Perception, Consciousness, Memory: Reflections of a Biologist

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The existence of accessory systems that have evolved in association with consciousness is evidence that consciousness has biological value and can influence behavior:. The fact that a second visual system with different properties has evolved to provide suitable information for conscious perception must mean there is biological value in perceptual systems.

States of Consciousness

Experimental evidence that nonconscious systems have evolved for extraction of suitable external data for consciousness McCauley et al. This could only have occurred because consciousness has biological value. James wrote that we evolved pleasant feelings toward what is generally good for us and unpleasant feelings toward what is generally bad for us. He said that if consciousness had no effects, we could quite easily have evolved with pleasant feelings toward what harms us and unpleasant feelings toward what is good for us, but we did not, therefore it is likely these feelings, and hence all experiences, are adaptive.


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James' argument can be extended from feelings to all of our experiences. When we are about to do something, if it is not a fully automatic response, we are conscious of our intended action. Why would it be necessary to know our intentions unless our experiences have some influence on our behavior? Also, whenever we are actively involved with events, consciousness is fairly well correlated with the facts of the situation.

This is ensured by a mechanism for reality monitoring of experiences in our ordinary waking states, whenever that is necessary Johnson and Raye, If consciousness had no effects on behavior, it would not matter if our experiences were completely fantastical and had no correlation with reality. But our experiences have evolved so as to represent reality fairly accurately whenever that is necessary, and this is evidence that consciousness can influence behavior, and is adaptive.

In general, there is a very clear separation between self-related information and external sense information in consciousness. Bodily sensations like pain, coldness, hunger or tiredness; emotional and other feelings, like anger, confidence or pleasure; knowledge of our own choices; and awareness of our own physical boundaries, are normally well differentiated from exogenous information. In normal conditions, self-related information from diverse internal sensors is always perceived as self-related, and always located together.

If consciousness had no biological function, it could easily have been otherwise—it would have made no difference in terms of one's survival if self-related information were scattered across one's experience. The fact that the perception of self-related information has evolved so as to be experienced as grouped together, and to have the special quality of personally relating to oneself, is evidence that consciousness has biological value.

Conscious information can have a dominant influence on responses.

We tell others about our experiences, write about our experiences, and think about our experiences, so consciousness must contribute to the generation of these behaviors for example, Blackmore, ; Gomes, In everyday situations, one is aware of an intention to do something, and then does it. Or our feelings may interrupt our thoughts and alert us to another priority, and we may change what we are doing. REM atonia—the blocking of messages to major muscles during REM dreams, when reality monitoring is switched off—prevents us acting out our dreams Hobson, ; Jouvert, , and could only have evolved because our experiences can provoke actions.

Persaud and Cowey reported experiments with a blindsight patient, GW, in which he was asked to report on a stimulus present either in his blind field or his normal field. He correctly reported the opposite location to that of the stimulus in his sighted field, but significantly more often than chance he incorrectly reported the actual quadrant when the stimulus was in his blind field.

He was only able to do as instructed, and override his automatic tendency to report the actual quadrant the stimulus was in, when the stimulus was consciously detected. There is considerable experimental evidence for the dominance of conscious events over automatic action programs for example, the experimental data in McCauley et al. In each of these experiments, when non-conscious processes extracted multiple interpretations, the single interpretation that consciousness was able to access had a dominant influence on subjects' responses.

Important evidence that consciousness has biological value is provided by the existence of qualia. Consciousness evolved as an array of qualia of various kinds that has the capability to represent visual properties such as relative size, location, movement, shape and texture, and quantitative and qualitative properties of information from other sensory modalities. This contributes to the breadth of conscious information, and thereby to the complexity argument. If qualia were a property of all neural states, every neural event would be conscious, which is obviously not so.

Qualia are a very rare property of neural states; and how they arise is, at present, unknown. The fact that qualia exist but are such a rare phenomenon indicates that they have evolved with special properties for a particular function see Section 4. Consciousness is a function of living organisms, and it is unsurprising that it is adaptive, since most functions of organisms have evolved to enhance their biological fitness.

In summary, the evidence that consciousness has biological value is:. Whenever one is actively involved with events, one's experiences are representations of them. Self-related information, which is obviously very relevant to survival, is treated differently from all non-self information. We have consciousness because we have qualia, which are very unusual properties of neural states and appear to have evolved for their ability to convey important information. We can conclude that consciousness does have biological value, though it includes no mental processes.

Therefore, consciousness must have a nonexecutive biological function—a secondary or supporting role to associated neural mechanisms that do have executive functions. In the next section, I demonstrate that consciousness is a changing array of various types of information, and, incidentally, that when we analyze consciousness into its components, we find no processes of any kind.

A number of researchers have claimed that consciousness—one's experience from moment to moment—consists of information in various forms Battista, ; Dretske, , ; Tye, ; Chalmers, ; Lycan, ; Mangan, ; Armstrong, ; Smith, In this section, I discuss the interrelated components of consciousness that together constitute one's experiences.

Analysis of the components listed in Table 1 and the way they are structured, demonstrates they are all information and that consciousness is solely information of various kinds in a continuously changing array. Some examples should help clarify my usage: The fact that I know something is information, and what I know is information. The fact that I am in pain is information, but the pain itself is information about possible bodily damage Chapman and Nakamura, The fact that I am angry is information, but my feeling angry is itself information about my own response to events Schwarz and Clore, Each of these statements does more than simply reduce uncertainty; it establishes the meaning or context of the information.

External sense experiences are information about real, imagined, or remembered external objects or events, represented as colors, shapes, sounds, smells, and so on. Transitional feelings are based upon external sense data detected via sensors in the skin or musculature. Experiences such as contact with surfaces, awareness of surface texture, and awareness of the hardness or weight of an object, are primarily based upon exogenous data, but they are mediated by cutaneous and muscle receptors.

Physical state feelings represent information about internal physical conditions Schwarz and Clore, Emotional feelings are representations Damasio, —information Schwarz and Clore, —concerning our state of physical and psychological responding to actual events, or to memories, thoughts, or imaginings Kleinginna and Kleinginna, ; Scherer, ; Lazarus, ; Izard, Mood feelings represent emotional states that are not tied to a particular situation, and are less well differentiated than other emotional feelings Clore and Bar-Anan, ; Isbell and Burns, They inform consciousness concerning one's pre-existing psychological state or response bias Schwarz, Therefore, these feelings are information Schwarz and Clore, Evaluative feelings are based upon nonconscious evaluations of things, and innate responses or learned associations in relation to them Zajonc, ; Tesser and Martin, ; Smith and DeCoster, ; Seager, ; Slovic et al.

These feelings qualify objects, events, people, ideas, and so on, with regard to their meaning for us, our attitudes to them, or our judgments about them, and result from nonconscious and immediate evaluation processes Arnold, , ; Dixon, ; LeDoux, ; Lazarus, ; Tesser and Martin, ; Bargh and Ferguson, Information that lacks qualia , such as the identities of objects or knowledge of one's own intentions, constitutes another component of experience. Evidence for conscious information without associated qualia is discussed in Section 4.

We can draw two conclusions about the components of consciousness from these observations:.

Conscious Universe - artistic reflection

All the components of consciousness are solely information in various forms; consciousness is a changing three-dimensional perceptual array of information. It follows that, since consciousness is solely information but is adaptive, and therefore can influence behavior, it must function as input data to a process, or processes, that determine behavior.

Reflections of a Biologist

Consciousness includes no mental processes; we experience the results of mental processes, we do not experience the actual processes. The only experiences that might superficially seem like processes are transitions from one group of sensations to the next, from one feeling to the next, from one experienced emotion or mood to the next, or from one thought to the next. But each of these is merely a change in the experienced information, which is generated by processes outside of consciousness. These transitions correspond to changing information in conscious neural structures, and result from nonconscious processes.


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They are analogous to events on a TV screen that merely reflect the changing outputs of unseen electronic processes elsewhere in the TV. Consciousness includes no processes. Consciousness is information, and the information of consciousness is represented or encoded as qualia; as sounds, colors, feelings, and so on.

Because we have a perceptual array of qualia, we are conscious and this is important to us. But as noted in Section 3. The ability to incorporate these properties is a feature of qualia; and no qualia have evolved to represent data that do not have these properties Section 4.

The biological function of consciousness

Therefore, the ability to incorporate qualitative and quantitative properties would seem to be the reason that qualia evolved. There appears to be information associated with consciousness, such as the identities or functions of things, and our own intentions, which has no qualitative or quantitative properties, lacks qualia, and has no location in the perceptual array.

If I am given an object whose function is unknown to me, and I examine its colors, shape and size, I learn about its qualia. Perhaps I also recognize that it is made of timber and metal. The qualia array gives me clues to the identities of the materials from which it is made, but my recognition of these materials depends upon my past experience and is not a property of the qualia, as such. When someone informs me of the purpose of the object, I learn something new about it, but its qualia remain unchanged. Initially, its purpose is represented in words, but later I know what it is for without putting that knowledge into words.

The function of the object and the materials from which it is constructed are knowledge that is additional to what is directly conveyed by the qualia array, and when these facts are well known they cease to be represented by words, so they are no longer represented by qualia of any kind. The existence of agnosias supports the view that the identities of people and objects are normally associated with consciousness. Agnosias are defects of awareness, failure of certain forms of information to be experienced Farah, , ; Behrmann and Nishimura, In the associative agnosias, certain information associated with items being experienced, such as the meanings of words or the identities of objects or faces, are not consciously accessible, though there is evidence they are nonconsciously known.

Since those of us with normal perceptual systems are able to consciously remember and tell others about the identities of objects or people, these facts are normally associated with consciousness when necessary. There have been previous reports that some thoughts lack qualia. If thoughts are not expressed in words or pictures; in sounds or images; and if they have no associated feelings of any kind, they lack qualia.

Hurlburt, Heavey and Akhter Heavey and Hurlburt, ; Hurlburt and Akhter, a , b state there are well-defined experiences, such as unspoken thoughts, wonderings, musings, and unspoken knowledge of where we are, or what we are looking at, that are conscious without qualia. Qualia incorporate quantitative and qualitative properties of things into consciousness, and that appears to be their function.

Unsymbolized thought, such as knowledge of the identities of objects or people, one's location, what one is doing, where one is going, or one's intentions, solutions to problems, and so on, often have no associated quantitative and qualitative properties, and no qualia. Various unsymbolized thoughts may be experienced, depending on what one is attending to, in much the same way as, for example, various sensory information may be experienced, depending on what one is attending to.

Consciousness is information, it is adaptive, and it is associated with intentional behavior. In this section I present evidence that the biological function of consciousness is input data to a mechanism that generates flexible, intentional responses. A list of various consciousness-related mental activities is provided in Table 2.

Inevitably, there are some overlaps between the listed categories, and not every activity may be included, but they cover the great majority of activities associated with consciousness, sufficient to provide a basis for investigating the biological role of consciousness. When we examine this range of intentional behaviors associated with consciousness, we find that consciousness is primarily associated with flexibility of behavior. The last two categories in Table 2 , mind wandering and dreams during sleep, are anomalous because they do not have the volitional or controlled quality of the other activities in the table, and are generally disconnected from any definite tasks.

The anomalous processes have no obvious behavior-related function, though it has been reported that various functions related to preparation for future adaptive behavior are associated with dreaming Hobson, and passive mental states, such as mind wandering Greicius et al. At this stage, the anomalous processes seem unlikely to contribute to our understanding the biological role of consciousness. All of the activities in Table 2 , apart from the anomalous processes, are associated with generation of, or preparation for, nonautomatic behaviors to deal with current, expected, or possible future situations.

The situations may be internal or external physical conditions, or social conditions, so the actions could be related to personal safety, social status, homeostasis, or other considerations. These activities are all relatively flexible compared to the stimulus-response structure of automatic actions such as the orienting reflex or looming reflex Schiff, ; Ball and Tronick, , fixed action patterns for example, Raven and Johnson, , unintended motor mimicry Bavelas et al. Consciousness is associated with relatively flexible responding Baars, , that is, with a flexible response mechanism, or possibly a combination of such mechanisms the FRM.

The FRM selects or devises responses to current situations, causes the automatic initiation and control of behavior Bargh, , prepares for possible future events, solves problems, and makes choices. Each of these must be achieved by integration and manipulation of relevant data. The FRM must arrive at nonautomatic solutions to problems and determine behavior by information processing of some kind, and therefore must consist of a processor operating with relevant data. Automatic programs determine most of our responses, and initiate and control all of our actions Bargh, ; Bargh and Chartrand, The FRM is an alternative system for determining behavior that functions quite differently from automatic programs.