Jun 14 2013

What is Unconscious?

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14 responses so far

14 Responses to “What is Unconscious?”

  1. Ori Vandewalleon 14 Jun 2013 at 1:03 pm

    I feel like this is mostly a semantic distinction. Dr. Novella is arguing that unconscious means a lack of self-awareness, whereas Michael Goff is arguing that unconscious means a lack of mental processes.

    I’m going to side with Dr. Novella here, but on language grounds more than anything else. Unconscious is a word, and if as a word its meaning is indistinguishable from dead, then it doesn’t do us much good. (I’m not arguing against the use of synonyms, because ideally synonyms convey similar, but not identical, meanings).

    I think the word unconscious is more useful from a communication standpoint if it refers to mental states in which we lack self-awareness, because I’m not sure there is another term out there that fully encompasses all those possible states.

  2. The Other John Mcon 14 Jun 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Don’t mention this to Cannotsay, but consciousness seems like a continuum to me. Full consciousness would have cognitive features such as:

    - sensation of flow and continuity of time
    - feeling of immersion in physical world; spatial awareness
    - access to short-term memory
    - access to long-term memory (many different types here)
    - ability to create new memories
    - ability to move/interact with physical world
    - causality continuity (Dr. N calls this “reality testing”; does the world behave as expected?)
    - ability to focus attention at will
    - ability to divide attention at will
    - ability to achieve goal-directed behavior, conduct long-term planning, prospective memory, etc.

    Sleep versus dreaming versus lucid dreaming versus hallucinogenic trip versus drunkenness, these states of mind seem to have access to some but not all of these cognitive features. Would be cool to see a matrix of rows and columns mapping all these out for different states of consciousness.

  3. steve12on 14 Jun 2013 at 4:00 pm

    One of the biggest problems is difficulty in operationalizing consciousness.

    E.g., I don’t think consciousness is tantamount to attention – but I fall into the trap of thinking of them this way all of the time. It’s hard to study something that is such a slippery concept to begin with!

    And most experiments define consciousness as that which the subject can report awareness of – but this has huge problems as well in that we are necessarily dealing with memory confounds. An easy example of this is a coma. If we ask someone whether they had experience during a coma, and they say no, there are (at least) 2 interpretations: 1. they were truly unconscious 2. they were conscious at the time but have no memory.

    This is even an issue with short times scales with experiments used to investigate consciousness. In masking experiments, critical images are shown very quickly and with distractor stimuli in close temporal proximity, yielding reports of non-awareness to the critical stimuli.

    It might be that the critical stim never reached consciousness because it was replaced to quickly in the perceptual memory buffer (the usual interpretation) or it could be that it indeed reached consciousness, however briefly, but was kept from being encoded in longer term stores.

  4. The Other John Mcon 14 Jun 2013 at 4:41 pm

    steve12, I agree conceptually that consciousness is not tantamount to attention. We know unconscious “awareness” occurs on some level (like the “cocktail party” effect where someone can hear their own name spoken by someone else, as if part of them were listening in to the other conversation the whole time).

    But it also seems that the attention literature is the closest thing we have to experimental studies on consciousness, and that if you wanted to really deeply study consciousness from an experimental perspective, attention is where it’s at. Do you get that impression as well?

  5. The Other John Mcon 14 Jun 2013 at 4:43 pm

    Your point about timescales is spot on. Just browse the literature on Benjamin Libet’s experiments for a flavor of the complexity of measuring awareness: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Libet#Implications_of_Libet.27s_experiments

  6. steve12on 14 Jun 2013 at 5:13 pm

    The Libet stuff always freaks me out. It’s a cool experiment, but ultimately I think Dennett’s right. He’s the go to guy when I wanna feel rationale yet retain my high locus of control:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrCZYDm5D8M

    Re: attention, I agree with you: it’s as close to an operationalization as we may have, but it’s not the same thing that I think most people mean when they wonder how consciousness works, or why we’re conscious. I could as easily say that working memory is consciousness. And this is setting aside that attention itself is not that easy to define, and is often confused with WM!

    I think there’s also some confusion re: the Q itself. If we want some grand answer as to how and why we experience qualia (with apologies to Dennett), I’m not sure we’re getting that from science. That’s more of a metaphysical question and I think this is part of the reason that consciousness is so hard to define scientifically: what we often (cerainly me, anyway) really want is not a scientific Q.

    So yeah – I do think investigating attention, WM, executive functions (a concept we’re all uncomfortable with!) etc. and finding the neural processes / substrate thereof will give us insight into consciousness and awareness, but I think this will be a neuroscientific reckoning more than a grand epiphany.

  7. BillyJoe7on 15 Jun 2013 at 7:14 am

    It’s going to be difficult to prove one way or the other, but what are the odds that, between lapsing into a coma and dying, there wouldn’t be a point where you would be still alive but unconscious. And what are the odds that, whilst asleep, there wouldn’t be a time when you are not also unconscious. In fact, it doesn’t seem reasonable to think that unconsciousness and dead would necessarily be synonymous.

  8. SimonWon 15 Jun 2013 at 4:45 pm

    Of course it is semantics.

    The word, like all words(?), means what people use it for. In my experience (and a neurologist may encounter different uses), “unconscious” is an “excuse” type phrase.

    So and so couldn’t defend themselves because they were unconscious.
    I was unconscious at the time and unable to …..

    So I’d suggest it often means lacking sufficient mental alertness to takes desirable actions, or to remember what happened, and in this sense is applied to many states of altered consciousness.

    Like all words it has more meanings. People talk about unconscious mind, meaning actions taken without the person being aware of them, and a whole host of sloppy or weird concepts that make little sense.

    Probably when being a skeptic it is a word to avoid precisely because the meaning of conscious itself is so vague. So if someone is asleep, or in a coma, or soporific due to drugs, say that.

  9. dottornomadeon 17 Jun 2013 at 6:35 am

    According to Thomas Metzinger, consciousness can be modeled as a virtual organ, such as the immune system.

  10. Bill Openthalton 17 Jun 2013 at 7:18 am

    @ dottornomade
    Most of the brain’s subsystems/functional parts can usefully be modeled as virtual organs.

  11. dottornomadeon 17 Jun 2013 at 12:50 pm

    Bill, that’s true, but the way Metzinger models consciousness is not trivial, IMHO. Plus it’s not like, say, modeling something with controlled/direct functions such as the cerebellum.

  12. Bill Openthalton 18 Jun 2013 at 8:25 am

    @ dottornomade
    I didn’t mean to belittle Mertzinger’s ideas, which I largely agree with. In all likelihood, sef-consciousness is a module that originated with the need for extended communincation of internal state, which facilitates social cooperation. As such, I believe many social animals have a degree of self-awareness. The very developed self-awareness (and associated ability to communicate it through language) shown by humans is, in my opinion, what makes large societies possible. There’s some irony in the fact that what most represents our individuality is indispensible for social life.

  13. The Other John Mcon 19 Jun 2013 at 1:42 pm

    More debates! These are just awesome (loved the one with Don, too)

  14. stalphson 18 Oct 2013 at 1:39 am

    Just to share!

    After much reading on Consciousness studies and related areas in the last 20 years, from NDE’s studies and the collection of NDE experiences of the dying, to the work of Roger Penrose/Stuart Hameroff on Orch-OR theory and quantum affect in biological systems, and related works on AI/Computation and the recent lectures of Peter Russell (eg) primacy of consciousness, to Studies on Meditation experiences, and ones own experience to travels to India, and Burma, to understanding Quantum Theory, Cosmology, Standard Model in Physics and so on…the following has become clear to me, or has become self evident conclusion from my understanding…

    Unconsciousness (minimal to zero awareness) either under anaesthetic, drugs, injury, coma etc, resulting in dreamless or in dreaming sleep, to being awake corresponding to a level of awarenesses we are familiar with, is all a property of living brain/person.

    Ironically, a dying brain, or a brain that has minimal activity (some drugs can cause this, and MRI scans support it), or because its dying, the “I” in me begins to have increased awareness, an increased presence and increased oneness with something we don’t fully understand.

    Its clear that the evidence supports a brain that acts like a valve on cosmic (outside of itself) input when its alive (presumably oxygenated with blood) , and that conciousness is non-local, and NOT produced totally in the brain, but a level of consciousness/awareness is manipulated (de-amplified) by the living brain.

    Too assume unconsciousness is 100% complete at death is not supported by any of the evidence.
    Its is exactly the opposite.
    Unconsciousness in any form that occurs, is only a property of a brain that is alive.

    Difficult stuff to put in words, and probably poor English….

    Furthermore, my experience has shown that resistance to this model of consciousness (when mounting evidence supports it) is mainly due to prejudice (a strong dogmatic atheists position, or anti-religious views, or even, believe it or not, job security at some academic institutions) and definitely resistance to this model occurs due to ones own lack of research into the subject matter before making a belief statement about the subject!

    Slowly a paradigm shift is occurring!
    The old over simplified paradigm: (classical materialist traditional view).. Consciousness only comes into existence with the evolution of complex nervous systems is slowly being replaced by
    The new over simplified paradigm: Consciousness is more fundamental then matter, space or time, and there is nothing but consciousness.

    We obviously don’t have all the answers, and this is only a baby step, but the I believe the paradigm shift will start to answer more and more questions, as the more you dig and dig the more this is evidence for this new paradigm.

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