Fringe consciousness

In this post I have the definition of fringe consciousness from Baars and McGovern in Cognitive views of consciousness: What are the facts? How can we explain them? (here)


“There is an interesting class of phenomena that are not quite conscious nor unconscious, but which are nevertheless very important for our normal mental functioning. William James thought the ‘fringe conscious’ events were at least as important as focally conscious experiences. Indeed, he thought that perhaps one-third of our conscious lives may be spent in subjectively active but vague states of mind. Fringe events include feeling of rightness, beauty, coherence, anomaly, familiarity, attraction, repulsion and the like. Most people are sure of their judgment when they experience something as beautiful. But is the experience by beauty specifiable in detail, like the sight of a red toothbrush? Surely not for most people, even when they are very sure about the experience. The combination of high certainly, high accuracy, and low experienced detail defines a ‘fringe conscious’ state.


Mangan has developed James’ ideas about fringe consciousness in modern terms, suggestion that fringe phenomena may not be subject to the classical capacity limitations of conscious experiences. The claim is that feelings of familiarity or coherence can be simultaneously present in consciousness along with perceptual contents, for example….The fringe may be, in Mangan’s terms, a ‘radical condensation’ of unconscious information in consciousness. Fringe states seem very useful. There is evidence that they are involved in accurate decision-making, predict resolution of tip-of-the-tongue states, and give a sense of availability of a memory even before it comes to mind….


Research on fringe consciousness is still in its early stages. We can however suggest a useful operational definition for fringe conscious events, as those experiences that: (a) can be reported by all normal subjects in similar tasks, (b) with verifiable accuracy and high confidence; and (c) which can be voluntarily acted upon, (d) but which are not claimed to have differentiated perceptual, imaginal or semantic content; even (e) under optimal reporting conditions.”


It seems a good definition. In the discussion leading to the definition, I have trouble with the continual use of ‘states’. I have never been comfortable with the implied static nature of a ‘state of mind’ and have always thought of mental processes as dynamic. But that is nit-picking as ‘event’ is used rather than ‘state’ in the definition.

3 thoughts on “Fringe consciousness

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