Possible functions of consciousness 6 – presence ‘here’

We really do seem to be in direct contact with the world around us – we can reach out and touch it. But that directness is an illusion; there are many levels of manipulation between reality and our experience of it. Consciousness gives us this sense of presence right ‘here’. We are present in the world at the focal point of a 3 dimensional projection. It seems like we are born with this perspective at least in rudimentary form. It appears to be part of the structure of conscious awareness.

I feel that Metzinger’s descriptions of the nature of consciousness is the best available to date. Before dealing with more complex consciousness, he describes minimal consciousness or ‘selfless snapshot consciousness’ which calls the presence of a world:

the most elementary form of conscious experience conceivable: The presence of a world. The phenomenal presence of a world is the activation of a coherent, global model of reality (Constraint 1 – globality) within a virtual window of presence (Constraint 2 – presentationality), a model that cannot be recognized as a model by the system generating it within itself (Constraint 3 – transparency). …If and only if a person is conscious, a world exists for her, and if and only if she is conscious, she can make the fact of actually living in a world available for herself, cognitively and as an agent.

There is an old joke (I will spare your the ethnic language, spoil the joke, but keep the logic): a man has one foot on the dock and one on a boat moving away from the dock, his friends yell “jump, jump”, and he cries “how can I jump when I have no place to stand”. Animals have to know where they are as well as where they are going in the same frame/map/picture/conscious experience. They have to stand ‘here’ or order to jump ‘there’. A world has to exist. But why does it have to have transparency? Metzinger again:

Transparency of internal data-structures is a great advantage for any biosystem having to operate with limited temporal and neural resources. Indeed, it minimizes computational load since it is synonymous to a missing of information on this level of processing: Our representational architecture only allows for a very limited introspective access to the real dynamics of the myriads of individual neural events out of which our phenomenal world finally emerges in a seemingly effortless manner. … Naïve realism hinders the system to lose contact (stops the system from losing contact) with external reality by (due to) getting lost in an introspective exploration of the underlying mechanisms.

Just as we can have a virtual ‘now’ when remembering the past or forecasting the future, we can also have a virtual ‘here’. Memories and imaginings have their own ‘here’s as well as their own ‘now’s. One of the most accessible places to see virtual ‘here’s is in the computer games industry. They work very hard to create a virual conscious ‘here’ using the minimum of code, gadgetry and expense. They can get people (who know throughout the experience that it is all smoke and mirrors) to really feel they are in the virtual world rather than the real one. It is similar to optical illusions where you know that the lines are the same length but you continue to see the illusion in spite of your knowledge.

What does it take to manipulate a person’s conscious ‘here’? Sanchez-vives and Slater reviewed a number of experiments investigating what is effective for virtual presence. (From presence to consciousness through virtual reality; Sanchez-Vives & Slater; Perspectives, Nature Reviews, Neuroscience April 2005)

The graphics frame-rate is positively correlated with reported presence, and the critical minimal frame-rate seems to be ~15 Hz…A lower latency between head movement and display update was also found to be associated… In addition, head tracking, stereopsis and geometric field of view are all associated with higher reported presence. ..Surprisingly, the evidence so far does not support the contention that visual realism is an important contributory factor to presence…In an experiment that exploited the pit room, the scene was displayed at various levels of realism (line drawings, without and with textures, and with photo-realism) in a between-groups design. Although all participants showed a significant increase in heart rate when they encountered the precipice, there were no significant differences in heart rate or reported presence between the different rendering conditions. .. Anecdotal reports indicate that sound has a highly significant impact on presence, and one study showed that spatialized sound was associated with higher reported presence than either no sound or non-spatialized sound…(touch is difficult to mimic but appears to have a definite effect)…One study showed that reported presence was increased when the body was represented by a complete (if crude) virtual body, compared with simple representation by a three-dimensional-arrow cursor. …It was noticed in early studies that many participants — especially those reporting a high degree of presence — were almost unable to move by button pressing, and repeatedly attempted to walk. To reduce the dissociation between proprioception and sensory data, an alternative approach was for subjects to ‘walk in place’ to simulate walking. Experimental results showed that, on average, the participants who moved through the environment using this method reported a significantly higher sense of presence than those who used the mouse-button method. … Other studies have shown a significant positive association between overall body mobilization and reported presence.

It looks as through ‘here’ requires that the timing of events is close, the visual and auditory space is believable and action/reaction/interaction works. It does not depend on believable detail of objects from sight, hearing or touch.

So what does consciousness give us for an advantage when it gives us a ‘here’? The picture still seems very vague to me, with no clear substantial functions for ‘here’ and yet I am sure there is a function. Possibly it provides a place in consciousness to house the ‘self’, a window on the world, and a place to stand while interacting with the world, an anchor for the mechanism of space/place/navigation. I have the feeling that there is something I am missing. But for now I will assume that we cannot be acting in the world unless we have a location in the structure of conscious awareness of the world.

There is more to come. Previous posts in this series:

Possible functions of consciousness 1 – leading edge of memory

Possible functions of consciousness 2 – gate to meaning

Possible functions of consciousness 3 – working memory

Possible functions of consciousness 4 – place to imagine

Possible functions of consciousness 5 – create ‘now’

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