Saturday, 5 March 2011

Book Review: Consciousness Explained (Daniel C. Dennett): part IV (his model of consciousness)

The main purpose of Dennett's book is to 1) refute the carthesian theater model of consciousness (see image below), and 2) introduce his own new model instead. He calls his new model the multiple drafts model.

The Cartesian Theater:

A representation of the carthesian theater model of consciousness is depicted below:

In this picture, we can see the head of a man looking at an egg being fried in a frying pan. Inside this man's brain, a screen is present where the vision of the man is projected for a smaller man to look at. The smaller man (or homonculus) is a methaphor for a central part in the brain where "consciousness happen".
The carthesian theater model assumes that their is a central "organ" in the brain where what happens is what you are conscious of. Its most naive form is the idea that a spectator must be present in the brain in order for the senses inputs to be experienced. Descarte for instance considered the pineal gland to be such a center from where the input of the senses could be transduced from mechanical signals (Descarte was not aware of the electrical nature of these signals) to spiritual meanings for the soul's benefit.

The Multiple Draft Model:

In this model, there is no centre where everything has to converge in order to be experienced. On the contrary, different conscious events are generated at different places in the brain. Each element within an event is discriminated only once. For instance, if you see a cow, the brain discriminate the presence of a large object, then it notice it is an animal, then that it is a cow. The discrimination and its fixation in the memory is enough for the phenomenum to be conscious (if probed).
What will be conscious will depend of the time of the probing. If you probe too early, you will only experience the diffuse presence of a large object. If you probe very late, you will have forgotten everything.
There is no need for the discriminated element to be sent or linked to a central theater. The conscious experience will originate from the locus of the discrimination. Also, each element is constantly updated/modified (e.g. interpreted, refined, partly erased, ...) due to interaction with the rest of the brain (pre-existing memories, new inputs, ...).
The multiple draft model makes"writing it down" in memory criterial for consciousness.

This can be best understood by looking at the color phi phenomenom at the bottom of this post (I do not insert it here because it is a moving image that would disturb your reading). To most people, the color phi phenomenom is experienced as a red spot traveling from left to right and changing color midway to become green. However (and you can easily convince yourself thereof by hiding one of both spots), it is in fact nothing of the sort. It is simply two fixed spots, one red and one green, the first blinking out of phase with respect to the second.

When experiencing the color phi phenomenom, the brain does not need to place intermediate spots after having experienced the second spot because there is no part of the brain present to "watch" these intermediate spots, your brain (i.e. you) just "knows" that the spot moved.

When remembering past events, you don't feel them happening again, you just know they happended. For instance, if you try to remember with as much details as possible the pain you experienced the last time you knocked your toes against an obstacle, you will not experience real pain, you will just realize that you "know" what kind of pain it was (which intensity, which location...).

His model makes a lot of sense but what remains unclear to me is the following:

At any given time our brain is processing a lot of inputs: external inputs from our various senses and internal inputs. We clearly do not feel conscious of them all. Cerrtainly, we do not feel conscious of many of them "simultaneously". Dennett seems however to say that whenever an object of our phenomenology is discriminated by our brain, it is "conscious".

On another hand he alludes to the notion of probing. Probing that would determine what is reported as conscious. He seems to make a difference between what is conscious and what we report as conscious experience when asked (i.e. probed) to report.

What I don't get is what he exactly means by his notion of "probing". I get it only partialy. I get it when by probing he means triggering a report from the conscious subject: e.g. asking the guy what he sees/feel. However, we are not constantly being asked to report on our internal states and we feel nevertheless conscious in these apparently "non-probed" times.

Of course, I suspect that his notion of what the probing is is more subtle than that. I suppose that internal inputs and external inputs can themeselves serve as "probes".

Maybe this notion is better explained in the rest of the book.

Once very important phrase he wrote is "The multiple draft model makes"writing it down" in memory criterial for consciousness".

I fully agree with the fact that writing something down in memory is critical for consciousness!

I have my own partial theory on consciousness and I should maybe explain it here before to continue Dennett's book. In view of the bold sentence above, I suspect that his views and mine overlap largly.

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