Chaos Astrology

What is Consciousness?

by Michelle Jacobs

'I regard consciousness as fundamental... and matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.' ~ Max Planck

Consciousness is a major problem in psychology and in philosophy of mind, a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of consciousness and the relationship of the mind to the body - the so-called mind-body problem. Simply defining consciousness is a very difficult problem because what we call consciousness has many different features. The term consciousness has been used to describe the state of being awake, the ability to be aware of our surroundings, or to the ability we have to learn from past mistakes and to control our behaviour. There are also the experiential or phenomenal aspects of consciousness, what philosophers have called 'qualia', meaning those mental states that we can only experience subjectively, or the state of what it is like to be the organism that is having the subjective experience. It is very difficult as well to place consciousness within the realm of cognitive psychology, primarily because cognitive psychology views mental states as causal states that have some objective physical correlation in the brain, and we as yet have no evidence that processes in the brain in any way cause consciousness (Kaye, 2010).

Discussions of this mind-body problem often refer to the 'explanatory gap', or the difficulty we have in relating cognitive and physical (neural) brain processes to conscious experience or qualia. The term explanatory gap suggests that qualia cannot be fully explained just by identifying corresponding physical neural processes. It also implies that consciousness resists location within the otherwise physical domain that cognitive psychology and particularly cognitive neuropsychology, have come to associate with the study of the mind. Proponents of the materialist view however, make the assumption that, were we to have just the right sort of explanation, we would be able to explain consciousness in terms of objective processes or perhaps even pin conscious down to particular modules in the brain (Robinson, 2007).

The great American psychologist William James (1842-1910) coined the term 'stream of consciousness' to describe how our awareness of ourselves and things going on in our environment seems to be fairly persistent, and suggested that one of the functions of short-term or working memory was to help maintain the conscious awareness of events. As cognitive research has shown, working memory and consciousness are correlated, but they are not the same thing, and consciousness is about more than just knowing what is going on around us.

There is also the subjective experience that consciousness engenders. Block (1995) has argued that we need to treat these two types of consciousness as different problems, and defined these as access consciousness or the conscious awareness we have of something, and phenomenal consciousness or the subjective quality of experience (Atkinson, 2000). Access consciousness captures the idea that we are able to see an object, name it, decide whether or not to pick it up, remember it, etc. - in other words, the contents of consciousness or those aspects of consciousness that we are able to correlate with and are accessible to other cognitive processes. The term phenomenal consciousness captures the idea of the experiential aspects of consciousness and qualia. Block asserts that cognitive psychology really only deals with the relatively easy problems of access consciousness. Chalmers (1996) as well refers to how the hard problem of explaining how neural or cognitive processes give rise to conscious experiences is not addressed by cognitive psychology, because there seems to be nothing about physical (neural) processes that require their being linked to particular subjective experiences (Kaye, 2010).

The crux of the mind-body problem is that the mind and the body are two very different things, and consciousness, or the subjective character of experience, makes the problem even more challenging, because consciousness is not captured by typical reductive analyses, and in fact is it very difficult to say what would provide empirical evidence of it (Nagel, 1974). Empirical research has shown that we are cognitive mediated (behavior is altered by stimuli) dual-process beings, and that different types of cognitive processes are associated with conscious and unconscious cognition. Studies of conditions such as blindsight, a phenomenon in which brain-damaged and perceptually blind people can still respond to visual stimuli in part of their visual field, raises interesting questions about the possible physical structure of consciousness.

In their study of a patient known as G.Y. Blindsight, Zeki and ffyche (1998) used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the patient's brain activity during times of both conscious and unconscious perception of visual stimuli. Two types of stimuli, slow and fast-moving, were shown to activate the motion cortex, with an increase in activity for faster moving stimuli. Imaging results showed that the patient was detecting movement for both fast and slow-moving stimuli, but he was usually only consciously aware of the faster moving stimuli. This conscious awareness of the stimuli seemed to be associated with an increase in neural activity in a localized area of the brain, which ffyche (2000) has suggested is evidence in favour of consciousness being a function of modular brain systems. It also presents intriguing evidence for the involvement of at least two aspects of cognitive processing: conscious and unconscious (Kaye, 2010).

Altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis provide a contrast to 'normal' consciousness, and help us to think about the possible functions of consciousness. Recent data provided by neuroimaging indicates that the hypnotic 'trance' state is indeed a different form of consciousness (Mende, 2009), in which our normal tendency to check our mental contents against the environment - 'reality-checking' - is greatly reduced. This altered state makes the hypnotic subject more susceptible to the incoming suggestions of the hypnotist, and enables the subject to sustain a hallucination even when it contradicts real world information. Studies of hypnotised people suggest that normal consciousness operates on at least part of the information that we take in with our senses, and is an integral part of our ability to monitor and control our behaviour (Kaye, 2010).

Studies of implicit memory and implicit learning have shown that we are capable of taking in and retaining much more information than we are consciously aware of. Implicit memory phenomena, often referred to as priming, is the improvement in task performance, or a change in mood or behavior, caused by the previous or concurrent exposure to related stimulus. A classic and controversial study by Marcel (1983) showed that participants could identify real words more quickly if the word was preceded by the very brief subliminal presentation of a related word. For example, the subliminal presentation of the word 'nurse' primed participants to recognize the word 'doctor' more quickly than when the subliminal prime was unrelated to the target. These results suggest that the subliminal prime item's representation has become activated in memory, making related representations easier to activate than unrelated ones. The claims of this study are contentious however, and some have argued that implicit learning using subliminal primes may simply reflect a failure to detect miniscule amounts of awareness (Kaye, 2010).

Deeprose et al (2004) overcame some of these problems in their study of priming in anesthetised patients. They played words such as 'tractor' during surgery to patient under anesthetic. The depth of anesthesia was measured using an EEG monitor in order to reduce the risk of priming occurring during moments of accidental awareness. Once the patients came around, they were asked to respond to partial words, such as 'tra-', with the first thing to come to mind. The results showed an increased likelihood for the patients to complete the partial word with the same word that was being played during their surgery. The study suggests that memory priming is possible even when patients are under anesthetic and completely unconscious. The two studies above tells us that we may be learning even when we are not conscious of learning, in other words, we may be unaware of the learning because the encoded material has not reached a 'threshold for conscious awareness'. In any case, demonstrations of subliminal priming and implicit learning under anesthetic provide compelling evidence that, although we are not always aware of what we know, or how we have come to know it, it can still have a powerful influence on our behaviour (Kaye, 2010).

In his article, Consciousness: The First Frontier, Professor Daniel N. Robinson of Oxford University argues that the reductive strategies of cognitive psychology are especially ill suited to the nature and study of consciousness (Robinson, 1020), and this seems to be in agreement with Thomas Nagel's assessment that the result of conventional modes of inquiry in quantitative research seems to be an ever-growing list of cognitive correlates, none of which alone or in any combination captures the phenomenon of consciousness itself. In fact, consciousness as a first-person ontology and subjective phenomenon is, by its very nature, excluded from the usual practice of 'objective' cognitive research. Cognitive psychology might try, for example, to develop methods that would include a physical basis for, or objective descriptions of subjective experience - a sort of 'objective phenomenology' - but the problem still remains of being unable to experience things from another organism's point of view (Nagel, 1974).

Von Franz draws our attention to an idea from Jung that might provide an empirically tangible hint of how to bridge the explanatory gap and overcome the split between mind and body: the curious fact that we have very little conscious knowledge of what happens inside our bodies. For instance, we know nothing of the condition of our internal organs other than the inferences drawn, usually by a doctor, from individual symptoms. The seemingly intractable problems of the mind-body split and the explanatory gap seem to point to something underlying both body and mind, something which might exist between the physical body and our perception of ourselves, something which may to some extent be identical with what Jung calls the 'objective psyche', or archetypes of the collective unconscious; patterns that are observable through their effects on dreams and behaviour across all of humanity (von Franz, 1987).

Theory and research in cognitive psychology have helped to overcome some of the difficulties of studying consciousness through the careful analysis of dissociations between conscious and unconscious processes, and through the study of the cognitive correlates of consciousness, or processes correlated with the conscious awareness of stimuli. Although cognitive research continues to provide us with important insights into the ways information is shared between modular neural and cognitive systems, we still cannot study phenomenal consciousness directly. Therefore, developing a cognitive theory of how the phenomenal qualities of consciousness might emerge from the interaction of cognitive processes, or indeed if this is even the case, remains an intractable problem.


Atkinson, A.P., Thomas, M.S.C. and Cleeremans, A. (2000) 'Consciousness: mapping the theoretical landscape', Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol.4, pp.372-82.

Kaye, H. (ed) (2010) Cognitive Psychology, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Kaye, H. (ed) (2010) Cognitive Psychology Methods Companion, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

McGrath, S.J. (2010) Schelling on the Unconscious, Research in Phenomenology, vol.40, pp.72-91.

Mende, M (2009) Hypnosis: state of the art and perspectives for the twenty-first century, Contemporary Hypnosis, vol.26, no.3, pp.179-184.

Nagel, T. (1974) What is it Like to Be a Bat?, Philosophical Review, vol. LXXXIII, no.4, pp.435-450.

Robinson, D.N. (2010) Consciousness The First Frontier, Theory & Psychology; vol.20 no.6, pp.781-93.

Robinson, D.N. (2007) Consciousness and Mental Life, New York, Columbia University Press.

von Franz, M.L. (1987) On Dreams and Death, Boston, Shambhala Publications.