Consciousness – an illusion?

In an article entitled The Grand Illusion: Why consciousness only exists when you look for it, Dr. Susan Blackmore looks at different models of consciousness.

It seems that most of our current thinking on consciousness is being contradicted by modern brain research, and that a new model is needed.

If you are not yet feeling perplexed (in which case I am not doing my job properly), consider another problem. It seems that most of what goes on in the brain is not conscious. For example, we can consciously hear a song on the car radio, while we are not necessarily conscious of all the things we do as we’re driving. This leads us to make a fundamental distinction: contrasting conscious brain processes with unconscious ones. But no one can explain what the difference really is. Is there a special place in the brain where unconscious things are made conscious? Are some brain cells endowed with an extra magic something that makes what goes on in them subjective? This doesn’t make sense. Yet most theories of consciousness assume that there must be such a difference, and then get stuck trying to explain or investigate it.

She also mentions some studies done with change blindness. Take a look at this picture, and see if you can spot what changes every time it flashes.

Here’s my favourite quote from the article:

It sounds bizarre, but try to catch yourself not being conscious. More than a hundred years ago the psychologist William James likened introspective analysis to “trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.” The modern equivalent is looking in the fridge to see whether the light is always on. However quickly you open the door, you can never catch it out. The same is true of consciousness. Whenever you ask yourself, “Am I conscious now?” you always are.But perhaps there is only something there when you ask. Maybe each time you probe, a retrospective story is concocted about what was in the stream of consciousness a moment before, together with a “self” who was apparently experiencing it. Of course there was neither a conscious self nor a stream, but it now seems as though there was.

Perhaps a new story is concocted whenever you bother to look. When we ask ourselves about it, it would seem as though there”s a stream of consciousness going on. When we don’t bother to ask, or to look, it doesn’t, but then we don’t notice so it doesn’t matter.

The fact that you can’t unconsciously examine consciousness made me think of this grook by Piet Hein:

Mirrors have one limitation: You can’t
either by hook or by crook
use them to how you look when you aren’t
looking to see how you look.

0 thoughts on “Consciousness – an illusion?”

  1. Maybe our brain can fix its attention in things in general (there’s a stream of information from "there", we direct our attention with our questions or the stimuli directs our attention with its activity) and one not so special case is that we pay attention of our own processes? Or is there more to it than that? I’m not concious of problems here. Maybe of implications, yes, but not problems. :-?

  2. Really good question, Lucas, and I’m not sure myself exactly how the article agrees or disagrees with what you write.

    I think the article points to the fact, that it’s not quite that simple. Consciousness is not just a process that’s either on or off.

    As you say, this has implications rather than problems. The problems only come, if you subscribe to one particular model for consciousness, which is in contradiction with the research mentioned. As most current models indeed seem to be :o)

    I was wondering: If your conscious thinking is only "on" some of the time… what turns it on?

    At the very least, we’ll have to downgrade consciousness from it’s position as the most important process going on in the mind. It seems more like consciousness is mostly tacked on, existing to rationalize actions we’ve already taken.

  3. I don’t know where I first read it but I think it’s in "The Meme Machine" (Dr Susan Blackmore herself!) or a book by … hang on … look up a difficult surname … Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has researched "flow: the psychology of optimal experience" (look under "happiness").

    Anyway, apparently, we’re concious of decisions a little *after* we’ve made them. I guess many people have no problem in agreeing with that. I guess "conciousness" is like "smell" or "pain": it helps.

  4. Yeah, it’s weird that. My favourite example is Michael Laudrup (one of Denmarks best soccer players) explaining how he consciously discovered having scored a goal only after he did it.

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