This blog post is another in the series inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 That book presents a table contrasting the way the brain once was regarded, the way it is presently regarded, and some conjectures about what tomorrow might hold. According to Brave New Brain in the past, consciousness was regarded as a mystery. Today, consciousness is regarded as a mystery. And in the future, consciousness will still be regarded as a mystery. I strongly agree with the assessment and with the prediction. The most that can be said about consciousness is that it is an emergent phenomenon. That is, it is a byproduct that emerges from the complex operations of our brain. But this is not an explanation. All it says it that it just happens.

There is also the question as to what is the role of consciousness. Some would argue that consciousness is epiphenomenal, that it does not play a causal role, that causation occurs below the level of consciousness, and that we are just along for the ride. Although one can make this argument, it does not provide a pragmatic view. If you live your life simply taking what comes along and not playing an active role, the results will likely be disappointing. To the extent possible, you want to use your consciousness to some end, to achieve outcomes that are desirable.

We know that effective learning requires conscious attention. Although there are accounts of scientific discoveries apparently occurring out of thin air when the individual was sleeping or musing about something else, it has always been the case that the scientist had spent countless hours working on the problem previously. I’m sure there are similar accounts in other cognitive endeavors. I frequently have the experience of after having failed to remember an item, that I will recall it at some later time when I was not thinking of it. However, in all cases I had spent considerable conscious effort trying to recall the item earlier. Presumably my unconscious mind continued to try to recall the information after I abandoned my consciousness effort. Nevertheless, it was the previous conscious activity that apparently initiated this unconscious effort.

Predictions have been made that in the future we shall be able to download information directly from computers and the internet into our brains. First of all, before this information could be transformed into a format usable by our brains, enormous advances would need to be made in brain science. But suppose this problem is solved, what would that mean? Unfortunately I purchase many publications that I never get around to reading. In the lingo of the Healthymemory Blog, this is information in potential transactive memory that I have made available. What is the difference between this and information that might be downloaded directly into my brain. I need to read the material consciously before I can understand the information and relate it to other information I have processed.

So the big question for the future is whether consciousness can be expanded. Can we learn how to expand our short term and working memory capacity? To do so, we need to have a thorough understanding of consciousness. And the prospects for such an understanding developing are dim.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San Francisco” Jossey-Bass.

 © Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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