Information Age Education
   Issue Number 142
July, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

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 America.

Education for Students’ Futures
Part 11: Conscious and Unconscious Response–
A Cognitive Neuroscientist’s Perspective

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

The IAE Newsletter has 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.

Consciousness

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 experience.

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).

References

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.


Author

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: bobsyl@uoregon.edu.

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About Information Age Education, Inc.

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 http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading.