This is the part 4 of the multi-part series on conscious and unconscious processes in the brain.

I’ll like to start with a quote from the Mundaka Upanishads:

Two birds, inseparable friends, cling to the same tree. One of them eats the sweet fruit, the other looks on without eating.


On the same tree man sits grieving, immersed, bewildered, by his own impotence. But when he sees the other lord contented and knows his glory, then his grief passes away.

Today I plan to delineate the major conscious processes in the brain, without bothering with their neural correlates or how they are related to unconscious processes that I have delineated earlier. Also I’ll be restricting the discussion mostly to the easy problem of Access or A- consciousness.  leaving the hard problem of phenomenal or P-consciousness for later.

I’ll first like to quote a definition of consciousness form Baars:

The contents of consciousness include the immediate perceptual world; inner speech and visual imagery; the fleeting present and its fading traces in immediate memory; bodily feelings like pleasure, pain, and excitement; surges of feeling; autobiographical events when they are remembered; clear and immediate intentions, expectations and actions; explicit beliefs about oneself and the world; and concepts that are abstract but focal. In spite of decades of behaviouristic avoidance, few would quarrel with this list today.

Next I would like to list the subsystems identified by Charles T tart that are involved in consciousness:

  • EXTEROCEPTION (sensing the external world)
  • INTEROCEPTION (sensing the body)
  • INPUT-PROCESSING (seeing meaningful stimuli)
  • EMOTIONS
  • MEMORY
  • SPACE/TIME SENSE
  • SENSE OF IDENTITY
  • EVALUATION AND DECISION -MAKING
  • MOTOR OUTPUT
  • SUBCONSCIOUS

With this background, let me delineate the major conscious processes/ systems that make up the A-consciousness as per me:-

  1. Perceptual system: Once the spotlight of attention is available, it can be used to bring into focus the unconscious input representations that the brain is creating.  Thus a system may evolve that has access to information regarding the sensations that are being processed or in other words that perceives and is conscious of what is being sensed. To perceive is to have access to ones sensations.  In Tarts model , it is the input-processing module  that ‘sees’ meaningful stimuli and ignores the rest / hides them from second-order representation. This is Baars immediate perceptual world.
  2. Agency system: The spotlight of attention can also bring into foreground the unconscious urges that propel movement. This access to information regarding how and why we move gives rise to the emergence of A-consciousness of will/ volition/agency. To will is to have access to ones action-causes. In tarts model , it is the motor output module that enables sense of voluntary movement. In Baars definition it is clear and immediate intentions, expectations and actions.
  3. Memory system:  The spotlight of attention may also bring into focus past learning. This access to information regarding past unconscious learning gives rise to A-consciousness of remembering/ recognizing. To remember is to have access to past learning. The Tart subsystem for the same is Memory and Baars definition is autobiographical events when they are remembered. 
  4. Feeling (emotional/ mood) system: The spotlight of attention may also highlight the emotional state of the organism. An information about one’s own emotional state gives rise to the A-consciousness of feelings that have an emotional tone/ mood associated. To feel is to have access to ones emotional state. The emotions system of Tart and Baars bodily feelings like pleasure, pain, and excitement; surges of feeling relate to this.
  5. Deliberation/ reasoning/thought system: The spotlight of attention may also highlight the decisional and evaluative unconscious processes that the organism indulges in. An information about which values guided decision can lead to a reasoning module that justifies the decisions and an A-consciousness of introspection. To think is to have access to ones own deliberation and evaluative process. Tarts evaluative and decision making module is for the same. Baars definition may be enhanced to include intorspection i.e access to thoughts and thinking (remember Descartes dictum of I think therefore I am. ) as part of consciousness.
  6. Modeling system that can differentiate and perceive dualism: The spotlight of attention may highlight the dual properties of the world (deterministic and chaotic ). An information regarding the fact that two contradictory models of the world can both be true at the same time, leads to modeling of oneslf that is different from the world giving rise to the difference between ‘this’ and ‘that’ and giving rise to the sense of self. One models both the self and the world based on principles/ subsystems of extereocpetion and interoception and this give rise to A-consciousness of beliefs about the self and the world. To believe is to have access to one’s model of something. One has access to a self/ subjectivity different from world and defined by interoceptive senses ; and a world/ reality different from self defined by exterioceptive senses. The interocpetive and exteroceptive subsystems of  Tart and Baars  explicit beliefs about oneself and the world are relevant here. This system give rise to the concept of a subjective person or self.
  7. Language system that can report on subjective contents and propositions. The spotlight of awareness may  verbalize the unconscious communicative intents and propositions giving rise to access to inner speech and enabling overt language and reporting capabilities. To verbally report is to have access to the underlying narrative that one wants to communicate and that one is creating/confabulating. This narrative and story-telling capability should also in my view lead to the A-consciousness of the stream of consciousness. This would be implemented most probably by Tart’s unconscious and space/time sense modules and relates to Baars the fleeting present and its fading traces in immediate memory- a sense of an ongoing stream of consciousness. To have a stream of consciousness is to have access to one’s inner narrative.
  8. Awareness system that can bring into focal awareness the different conscious process that are seen as  coherent. : the spotlight of attention can also be turned upon itself- an information about what all processes make a coherent whole and are thus being attended and amplified gives rise to a sense of self-identity that is stable across time and  unified in space. To be aware is to have access to what one is attending or focusing on or is ‘conscious’ of. Tarts Sense of identity subsystem and Baars concepts that are abstract but focal relate to this. Once available the spotlight of awareness opens the floodgates of phenomenal or P-consciousness or experience in the here-and-now of qualia that are invariant and experiential in  nature. That ‘feeling of what it means to be’ of course is the subject matter for another day and another post!
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