Consciousness of Change

In 1988 Bernard J. Baars published A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness which provides the final piece of our theoretical puzzle. The book is concerned with conscious and nonconscious processes. Consciousness is not something we can observe directly, other than in ourselves, and then only in retrospect. However, the fact that we can predict with considerable confidence indicates that conscious experience is something knowable.

Conscious experience is hard to study because we cannot easily stand outside of it, to observe the effects of its presence and absence. To recognize the existence of the phenomenon of consciousness is not the same as insisting upon its basic, logical, priority. Instead of furnishing a means for the solution of problems, Hull [1937] commented that consciousness appears to be itself a problem needing solution. Baar attempts to provide this solution with a coherent theory of consciousness, not just with the facts of consciousness. In the process, he delineates conscious and nonconscious mental activities in a way that is conceptually very useful to complete our theoretical frame.

Conscious and unconscious events, he tells us reside in the same domain of inferred psychological events. Unconscious processes can only be inferred, based on our own experience and on observation of others. The conscious criteria for consciousness is that one can say immediately afterwards that they were conscious [aware] of it and we can independently verify the accuracy of their report.

Information processing, representation, adaption, transformation, storage, retrieval, activation are necessarily conscious events. Perception is surely the most richly detailed domain of conscious experience. However, as we have already indicated, such perceptions are not necessarily reality. There is much evidence that people sometimes manufacture memories, images, perceptual experiences, and intentions that are demonstrably false. However, the fact that if someone were to claim an utterly bizarre illusory experience that was not shared by other observers, that fact would be instantly recognized gives clear evidence to suggest that the reality development process defined by Hofstadter, creates a reality not only in individual minds, but in group, sociocultural minds as well. It may be disconcerting to some to recognize that the creation of the reality of the world is based on a random process and the fluidity of theory building which is then honed by public commentary. But this appears to be the case.

One plausible meaning of ‘self’ is as the dominant enduring context of many conscious experiences. We may also say that conscious experience provides information to the self-as-context. Mental contexts are relatively enduring structures that are nonconscious, but can evoke and be evoked by conscious events. Conscious contents and unconscious contents interweave to create a stream of consciousness. There is some evidence that perceptual events are processed for some time before they become conscious. It is thought that this allows for unconscious input representations which filter the perception as already indicated. Then there are numerous ambiguities in perception, which might involve two ways of structuring the same stimulus. This is apparent in an optical illusion. Of these two interpretations, only one is conscious at a time, though there is evidence that the other is also represented.

Baar tells us that action seems even less conscious, reporting that observers have argued that the most obviously conscious components of action consist of feedback from actions performed, and anticipatory images of actions planned. Understand what we mean by this. When you walk across a room, most of what your body does is not conscious to you. You don’t think about taking a step, balancing yourself on one foot, etc. To do so would be cumbersome and wasteful. It has been estimated that 95% of all we do, we do nonconsciously. Once something has become habitual, it recedes from consciousness. However, such activities can be brought into consciousness either just as a suggestion and a volition; or as a ‘debugging’ process – if you trip, you immediately become conscious of the process of walking and take steps to avoid what made you trip.

The most obvious component of thinking and memory involves imagery or inner speech – when we compare input events [perception and imagery] with output [action] and mediating events [thought and memory], it is the input that seems most clearly conscious. Inner speech is one of the most important modes of experience. Most of us go around the world talking to ourselves, though we may be reluctant to do so out loud. We may be so accustomed to the inner voice that we are no longer aware of its existence ‘metacognitively’……the inner voice maintains a running commentary, making judgements about our experiences, feelings and relationships with others; it comments on past events and helps to make plans for the future. While there is considerable speculation that inner speech becomes automatic with practice, Baar reminds us that there are no studies that support this proposition directly. This is a gap in the scientific literature.

However, Redundancy Effects show that we generally lose consciousness of repeated and predictable events. There is no question, says Baar, that the operant conditioning of Central Nervous System activity occurs and is in fact, it is so ubiquitous a phenomenon that there seems to be no form of CNS activity [single-unit, evoked potential, or EEG] or part of the brain that is immune to it. We lose consciousness of the details of riding [a bicycle] even as we gain efficiency and availability of the skill. The more predictable, automatic, and unconscious a task becomes, the less it will degrade, and the less it will interfere with the other task as well There are reasons to believe that conscious access to concepts becomes less conscious with practice and predictability. The idea that at any moment much more is going on that we can know.

The remarkable accuracy of recognition memory indicates that human beings have a prodigious capacity for storing the things we experience, without effort. The fact that people become unconscious of a repetitive or predictable stimulus does not mean that the stimulus has disappeared; it continues to be processed in the appropriate input system. One may say that the loss of consciousness of a predictable event ‘is’ the signal that the event has been learned completely.

Any highly practiced and automatic skill tends to become ‘modular’ – nonconscious, separate from other skills, and free from voluntary control. Any complex skill seems to combine many semi-autonomous specialized units. Nonconsciousness and proficiency tend to go together. Almost everything we do, we do better unconsciously than consciously. However, error detection becomes quite poor when some skill becomes automatic: the less conscious it is, the more difficult it is to monitor.

Consciousness is focused on mismatch, novelty, or ‘anti-habit’. Automatized skills can become conscious again when they encounter some unpredictable obstacle. Thus release from habituation is not dependent upon the energy of the stimulus: it is dependent upon a change in ‘information’, not a change in ‘energy’ as such. Or as Gregory Bateson has defined it, information is the difference that makes a difference. The existence of de-automatization is one reason to believe that consciousness may be involved in debugging automatic processes that run into difficulties.

We are conscious of only one ‘thing’ at a time and do not hold that thought very long, unless we attend to it. Attendance requires energy. Think, for example of attendance to blinking or breathing. These automatic systems soon lose their appeal to consciousness, unless we make a special effort.

Every conscious event is shaped by a number of enduring nonconscious systems which Baar calls ‘contexts’. He treats such context as a relatively enduring system that shapes conscious experience, access and control, without itself becoming conscious. Additionally, he suggests that we treat contexts as coalitions of unconscious specialized processors that are ‘already committed’ to a certain way of processing their information. Contexts can be thoughts of as information that the nervous system has [already] adapted to; it is the ground against which new events are defined. Consciousness always seems to favor novel and informative messages. But recognizing novelty requires an implicit comparison to the [status quo], the old knowledge that is represented contextually.

Thus, much of what happens to us is nonconscious, but influential. After we follow the process delineated by Hofstadter to develop a theory of meaning – e.g., an attitude towards the world formed into mental representations housed in memory. A ‘representation’ is a theoretical object that bears an abstract resemblance to something outside of itself. Thus, we create a representation [actually a multiplicity of representations that make up a theory] of the world, our ‘reality’ on data and inferences, almost all of which becomes nonconscious. The trouble with this is that organization tends to commit us to a particular way of doing and viewing things. Organization often creates rigidity.

If we are to use this information in a proactive way to help people with problems in living learn how to think differently, we will need to find a way to bring novelty, unpredictability or ‘the difference that makes a difference, into the system causing it to bring noncounscious information into consciousness. We will then need to help the client to attend to this information and seek to reconstruct the mental representations in a manner which [evokes action which] is more coherent with life. When we interfere with an automatic skill so that it become ‘de-automatized’, it will be more conscious and, in the process become slower and more serial as well.

Once a task has been practiced to the point of being automatic and unconscious, a person can no longer accurately estimate the number of steps in the task. Slowing the task and making it more subject to serial orientation allows the person to examine each task directly. Since they previously performed the task nonconsciously, people are much more willing than before to accept the false inference that they have performed poorly on the task, even when they have performed quite well. Obviously automaticy has its drawbacks. However, this drawback works to the advantage of the helper, in that it strengthens the suggestion that the process should be analyzed, and perhaps, replaced. Once one has a well worked-out algorithm for solving a particular problem, even if the solution is not particularly gratifying, it tends to remain. This means that people are willing to live less then satisfactory lives without examination, simply because the process of problem solving is well known. The main drawback, however, is the loss of flexibility in dealing with new situations.

‘It seems that the human mind has first to construct forms independently before we can find them in things …knowledge cannot spring from experience alone, but only from a comparison of the inventions of the intellect with observed facts.’ –Albert Einstein [1949]

Nonconscious context helps to shape the novel, conscious information. Our ability to learn any new information is critically dependent on prior, largely unconscious knowledge, since we use knowledge to build knowledge through analogy. Since our mental representation of the world is generally nonconscious, and since we have formed mental representations which suffice, but do not provide a basis upon which to effectively live in the world, it is unlikely that we will be able to construct new forms independently. Part of the helping process will be to help the client see the world differently. This is similar in process to what happens with an optical illusion. Since we can only hold one conscious perspective at time, we are unable to see the two images in the illusion at the same time. Once we have found one, we may find it difficult to see the other, unless or until, another person provides the construct which enables us to see.

If you view the picture below, what do you see? Most readers will see a picture of a man with a beard and leaves in his hair. Very few will see the other picture. In fact, until you are given a construct to look for, most will not even be able to understand that there is another picture.

However, just telling you that there is a young man and a young woman kissing, may not even be enough. Grasping a new way of looking at the world is difficult. You may need to know that the eyes and nose are the faces, and the beard is the draping cape and dress, and that the caps are represented by the eyebrow area.

Conscious processes have limited capacity, but unconscious processors, taken together, have very great capacity. Conscious processes are computational inefficient; they are relatively slow, awkward and prone to error. But they involve an unlimited range of possible contents; any two conscious contents can be related to each other; and conscious contents are also profoundly shaped by unconscious contextual factors. Conscious experiences appear to be internally consistent; different ones appear serially; and there are rather narrow limits on our capacity to perform tasks that have conscious components.

Consciousness is reserved for just those problems that cannot be solved by any expert context processor acting alone. Once the mind has comprehended both the man with leaves in his hair and the young lovers, it is able to perceive either at will. But until the images are both nonconscious, you must work consciously to find the one that is hidden. This is true of client change as well.

There is good evidence, Baar points out, that we can gain a degree of conscious control over virtually any population of neurons, provided that we receive immediate conscious feedback from the neural activity. Conscious feedback can be used to gain a degree of voluntary control over essentially any neural event. With conscious feedback people can gain at least temporary control over an extremely wide range of physiological activities. Consciousness is characterized by at least two primary properties — conscious contents are coherent and globally distributed.

Attitudes may last a lifetime, and attitudes surely must affect one’s conscious thoughts, images and feelings.

To summarize, conscious processes are computationally inefficient, but to have great range, relational capacity and context-sensitivity. Further, conscious events have apparent internal consistency, seriality and limited capacity. In contrast to all these aspects of conscious functioning, nonconscious processors are highly efficient in their specialized tasks, have relatively limited domains, are relatively isolated and autonomous, highly diverse and capable of contradicting each other; they can operate in parallel and taken together, unconscious processors have very great capacity.

There is a remarkable match between these contrasts and a system architecture used in some artificial intelligence applications, called a ‘global workspace in a distributed system of specialized processors’. This organization can be compared to a very large committee of experts, each speaking in his or her specialized jargon, who can communicate with each other through some ‘global broadcasting’ device.

In the final analysis, not only do we create reality from a random process, we rely heavily on a ‘vote’ from neurons and specialized processors to help us make decisions about how to react to that reality. Little wonder that some of us fail to find serenity in living. However, there is solace in the fact that reality is created by a ‘vote’ of all other human beings as well. If someone were to claim an utterly bizarre illusory experience that was not shared by other observers, that fact would be instantly recognized. It is the shaping of individuals through a process of socialization which creates the reality in which we live. And the uncertainty of ambiguity is increased as the culture [local reality] breaks down.

We will explore the meaning of these theoretical principles as apply to practice as we move forward. However, if the reader wants to explore further the theoretical underpinnings, particularly those connecting to the biological status of cognition and learned behavior, two further works might be suggested. The first is concerned with the holographic brain and is outlined in a book by Paul Pietsch called Shufflebrain. The second, I found in Oliver Sacks’ article A New Vision of the Mind. In it he suggested that new theories arise from a crisis in scientific understanding, which virtually excludes the concepts of ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’. The new vision that he reports on is a theory developed by Gerald Edelman with his colleagues at the Neurosciences Institute at Rockefeller University. This biological theory of the mind, which he calls neural Darwinism, or the Theory of Neuronal Group Selection [TNGS], serves quite well as the underpinnings for the management of cognitive behavior.

A companion article by Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi called ‘Neural Darwinism; the brain as a selectional system’ is available to outline the scientific details of the theory and the biological bases of psychological phenomena, which is not necessary for the average reader. Both articles, however, can be found in NATURE’S IMAGINATION, edited by John Cornwell and published by the Oxford University Press in 1955.