According to Victor Lamme, the reason that the study of consciousness is so difficult is that it gives priority to introspection and behaviour so, as a result, we are fooled into thinking that we know what we are conscious of. By adding evidence from neuroscience into the mix, he hopes to understand consciousness. He looks at the components of what we call consciousness and teases them apart: the phenomenal experience, the behavioural control, the access to the experience/ability to report it, the working memory, the attention focus. Then he asks what neural events match which aspects of consciousness.
Vision is the sense that Lamme uses to explain his model. The first cut is made between the iconic memory and working memory. The iconic image has more detail, is short-lived and overwritten by a change of scene, is not useful to cognition; while the working memory image has limited detail, can last for some time and is not overwritten by new events, is useful to cognition. The parts of the iconic image that become part of the working memory are those few which are attended to – so this cut can also be seen as consciousness with attention verses consciousness without attention.
Consciousness is then divided into stages using the neural events associated with consciousness. These events are the fast feedforward sweep (FFS) and the recurrent processing (RP). In the FFS, information flows from the visual cortex forward through the dorsal and ventral paths to the motor and frontal cortex area. This sweep starts with purely visual processing and ends with motor and executive processing. In RP, information flows out horizontally in each area and flows back to lower levels, as far back as the original visual cortex. In other words, there is a bottom-up stream followed by a sidewise and top-down spread.
Lamme’s stages are:
Stage 1 – Superficial processing during the FFS. Processing stops at the visual areas if a stimulus is not attended to and is also quickly overwritten by a masking image.
Stage 2 – Deep processing during the FFS. If stimulus is attended to but is quickly overwritten the result is that processing reaches the prefrontal and motor areas but remains unconscious.
Stage 3 – Superficial processing with RP. If the stimulus is not masked and has time to evoke RP but is not attended to or is neglected (inattentional blindness, change blindness, attentional blink), the FFS does not travel far but is followed by RP in the area it has managed to reach.
Stage 4 – Deep or widespread RP. If the stimulus has time for the FFS to travel fully forward and is attended to, the RP will span all levels from original visual to executive areas. This consciousness can be reported.
With this four stage model, Lamme labels Stages 1 & 2 as not having consciousness, Stage 3 as iconic representation and Stage 4 as working memory representation. The travel of the FFS forward is associated with attention and the spread of RP is associated with phenomenality.
Lamme argues that the inclusion of neuroscientific evidence is important.
“My main objection is against a form of cognitive psychology where mental constructs are taken as undeniable truths to which neuroscience has to be fitted. I would argue that in the study of consciousness, there are no undeniable truths.
That is the standard approach in science. Intuition told us the sun revolves around the earth, while in fact it is the other way around. Intuition dictated creation, where evolution is the counterintuitive scientific answer. To make scientific headway in our science of consciousness, we need to acknowledge that our intuitions may be wrong and need to be set aside. The upshot is that – finally – we may start solving the questions that have been bothering us for the ages.”
What a breathe of fresh air to have introspection taken off its pedestal!
I have my own list of what explanations of consciousness should address and Lamme touches most of them. My disappointment is the sparse mentions of the role of the thalamus and the nature of synchronous activity as well as the lack of a mention of the apparent projection into the near future of the representation of moving objects.
Lamme, V. (2010). How neuroscience will change our view on consciousness Cognitive Neuroscience, 1 (3), 204-220 DOI: 10.1080/17588921003731586