The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Cartesian Theater

The Dutch psycholinguist Bernard Baars believes that conscious experience is distributed widely throughout the nervous system and ultimately originates from a Darwinian process of selection applied to experience.

Consciousness creates access to a large amount of knowledge, or, more precisely, to a large number of unconscious sources of knowledge. When I am conscious of typing words into a computer, I am not aware of the keyboard, of the fact that computers are machines, of the movement of my fingers and of many other things, although each of those is essential to perform this task. All that knowledge exists, but is unconscious. Consciousness is very limited in how many things it can do (be conscious of) and for how long (it can keep them in short-term memory). But the brain as a whole does not have those limitations. Consciousness is a "gateway" to the vast knowledge stored in the brain.

In order to explain how this works, Baars employs the metaphor of a "theater".

Baars views the nervous system as a set of independent intelligent agents that broadcast messages to each other through a common workspace (just as if they were writing on a blackboard visible to every other agent).  That workspace, the stage of the theater, is consciousness. Any conscious experience emerges from cooperation and competition between the many processing units of the brain working in parallel. The mind originates from the work of many independent, specialized "processors", i.e. skills that have become highly practiced, automatic and unconscious.

There are two sets of unconscious processes: the ones backstage, that, like the playwright and the director, determine what is played on the stage, and the ones in the audience, that capture what is being played. Whenever consciousness of something is created, the "audience" retrieves knowledge about that something. Consciousness is the gateway to the unconscious processes of the brain just like the stage is the gateway to the audience. Through consciousness, the backstage processes broadcast a message to all the spectator processes.

Baars emphasizes the striking differences between conscious and unconscious processes: unconscious processes are much more effective (e.g., we parse sentences unconsciously all the time, but cannot consciously describe how we parse them), they operate in parallel (whereas we can only have one conscious process at the time), they appear to have almost unlimited capacity (conscious processes have very limited capacity).

The conscious "stage" interacts with several unconscious "experts" that create goals and plans and compete for playing them on the stage. These experts are "modules" (eyesight, fear, hunger, etc) that compete for access to the "global workspace". A form of "natural selection" decides which module (or modules) is predominant at any time.

Consciousness is the stage, and the modules are the actors. Actors are competing for the spotlight.


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