Tag Archives: defining consciousness

My Biggest Pet Peeve in Consciousness Research


Boy was I excited to read that new Nature paper where scientists report experimentally inducing lucid dreaming in people. Pretty cool, right? But then right in the abstract I run across my biggest pet peeve whenever people use the dreaded c-word: blatant terminological inconsistency. Not just an inconsistency across different papers, or buried in a footnote, but between a title and an abstract and within the abstract itself. Consider the title of the paper:

Induction of self awareness in dreams through frontal low current stimulation of gamma activity

The term “self-awareness” makes sense here because if normal dream awareness is environmentally-decoupled 1st order awareness than lucid dreaming is a 2nd order awareness because you become meta-aware of the fact that you are first-order dream-aware. So far so good. Now consider the abstract:

 Recent findings link fronto-temporal gamma electroencephalographic (EEG) activity to conscious awareness in dreams, but a causal relationship has not yet been established. We found that current stimulation in the lower gamma band during REM sleep influences ongoing brain activity and induces self-reflective awareness in dreams. Other stimulation frequencies were not effective, suggesting that higher order consciousness is indeed related to synchronous oscillations around 25 and 40 Hz.

Gah! What a confusing mess of conflicting concepts. The title says “self-awareness” but the first sentence talks instead about “conscious awareness”. It’s an elementary mistake to confuse consciousness with self-consciousness, or at least to conflate them without making an immediate qualification of why you are violating standard practice in so doing. While there are certainly theorists out there who are skeptical about the very idea of “1st order” awareness being cleanly demaracted from “2nd order” awareness (Dan Dennett comes to mind), it goes without saying this is a highly controversial position that cannot just be assumed without begging the question. Immediate red flag.

The first sentence also references previous findings about the neural correlates of “conscious awareness” being linked to specific gamma frequencies of neural activity in fronto-temporal networks. The authors say though that correlation is not causation. The next sentence then makes us believe the study will provide that missing causal evidence about conscious awareness and gamma frequencies.

Yet the authors don’t say that. What they say instead is that they’ve found evidence that gamma frequencies are linked to “self-reflective awareness” and “higher-order consciousness”, which are again are theoretically distinct concepts than “conscious awareness” unless you are pretheoretically committed to a kind of higher-order theory of consciousness. But even that wouldn’t be quite right because on, e.g. Rosenthal’s HOT theory, a higher-order thought would give rise to first-order awareness not lucid dreaming, which is about self-awareness. On higher-order views, you would technically need a 3rd order awareness to count as lucid dreaming.

So please, if you are writing about consciousness, remember that consciousness is distinct from self-consciousness and keep your terms straight.


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Filed under Academia, Consciousness, Random

Quote of the Day 8-21-12, "Defining consciousness"

“There is no term [consciousness] at once so popular and so devoid of standard meaning. How can a term mean anything when it is employed to connote anything and everything, including its own negation? One hears of the object of consciousness and the subject of consciousness, and the union of the two in self-consciousness; of the private consciousness, the social consciousness, and the transcendental consciousness; the inner and the outer, the higher and the lower, the temporal and the eternal consciousness; the activity and the state of consciousness. Then there is consciousness-stuff, and the unconscious consciousness…, and unconscious physical states or subconsciousnss…The list is not complete, but sufficiently amazing. Consciousness comprises everything that is, and indefinitely much more. It is small wonder that the definition of it is little attempted.” ~ psychologist Ralph Barton Perry, 1904, quoted in William Calvin’s The Cerebral Symphony

I’d say that 100 years later the term “consciousness” is still devoid of standard meaning. Some people define it in terms of what-it-is-likeness, others define it in terms of introspection and meta-awareness, and others collapse the distinction between what-it-is-likeness and meta-awareness. Some think consciousness is primitive and shared with all mammals, others thinks its the reserve of apes and humans. For some it is a synonym of “awareness” and others it is a synonym of “self-awareness”. Some just want to abandon the term altogether. Personally, I like the definition of consciousness as an introspective or reflective operation, since I think this is in accord with its original connotation in English. Also, to define it in terms of awareness or what-it-is-likeness is hopeless given those terms are just in need of definition as consciousness itself. Adopting the introspective definition is the only way to ground the meaning of consciousness in terms other than itself or our own introspection of it (which is fraught with difficulties given the methodological limitations of introspection).


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy