Possible functions of conciousness 10 - being oneself

Now we come to the most confusing part of possibilities of how consciousness may be useful – self. Of course consciousness does not give us our unique existence. The continuity of the organization of our physical bodies from conception to death is what defines our existence as organisms. Our awareness of our existence is just that, awareness, and not what brings about our existence.


Consciousness to be useful has to include the whole of ourselves in the model of the world. We have to model ourselves. What would be the use of the slight prediction of the conscious ‘now’ if it did not include predictions of our own movements? What use would be memories that did not include our part of the scene? So we have a model of ourselves (of dubious accuracy) and that model has continuity through our episodic memory as an autobiographical narrative. But does the conscious self have any use beyond completing the working model of the world? Is there any function of consciousness that I am sitting in a chair that is different from the consciousness of the chair I am sitting in? If there is a difference it is likely to be centered on ToM, qualia or communication.


The structure that we use to model ourselves is probably useful to model others. Theory of Mind (or ToM as it is usually written) is part of many explanations of how we interact with others. It ascribes to others that same components and relationships that we use to model our own actions. For example, an idea like guilt is a feeling we have when they feel we are responsible for a ‘bad’ thing. In our model of ourselves ‘guilt’, ‘responsibility ‘and ‘bad’ become real things. We can then see evidence of these sorts of element of ToM in the actions of others. This projection of our model of ourselves onto others allows us to predict their behaviour and it allow us to make decision on how dangerous or helpful another person may be. Being a social animal, this is more then useful; it is almost necessary to survive in society. We seem to come into the world with the machinery to construct this model of our own mind. The model is extremely useful but not very accurate. Many problems arose, especially in philosophy and psychology, because this model was taken as accurate outside the everyday use it was evolved to satisfy. If we need to delve deeper into the nature of thought we need to avoid trusting introspection and rely to experiment. Introspection can only show us the ToM model of our thoughts. There is no direct knowledge of ourselves or anything else – Get use to it!


The elements and relationships of ToM are, however, interesting and some of them are somewhat valid. If not than how would they be able to make predictions of our and other’s actions. Take what is variously called someone’s personality, character or nature – we see a vague pattern to an individual’s way of living. There is no doubt that we have patterns and that we get to know people in the sense that we understand their patterns of behaviour. Experts keep making new lists of ‘types’, trying to tie down these patterns. Ordinary people accumulate archetypes in their concepts. I personally think that there will never be a completely satisfactory set of types or archetypes, because we are too individual. But we can have a pretty good set.


Although we know that there are problems with an unchanging self such as phantom limbs, out of body experiences and a long list of other oddities, we still feel there is a core, stable self. If we see things and hear things then there must be a self that is seeing and hearing. If we remember things then there must be a rememberer remembering their past. So the very vividness of our experiences seems to make a core and permanent self indispensable. The self is not as real as it seems, just like everything else about consciousness, but is useful.


This question of the vividness of experience is extremely important to many philosophers. We all work on the assumption that the qualia of our experience is very similar to others but not identical. We do not know for sure but then there is nothing that we know for sure. In this context a paper by Ramachandran and Hirstein (citation below) is interesting. Here is the abstract:

Neurological syndromes in which consciousness seems to malfunction, such as temporal lobe epilepsy, visual scotomas, Charles Bonnet syndrome, and synesthesia offer valuable clues about the normal functions of consciousness and `qualia’. An investigation into these syndromes reveals, we argue, that qualia are different from other brain states in that they possess three functional characteristics, which we state in the form of `three laws of qualia’ based on a loose analogy with Newton’s three laws of classical mechanics. First, they are irrevocable: I cannot simply decide to start seeing the sunset as green, or feel pain as if it were an itch; second, qualia do not always produce the same behaviour: given a set of qualia, we can choose from a potentially infinite set of possible behaviours to execute; and third, qualia endure in short-term memory, as opposed to non-conscious brain states involved in the on-line guidance of behaviour in real time. We suggest that qualia have evolved these and other attributes (e.g. they are `filled in’) because of their role in facilitating non-automatic, decision-based action. We also suggest that the apparent epistemic barrier to knowing what qualia another person is experiencing can be overcome simply by using a `bridge’ of neurons; and we offer a hypothesis about the relation between qualia and one’s sense of self.

And the hypothesis:

One way to approach the question of how our account of qualia relates to the question of the self is to ask from a scientific point of view why something like filling in of the blind spot with qualia-laden representations occurs. … the line of reasoning should run: ‘If qualia are filled in, they are filled in for something.’ … Now, what is the ‘something’ here? There exists in certain branches of psychology the notion of an executive, or a control process. These processes are generally taken to be frontal, or prefrontal, but we would like to suggest that the something which qualia are filled in for is a sort of executive process, but a limbic one, rather than a frontal one. This would be a process involved in connecting motivation and emotion with the choice of actions to perform, based on a certain definite incoming set of qualia — very much the sort of thing which the self was traditionally supposed to do.


For humans there is an added usefulness to the conscious self. The self can talk to itself. Words can control the focus of attention so one part of the brain can influence other parts with the spotlight of attention by using language in the stream of consciousness. The internal conversation also is passing through working memory and this is a way to make serial journeys through ideas and concepts. But we have already supposed this to happen (see discussion of working memory and of broadcasting across the brain) – what is added with the verbal conversation of the self with the self? Language brings a new class of objects into consciousness. People can manipulate in consciousness/working memory visual objects, sound objects, movement objects and so on through all the channels of sensory input. But verbal objects, words, open another window of non-sensory objects like justice, education, naval, magnificent.


So the self is useful in understanding others, communicating within the brain and it also helps to explain qualia (although I wonder if qualia require an explanation and whether self is a suitable one – many people think otherwise).


There is only the final one of this series left to come. Here are links to the previous ones:

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’

Possible functions of consciousness 6 – presence ‘here’

Possible functions of consciousness 7 – attention on the significant

Possible functions of consciousness 8 – broadcasting waves

Possible functions of consciousness 9 – marking agency




V.S. Ramachandran and W. Hirstein (1997). Three Laws of Qualia: What Neurology Tells Us about the Biological functions of Consciousness, Qualia and the Self Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4 (5-6), 429-458

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