Consciousness and the Association for Psychology Science (APS) Keynote Address

I need to preface this blog post with an overview of the status of the concept of consciousness in psychological science. Today the prevalent view seems to be that consciousness is an epiphenomenon. That is, it is unneeded, because all our actions are determined before they enter consciousness. This flies in the face of common sense, because our “folk psychology” believes that our consciousness, our minds, determine what we do. Although there might be factors of which we are unaware, nevertheless we are in charge.

Obviously psychologists who practice “talk” therapy do not subscribe to this, but many academics in the more scientific areas of psychology do. The reader should also understand that for a large portion of the twentieth century behaviorism was the dominant methodology of experimental psychology, and behaviorism focused on behavior and speculation about thinking and the mind was prohibited. Although cognitive psychology emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century, it was still wary of speaking of a homunculus in the head, and the role of consciousness, if any, remained ill-defined.

Gazzaniga‘s Keynote Address was titled “Unity in a Modular World.” He was speaking of the brain consisting of modules performing different functions, and interacting and reorganizing themselves. It reminded me of Minsky’s “The Society of Mind,” except that Minsky was not writing about modules and Gazzaniga was certainly not talking about the mind. He gave examples of how these modules cued each other. He had videos of some of his split brain subjects. When told to do something with the hand controlled by the hemisphere that understood the instruction, the hand was able to do it. However, the hand controlled by the other hemisphere was not able to execute the function without looking at how the hand that had performed the function and then mimicking it. He also showed video of an orchestra performing without a conductor, the message being there is no one in control of our minds. This demonstration would have been more compelling if it were followed by a series of orchestras firing their conductors.

I found Gazzaniga’s address disappointing because someone of his stature could make a strong statement about consciousness, but he didn’t. I think scientific psychology is falling behind the times. Just last year the neurosciences made a statement that on the basis of the necessary brain structures, all mammals, birds, and octupi were conscious (See the healthymemory blog post, “Consciousness in Both Human and Non-Human Animals). A reasonable view is that consciousness is a phenomenon that emerges when the nervous system reaches a certain degree of complexity. That is, consciousness is an emergent phenomenon that has emerged with a purpose, to manage a highly complex nervous system.

Fortunately, there was a later presentation by Edwin Locke of the University of Maryland, “Whatever Happened to the Consciousness Mind.” For Locke, the existence and function of consciousness is an axiom that needs no proof. This is similar to Descarte‘s “I think, therefore I am.” But this implies Cartesian Dualism, which is out of favor in philosophy and psychology. This is unfortunate as it ignores both common sense and contradictory evidence. Meditation can have profound effects on the body. It can allow the regulation of the autonomic nervous system, a capability that I was taught didn’t exist as a graduate student in spite of the existence of meditators who were able to do control their autonomic nervous systems,

I think this shows the immaturity of academic psychology. This period is analogous to the imperious reign of behaviorism. But for cognitive psychology to advance it must embrace the concept of mind and how the mind can affect behavior.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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One Response to “Consciousness and the Association for Psychology Science (APS) Keynote Address”

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