What’s the point of being conscious?

You stack the final few dishes on the sideboard, ready to be dried and put away. Your mind is elsewhere, perhaps remembering an email that still needs to be sent, or musing over plans for the weekend. At least, that is until your stray elbow silently tips a wine glass off the worktop. You watch in horror, helpless to do anything about it. Then, barely milliseconds into its descent, your hand shoots out of its own accord, saving what would have surely been a shattered mess. You only become aware of the catch when the glass is safely in your hand.

We surprise ourselves when events such as this occur. The miracle catch feels like a reflex, unbound from our inner sense of control. But if we can carry out automatic feats like this, what’s the point in being conscious in the first place? Recent experiments in neuroscience have been pushing the limits of the unconscious in order to find out. The idea is that if we find the unconscious can catch falling glasses but not understand Shakespeare, then perhaps we have found a fault line beyond which consciousness becomes useful.

Using a technique called visual masking, Hakwan Lau and Dick Passingham made a set of invisible symbols, but still left them capable of altering behaviour. The trick was to make the invisible symbol an instruction about what to do in an upcoming task. Responding to instructions is usually thought of as requiring conscious planning. However, not only did the symbols affect which task participants were preparing to carry out, they also modulated activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region traditionally associated with conscious control.

More recently, neuroscientist Simon van Gaal has been spearheading the work on the limits of the unconscious. In a recent paper reviewing his work, he outlines how visually masked stimuli can engage complex functions ranging from inhibiting one’s response to resolving conflict between competing actions. Surprisingly, he and his colleagues have yet to find anything the unconscious cannot do.

One striking thing about the miracle glass catch is that you can’t explain it to others. “I don’t know how I did that, it just happened…”. In these circumstances, we take no credit for our behaviour, and have no confidence in its causes. Chris Frith has proposed that conscious awareness gives us the ability to share our reasons for acting, and infer that others have similar reasons. Imagine a world in which every action was like the glass catch: we would be constantly surprised at ourselves, and social interactions would become meaningless. Distinguishing whether someone acted voluntarily is crucial for punishment and cooperation.

Perhaps, then, the point of being conscious is so that we can discuss, among other things, the point of being conscious!


10 thoughts on “What’s the point of being conscious?

  1. Hi Steve,
    Nice, thought-provoking, post. It seems to me that our all-too-human conceptualizations of consciousness v. unconscious and mind v. brain (e.g. physicalism) are being revealed, more and more, as oversimplifications. A great time to be doing neuroscience!

  2. Hi Dave,

    Many thanks for your comment. Consciousness is one of those areas where (to paraphrase Dennett) everyone claims to be an expert, because everyone is conscious. But I agree – gratifyingly for the science, there are plenty of counter-intuitive results out there, which is good news for the future of the field.


  3. Hi Steve,

    Great that you are starting a blog – and looks wonderful so far.

    And I love the line: “The idea is that if we find the unconscious can catch falling glasses but not understand Shakespeare, then perhaps we have found a fault line beyond which consciousness becomes useful.”

    But a question that always occurs to me with falling glasses and similar (particularly with a todder around!) is the level of importance of automaticity. Watching my baby daughter learn to walk and so on, it certainly doesn’t begin automatic and unconscious, and there are obviously deliberative, considered choices when she started to master walking 5 months ago. This raises the question that almost all complex human activities, including catching a glass, might have required consciousness for their acquisition.

    As for Van Gaal, these are terribly subtle effects, aren’t they? Certainly in no way equivalent, say, to the level of inhibitory control we can demonstrate when fully conscious. That to me means a lot, and raises the possibility either that the effects are driven by stimuli that approach the conscious threshold, or the subset of the total trials that accidentally reach consciousness. In addition, I’d be amazed if he ever finds evidence that the unconscious can, say perform complex mental arithmatic, or the vast majority of the conscious list that Baumeister mentions in his comparison of conscious and unconscious processes. Consciousness to me really is associated with complex and/or novel processes (small plug point: see my and Anil Seth’s review just out in Frontiers in Consciousness Research).

    Finally, the Frith idea I find a useful discussion point for social/self-consciousness, but for consciousness per se??? I find it far more plausible to reverse the argument, to stick with the majority of theories linking consciousness with (integrated) information processing and say that when there is a sufficiently advanced consciousness/information processing brain, then social interactions, language and so on are a likely spillover of extensive consciousness.

    • Hi Dan,

      Thank you for your comment – glad you’re enjoying the blog! I look forward to reading your recent paper with Anil.

      You raise some challenging issues. Let me respond to the more straightforward one first. The van Gaal effects are relatively subtle, as he would be the first to admit, but they are reliable across paradigms. There seems a trivial explanation for their weakness – the energy of the stimulus has been reduced, from the sensory input all the way up. So, barring issues about establishing d’=0, the fact that a reduced energy stimulus elicits a similar (but reduced) pattern of activity at least suggests that there is no qualitative difference in behaviour or brain activity elicited by unconscious cues in these experiments. (And on the arithmetic question: see this recent paper from the Dehaene lab http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21489415).

      You suggest that the Frith theory might apply to self-consciousness, but not consciousness per se. But do we have an operational definition of the distinction between consciousness and self-consciousness? (perhaps metacognition paradigms, but see our comments on the relationship between consciousness and metacognition here: http://web.me.com/stephen_fleming/web/Publications_files/Fleming_PhilTrans_intro.pdf). It seems that whenever we measure access consciousness in humans, we are really asking a self-related question: were you (self-)aware of X just now? (I’m assuming, by the way, that we’re debating the function of access consciousness, rather than putative phenomenal consciousness without access).

      All that said – I am very open to the idea that awareness is useful for something other than social interaction, such as acquiring new skills. The example of your daughter learning to walk is compelling. And from introspection, it certainly seems as if we are acutely self-aware when, for instance, learning a new skill such as playing tennis. I guess the challenge for the field is to develop methods to measure and control access consciousness during this type of learning, and show what can and cannot be done.

      • Good point about energy issues in the van Gaal stuff. I wonder if he (or anyone else) has tried to replicate the effects, say, in a continuous flash suppression paradigm, where external energies for stimuli are strong yet invisible. If weak energy is the main explanation for van Gaal’s previously subtle effects, then response inhibition using continuous flash suppressed stimuli should be as robust as conscious deliberate inhibition for fully visible stimuil?

        I agree that distinguishing consciousness from self-consciousness is a terribly tricky question, and that metacognition might not be so relevant to this question. And perhaps my objections to the Frith social/theory of mind evolutionary reason for consciousness are also somewhat emotional. I dislike that it seems to imply that autistics are the least conscious group among us (perhaps even Asperger’s being less conscious than average too, based on his idea?). I also dislike the implications for animal consciousness. Orangutans are a pretty solitary animal, so does that make them far less conscious than, say, baboons? I find it more intuitive to assume that because orangutans are incredibly smart creatures, they are also very likely to be very conscious – again making the link between information processing capacity (ignoring self/social questions) and consciousness.

      • Aha, yes assessing whether control can be induced by continuous flash suppression would be very interesting. I haven’t heard of anyone trying this.

        With regard to autism, if you believe (like Carruthers) that theory of mind = self-consciousness, then yes this is a problem. But if you accept that self-consciousness could be intact even in the face of a deficit in awareness of other minds, then this does not preclude their evolving in tandem.

        The more I think about it, the more it seems that the self-consciousness/consciousness fault line is crucial to this debate. We can reconcile our differences by assuming that orangutans are very smart/conscious, but perhaps not self-conscious in a human-like way because they have not gained the meta-representational capacity required to model other minds.

  4. Chris Frith also talks of wines glasses & consciousness of movement! In this regard, the following might be of interest. It forms part of a critique of Chris Frith, and the idea that we’re basically unconscious of most of our movements. I suggest that it is how we attend that makes the difference. The passage is from an article I recently published entitled ‘The Alexander Technique and Neuroscience: Three Areas of Interest’, the rest of which you can download from my website (http://www.henryfagg.com).

    In an extraordinary contradiction of terms, movement ‘awareness’ is instead deemed to be largely non-veridical; that is, ‘unreal’ because it is based mainly on intention and prediction. For example, Blakemore and colleagues have suggested that ‘there is only limited awareness of the actual state of the motor system whenever it has been successfully predicted in advance … under normal circumstances we are aware only of the predicted consequences of movements’

    … Such a view has been reiterated by others more recently: ‘Actual sensory feedback has a remarkably limited role in the experience of action in neurologically healthy individuals’; ‘Subjective awareness does not seem to be involved in “how” actions are performed’; ‘Obviously, the neural mechanisms underlying consciousness have more important things to do than controlling the low-level executive details of our actions. It may even seem optimal, in terms of neural economy, to assume that a movement unfolds as planned when it reaches its goal’. The argument is summed up most starkly by the neuroscientist Chris Frith:

    I reach for my glass and all I experience is the look and taste of the wine as I drink it. I don’t experience the various corrections made to the movements as my brain navigates my arm through the various obstacles on the table to reach the wine glass. I don’t experience the change in the angles of my elbow or the feel of the glass on my fingertips as they adjust perfectly to the size of the stem. I feel in control of myself because I know what I want to do (have a drink) and I can achieve this aim without any apparent effort. As long as I stay in control, I don’t have to bother with the physical world of actions and sensations. I can stay in the subjective world of desires and pleasures.

    This version of movement carries strong overtones of the left hemisphere Functional system described in the last section [from the 2AS model]. Not only does Frith’s description lay itself open to a reductio ad absurdum (if the purpose is to drink, why bother even tasting the wine?) but it is also a view of movement that would seem anathema to most movement professionals. For example, dancers, athletes and Alexander Technique teachers (believe they) are acutely conscious of – and take great pleasure in – their senses during movement itself. Cole and Montero have termed this awareness ‘affective proprioception’ …

    • Hi Henry,

      Many thanks for your comment. Your perspective, as a professional engaged in bodily awareness, is most enlightening.

      I agree that current theory suggests much of the online correction to our movements is done under the surface of awareness, from the most basic spinal reflexes up to more complex action planning. The basic scheme is that any deviation from predicted movement is rapidly corrected by low level “prediction error” mechanisms. Why we are aware of some, but not other, levels of such a hierarchy is not clear, but I think Frith’s answer would be that the reason we taste anything at all is that this is the kind of information that is useful for sharing with others, unlike the information about the trajectory of your hand to the glass. And if awareness is not veridical, this does not have to lead to a contradiction in terms. If we define awareness as a subjective report, then it’s non-veridicality itself becomes part of the phenomenon of awareness.

      However, this does not explain why, as you point out, it seems possible to become aware of lower levels of the hierarchy. The changes that occur during learning of the Alexander Technique could be an excellent testing ground for answering this question.

  5. I like to go to a blogger’s beginning pieces to get a sense of who they are and where they’ve been prior to being Freshly Pressed. I have a question and I apologize if it’s off base, but would the purpose of being conscious be that of learning and growth? Awareness seems to be crucial to those processes. While I understand that the unconscious can carry out many processes without the need of being conscious; if we don’t know what we’re doing or why..if merely a reflex how can we learn from it and perhaps prevent that glass from falling again, by lets say placing it in a different spot or even more importantly, share with others who have not had that experience and could potentially learn from mine?

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