Perspectives on consciousness

Self-awareness arising out of other-awareness

Consciousness evolved as a way for the brain to keep track of its own state of attention, allowing it to make sense of itself and of other brains. — Graziano.

Consciousness as self-awareness

Consciousness evolved as a way for the brain to keep track of its own state of attention, allowing it to make sense of itself and of other brains. — Graziano.

Ethology of consciousness ("outside view")

(From Consciousness: An Outside View.)

Here’s a provocative claim:

In most cases, consciousness isn’t something that arises from within, but is insteadmodulated from the outside.

Yes, sometimes we enter a particular state of consciousness by act of will — as when we decide to meditate, or focus in the face of distraction — but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. In most cases, states of consciousness are systematically and reliably triggered by external stimuli.

To illustrate the point, here are some of the more important (external) triggers:

  • Drugs. The effects of drugs on consciousness are easy to understand. Take a few shots: get drunk. Drink a cup of coffee: feel focused and energized. Take ecstasy: experience instant love and empathy. Incidentally, drugs’ power to trigger specific states of consciousness, intensely and reliably, is why they’re such a political issue — but we’ll get to that later.
  • Our bodies. I’ve written about this before — and fairly extensively — because I think it’s an underappreciated fact about human behavior. What we do with our bodies changes how we think, feel, and perceive. Influence runs in both directions: the mind takes its cues from the body just as often as the other way around. Because of this, our bodies can induce different states of consciousness. Dance and you’ll feel happy. Bow and you’ll feel submissive. Stand tall and you’ll feel proud.
  • The behavior of other humans. It’s not just what you do with your own body that has an effect on your consciousness — it’s also what others are doing with their bodies. One way this is achieved is through mirror neurons, empathy, etc. When someone frets anxiously in front of you, you’ll often become anxious yourself. But other bodies can also trigger particular states of consciousness through synchrony, i.e., when your body moves together with other bodies. This induces a feeling of group identity, a sense of the collective, and feelings of affinity leading to enhanced trust. See e.g. Synchrony and Cooperation.
  • Our physical environments. Environments have predictable effects on consciousness. Frantic environments induce excitement. Quiet spaces induce focus. Vast spaces (like cathedrals, stadia) induce awe.
  • The tasks we are required to perform. Different tasks are triggers for different types of consciousness — i.e., different patterns of attention and control. The consciousness required for driving is distinct from what is required for programming— or for hunting, playing Tetris, dancing, reading a math book, doing improv, or being a trader on the floor of the NYSE. Each task requires us to attend to particular types of information (in particular ways), and to produce certain types of behavior while suppressing others.
  • Rewards and punishment. We can train ourselves — not unlike the way we train dogs and horses — to experience specific types of consciousness. The best illustration of this is industrial-age, classroom-based education (e.g. American K-12 public schooling). Education of this sort is a systematic exercise in training children to enter and maintain a particular state of consciousness, i.e., sustained, focused attention with control over one’s impulses. All else being equal, the more a child is able to achieve this state, the better the child will do in school (with attendant rewards), while deviations from this kind of consciousness will typically result in punishment (through bad grades and/or disciplinary action). It’s no coincidence that this is the type of consciousness required for factory work and desk jobs.

That consciousness is modulated from outside is rendered vivid by what happens when all these triggers are removed, as in a sensory deprivation tank. There, sequestered from external stimuli (light, sound, the presence of others, and even, so far as it’s possible, our own bodies), our minds are ‘free’ to do whatever they like. But such freedom is unnatural, and the strange effects (hallucinations, out-of-body experiences) only serve to illustrate how much we rely on external stimuli to produce our ‘normal’, everyday consciousness.

Consciousness as availability for control

... self-consciousness as availability for verbal/social control

Consciousness as a metaphorical container

Jaynes; introspective consciousness as a metaphorical container, an invention

An outside view; infection from the environment

Consciousness as a (recent) growth on top of the unconscious

Consciousness as narrative mechanism

... a process of writing and re-writing drafts of the self-story. Self as "narrative center of gravity."

Consciousness as attention; what gets written to memory

Consciousness as the dual of civilization / the external world

Consciousness as the present moment(!)

Consciousness as a state of matter(!)

An expression of the world's striving for ever-lower energy states. It's an evolved phenomenon, something that helps creatures metabolize more energy

Global Workspace Theory

Consciousness as solution to the "tyranny of pain"

(David Barash)

Freud and his inheritors are distinguished by their method of anthropomorphizing internal mechanisms of the mind – treating a part of the mind, say the id, as an autonomous being with its own goals, agency and some limited intelligence. Marvin Minsky’s Society of Mind theory is probably the most worked-out contemporary theory in this mode. I’ve studied with Minsky, and have internalized much of his worldview, but this post is an attempt to grapple understand the work of George Ainslie, whose approach is rather different. Where Minsky tends to be more cognitive in his approach, Ainslie’s theory is deeply rooted in drives, rewards, behavior, and quantitative utility theory. His version of this he calls “picoeconomics” – that is, the internal and very-small-scale internal economy of the mind.
Damasio’s own somatic-mapping theory of consciousness, in which all of our abstract and conscious thoughts are fractal patterns recursively built out of visceral feelings that represent basic homeostasis-seeking drives

Last updated June 9, 2014.