The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Directed Cognition

The US psychologist Ulric Neisser refined this thesis. He defined cognition as the skill of dealing with knowledge that comes from the environment. The mind developed to cope with that knowledge. Neisser agrees with Gibson that organisms "pick up" information from the environment, but he differs from Gibson in that he argues in favor of directionality of exploration by the organism: the organism is not completely passive in the hands of the environment, but somehow it has a cognitive apparatus that directs its search for information. 

Neisser wondered how the brain recognizes an object. Comparing a visual experience with all known objects is just too time-consuming. But comparing a visual experience with all known objects “that make sense” in that situation is much more feasible. Using a variant of Edward Tolman’s cognitive maps, Neisser concluded that the brain probably “knows” in advance which objects are more likely to be “seen” in a certain situation. Some “anticipatory schemas” narrow down the set of objects that one “expects” to find in that certain situation. If I enter a restaurant, I will not expect to see a couch, but I will expect to see tables and chairs. This makes it much easier for my brain to recognize a table for a table.

Some kind of schemas accounts for how the organism can gather the available information from the environment.  Between perception and action there exists a direct relation, one that is expressed by schemas.  A schema is a blueprint for what information the organism presumes to encounter and what that information entails in the environment. The organism selects information from the environment based on its anticipatory schemas. "We can see only what we know how to look for". At every instant the organism constructs anticipations of information that make it easy to pick it up when it becomes available. Once picked up, information may, in turn, result in a change of the original schema, to direct further exploration of the environment. Perception is therefore a perennial cycle, from schemas to action (schemas direct action) to information (action picks up information) to schemas (information modifies schemas). The schema accounts for adaptive behavior while conserving the preeminence of cognitive processes.

Neisser’s "cyclical" theory of perception also explains how the mind "filters" the huge amount of information that would exceed its capacity.  An orienting schema of the nearby environment, a "cognitive map", guides the organism around the environment. A cognitive map contains schemas of the objects in the environment and spatial relations between the objects. 

Perception is not about classifying objects in categories, creating concepts or  any other sophisticated cognitive process. Perception is about using the information available in the surroundings for the purpose of directing action in it.

Perception and cognition transform the perceiver: an organism "is" the cognitive acts in which it engages.


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