A qualified recommendation: Consciousness Demystified

A couple of years ago I did a series of posts inspired by Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallatt’s excellent  The Ancient Origins of Consciousness, a book on the evolution of animal consciousness.  Somewhat building on what I had read in Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind, it was a pivotal point in my exploration of consciousness science.  Feinberg and Mallatt shook me out of my human centered understanding of consciousness, one that was largely focused on various forms of metacognition.

Consciousness Demystified coverThey’ve written a new book, Consciousness Demystified.  Unlike their first book, this new one is much more approachable for general readers, although it covers the same basic topics, albeit updated with some new concepts that have come along since the last book.

One of the things Feinberg and Mallatt did that I thought was useful was breaking up the overall concept of consciousness into various types: exteroceptive consciousness, interoceptive consciousness, and affect consciousness.

Exteroceptive consciousness is awareness of the outside world, image maps, models built on information from distance senses such as sight, hearing, and smell.  Interoceptive consciousness is the internal awareness of a body, how the stomach feels, the lungs, or muscles.  Touch and proprioception often sit on the boundary between these categories.  In this book, Feinberg and Mallatt group these perceptions under the phrase “image based consciousness”.

Image based consciousness is interesting because the image maps, the neural firing patterns in the early sensory regions in the brain, are topographically or isomorphically mapped to the surface of the sense organ.  So the pattern that the photoreceptors on the retina are activated in is preserved in the bundle of axons that project up the optic nerve to the thalamus and then to the visual cortex.  A similar relationship exists for touch where each body part ends up being mapped to particular regions in the somatosensory cortex.

But image based consciousness, perception, is more than just these initial firing patterns.  It includes the patterns of neurons activated in later neural layers, layers that map associations, where a particular pattern gets mapped to a concept.  Eventually these layers become integrated across the senses into multi-modal perceptions, such as a piece of food, or a predator.

The third category is affective consciousness, essentially emotional and other valence based feelings.  Unlike image based consciousness, affective consciousness is not mapped to any sense organs.  Affects tend to be global states.  For example, you don’t feel sad in your foot, you just feel sad.  Another name for affective consciousness is sentience.

Many consider affective consciousness, sentience, the ability to feel, to be consciousness.  But in principle there’s no reason that an organism can’t have image based consciousness with only reflexive reactions to the contents of that consciousness, to essentially only have perception paired with unthinking action.

The authors talk about criteria that can be used to determine whether a particular animal has affective consciousness:

Behavioral criteria showing an animal has affective consciousness (likes and dislikes)

  1. Global operant conditioning (involving whole body and learning brand-new behaviors)
  2. Behavioral trade-offs, value-based cost-benefit decisions
  3. Frustration behavior
  4. Self-delivery of pain relievers or rewards
  5. Approach to reinforcing drugs or conditioned place preference

Feinberg, Todd E.. Consciousness Demystified (The MIT Press) . The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

(As I’ve discussed in other posts, I think affect awareness is closely associated with imaginative simulations, which if you think about it, are necessary to meet all of these criteria, except possibly 3.)

One omission a consciousness aficionado may notice here is self reflection, introspective self awareness, metacognition.  Feinberg and Mallatt explicitly exclude this from their scope.  Their focus is on primary consciousness, also known as sensory consciousness, which could be equated with phenomenal consciousness.  (Although this last association is controversial.)

Most of their discussion is focused on vertebrates, but the authors do spend time exploring the possibility of invertebrate consciousness.  As they did in their first book, they express reservations about the tiny brains of insects, but on balance conclude that many arthropods are conscious to one degree or another, as well as cephalopods (octopusses, etc).  Given the early divergence of these evolutionary lines, consciousness appears to be an example of convergent evolution.

In chapters on the evolution of consciousness, Feinberg and Mallatt spend time discussing the evolution of reflex arcs, then the gradual accumulation of predictive functionality into image based and affective consciousness.  As in the earlier book, they see this happening during the Cambrian Explosion, making consciousness very ancient.  They finish up with what they see as the adaptive values of consciousness:

Adaptive advantages of consciousness

  • It efficiently organizes much sensory input into a set of diverse qualia for action choice. As it organizes them, it resolves conflicts among the diverse inputs.
  • Its unified simulation of the complex environment directs behavior in three-dimensional space.
  • Its importance ranking of sensed stimuli, by assigned affects, makes decisions easier.
  • It allows flexible behavior. It allows much and flexible learning.
  • It predicts the near future, allowing error correction.
  • It deals well with new situations.

Feinberg, Todd E.. Consciousness Demystified (The MIT Press) . The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

They finish up with a discussion of the hard problem, introducing two terms: auto-ontological irreducibility and allo-ontological irreducibility.  The first refers to the fact that the brain has no sensory neurons, and we have no introspective access to its lower level processing, which means that we can never intuitively look at brain operations and feel like they reflect our subjective states.  The second refers to the fact that an outside observer can never access the subjective state of a system, if it has one.  Together these create an uncrossable subjective / objective divide, although understanding why the divide exists can drain the mystery from it.

My recommendation for this book is qualified.  If you didn’t read their earlier technical book, then this more approachable version may well be worth your time, particularly if the technical nature of the early book was what made you avoid it.  That said, if you’re not comfortable looking at anatomical brain diagrams, this still may not be your cup of tea.

But if you did read that earlier book, I’m not sure this new one has enough to warrant the time and money.  It does contain some concepts that came up in the last few years, as well as descriptions of new experiments and research, but you have to be a serious brain geek like me to make it worth it.

Finally, I can’t resist mapping the categories Feinberg and Mallatt discuss into the hierarchy of conscious capabilities I often use to discuss this stuff.

  1. Reflex arcs
  2. Perception (exteroceptive and interoceptive image based awareness)
  3. Attention
  4. Imagination with affect awareness, enabling the abilities to meet the criteria above for affect consciousness, sentience
  5. Self reflection, metacognition

This hierarchy was, in many ways, inspired by Feinberg and Mallatt’s earlier book.

17 thoughts on “A qualified recommendation: Consciousness Demystified

  1. Consciousness Demystified? Oh dear… now they seem to have taken the arrogant route of Daniel Dennett! I’ll continue to thank them for helping complete my own theory regarding when the central organism processor evolved, or the Cambrian Explosion, but no, to me this book does not sound appetizing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey Eric,
      Authors often don’t have control over the final title of their books. (Independent authors do, but this was published through MIT Press.) So I don’t know if I would make a decision based solely on the title. But the book definitely isn’t for everyone.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Good point about the title Mike. And given Jon Mallatt’s Brain Science interview, the last thing that I envision of him (at least) is arrogance. (I suspect that one of the reasons that Todd Feinberg brought him in was “good PR man”.) Of course I like that they help people think about consciousness as something which evolved long before the human, though like Dennett, I do not consider their account compelling. Dennett did an intellectual razzle dazzle thing on people, and so became a superstar. Surely it wouldn’t have escaped F&M’s handlers that this was a highly successful business model. Come on… Consciousness Demystified?!!

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I think if that’s their goal, it’s not working. I’ve seen zero promotion of, or buzz about, this book. The only reason I even knew about it is because I happened to pull up their old book to look at Amazon’s “customers also bought” links and it was front and center.

          I know we’ve talk about this before, but what about Dennett’s views do you see problematic?

          Liked by 2 people

      2. Yea F&M aren’t superstars. And just like me, they think that they have theory from which to demystify consciousness. But given the example of Dennett and all the rest of the characters in this crazy business, I sure wouldn’t go titling a book after his!

        My thing with Dennett is that he provides a great demonstration of how to use slick salesmanship to inspire highly educated people, and even given that we all realize that his widely known perspective has not proven useful enough for associated fields of science to actually adopt. Twenty eight years ago “Consciousness Explained” was published. Shouldn’t that be enough time for supporters to admit that his ideas must not have been very good? No, now they’re able to discuss his role as one of the four horsemen of New Atheism or whatever. So that’s my beef. I consider him to be a slick salesman first and foremost, but not a true theorist.

        For example, no one would have been tantalized if he would have said that there are elements to brain function which are not conscious. Instead he came off as a visionary by fabricating some kind of “multiple drafts” version of consciousness to take the boring role of the “not conscious” part.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I guess I judge Dennett in relation to other philosophers of mind, most of whom I find further away from the truth than he is. But I have to admit that as I’ve read more neuroscience, his ideas have seemed less relevant, though again far less so than most philosophers. And judging Dennett by theories he wrote three decades ago, particularly since his ideas have evolved since then, seems pretty harsh. If you knew my ideas from back then, you’d probably write me off as hopeless.

          Liked by 1 person

      3. Well yeah, if “philosophers of mind” is the standard then the bar is pretty low. Here Dennett becomes quite reasonable. But you are clearly a humble seeker of reality who readily admits a changing perspective when appropriate. He’s never seemed that way to me.

        Then as for me, it was about thirty years ago that the models I speak of today began to form. This is why I’d like to help others gain a practical grasp of their function. I’m too close to be objective. And if it turns out that my ideas are pretty good, in this world of salesmanship, I’ll certainly need some help!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that Feinberg and Mallatt’s approach to consciousness is absolutely correct. A crucial first step is the conversion of stimuli from the environment (electromagnetic radiations, molecules, and pressure changes)—into sensations. Keffer Hartline showed how what are called eccentric cells in the ommatidia of the horseshoe crab Limulus eye creates a boundary line, and George Wald showed how cone cells in the retina convert a tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum into the color red. (Hartline and Wald shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1967 for their discoveries.)

    I discuss this conversion of stimuli into sensations in an essay, “Sensations in the Metaphysics of Democritus” on my website (reprinted in Nautilus magazine under the title “Consciousness Is Made of Atoms, Too,”), along with two other essays, “The ‘Hard’ Problem of Consciousness” and “McDonald’s Child.” http://icewater.cms.udel.edu/titus/. I think it’s important to be clear how this conversion takes place, because once it is understood one is well on the way to a full account of consciousness and how it can exist in our skulls.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In addition to transduction, I think it’s also instructive to read about the overall cortical visual system, V1, V2, etc, along with the dorsal and ventral analysis streams. A lot of things that seem magical about our visual perception are revealed to just be information processing, neurons reacting to various patterns in the visual data.

      There’s also a lot to be said for studying neurological case studies. We learn much about how the brain works by seeing how it fails under certain conditions, and how those failures alter the mind.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “I think it’s important to be clear how this conversion takes place, because once it is understood one is well on the way to a full account of consciousness and how it can exist in our skulls.”

      I think this is a naive view if you think that our sensory processes are a passive conversion of stimuli in the external world to an internal representation or that understanding these processes by themselves puts us ” well on the way to a full account of consciousness”. I am not disputing how cone cells work, for example, or the role they play or that consciousness is created by brains and neurological systems, only that your view seems far too simplistic.

      I’m also growing slightly weary of analogies to computers and data processing when applied to the brain or consciousness. This essay is interesting in that regard.



  3. James,

    Sorry I sounded so simplistic. I am well aware that there are hundreds of billions of neurons (of many types) in the human brain and that they are connected to each other by as many as 5,000 synapses (using dozens of kinds of neurotransmitters), so that integration by central systems (through what we call “memory” and neural “plasticity”) is almost impossibly complex.

    I only meant by “the way is open” that in clearly understanding how receptor cells begin the process of conversion of environmental stimuli into sensations that a barrier between “matter” and “mind” is crossed that in traditional thinking (since Descartes) has been regarded as insurmountable.


  4. I have some insight that I would like to share regarding why consciousness is at it’s core a very simple system and shared by all life. All of life or at least complex life has a decision maker built into it’s core being that has the job of deciding which action to take. This decision maker is the voice that we use to talk to ourselves in our head and the voice is what we use to order ourselves to act: in essence this voice is our consciousness. It is impossible to do any conscious action without using the voice in your head, right. Try to pick up a pin without saying “pick up the pin” in your head. Now here is the part where most of you will resist, even when what I say is going to be nearly impossible to deny. Animals have to use the same decision making voice in their heads to move as well. A toad has to tell itself to dig into the dirt to make itself dig in the dirt, the voice in it’s head is needed. The same voice we have in our head.

    I mean what in christ’s name would make anyone believe that humans created a whole new way to move? The biology or our arms and legs are the same as other life forms right? It makes undeniable sense that movement of muscles is done the same way by all of life on Earth. Any organism that moves has to decide to move. And that decider is the voice.

    Animals talk to themselves in their heads just like we do. They are equally conscious as we are. I am not trying to make fun of any ones idea’s and i hope that you can step back and see the simpleness of it all.


    1. Hi Darren,
      I don’t know if you’re familiar with the bicameral theory of consciousness put out by Julian Jaynes, but your idea is similar to it. I don’t know if I buy it, but if I did, I would immediately be interested in the composition of the decision maker, which brings us right back to the material I often discuss here.

      I suspect its composition would be anything but simple. But the assertion that consciousness is simple is, I think, a confusion of simplicity with familiarity. Consciousness is the most familiar thing any of us have, but just because it’s familiar doesn’t mean it’s simple. We’re just not introspectively privy to most of that complexity.


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