In this uplifting episode recorded at La Jolla landmark D.G. Wills Books, neuroscientists Bernie Baars & David Edelman unpack the nature of consciousness — the ineffable sense of ‘aboutness’ each one of us experiences that encompasses features of the outside world, your own thoughts, recollections, and emotions, all of which mysteriously — yet inevitably — arise from the coordinated firing of neurons in the cerebral cortex and other regions of the brain.
David reads from Bernie's new book, “On Consciousness: Science & Subjectivity - Updated Works on Global Workspace Theory."
Bernie and David begin by considering the problem of subjectivity — in particular, the tortuous twenty-five centuries-long struggle to place it within a scientific framework and at the same time reconcile such an endeavor with everyday first-hand descriptions of human experience. They conclude that a major roadblock has been the tendency to set aside or even actively dismiss subjective descriptions in the quest to tease out some kind of objective truth about the nature of conscious experience.
To underscore the idea that we can, in some sense, square the objective, physical attributes of the world with their subjective representation in the brain, Bernie and David mull over the perception of color as one example of a subjective transform of an objective phenomenon—namely, the differences in wavelengths of light. Given that the human visual system filters certain physical properties of light (as humans, we can’t perceive light wavelengths less than 380nm or greater than 740nm, nor can we perceive polarized light), our conscious perception of the visual world must necessarily be subjective in nature and, considering our individual differences (e.g., how we’re each uniquely embodied), entirely unique to, and privileged for, each of us.
Bernie and David then move on to ethical and evolutionary considerations inspired by attempts to come to grips with the existence and nature of consciousness in non-human animals. Given the ancient moral and ethical underpinnings of human culture, they suggest that the evolutionary story of consciousness must necessarily be linked to considerations of how we treat non-human animals.
Based on neuroanatomical, neurophysiological, and behavioral similarities between mammals and birds, it seems likely that a large number of animals are capable of conscious experience. In fact, the complex nervous systems and sophisticated behavioral repertoires of some animals quite distant from the vertebrate line (i.e., the octopus) suggest that a faculty for consciousness may well be quite ancient and extend to at least a few branches of complex life. Accordingly, Bernie and David reinforce the ethical dilemma that non-human consciousness poses.
How do we reconcile our treatment of non-human animals with the idea that, like us, many of these beings are capable of feeling pain and experiencing a broad palette of emotions?
To conclude the discussion, Bernie and David ponder the critical role of memory in consciousness and consider the problem of limited capacity – the idea that your nervous system can only handle so much information and processing tasks at once. In regard to memory, Bernie points to the importance of the cerebral cortex—the ‘central store’ for conscious contents—for engendering states of awareness in humans and non-human mammals.
He further notes that conscious contents are always internally consistent, despite the fact that very different—and quite often inconsistent—streams of information may be impinging on your senses all at once. In other words, the brain builds an internally consistent story about the world—even if certain strands of that story don’t make sense from an external perspective. Why is this the case?
Regarding limited capacity, Bernie suggests that it is biologically paradoxical. For example, the selective awareness that comes with limited capacity can sometimes result in people walking into traffic while talking on their cell phones. Why doesn’t the spotlight of awareness extend beyond the telephone conversation to include an oncoming truck?
The discussion ends with a wonderful Q & A session, thanks to an engaged and brilliant audience.
*Special Thanks to Dennis Wills, owner of D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla, CA.
Bernard J. Baars: A former Senior Fellow in Theoretical Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, CA, Bernie is best known as the originator of the global workspace theory and global workspace dynamics, a theory of human cognitive architecture, the cortex and consciousness. Bernie's many acclaimed books include A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness; The Cognitive Revolution in Psychology; In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind; Fundamentals of Cognitive Neuroscience. Winner of the 2019 Hermann von Helmholtz Life Contribution Award by the International Neural Network Society, which recognizes work in perception proven to be paradigm changing and long-lasting. His new acclaimed book: On Consciousness: Science & Subjectivity - Updated Works on Global Workspace Theory. BernardBaars.com
David Edelman, PhD: A neuroscientist and currently Visiting Scholar in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, David has taught neuroscience at the University of San Diego and UCSD. He was Professor of Neuroscience at Bennington College until 2014 and visiting professor in the Dept of Psychology, CUNY Brooklyn College from 2015-2017. He has conducted research in a wide range of areas, including mechanisms of gene regulation, the relationship between mitochondrial transport and brain activity, and visual perception in the octopus. A longstanding interest in the neural basis of consciousness led him to consider the importance—and challenge—of disseminating a more global view of brain function to a broad audience.
Episode 7 Talking Points | 1 hour 30 minutes
By Ilian Daskalov
0:05 – Neuroscientist David Edelman introduces Bernard J. Baars, himself, their work, how they met in 2005 at The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, CA. David unpacks a brief history of the modern science of consciousness studies, and how they began collaborating and developing their research and body of work in their diverse fields.
1:29 - Edelman reads excerpts from Baars’ new book “On Consciousness: Science & Subjectivity – Updated Works on Global Workspace Theory.”
7:12 – Edelman and Baars initiate the conversation between the two by discussing observational objectivity and the uniqueness of being a conscious individual self.
14:08 – What are some ways for scientists to study the nature of subjectivity?
17:24– How the spectrum of visible colors is perceived and how hues are labeled based on variables such as gender and culture.
23:50 – The importance of considering embodiment, or how the body is put together as a whole, when studying the conscious experiences in humans and animals.
30:00 – The evolution of consciousness in non-human animals, and the ethics and morals of treating other sentient beings in humane ways.
41:42 – How memory is related to consciousness and the overall structural complexity of the human brain.
45:40 – The limited capacity of human attention and the perceptual unity that the brain weaves from input information.
54:08 – Q & A with the audience.
55:17 – The imperfections and amendable properties of human memory, as well as William James’ idea about “the feeling of knowing.”
1:03:48 – The mind-body connection... and does it exist?
1:06:53 – Is competency equal to comprehension – can cells and machines be considered conscious?
1:12:26 – David Edelman gives a summary of the three of the main theories of consciousness – Global Workspaces Theory, Integrated Information Theory, and Dynamic Core.
In terms of selectionism, where does the cortex come in? And particularly the conscious aspects of cortex at any given moment?
1:21:55 – Bernie explains what Global Workspace Theory is, its origin, and what makes it more biologically plausible in comparison to its rival theories.