What is Consciousness Good For?

“What is Consciousness Good For?” is the third chapter in “Consciousness and the Brain Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts’” an outstanding book by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who is the Chair of Experimental Psychology at the College of France.   This is the fourth consecutive post on this important work.

After reading the immediately preceding post, one might well conclude that the answer is “good for nothing,” and you could find many psychologists and philosophers who would agree with this statement.  However, William James in his “Principles of Psychology” (1890) came to the following conclusion, “The particulars of the distribution of consciousness, so far as we known them, point to its being  efficacious.”  Dr. Dehaene has conducted the research on consciousness and the extension of this knowledge has led to a fairly conclusive statement that consciousness is essential to effective cognitive functioning.

Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments for the importance of consciousness can be found during anesthesia.  “The loss of consciousness is accompanied by a sudden dysfunction of the neuronal circuits that integrate our senses into a single coherent whole.  Consciousness is needed for neurons to exchange signals in both bottom-up and top-down directions until they agree with one another.  In its absence, the perceptual process stops short of generating a single coherent interpretation of the outside world.”

Here are additional thoughts on the role of consciousness.

“The improvements we install in our brain when we learn our languages permit us to review, recall, rehearse, redesign our own activities, turning our brains into echo chambers of sorts, in which otherwise evanescent processes can hang around and become objects in their own right.   Those that permits the longest, acquiring influence as they persist, we call our conscious thoughts.”  Daniel Dennet, “Kinds of Minds” (1996).

“Consciousness is, then, as it were, the hyphen which joins what has been to what will be, the bridge which spans the past and the future.”  Henri Bergson, “Huxley Memorial Lecture” (1911).

Now from Dehaene, “The component of the mind that psychologists call “working memory” is one of the dominant functions of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the areas that it connects with, thus making these areas strong candidates for the depositories of our conscious knowledge.  These regions pop up in brain imaging experiments whenever we briefly hold on to a piece of information: a phone number, a color, or the shape of a flashed picture.  Prefrontal neurons implement an active memory:  long after the picture is gone, they continue to fire throughout the short-term memory task—sometimes as long as dozens of seconds later.  And when the prefrontal cortex is impaired or distracted, this memory is lost—it falls into unconscious oblivion.”
Consciousness also serves as a social sharing device, what is termed in the lingo of the healthymemory blog as transactive memory.  The following sentence is by Friedrich Nietzsche in “The Gay Science” (1862).  “Consciousness is properly only a connecting network between man and man.; it is only as such that it has had to develop:  the recluse and wild0beast species of men would not have needed it.”

Finally consciousness is the mind’s virtual reality simulator that we use to deal with the future.

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