The evidence that consciousness enables us to control our thoughts and our behaviour

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Last updated: April 10, 2019

Memories, thoughts, emotions, desires, biological necessities, sensory and perceptual stimuli, all simultaneously demand and compete for our attention.

How do we make order out of the apparent chaos and control our thoughts and behaviour? What is it that appears to be mobilising and integrating these ostensibly separate and independent elements, giving me the sense that I am awake and consistently aware of myself and of what is going on in my mind, body and environment? What about when I am asleep, or intoxicated by the local wine? What kind of consciousness do I possess at such times?This essay will explore the issue regarding whether or not the operation and application of consciousness is the means by which we evaluate and regulate these diverse sensory and perceptual inputs, biological imperatives and cognitive activities, structure our responses and orient ourselves through life in an apparently purposeful manner. It begins by trying to clarify what consciousness is (or rather, may be) before casting a brief but critical eye over the empirical research undertaken by cognitive psychologists working in this area to see what they have revealed about the function and structure of consciousness.One question that arises immediately is whether or not consciousness is actually a single mechanism? Block (1995) has proposed that there are two distinct facets of consciousness: a cognitive trans-modular aspect (access consciousness) which relates to awareness of ‘things’, be they sights, sounds, tastes, memories and ideas and which makes this information accessible to other cognitive and neural processes such as memory, attention, decision-making etc; and the inner feelings (phenomenal consciousness) engendered by such awareness.

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The conscious access hypothesis was framed within a previously unconnected concept of a ‘global workspace’ cognitive capacity operating in a complex system of specialised knowledge sources which cooperatively solves problems insolvable by a single source alone (Newell, 1994). The hypothesis holds that consciousness primarily has an integrative ‘global’ function, a ‘gateway to brain integration’ which facilitates widespread access between otherwise separate neuronal functions within what is held to be a nervous system comprising a massive distributed set of specialised networks with multiple sensory inputs (Baars, 2002).While cognitive psychologists seem increasingly interested in focusing on what has been called the ‘easy problem’ (Chalmers, 1996) of investigating and explicating access consciousness, the ‘hard problem’ of understanding and explaining the phenomenal conscious experiential realm of feelings – of resolving the apparent dichotomy of brain and mind – has been more often left to philosophers.Arguments premised on the duality of mind and body, the position espoused by Descartes, do little to explain how the mind can interact with the physical brain and body.

I can suddenly decide that I feel bored sitting here at the computer on a sunny day and that I fancy going for a walk instead. Consequently I would have to get up from my table, apply some sun-tan cream to my face, arms and legs, put my sandals on, find my hat, keys, wallet and phone, go downstairs, unlock and lock the door again before setting off.All of this activity has proceeded from a mental state – that of feeling bored – not a physical state such as tiredness or hunger. What can dualists and idealists offer by way of explanation regarding how this mental state has come into being and exercised such an effect on my physical world? On the other hand, the monist philosophical rejection of Cartesian duality ‘reduces’ consciousness (or mind) in all its aspects to a property of the physical brain.

Extreme exponents of this materialist view seek to eliminate the phenomenally conscious world of desires, beliefs and feelings from the scientific discourse as it is held to have no scientific basis, but this denial seems to me merely to be ignoring the presence of the ‘ghost in the machine’; to be leaving the mad aunt locked in the attic and still tip-toeing around trying not to wake her (Banks, 1993). A less extreme, ‘functionalist’ position considers conscious mental states as causal – defined by how they transform an input into an output – and as giving rise directly to behaviour.The analogy used is that the physical brain is like the hardware of a computer and the mind is analogous to disk operating system software: thus the mind is ‘running’ in the brain, allowing for the operation of other programmes. This position allows for the notion that if the human ‘DOS programme’ could be understood and replicated, an artificial intelligence, so-programmed, would exhibit conscious in the same way as humans do. Having just watched the film of the Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy last night, the memory of Marvin the Paranoid Android comes immediately to mind.While it has been possible for IBM to programme a computer to beat a Grand-Master at chess, no one yet has developed a programme that has allowed a computer to pass the Turing test. It seems unfathomable that a machine could feel the same sense of annoyance that I experienced when the banging began next door, or could share my sense of pleasurable anticipation at the thought of a good lunch, a few glasses of red wine and a convivial chat on a sunny afternoon.

Yet much psychology seems reluctant to tackle these profound issues of what consciousness is, and how it defines what it is to be human, head on.Nevertheless this reductionism, by which consciousness is explained in terms of cognitive processes, allows cognitive psychologists to investigate the mental states associated with access consciousness without worrying too much about how phenomenal consciousness ‘maps’ onto brain architecture and interacts with physical brain activity. Some empirical research in this area has adopted Baars’ (1998) ‘contrastive analysis’ approach, investigating unconscious processes such as implicit memory (or priming), implicit learning and automatic processing as a means, through comparison and contrast, to infer functions of consciousness.

One of the findings that emerged from the research is that memory and consciousness appear to be correlated, although the direction of causation is unclear: does normal consciousness depend on intact memory function or does normal memory function require consciousness? More interesting perhaps is the suggestion that priming can demonstrate unconscious influences on behaviour such as that people’s mood can be affected by the mood of others around them, even when they are unaware of the mood change and its causes (Neumann and Strack, 2000).The field of implicit learning (learning things without being consciously aware of them) has important consequences as far as consciousness is concerned, insofar as if it could be demonstrated that a lot of implicit learning is possible, it would suggest that consciousness has no causal role in cognition but is a ‘by-product’ of brain processes that does not in itself affect the system.In practice researchers have found it difficult to operationalise experiments that convincingly demonstrate implicit learning to any considerable extent. It appears that there can be no selection of what is learned implicitly, nor can what has been implicitly learned be voluntarily retrieved. Rather, the conscious processes of active selection, rehearsal and elaboration of information appear to be essential to much everyday learning.

In studies of automatic (or what can also be considered implicit or unconscious) processing in contrast with controlled processing, there is evidence to show that learned automatic (or unconscious) processes – for example driving your car on the same route to and from work every day, or playing a physical sport which you are very accomplished at – are typically fast, efficient but inflexible and make little impact on explicit memory (Braisby and Gellatly, 2005).However a similar ‘chicken and egg’ question again presents itself: do we use consciousness to control behaviour or do we become conscious of our behaviour when we seek to exercise control over it? Much of what has been written above offers more questions than answers and this uncertainty appears to be unavoidable when psychologists are discussing the nature of consciousness. Even in the ‘hard science’ area of neuropsychology, there is disagreement over whether consciousness may be associated with very many cognitive modular processes or may be a feature of particular cognitive modular processes.We may even wonder if there could exist a unitary ‘consciousness module’, albeit one which might be geographically localised in a single area of the brain, or distributed across a neural network.

Alternatively, consciousness may be the result of non-localised synchronised brain activity across several regions (ffytche, 2000). In any case, an important feature of consciousness appears to be that it cuts across the modularity of the mind, permitting ‘cross-talk’ between what psychologists take to be otherwise independent and distinct clusters of cognitive processes or modules.It may be this attribute that allows consciousness to selectively control behaviour, to make decisions based on rationality rather than emotion (Murphy and Zajonc, 1993), to allow us to learn from our mistakes (Baddeley and Wilson, 1994) and to over-ride habitual responses and respond flexibly yet effectively even in novel environments and circumstances (Baddeley et al.

1998).However while the behaviour control and cognitive cross-modular communication aspects of access consciousness have been identified, a ‘hard question’ of whether we need consciousness for the performance of these functions remains unanswered. Furthermore, research into hypnosis and drug-induced altered states of consciousness suggest that while ‘normal’ conscious states involve monitoring and control of behaviour based on ‘reality monitoring’, we are in fact only conscious of a small amount of information (that is, of ‘reality’) at any one time (Braisby and Gellatly, 2005).In summary, cognitive psychology has been very useful in discovering the cognitive correlates of consciousness – that is, those cognitive processes such as working memory that seem always to be accompanied by consciousness – but it has not yet been able to clarify the nature of the causal relationship between them. The two principal schools of thought are that consciousness is reducible to particular brain modules or individual neural events; or alternatively, that it emerges from complex and global interactions of brain processes in a dynamic system.

In the face of such uncertainty, it is simply not possible to definitively conclude that it is consciousness that enables us to control our thoughts and our behaviour based on the evidence presented in the texts. Moreover, the other hard question of why and how we are conscious of the ‘feeling’ of things remains unaddressed. Auntie, it seems, will stay locked in the attic.

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