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Is consciousness the 'ghost in the machine' ?

June 5, 2021 · Comment icon 23 comments

Exactly what is consciousness ? Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 Allan Ajifo
For centuries, mankind has struggled to understand the precise nature of human consciousness.
Neuropsychologist Peter Halligan of Cardiff University and psychologist David A Oakley of UCL take a closer look at the age-old debate of exactly what consciousness is.

As individuals, we feel that we know what consciousness is because we experience it daily. It's that intimate sense of personal awareness we carry around with us, and the accompanying feeling of ownership and control over our thoughts, emotions and memories.

But science has not yet reached a consensus on the nature of consciousness - which has important implications for our belief in free will and our approach to the study of the human mind.

Beliefs about consciousness can be roughly divided into two camps. There are those who believe consciousness is like a ghost in the machinery of our brains, meriting special attention and study in its own right. And there are those, like us, who challenge this, pointing out that what we call consciousness is just another output generated backstage by our efficient neural machinery.

Over the past 30 years, neuroscientific research has been gradually moving away from the first camp. Using research from cognitive neuropsychology and hypnosis, our recent paper argues in favour of the latter position, even though this seems to undermine the compelling sense of authorship we have over our consciousness.

And we argue this isn't simply a topic of mere academic interest. Giving up on the ghost of consciousness to focus scientific endeavour on the machinery of our brains could be an essential step we need to take to better understand the human mind.

Is consciousness special?

Our experience of consciousness places us firmly in the driver's seat, with a sense that we're in control of our psychological world. But seen from an objective perspective, it's not at all clear that this is how consciousness functions, and there's still much debate about the fundamental nature of consciousness itself.

One reason for this is that many of us, including scientists, have adopted a dualist position on the nature of consciousness. Dualism is a philosophical view that draws a distinction between the mind and the body. Even though consciousness is generated by the brain - a part of the body - dualism claims that the mind is distinct from our physical features, and that consciousness cannot be understood through the study of the physical brain alone.

It's easy to see why we believe this to be the case. While every other process in the human body ticks and pulses away without our oversight, there is something uniquely transcendental about our experience of consciousness. It's no surprise that we've treated consciousness as something special, distinct from the automatic systems that keep us breathing and digesting.

But a growing body of evidence from the field of cognitive neuroscience - which studies the biological processes underpinning cognition - challenges this view. Such studies draw attention to the fact that many psychological functions are generated and carried out entirely outside of our subjective awareness, by a range of fast, efficient non-conscious brain systems.

Consider, for example, how effortlessly we regain consciousness each morning after losing it the night before, or how, with no deliberate effort, we instantly recognise and understand shapes, colours, patterns and faces we encounter.
Consider that we don't actually experience how our perceptions are created, how our thoughts and sentences are produced, how we recall our memories or how we control our muscles to walk and our tongues to talk. Simply put, we don't generate or control our thoughts, feelings or actions - we just seem to become aware of them.

Becoming aware

The way we simply become aware of thoughts, feelings and the world around us suggests that our consciousness is generated and controlled backstage, by brain systems that we remain unaware of.

Our recent paper argues that consciousness involves no separate independent psychological process distinct from the brain itself, just as there's no additional function to digestion that exists separately from the physical workings of the gut.

While it's clear that both the experience and content of consciousness are real, we argue that, from a science explanation, they are epiphenomenal: secondary phenomena based on the machinations of the physical brain itself. In other words, our subjective experience of consciousness is real, but the functions of control and ownership we attribute to that experience are not.

Future study of the brain

Our position is neither obvious nor intuitive. But we contend that continuing to place consciousness in the driver's seat, above and beyond the physical workings of the brain, and attributing cognitive functions to it, risks confusion and delaying a better understanding of human psychology and behaviour.

To better align psychology with the rest of the natural sciences, and to be consistent with how we understand and study processes like digestion and respiration, we favour a perspective change. We should redirect our efforts to studying the non-conscious brain, and not the functions previously attributed to consciousness.

This doesn't of course exclude psychological investigation into the nature, origins and distribution of the belief in consciousness. But it does mean refocusing academic efforts on what happens beneath our awareness - where we argue the real neuro-psychological processes take place.

Our proposal feels personally and emotionally unsatisfying, but we believe it provides a future framework for the investigation of the human mind - one that looks at the brain's physical machinery rather than the ghost that we've traditionally called consciousness.

Peter Halligan, Hon Professor of Neuropsychology, Cardiff University and David A Oakley, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article. The Conversation

Source: The Conversation | Comments (23)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #14 Posted by Rlyeh 3 years ago
Yet you falsely believe colour exists outside of your head.  
Comment icon #15 Posted by Cookie Monster 3 years ago
You dont get it do you? What you experience that is outside of yourself, is nothing but sensory perception. You are living in your mind.
Comment icon #16 Posted by Rlyeh 3 years ago
Which is IN your head.
Comment icon #17 Posted by Cookie Monster 3 years ago
The in and outside of your head are your mind.
Comment icon #18 Posted by fred_mc 3 years ago
Strange discussion this. Wavelength is a physical property of light, not colour. Colour is an experience in our minds that represents wavelength. However, the colours we see could just as well have represented something else, for example different polarizations of light (it is believed that some animals can see polarization but of course we don't know how they experience it).
Comment icon #19 Posted by Mr Walker 3 years ago
Why? It is really not that hard. There is existence beyond us, and there is us.  Consciousness is an evolved cognitive interface  which interacts with both, and which  interprets, processes, analyses and makes sense of,  both our external reality and our internal one. The higher the level of your consciousness, the more you understand your  self,  the nature of external reality, and the relationship which exists between the two   Self aware consciousness enables self direction, and control,  of; thought, language, (mental and oral)  and action. eg a human being can deliberately act,... [More]
Comment icon #20 Posted by Artaxerxes 3 years ago
A newborn baby is conscious and sentient but it is like an empty pitcher.  It doesn't know anything, not even what it means to be separate, unique, or individual.  It has to learn how to control its body and what it means and how it feels to be a separate, unique, individual, what time and space look and feel like, what "out there" looks like, and make memories of what it was like to live in a 3 dimensional + 1 time universe.   And perhaps this has everything to do with "why we are here?"   All the things a newborn baby learns it learns holistically, meaning its lessons are imprinted on ... [More]
Comment icon #21 Posted by Mr Walker 3 years ago
Not sure what you and Riyeh are arguing about here.  Colour is a physical property  which exists outside of human perception. If all thinking beings ceased to exist colour would remain, just like all real things would .    However, it is true that, like all observation, we construct a perception  of a colour in our mind,  based on the physical nature of that colour. For  example, being a bit physically colour blind, I see or perceive reds and greens a little differently to a non colour blind person.  However, all people with good colour  vision see the same colour because  that is ... [More]
Comment icon #22 Posted by Freez1 3 years ago
If anything it’s the other way around. The unconscious mind is the ghost in the machine. That is unless of course being awake 14-16 hours a day working 8-12 hour days is the dream. If so I want to wake up now.
Comment icon #23 Posted by Liquid Gardens 3 years ago
People with good color vision are able to identify different wavelengths of visible light, and certain wavelengths have been assigned common color names.  It does not follow that people 'see the same color'; no one else has any evidence for what my blue looks like.

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