New paper published: Consciousness, Plasticity, and Connectomics

The paper I co-authored with Micah Allen is finally out! It is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology (special topic issue on neuralplasticity and consciousness in the subsection Frontiers in Consciousness Research). Download it for free here:

Consciousness, Plasticity, and Connectomics: The Role of Intersubjectivity in Human Cognition

The paper is a hypothesis and theory article, meaning that we develop a new operational definition of consciousness in addition to postulating novel hypotheses about the neural substrate of consciousness. The paper is a synthesis of diverse research traditions in the field of consciousness studies. We borrow equally from sensorimotor enactivists like Alva Noe and Evan Thompson,”Global workspace” theorists like Bernard Baars, higher-order theorists like Rosenthal, Lycan, and Armstrong, social-constructivists in the tradition of Vygotsky, and recent developments in the study of “mind wandering” or “meta-awareness” in the cognitive neurosciences. We take the best of all approaches and discard the worst.

How is this paper different from all the other articles on consciousness being published today? Besides our novel theoretical synthesis of diverse research traditions, we also take the time to map out a comprehensive mental taxonomy based on both phenomenological and empirical evidence. We also take the time to define exactly what we mean by the term “consciousness”. Our most basic idea is that there is a difference between prereflective and reflective consciousness. We claim that almost all animal are restricted to prereflective consciousness whereas language-using adult humans are capable of this mentality plus reflective consciousness. Here is a table showing the qualitative differences between prereflective and reflective consciousness:


(click for full image)

We contend that we prevailing theoretical spectrum in consciousness studies has often conflated these two phenomena and/or focused on one at the expensive of the other. For example, we think that the Higher-order Representation (HOR) theorists have been trying to use reflective consciousness to explain prereflective consciousness, the “what-it-is-like” of an organism. In contrast to the higher-order theorists, we think that there are phenomenal feels (“what-is-is-likeness” or “qualia”) independently of whether there are any higher-order representations active in the brain. So although the HOR people are definitely on the right track insofar as they are interested in meta-awareness (rather than just awareness), we think they have been barking up the wrong tree by explaining “what-it-is-likeness” in terms of HORs.Micah and I contend that what-is-is-likeness is shared by all living organisms insofar as they have organized and unitary bodies. This mind-in-life thesis is taken directly from the enactivist sensorimotor tradition.

However, in contrast to the enactivist tradition, we don’t think that sensorimotor connectivity exhausts the phenomena of consciousness. In fact, we believe that an over emphasis on embodied sensorimotor connectivity is likely to overlook or downplay the significance of reflective consciousness, which we argue is grounded by language and learned through exposure to narrative practice in childhood. We contend that HORs, although not the origin of what-it-is-likeness, do significantly change the phenomenal quality of what-it-is-likeness, giving rise to new forms of narratological subjectivity. As I mentioned in a previous post , there is good reason to believe that reflective consciousness gives rise to entirely new forms of phenomenal feeling such as sensory quales (e.g. the experience of gazing at a pure red patch). Conscious pain itself could plausibly be seen a side-effect of reflective consciousness feeding back into prereflective consciousness, allowing for conscious suffering (meta-awareness of pain). In this respect, we think that the HOR theorists are perfectly right to insist that meta-awareness or meta-consciousness of lower-order mental states allows for the emergence of special forms of subjectivity. However, we side with HOR theorists like Peter Carruthers (and against van Gulick) in arguing that this meta-consciousness is not widespread in the animal kingdom, and is perhaps restricted only to those animals capable of language. As Andy Clark says,

“[T]hinking about thinking” is a good candidate for a distinctively human capacity – one not evidently shared by the non-language using animals that share our planet. Thus, it is natural to wonder whether this might be an entire species of thought in which language plays the generative role – a species of thought that is not just reflected in (or extended by) our use of words but is directly dependent on language for its very existence. (1997, p. 209)

So the philosophical significance of our paper lies in our synthesis of Higher-order Representationalism and sensorimotor theorists of consciousness. Moreover, we synthesize HOR theory with Global Workspace Theory and Dan Hutto’s Narrative Practice Hypothesis, which emphasizes the importance of embodied narrative learning as the substrate for complex folk psychological attitudes and social cognitive processing.

But this is just the philosophical significance of the paper. There is also empirical significance. Micah developed a novel understanding of the “Default Mode Network” and synthesized a great deal of current data in the cognitive neurosciences in terms of our distinction between prereflective and reflective consciousness. The devil is in the details here, so I highly recommend reading the paper for a full overview of the empirical novelty of our paper. Needless to say, we feel like our paper marks a theoretical breakthrough on both philosophical and empirical fronts. Our theory of consciousness is complex and multifaceted, which is appropriate given the target of what we are trying to explain.



Filed under Consciousness

3 responses to “New paper published: Consciousness, Plasticity, and Connectomics

  1. Vic Panzica

    I really enjoyed your paper. Excellent writing. All of that “intersubjective” which forms our conscious being and culture kept me thinking of Ruth Benedict’s “Patterns of Culture”.

  2. Pingback: On the idea of massive modularity, or, coming around to computationalism | Minds and Brains

  3. Really interesting post and paper, thanks a lot for it, I like a lot reading about the self, consciousness and neuroscience, dough I am an AI researcher, here is one post (of several) you might find interesting of my blog that deals with sel-awareness, and thinking about ourself, dough the meta-idea of thinking about thinking it is not exactly the same:
    Hope to hear from you soon

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