Adding A Few More Bricks To The House of Consciousness

The fundamental insight about consciousness that conflicted so heavily with Tor Norretranders in my last post could be summarized as follows: the mind cannot be easily divided into “conscious” and “nonconscious” because in truth these are connected in a continuum. Iain McGhilchrist refers to a “hierarchy of attention” where David Gelernter talks of a “continuous spectrum” of “mental focus.” Gelernter’s stupendous book “The Muse In The Machine” is devoted entirely to this point:

“Here is my argument. Human thought is laid out in a continuous spectrum. Every human mind is a spectrum; every human mind possesses a broad continuous range of different ways in which to think. The way in which a person happens to be thinking at any given moment depends on a characteristic I’ll call ‘mental focus.’ Focus can be high or low or medium; it changes throughout the day, not because the thinker consciously changes it, as he might consciously raise his arm, but in subliminal response to his physiological state as a whole. Fatigue…makes focus go lower. Wide-awakeness makes it go higher.”

Gelernter continues by stressing that the dichotomy between right-brain thinking and left-brain thinking, or reason and intuition, or convergent versus divergent thinking, and so forth entirely misses the point. “Mine is a story of continuity: of one cognitive style unfolding smoothly into another. What the dichotomists miss is merely the crux of the matter: that these two styles are connected; that a spectrum joins them, a spectrum that runs in one continuous, subtly graded arc, from the intense violet of logical analysis all the way downward into the soft slow red of sleep.”

Norretranders completely misses the truth in the following quote from Coleridge: “Fancy is blended and modified by choice.” Our conscious thought affects our unconscious or low-spectrum thought, and vice verca; it is not a one-way affair. Tor misses much of the subtlety of consciousness and concludes that if its not obviously on the scene, unconsciousness rules. He would have us believe that when driving, for example, we are either totally conscious of driving or completely running on unconscious “autopilot.” Whereas “Dennet points out (1991) that we shouldn’t imagine driving to be carried out ‘unconsciously’ under these circumstances…that it’s merely absorbing a lowered level of attention,” Gelernter reminds us. Tor has failed to account for the “cocktail party effect” of Keele (1973), where “the minimal levels of mental attention devoted to the peripheral conversation were sufficient to grab your attention when something really interesting (like your name) cropped up. By the same token, an unusual event as you are driving or shaving would grab your attention and redirect it,” Gelernter writes. That is, consciousness is still on the scene, but minimally. When we are distracted by a daydream while driving, we are more accurately described as being at medium-focus, Gelernter says, and continues by suggesting that “Psychoanalysts cultivate this medium level of focus–asking to be knocked over by an association or an insight, but primed to leap immediately to their feet again and retake control.” Notice that these analysts are consciously “asking to be knocked over”; that is, they are consciously primed both for insight and to retaking control. Finally, Gelernter puts Norretranders’ project of “cutting consciousness down to size” into perspective by correctly pointing out that “human cognition has been cut down to computer-like size. The computer is the Procrustean bed of modern thought science.”

Gelernter succeeds in showing that artificial intelligence research has narrowed its definition of intelligence to only the high end of the spectrum–to high-focus, rational thought–and that it will always fail so long as it ignores everything on the lower end of the spectrum, especially emotions, which are traditionally opposed to thought as if the two were at war (thanks a lot Plato!). Instead, Gelernter affirms Marvin Minsky’s view that “our culture wrongly teaches us that thoughts and feelings lie in almost separate worlds. In fact, they’re always intertwined”; that “We’ll propose to regard emotions not as separate from thoughts in general, but as varieties or types of thought.” The same sentiment is expressed by R. B. Zajonc, who writes that “…in nearly all cases,….feeling is not free of thought, nor is thought free of feeling,” a perspective also espoused by Hofstadter (1981). Gelernter tells us that “an emotion serves as a kind of ‘abstraction’ of a thought or memory,” a “content-transcending abstraction.” Of course, modern science is slow to pick up on truths that philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche have known all along: for example that we don’t think only with our brains but also with our bodies. Ironically, Gelernter unwittingly inverts a clever metaphor that Schopenhauer enjoyed using when he asserts that “a violin uses its strings to produce sound; but take away the sounding board–the instrument’s bridge and its body–and the sound you wind up with is a thin parody of the real thing.”

I am immensely indebted to Gelernter’s insightful work, but wish to add one point to his analysis of creativity. He points out three key facts about creativity that get in the way of scientists trying to “cut it down to size:” creativity comes from 1) “the linking of ideas that are seemingly unrelated,” 2) “as a bolt out of the blue,” and 3) not concentrating hard or “putting your mind to it.” It is this last point that needs a little clarifying. Gelernter simply gets a little overzealous when he says that, in terms of creativity, “hard work does not pay” because his thesis is about the importance of low-end thinking (which doesn’t feel like hard work of course). He parsimoniously rejects Andy Clark’s theory that “unanticipated similarities…are discovered because of cognitive glitches that allow pieces of separate but similar memories to be accidentally mixed up,” because he finds it unlikely that such dissimilar memories would be stored so close together in the brain and because insights feel like a wave of clarity, not a wave of confusion or an unanticipated “glitch.” However, he is being too hasty with this dismissal and fails to see a potential convergence of his perspective with Clark’s because of his emphatic allegiance to fact #3.

On the next page after he articulates his three facts, Gelernter discusses an example that Penrose uses that should drive my point home. Penrose investigates the example of Poincare, who had a mathematical insight while casually boarding a bus: “This complicated and profound idea apparently came to Poincare in a flash, while his conscious thoughts seemed to be quite elsewhere.” Now, I pointed out in my last post that fact #2 is a little disingenuous, so I will not belabor the point further except to point out the obvious fact that this is a case of a mathematician having a mathematical insight; that the insight didn’t come from too far “out of the blue” at all. Here is the point I would like to add: although Poincare’s “conscious thoughts seemed to be quite elsewhere,” they most certainly were conscious and on the scene, which could explain Clark’s “glitch” without requiring the dissimilar memories to be stored near each other in the brain. Moreover, this is accomplished because of consciousness! Gelernter concludes that “Penrose, the distinguished and highly creative physicist, doesn’t achieve inspiration by concentrating. He achieves it when he is relaxing, when he is precisely unconcentrating.”  Ignoring the point that Penrose’s inspired thoughts are precisely about physics, and thus obviously benefit from the decades of conscious thought he has invested in the topic, we can see also that consciousness is the bridge between the seemingly unrelated memories or ideas! These don’t need to be side-by-side in the brain tissue for one of Clark’s “glitches” to combine them into a novel analogy. Consciousness acts as an unintentional probe, with its high-focus beam passing through swaths of brain tissue that would never intentionally be associated with the question in the back of Penrose’ mind. Poincare’s conscious thoughts were not circling the problem in the back of his mind, but they were probably necessary for such an unusual connection of memories or ideas to have taken place. When writers suggest that insight does not involve consciousness or concentration, they are simply mistaking these things for intention. The consciousness or concentration that was on the scene was not intentionally trying to merry two dissimilar memories or ideas, but it was certainly necessary for such a marriage to take place!

When Wordsworth talks about insight and describes “that happy stillness of the mind which fits him to receive it when unsought,” he should have added the parenthetical “at the time, that is.” He most certainly was seeking poetic insights his whole life long, consciously, but you can’t force insight to emerge immediately from stints of concerted effort or conscious willpower. The insights will emerge later, when the poet is not willing them to come intentionally, but this hardly shows that conscious, high-end thought was unnecessary for insight! It just shows that intentional concentration on the problem is unnecessary at the time of the “eureka moment.” I simply wanted to show that 1) it was necessary well before the insight, and 2) that it was even necessary at the time of the insight, though it was not intentionally directed at the problem whose solution was produced in the insight. Gelernter is trying to balance the mind sciences, which have swung to one end of the pendulum, but accidentally makes his case too emphatically on this particular point, pushing the pendulum just off of a perfect balance. However, I am sure that he would appreciate someone pointing out yet another example of his fundamental thesis about reason and intuition, conscious thought and unconscious thought: that “these two styles are connected“….”one cognitive style unfolding smoothly into another.”

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5 Responses to Adding A Few More Bricks To The House of Consciousness

  1. Felipe says:

    hopefully my breakfast will digest alright after trying to absorb all this information.
    Anyway, one suggestion, break down the article, might make it more comment friendly, if thats the idea. If you just want to publish your writing, then keep it like this.

    About the article:

    I my point of view, subconcious and concious are connected within the realms of its owner.
    Awareness, brings the subconcious to the concious level, at the different states and levels of it.
    Driving the same route everyday will move your actions to the subconcious levels as it is a repetitive task and your body has created an auto mode. Changing the route will force the action to be more concious. Thus why changes in life are sugested for a “slower” movement of time.
    When we feel that time has gone fast, is not really the time that has changed, but our awareness towards our daily tasks and “auto” mode.

    I also believe many people choose unconsciously not to believe that the unconscious drive our lives. They choose to live in superficial state of mind, as the subconscious understanding need much more effort and time then their daily activities of work and driving.

    Not as structured as your thoughts, but something…

    • Felipe! Good to hear from ya brother! I couldn’t agree more actually. I only have a small disagreement. You are certainly right about many people denying the influence of the unconscious in their lives, but once an individual has become conscious of the various features of his unconscious, I don’t think we should keep calling it the unconscious. Couldn’t agree more with everything else you said.

      Yeah, many wise people have given me this advice about making things more reader friendly. Unfortunately this blog is mostly just a means of me thinking out loud, so I am sort of reading it as I’m writing it and often choose not to edit much once I have figured out what the hell I was getting at the whole time. This is not too easy on my readers, but as this is a hobby and not a job, I have trouble justifying spending yet more time perfecting every sentence. This last post came out in a single one hour writing session and I read it over once, fell in love, and will only apply my critical mind to it in the morning…hopefully a lovers quarrel will not ensue!
      Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting. I’ll have some stuff up about Ken Wilbur in the not too distant future that might peak your interest. Take care man!

  2. Stefan King says:

    Good post, I like where you are going with this!

    As Allen Newell argued in 1973, “You can’t play twenty questions with nature and win,” sweeping aside approaches to cognition that have dichotomies such as serial/parallel, short-term/long-term etc. Most of these dichotomies have been subsumed in a research programs such as ACT-R that model complex tasks like driving and air traffic control to extraordinary detail. You really only understand how humans do something when you can make a computer do exactly the same thing, under the Bayesian constraints of human cognition. Terms like “intuition” and “left-brained” are just popular short-hands, not technical terms.

    That scale of focus between dreams and concentration is what psychologists call arousal. That governs that field of *attention*, but I don’t know about *consciousness*. You could be outflanked by a philosopher throwing a p-zombie- or “twin world”- at it.

    How focus and creativity relate, as the example of Poincare at the bus, is well-research in the “deliberate practice” studies of mastery, which yielded the popular 10.000 hours-rule.

    In short, what I’m curious about is whether anyone has already written a book about what all the technical depth of psychology research has says about “the problem of consciousness” as in philosophy of mind. Someone who has looked into the difference and similarity between *attention* and *consciousness* I hear the problem of consciousness is a really touch challenge, so a story about attention is probably not enough.

  3. Hey Stefan, thanks for the insightful comments. You are most certainly right that a story about attention is hardly adequate to the philosophical problems involved in consciousness, but I personally don’t take p-zombies and the like seriously at all. I side mostly with Dennett on the p-zombie question, though other criticisms are certainly relevant as well. In fact, its quite laughable how far philosophers can get with a scenario that is only “logically possible.” Someone needs to inform them that the “real” and the “truthful” do not always overlap. An argument whose conclusion follows from its premises without contradiction could be considered “true,” but the relevant question is whether those premises bear any resemblance to the physical reality we inhabit.

    Dennett seems to be one of the few philosophers to actually comb through a good deal of real scientific literature, but he is primarily a philosopher. I’ve never seen him spend much time on Ramachandran, for example, who is a treasure trove of scientific insight into the questions Dennett thinks about.

    I have an implicit theory of consciousness from both a philosophical and psychological angle that is essentially an elaborated combination of Ramachandran and Jaynes, (with a lot of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Gelernter, and Hofstadter thrown in) but I have to get it down on paper first before I can really scrutinize it. I think it gets around all of the silly philosophical obstacles currently bedeviling the field. In fact, it seems so promising that I am having trouble getting it down on paper as new insights seem to grow from it from new angles every time I try, which I don’t have the heart to prune or ignore. I guess we’ll see if my intellectual child is as cute as I think it is, haha.

    I think that there are plenty of authors who have attempted to synthesize psychological insights into a philosophical framework, and to be honest, I think most psychologists are carrying around a lot of unacknowledged philosophical baggage, but these authors always fail in my estimation…bending the psychological experiments to fit their philosophical worldview (this is no less true of the pure psychologists actually!). I thought Iain McGhilchrist got close though…really close. Please let me know if you find such an author who does better than someone like Norretranders.

  4. Pingback: A Solution To The Hard Problem Of Consciousness Pt 2 « Think On These Things

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