Tuesday, 8 March 2011

My own opinion on "consciousness"

Consciousness and memory

I will try to explain what is my vision of what I think consciousness might encompass. I am sure I do not understand fully what consciousness is (otherwise I would not be reading and thinking so much about it). I however partly developed and partly stole ideas that, put together, gives me a hypothesis of what consciousness could be.

It all started I think in 2007 when I was driving back from a patent law course in Antwerp. It was dark, there was nothing on the radio and I thought "you have no opinion whatsoever on what consciousness could be. Why don't you try to make yourself one by developing it from first principles?"

And so I started to think about what was necessary for experiencing consciously something? I started to reason: "if I hear something (e.g. a word) I can be conscious of it. Why?" How do I know that I heard it? Answer:"because it is in my memory and I can retrieve it. If it was not there, I would not know I heard it".

Then I thought "OK! So what happens exactly when I hear a word, e.g. the word 'abracadabra'?"
I thought that I first hear each sound of the word and that my brain "recognises" it. So I first hear the beginning of a "a", then the end of a "a" then the beginning of a "b" and so on.

But what would happen if I did not have a good memory? I might forget the beginning of the word at the time I am hearing the end of the word and this word would not make sense to me but I would nevertheless be conscious. However if you ask me 10 seconds after having telling me the word "abracadabra" whether I heard it (actually I would not even understand your question and I would not be able to answer it... but let say for the sake of this thought experiment that my memorisation capacity was brought back to normal before you asked me this question), I would answer "no" since I would have forgotten this word already.

Now let's decrease my memory even further to a time span of let say one millisecond. I would hear the beginning of a "a", then forget it, than I would here the middle of the "a", then forget it, then I would hear the end of a "a", then forget it. I would have some kind of rolling consciousness with a very short time span. This would be so far from what we experience as human conscious beings that we can hardly still call that a conscious state.

What would we experience if our short time memory had a time span infinitesimally short? Or no memory at all? I claim that this would equal to not being conscious.

From this thought experiment, I concluded that without memory, no consciousness.

Puropose or cause of consciousness

I then proceeded to think "aha! Memory is necessary for consciousness. Could it be that consciousness evolved together or after memory? Could it be that consciousness serves a purpose linked to memory or that being conscious is what it feels like to memorise?".

I then realised that we can be more or less conscious. We can be very aware of something or almost not aware at all of this thing. For instance, I was driving since half an hour but I was only barely conscious of the road. At other times I am very conscious of the road. So what could be the purpose of something varying in intensity and potentially serving memory?

I thought BINGO! Consciousness with its varying levels of intensity could serve as labels! Consciousness of something with a particular level of intensity could be a "label" informing the memorisation processes of the brain on the importance of said thing. It could also be the other way around. Maybe we just experience stronger consciousness feeling for stronger memories.

For instance, you see a free lion in front of you: you will be VERY conscious of its presence and your brain will record very deeply (and forever) this information instantaneously in your long term memory.

Another example: you see a small stone on the road. Your eyes saw it. This information entered your short term memory but you will not be very conscious of it at all. As a result, your memorisation processes having received the "low consciousness" label associated with this stone, you will quickly forget it and you will never ever be able to recall it.

Actually, we are at any given time bombarded with thousands of inputs, both internal and external. Our senses are incessantly receiving information. If we had to memorise all of them vividly and for ever, our memory would be full in no time. We therefore need to rank information by order of importance, in other words: we need a filter. This filter might or might not be consciousness.

This information is important for our survival (e.g. uncaged lion) or our reproduction (e.g. sexy lady/man)? Our brain attaches the label "very conscious" to it and it gets written deep into our memory.

Is this information unimportant (e.g. one tic of a clock amongst many)? Our brain attaches the label "barely conscious" to it and this information will quickly be forgotten.

Actually, we could very easily replace the word "consciousness" by the word "attention" in the last part of my analysis above.

Also, I could make sense of the same insights by making the alternative hypothesis that a label (or filter) (which is not "consciousness" but well "attention") is attached to each input and what we "feel", i.e. what we are "conscious" of is the process of memorisation. When something is memorised, we are conscious of it. When it is deeply memorised, we feel deeply conscious of it.

Another facet of what I think consciousness is comes from experiments in experimental psychology which all tend to indicate that our brain already knows we will move our wrist before that we are ourselves aware that we will move our wrist (Libet et al, 1983). I think this kind of experimental results fit nicely with my vision above because when your arm moves, it is best for you to keep in memory that it did! As a result, this information is engraved in your memory and you are simultaneously conscious of it.

You are conscious of many things your body experience but you are feeling it "after the facts".

This vision of consciousness is also compatible with my vision of free will (there is no free will).

We are spectators of our own lives. Just like when we go to the movie: sometimes we really think we are living it. Well, we also really think that we are in charge of ourselves...but we are not. The illusion is however almost perfect. This illusion falls apart e.g. when lesion to the primary visual cortex occurs.

Imagine that in the future we would be able to watch a movie while simultaneously feeling and thinking absolutely all what the actor feels and think. We would very easily be convinced that WE are the actor and that the actor that WE are has free will.

Later I would like to make a post on these psychological experiments I referred to. I also would like to speak about split brains, phantom limbs, rubber hands, and Mrs. Dee (a woman whose brain has been damaged and whose case is detailed in the book "sight unseen").


  1. It's interesting the role memory plays in consciousness, especially when you attempt to break down time into small components. How much time is needed for a sense datum to enter into consciousness? And what about the subconscious? It's amazing how much information we 'process' without self-aware intentionality, but then come back to later. (And how is it that I seem to know where my husband's wallet, keys, phone, etc. are, but not my own?) :)

    Very interesting post. Thanks for stopping by my blog and giving your thoughts!

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      "How much time is needed for a sense datum to enter into consciousness?"

      50 ms at maximum (when the datum is masked directly after having been received by our senses)

      "And what about the subconscious? It's amazing how much information we 'process' without self-aware intentionality, but then come back to later. "

      We indeed process a lot of information unconsciously. Even subliminal data are processed. They have been shown to trigger emotions, to be given a weight or value, to have a priming effect, ... However, subliminal data tend not to come back later as such. Indeed, by their very unconscious nature, they are not properly memorized. Have you read "consciousness and the brain" from Stanislas Dehaene? It reviews the current science on these questions. Fascinating..