreams and view them as utilising the same consciousness as I use when awake. It is the same animal - not an abstracted representation of it from another part of my mind. What was different was the environment in which I appeared to be. This environment was sometimes indistinquishable from the waking world, and at other times obviously a dream world. I certainly was not *awake*, which is used above as a defining feature of conciouslness. Nor was I aware of the real world around me, except through a glass, darkly. It seems the human mind can be conscious without a current direct link to the real world of experience. This leads delightfully to the current (2003) obsession with TheMatrix film and "Simulation and Simulacra" by Baudrillard.
See inevitably LeibnizianDefinitionOfConsciousness.
CategoryPsychology CategoryPhilosophy CategoryOffTopic

View edit of August 16, 2010 or FindPage with title or text search