Several months ago Michael Graziano, and colleagues, attempted a synthesis of three families of scientific theories of consciousness: global workspace theory (GWT), higher order theory (HOT), and his own attention schema theory (AST).
A quick (crudely simplistic) reminder: GWT posits that content becomes conscious when it is globally broadcast throughout the brain, HOT when a higher order representation is formed of a first order representation, and AST when the content becomes the focus of attention and it is included in a model of the brain’s attentional state (the attention schema) for purposes of guiding it.
Graziano equates the global workspace with the culmination of attentional processing, and puts forth the attention schema as an example of a higher order representation, essentially merging GWT and HOT with AST as the binding, and contemplating that the synthesis of these theories approaches a standard model of consciousness. (A play of words designed to resonate with the standard model of particle physics.)
Graziano’s synthesis has generated a lot of commentary. In fact, there appears to be an issue of Cognitive Neuropsychology featuring the responses. (Unfortunately it’s paywalled, although it appears that the first page of every response is public.) I already highlighted the most prominent response in my post on issues with higher order theories, the one by David Rosenthal, the originator of HOT, who argues that Graziano gets HOT wrong, which appears to be the prevailing sentiment among HOT advocates.
But this post is about Keith Frankish’s response. Frankish, who is the leading voice of illusionism today, makes the point that, from his perspective, theories of consciousness often have one of two failings. They either aim too low, explaining just the information processing (a dig perhaps at pure GWT) or too high in attempting to explain phenomenal consciousness as if it actually exists, and he tags HOTs as being in this latter category.
His preferred target is to explain our intuitions about phenomenal consciousness, why we think we have it. (I actually think explaining why we think we have phenomenal consciousness is explaining phenomenal consciousness, but that’s just my terminological nit with illusionism.) Frankish thinks that AST gets this just right.
But he sees it as incomplete. What he sees missing is very similar to the issue I noted in my own post on Graziano’s synthesis: the affective or feeling component. My own wording at the time was that there should be higher order representations of reflexive reactions. But I’m going to quote Frankish’s description, because I think it gets at things I’ve struggled to articulate. (Note: “iconsciousness” is Graziano’s term for access consciousness, as opposed to “mconsciousness” for phenomenal consciousness.):
Suppose that as well as an attention schema, the brain also constructs a response schema—a simplified model of the responses primed by iconsciousness. When perceptual information enters the global workspace, it becomes available to a range of consumer systems—for memory, decision making, speech, emotional regulation, motor control, and so on. These generate responses of various kinds and strengths, which may themselves enter the global workspace and compete for control of motor systems. Across the suite of consumer systems, a complex multi-dimensional pattern of reactive dispositions will be generated. Now suppose that the brain constructs a simplified, schematic model of this complex pattern. This model, the response schema, might represent the reactive pattern as a multi-dimensional solid whose axes correspond to various dimensions of response (approach vs retreat, fight vs yield, arousal vs depression, and so on). Attaching information from the model to the associated perceptual state will have the effect of representing each perceptual episode as having a distinctive but unstructured property which corresponds to the global impact of the stimulus on the subject. If this model also guides our introspective beliefs and reports, then we shall tend to judge and say that our experiences possess an indefinable but potent subjective quality. In the case of pain, for example, attended signals from nociceptors prime a complex set of strong aversive reactions, which the response schema models as a distinctive, negatively valenced global state, which is in turn reported as an ineffable awfulness.
Now, Frankish is an illusionist. For him, this response schema provides the illusion of phenomenal experience. My attitude is that it provides part of the content of that experience, which is then incorporated into the experience by the reaction of all the disparate specialty systems, but again that’s terminological. The idea is that the response schema adds the feeling to the sensory information in the global workspace and becomes part of the overall experience. It’s why “it feels like something” to process particular sensory or imaginative content.
This seems similar to Joseph LeDoux’s fear schema. LeDoux’s conception is embedded in an overall HOT framework, whereas Frankish’s is more at home in GWT, but they seem in the same conceptual family, a representation, a schema of lower level reactive processes, used by higher order processes to decide which reflexive reactions to allow and which to inhibit. It’s the intersection between that lower level and higher level processing that we usually refer to as feelings.
Of course, there is more involved in feelings than just these factors. For instance, those lower level reflexive reactions also produce physiological changes via unconscious motor signals and hormone releases which alter heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, etc, all of which reverberate back to the brain as interoceptive information, which in turn is incorporated into the response schema, the overall affect, the conscious feeling of the response. There are also a host of other inputs, such as memory associations.
And it isn’t always the lower level responses causing the higher level response schema to fire. Sometimes the response schema fires from those other inputs, such as memory associations, which in turn trigger the lower level reactions. In other words, the activation can go both ways.
So, if this is correct, then the response schema is the higher order description of lower level reflexive reactions. It is an affect, a conscious feeling (or at least a major component of it). Admittedly, the idea that a feeling is a data model is extremely counter-intuitive. But as David Chalmers once noted, any actual explanation of consciousness, other than a magical one, is going to be counter-intuitive.
Similar to the attention schema, the existence of something like the response schema (or more likely: response schemata) seems inevitable, the attention schema for top down control of attention, and the response schema for deciding which reflexes to override, that is, action planning. The only question is whether these are over simplifications of much more complex realities, and what else might be necessary to complete the picture.
Unless of course I’m missing something.