This free Information Age Education
is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken
Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age
All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online
In addition, four free books
based on the newsletters are
available: Understanding and
Mastering Complexity; Consciousness
and Morality: Recent
Research Developments; Creating
an Appropriate 21st Century Education;
and Common Core State
Standards for Education in
Education for Students’ Futures
Part 11: Conscious and Unconscious Response–
A Cognitive Neuroscientist’s Perspective
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
The IAE Newsletter
regularly reported on the scientific developments in consciousness. It
recently compiled its published articles into a free downloadable book,
Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments
(2013). Research activity continues unabated on what may be the most
significant mystery remaining in the neurosciences, a mystery that's
perhaps finally approaching a basic solution. This article and the next
two are from the perspectives of a renowned cognitive neuroscientist, a
renowned theoretical physicist, and a young man who plans to pursue a
career in interactive technology.
Before you go any further, watch this fascinating three-minute video of
a bird that must follow eight separate steps in order to solve the
problem of getting a stick that's sufficiently long enough to retrieve
some food. Then ask yourself if the bird's behavior approaches the
level of a rationally conscious response. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVaITA7eBZE
What's the point of consciousness? The brain-wide information sharing
system that now seems to define consciousness allows relevant cortical
and subcortical systems to interact before agreeing to one
interpretation of an event. This shared decisional system within a
single brain could also help us to understand how groups of brains
might also democratically solve complex cultural issues. It also makes
it possible to finally consider the possibility of machine
consciousness a couple of thousand years after Socrates suggested how
important it was to "know thyself."
In his recent highly acclaimed book, Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts
(2014), the world-renowned neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene analyzed
and reported on the consciousness research that his and other
laboratories carried out. Dehaene believes that advanced research
technologies during the past 20 years now allow neuroscientists to
finally free themselves from the concept of a disembodied consciousness
and to strongly support the existence of brain correlates, which are
probably centered in our brain's dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, but
are then connected with most other brain systems (Dehaene, p. 101).
To paraphrase Dehaene: The previous black box of consciousness is now
open. Thanks to a variety of experimental paradigms, scientists have
learned how to make pictures visible or invisible, and then to track
the patterns of neuronal activity that occur only when conscious access
exists. Understanding how our brain handles seen and unseen images has
turned out to be not as difficult as initially feared. Many
electrophysiological signatures have manifested the presence of a
conscious ignition. These signatures of consciousness have proved solid
enough that they are now being used in clinics to probe consciousness
in patients who have massive brain lesions. What's wonderful is the
realization of how far the search for discovery has now gone.
Three significant factors that drive this new development are: (1) the
emergence of a better definition of consciousness, (2) the realization
that consciousness can now be credibly studied, and (3) an increased
understanding of and respect for the nature of subjective phenomena.
The quantity and quality of the research Dehaene describes is very
impressive, a major step forward. His book requires a basic
understanding of brain systems and research procedures, but at that
level it is clearly and impressively written.
The Unconscious Mind
We're only conscious of our conscious thoughts. Outside of research
labs we're unaware of our unconscious operations, so we tend to
overestimate the role that consciousness plays in our physical and
mental lives. Dehaene believes that the research credibly indicates
that our brain contains unconscious systems that constantly monitor our
environment and assign values that guide our attention and thus shape
much of our behavior. The initially meaningless incoming stimuli become
a set of opportunities that in parallel are carefully and unconsciously
sorted according to their relevance to current goals. Only the most
relevant stimuli draw enough attention to enter into consciousness.
Below that level unconscious systems ceaselessly and statistically
evaluate probabilities. Much of our attention thus operates largely in
a subliminal manner. Think of TV weather forecasters who combine a
myriad of unconscious statistical observations before they consciously
and briefly predict weather probabilities during the next few days.
In another recent acclaimed book, Thinking, Fast and Slow
Daniel Kahneman also makes the similar significant point that much
human decision making is automatic, reflexive (Kahneman, 2013).
The Conscious Mind
We're not zombies that only function unconsciously. Consciousness
is an evolved property that emerged because it usefully fulfills
specialized processes that an unconscious mind can't perform alone.
Since most inputs into our brain are initially suppressed,
consciousness includes the need to be awake, vigilant, and to have a
specific attentive focus (all of which Dehaene suggests have both
unconscious and conscious elements). Since we can simultaneously consciously deal
with only a few inputs at most, the determination of the significant
and insignificant is important.
The concept of conscious access is the central element in our
understanding of consciousness in that at least some of the information
that we specifically attend to must eventually reach cognitive levels
that allow us to report our thoughts to others. Being awake and
attentive aren't enough. Conscious access implies a sense of self, the
“I” who is interpreting and commenting on the results of conscious
Research laboratories can now use advanced imaging technologies that
will activate only if the subject is having a conscious experience. For
example, specific remarkably stable bursts of high level neuronal
activity (that Dehaene calls signatures of consciousness) change
massively and predictably regardless of the sensory input that
activated the conscious experience.
Dehaene and his collaborators further theorize the concept of a global
neuronal workspace that begins in the frontal lobes but is widely
distributed throughout our brain. It identifies potentially relevant
information from the vast number of sensory inputs from within and
without our body. Consciousness is the evolved system that allows us to
keep information in mind within our brain's global workspace (but
detached from the external world) while we decide how best to respond
to it. It's closely related to what other cognitive neuroscientists
call our working brain.
Dehaene relates this reductive element of consciousness to the
spokesperson of a large organization who reduces the complexity of an
issue to a simple non-technical announcement that expresses its
substance. The global workspace thus maintains conscious thought that
it can incorporate into understanding past and current events and
making future plans. The philosopher Daniel Dennett wryly calls such
increased activity in the global workspace as "fame in the brain."
Beginnings and Endings
Various maternal hormones sedate a preconscious fetus. Birth
triggers a massive surge of stress hormones and neuronal stimulations
that activate the various systems that regulate consciousness.
Conscious behavior begins slowly and sluggishly, developing over a
20-year period, as parents and educators well know. Delivery is thus
the genuine birth of a conscious mind.
Illness and accidents can result in conditions that adversely affect
conscious capabilities. Schizophrenia, dementia, coma, and vegetative
states are examples. Dehaene is optimistic that the direction of
current research and clinical intervention will help many whose
conscious capabilities are now limited.
Animals and Machines
Mammals and many species of birds seem to have the neurobiology
necessary for a global workspace and thus for reflexive and conscious
response. Many also have metacognitive capabilities (the ability to
know the limits of one's knowledge). The difference between human and
animal consciousness probably exists within our capabilities with
articulate language and theory of mind (to be able to represent and
reason about what others think). On the other hand, the ability of such
tiny social animals as ants and bees to function effectively within
their societies and environments suggests that the concept of
consciousness itself might need to be reconsidered.
That issue might also refer to the concept of machine consciousness.
Dehaene suggests that in principle, he sees no reason why machines
couldn't have some form of consciousness.
As a social species, we have a tribal tendency to adopt the conscious
beliefs of others. We thus tend to develop cultural beliefs either by
conscious choice or by default (such as accepting parental beliefs) and
so we often allow such organizations as religions and political parties
to influence our thinking through their biased basic perspectives. In
effect, they do our preliminary thinking. Is this any different than
accepting the opinions of newspaper columnists or TV pundits? How
socially-driven human beliefs relate to machine consciousness provides
an intriguing problem, one that the next two articles will explore.
Our understanding of the field of consciousness is thus growing
rapidly, but so are the questions about it. See, for example, the
work of David Chalmers (3/19/2014).
Chalmers, D. (3/19/2014). The hard problem of consciousness. David Chalmers at TED2014. (18:37 video.) Retrieved 7/19/2014 from http://blog.ted.com/2014/03/19/the-hard-problem-of-consciousness-david-chalmers-at-ted2014/.
Dehaene, S. (2014). Consciousness and the brain: Deciphering how the brain codes our thoughts. New York: Penguin. See a review of the book at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3971003/.
Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. A synthesis of the book is available at http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2012-89.html.
Sylwester, R., & Moursund, D., eds. (2013). Consciousness and morality: Recent research developments. Eugene OR: Information Age Education. Microsoft Word file available at http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/252-consciousness-and-morality-recent-research-developments.html and PDF file available at http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/251-consciousness-and-morality-recent-research-developments.html.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit three books for IAE (http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Newsletter). He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and
discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please
click the Login link below and sign in.
If you have
questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help
Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated
to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world.
Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at