An exercise in detection

I had to watch this several times before I saw it, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t the first time. If you’re having trouble, it auto-replays at the original TikTok.

When you do see it, assuming you didn’t initially, what were you conscious of before you caught it? Does it make sense to say you were conscious of it the whole time, but not conscious of it in your consciousness? Or that you weren’t conscious of it until the realization? Is there a fact of the matter answer?

37 thoughts on “An exercise in detection

  1. I knew there was something going on, but I couldn’t catch it ‘til I had a clue.
    [warning: spoiler alert. Clue at the bottom]

    As to the question, parts of you were conscious of things the whole time, but no part of you was conscious of the significant change until you had organized an internal structure (unitracker) for keeping track of specific things over time. If you figured it out without a clue, you made a guess, organized the structure to track it over time, and visited that structure (were conscious of the results from that structure).

    I’m guessing.

    *
    [the clue: purple blue green]

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    1. I think we’re okay to discuss spoilers in the comments. Anyone who is reading them who hasn’t seen it yet is probably looking for clues anyway.

      I needed a clue too, but even after I saw someone say it was a change blindness thing, it still took several viewings to figure out which change. I spent time trying to make sure the number of dancers didn’t change. It wasn’t until I noticed that there was no color change between the last frame of the sequence and the first frame of the next run, despite the versions of the guy rearranging themselves at the end, that I realized what was happening.

      That answer fits given your views on the consciousness of component processes. The question is, what were we conscious of at the whole brain level? How many colors could someone identify after the first watching? Or details about the room?

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      1. Going in I was pretty sure it was a change blindness thing. But there’s something about the music and the motions of the person that draws attention. Even with the clue and multiple viewings I couldn’t see the change. I had to say to myself “okay, this color is there” and I could only track one at a time (maybe two with effort). I had to repeat several times to make sure it was happening.

        During the first viewing I was aware of 5 of the same person and 5 different colors, but I couldn’t have told you which color was where. It would be interesting to figure out how the brain does that.

        *

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        1. I think my initial consciousness was of the music and a gestalt of multiple dancers. On subsequent runs I noticed it was the same guy but with different looks. Focusing on the colors established that there were in fact distinct colors present. It took further effort to later establish that it was five dancers and then to establish the specific colors. While I was establishing all that on the various runs, I was also noticing his shoes, pants, face, hair, and other properties of the room.

          I didn’t really catch the color change until I noticed that the color of the shirt for the central dancer didn’t change on the replay, despite the rearrange just prior to the end.

          We tend to think we take in the whole scene, because the details are there when we check. At least until the scene is over and we try to remember those details.

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  2. Very nice! I must file it with other examples of change blindness. No I didn’t see it immediately, though I was primed my your question that something funny was going on, and had a vague feeling on the third repeat that it had to do with #######. I had to latch on to a specific one, to really see what was going on.

    None of which presents any difficulty to my favoured model of consciousness as a to-whom-it-may-concern “public address” system. Yes, there is a fact of the matter, whether something gets a mention in that system, but the degree of assurance in that mention may well vary from “um… not sure… but”, through “it would seem that”, all the way to “it is so!” — which equates to the degree to which we are conscious of something. It is not an on/off binary state. And, of course, some cases which clearly involve a degree of awareness, e.g. waving away a fly while concentrating on a task, may never get commented on by that system, and thus remain unconscious, unless pointed out by an onlooker.

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    1. That seems pretty close to global workspace type theories which, broadly speaking, I think show a good deal of promise. It largely equates consciousness with the contents of attention. In that sense, the changes are in our system, but not being attended to, until the pattern is finally identified, predictions made, and predictions then confirmed. I noted to James above, that I was initially looking for something related to the number of dancers, a predictions that eventually turned out to be false.

      But what I was most thinking about was Dennett’s multiple drafts model, which is itself a variant of global workspace. The most relevant part is that there’s no one finish line for something being conscious. Whether content is or isn’t conscious is always an after the fact determination, depending on whether it was able to have wide ranging causal effects throughout the system.

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      1. It is a variant of global workspace — the fairly radical Halligan & Oakley variant. And, yes, along with Dennett (and his “fame on the brain”) it entails conscious content being something post-factum, a result of plenty of unconscious processing, reconciling and revising. As noted elsewhere, I prefer Baars’ own public broadcasting analogy, because unlike global workspace, it does not imply some place in the brain where “consciousness happens”.

        I could never understand the fuss about Libet’s experiments. If one drops the quite unmotivated assumption that a decision and an awareness of the decision are the same event, his results cease to be surprising. But dropping that assumption leads one to the notion that, couter-intuitively, consciousness is not a decision maker. Took me a while to adjust to that thought, but some introspection based on this new viewpoint, eventually allowed me to grasp that I am not my consciousness..

        This class of theories has some further advantages. (a) Evolutionarily, consciousness can be seen as an overlay of pre-existing mental structures, rather than some completely novel structure of its own, eliminating the mystery of its appearance. (b) Viewed as a public system broadcasting, consciousness makes sense in IT engineering terms. As an information system grows in complexity, originally peer-to-peer connectivity makes sense, but from certain point it becomes advantageous to overlay that with a to-homever-it-may-concern noticeboard/broadcast.

        So, a win-win-win. 🙂

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        1. I should have added… Kahneman’s system1 and system2 map nicely on all of this too. System1 relies on peer-to-peer comms and thus is quick and non-conscious. System2 uses the noticeboard/broadcast to coordinate decision making and thus is slower but can be more reliable because it makes it less likely that some relevant factors get overlooked.

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        2. Mike, I agree with just about everything you say here.

          I hadn’t heard of Halligan & Oakley’s variant before. A quick google pulled up a paper with a title: Giving Up on Consciousness as the Ghost in the Machine ( https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.571460/full ), which sounds pretty promising to me. I also see Peter Hankins did a post on their views, which I commented on. ( https://www.consciousentities.com/2019/01/unconscious-and-conscious/#comments ) So apparently I have heard something about them.

          I’m with you on Libet’s experiments. I do think consciousness has causal influence, but it only could be described as having that when there’s time for deliberation. When quick responses are needed, we fall back on older evolutionary mechanisms, definitely System1 mechanisms.

          My only issue with the public broadcasting system analogy is it implies one source. That is true, but it also seems like there are a lot of intermediaries. It seems more similar to when a message someone posts goes viral, in that it’s magnified by large numbers of people. But the broadcast is a good conceptual step on the ladder of understanding.

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          1. An analogy is not a model, so is allowed to be imperfect. 🙂 But, yes, you are right in that criticism. That’s why I tend to use “noteceboard/broadcast”.

            We seem to disagree on just one point. Having been nudged in that direction by H&O, I no longer see a need to attribute *any* executive powers to consciousness. I see it instead as a merely passive overlay (noticeboard/broadcast) used by non-conscious processes for to-whomever-it-may-concern notifications. This seems to me preferable to Dennett’s “fame on the drain”, even though he probably means the same thing, because fame has no purpose other than, well, fame.

            The H&O paper that crystallised things for me was “Chasing the Rainbow: The Non-conscious Nature of Being” (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01924/full). My only problem with their view is purely terminological: they characterise consciousness in their model as “epiphenomenal”. That strikes me as a surprising misuse of a perfectly good philosophical term. Lacking executive powers is not the same as being surplus to requirements, or doing no useful work, or having no effect — whichever definition of epiphenomenal one might use. When I read a post of yours, that post does not *do* anything, it takes no decisions, but that does not make it epiphenomenal.

            Be it as it may, I have grown very comfortable with the view that my consciousness has no executive powers at all. After all, I do not consciously decide what thoughts to think — thoughts (and words!) just come. To this, I often get the response: but consciousness decides what to think *about*. To which my response is: it doesn’t “decide” it merely records the thought “let’s think about X”, which came as non-consciously as all thoughts do; and that record can be dislodged at any time by other thoughts, coming just as spontaneously — we call it “getting distracted”.

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          2. On whether or not consciousness has any executive control, this may to some degree be a matter of semantics. It depends on exactly what we include in “consciousness”. For example, Michael Graziano’s attention schema theory exists on top of GWT type frameworks, but it’s largely a model used for top down attention, although I suppose we can say that while the schema itself might be in consciousness, the executive use of it isn’t. Anyway, I used the phrase “causal influence” which I think is largely the same as your “used by non-conscious processes”. We agree it isn’t epiphenomenal.

            I’ve noticed that scientists and philosophers tend to use the word “epiphenomenal” in a different manner. A scientist usually means functionally epiphenomenal. So when a biologist says a trait is epiphenomenal, they usually just mean it has no adaptive function. A philosopher’s meaning is typically much more severe, taken to mean having no causal effects whatsoever, not even non-functional ones, similar to abstract objects in platonism. The philosophical version is what’s needed for things like philosophical zombies. That said, even functional epiphenomenalism strikes me as too strong a description here.

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          3. Fair enough. Then we don’t really disagree — how boring. 🙂

            You’ll have to forgive me for a degree of allergy to “cause”, “causation”, “casual” etc in this sort of discussion, acquired in debating such matters with semi-professional philosophers in Oxford (UK). Causation is another of those seemingly straightforward words, which gets murkier the more you dig into it.

            You are right, of course, that the boundary of the concept of consciousness is more a matter of semantics rather than anything else, as things stand, anyway. But I do prefer to insist on excluding all decision making from it, rather than just some. Two reasons… (a) We know that some will have to be excluded and excluding all provides a clear boundary and hence a clarification of terminology. OTOH if one only excludes only some, then there is still a great scope for being at cross-purposes due to misalignment of concepts — which happens a lot in philosophy. (b) Excluding all decision making agrees with my introspection. Now, I know — introspection is a pretty dodgy tool, but I am inclined to give it some weight when it leads to a conclusion other than originally expected, as was the case for me.

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          4. Don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll find things to disagree with. Actually this response may generate some disagreement.

            After re-skimming Oakley and Halligan’s rainbow paper, I do find their take functionally epiphenomenal. I think they self label accurately. And their breaking out of “personal awareness” seems to be positing a sort of ghostly residue which they admit leaves the hard problem unsolved. They really lose me when they admit their take involves our description of our personal awareness having nothing to do with our actual personal awareness. It doesn’t seem like a view of consciousness providing information to non-conscious executive processes, but of consciousness being irrelevant. It’s far beyond anything I’m onboard with.

            In terms of what decisions to include or exclude, it makes sense to exclude reflexive or habitual decisions. I could even see a case for excluding deliberative ones, but if so it seems clear that deliberative decision making makes heavy use of globally broadcast information. I actually think imaginative deliberation initiates and influences a lot of that broadcasting. That might be a much closer relationship than you’re thinking.

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          5. Good try, but I suspect we are not actually disagreeing.

            Firstly, having now had a look at the H&O’s 2021 paper you referenced, I agreed that it makes consciousness to be an epiphenomenon. I read i as a shift from the 2017 paper I referred to earlier, where they say “Though it is an end-product created by non-conscious executive systems, the personal narrative serves the powerful evolutionary function of enabling individuals to communicate (externally broadcast) the contents of internal broadcasting”. Looks like I’ll have to restrict my agreement with them to the earlier paper.

            Having said that, even that distinction may be a matter of semantics. I have no problem with our identification with consciousness being either an evolutionary accident, or a perhaps unavoidable but functionally unnecessary feature of our mental architecture. That, to me, does not make consciousness itself an epiphenomenon. I’ll have to read that 2021 paper properly when time allows, to see whether this is what they are getting at there.

            As for deliberative thinking, that very much depends on what you mean by that. I guess one probably cannot get more deliberative than solving mathematical equations, but what I see in this activity from my current perspective is questions being posed and answers being posted. Neither the selection of questions nor the search for answers involved in that is actually done within consciousness: both just come, just as ordinary, undirected thoughts just come. That, at least, is how it works for me in every kind of deliberation. But, of course, we must be always mindful of the fact that verbal communication can very effectively disguise differences in mental processes. You may know that lovely story of Feynman and Dyson discovering that they were estimating time duration of shortish time intervals in radically different ways — it was a real eye-opener for me.

            Be it as it may, the bottom line here is that just as with Libet’s experiments, we should not assume that awareness of a mental event (any mental event!) is identical with the event itself. Because we identify ourselves with consciousness, we naturally conflate the two, but my very strong gut feeling is that such an identity is in fact impossible as a matter of principle. And if awareness always comes after the fact (as, indeed Dennett has been arguing all along), then no decision making can take place within the magic circle of conscious awareness.

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          6. On H&O, you might also want to take another look at their earlier paper. They separate out “personal narrative”, which has the evolutionary role (a pretty limited one in their view) from “personal awareness”, which they seem to equate with phenomenal consciousness. They essentially describe “personal awareness” as a type of epiphenomenal property dualism, which they end up explicitly acknowledging in the new paper. I thought the title of the new paper referred to an attack on the idea of the ghost in the machine, but it actually refers to surrendering to that idea.

            Just for clarification, would you say we ever make decisions based on the contents of consciousness, even if the decision itself is strictly not made within consciousness? If not, what adaptive role would consciousness be playing?

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          7. True, H&O do refer to “epiphenomenal property dualism”, though as far as I can see they are (or were) actually talking about predicate dualism (a la Davidson).

            I once had a somewhat unexpected exchange with Marianne Talbot (another Oxford philosopher), when I expressed my surprise at agreeing entirely with her lecture on the mind/body problem, despite her self-description a few years before as a “property dualist”. To this she rather sheepishly admitted that at that stage she had not been aware of the predicate dualism option and was using “property dualism” just to differentiate her position from substance dualism. And, indeed, predicate dualism does not appear to be widely known, so such a confusion seems quite possible. I read H&O as actually meaning predicate dualism and tagging it with “epiphenomenal” just to abjure property dualism as such.

            The notion of consciousness as a to-whomever-it-may-concern information system certainly does entail our decisions being based, among other factors, on information being shared by it. So, yes, consciousness contents do matter in decision making and thus consciousness is in this view evolutionarily advantageous. You may recall my two additional reasons for liking this kind of an approach to the matter: (a) it makes it easier to see how it could arise through evolution and (b) it makes evolutionary sense from an IT architecture point of view.

            In short: consciousness as such is not epiphenomenal. Whether our identification with consciousness is just an evolutionary (or even cultural) accident, I have no idea, though I suspect it isn’t — it may be indeed be needed as an enabler of communication with others (as H&O point out).

            However, to my own surprise, I have gradually convinced myself that all of my actual decision making takes place outside of my consciousness, while very much taking its contents into the account.

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          8. Thanks for the clarification! At least on this front, we seem to be on the same page.

            I have to admit my own grasp of the distinction between predicate dualism and property dualism isn’t very good. But I’m a reductive monist, so neither has historically resonated with me.

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          9. Well, predicate dualism *is* a monist position, though not necessarily a reductive one. But at least in Davidson’s take on it, the non-reduction applies only on the level of types (conceptualisations) rather than type instantiations (a.k.a. tokens) and some (though not all!) types may well be fully reducible too — thus there is no tension with scientific reductionism. My gut feel is that non-reductive monism is the correct view. In other words that minds are indeed weakly emergent.

            Anyway, we seem to have identified a point of mild disagreement. 🙂

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  3. There was a sense of an unsettling shift, but I couldn’t pin point it, and might not have without someone pointing it out. I mean, watch it once, move on. There’s so much other distracting stuff, the shoes, the replication of the kid, the music. That whole thing is like the gorilla and the basketball toss. Too much going on.

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    1. Good points. I think the distractions were baked into the design, all to prevent the change from capturing our attention. It’s very similar to the gorilla video in that sense. Change blindness is really a special case of inattentional blindness.

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  4. This is interesting, Mike.
    I still need several repeats to just take in everything in the clip. For the life of me, I can’t even tell exactly the nature of the room.
    It reminds me of a similar experiment that involves a chimp joining a dance or something when one was concentrating on colours or ball position. You don’t see it happen.

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    1. Thanks Mak. It is an interesting video. I had to watch it at least a dozen, maybe twenty times before I really picked up that the shirt colors were changing. Everything in the video is designed to distract you from that. It definitely is a lot like the ball throw counting / gorilla video, which is what I think you’re remembering.

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    1. So you were conscious of the colors the entire time, but not conscious of the changes in your conscious experience? If so, what does it mean to say you were conscious of them during those changes?

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        1. To elaborate on the second question, consider what we usually take as evidence for something being conscious, that we can self-report it, or make other behavioral decisions based on it. Even “no-report” methods have to be based on previous self-report data. So, imagine what likely would have happened on your first viewing if I’d asked you to report on the shirt color of the central dancer every few seconds.

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          1. I would have given a different answer after a few of your questions, and I only would have needed a single viewing. I find this entirely consistent with what I was getting at – don’t you?

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          2. Above you said you were conscious of the colors the entire time, just not the change. But if asked to report the colors periodically, you agree you’d be able to detect the change much sooner. So something’s different.

            Setting the question of when it becomes conscious aside, what we can say is your sensory systems register the colors the entire time. But only once your attention is focused on the colors (whenever that happens), do you remember them and notice the changes.

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  5. Back to that splendid video… The colours of the five guys/clones shift in synchrony, retaining their relative positions on the “colour circle”, which may be a reason why the change is so hard to spot. After all, we know from Edwin Land’s “retinex” experiments that our visual perception relies on contrast between colours in neighbouring visual areas. I don’t know enough to be sure, but perhaps in Land’s terms the contrast between the changing colours does not actually change or doesn’t change enough to trigger our attention?

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    1. That’s in interesting observation. Definitely from what I’ve read, what matter to our nervous system is the distinctions rather than any absolute judgment about color. So you might be on to something there.

      Although absolute color can matter in cases where we want to identify something. But lighting and other contextual factors can really complicate this pre-conscious judgment. The infamous dress incident a few years ago, not to mention all the visual color illusion pieces out there, are all good examples.

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  6. I think my experience is similar to others here, Mike. I had the feeling I was watching something “glitchy” but couldn’t pinpoint it. I kept feeling like some “trick” was happening when the players spun around at the end of the verse or whenever that was–been several days since I watched it and am writing this–but I couldn’t quite identify it. On the fourth or fifth loop I decided to ONLY watch the dancer at the front and the second or third time I did that I realized the glitch had to do with colors and that they were continuously shifting. But it’s interesting I had a sense “something” was going on after probably the second viewing. Also I was primed by your post of course.

    It reminds me of getting injured in a way, or even nearly injured. Sometimes something happens and a sort of shock intervenes at the conscious level, but you still get that immediate, dull sensation “SOMETHING HAPPENED.” It’s like a dull thud that pounds on the door of the thinking mind. This usually involves a moment that could have been dangerous. The fully conscious processing happens later, but some “part of me” was immediately conscious of the event and all of its implications. I tend to call this aspect of myself “body consciousness” as I think it is quite real but not of the same order as our thinking mind. The thinking mind that refers back to the experience and can subsequently break it down and perhaps try to explain it is not one and the same for me with this body consciousness. In a sense the body consciousness is a little like a separate consciousness to which I have some sort of window, but it is also not separate from my thinking consciousness either because I’ve witnessed my body spontaneously make physiological changes based on events that are in essence only meaningful at the level of the thinking mind and its identity and plans, etc.

    As an example of the latter, there was a time when I was a participant in a Native American ceremony that required an extended period of time without food or water. I wondered, of course, if I could do it and how it would be and all of that. Would I be starving the whole time or what? But the weird thing was: my body actually ceased being hungry nearly a day in advance and just kind of autonomously shifted into another mode. It just kind of slowed down like it was matching speeds with a slower train. Now I had plenty of food available the entire time. We were very busy beforehand doing things at the camp, in the midst of summer, so a pretty good amount of calories were being burned. I just didn’t desire much food all of a sudden. It was this uncanny feeling that my body had a sense of things and adjusted.

    I have since imagined/wondered if the experience of death might not be very similar: a natural process the body anticipates and graciously modulates to ease us through it. I have at times felt this “body consciousness” is every bit if not more intelligent than the thinking consciousness with which I tend to identify…

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    1. Michael,
      Sounds like you might have had more of an inkling than most of us. I’m pretty sure if this hadn’t been shared with the priming verbiage, and wasn’t being retweeted by neuroscientists and philosophers, I probably wouldn’t have noticed anything but a cute dancing video. (The TikTok account seems to be the actual dancer, which makes me wonder whether he actually intended to produce a change blindness case study.)

      It seems like there could be multiple neuroscience interpretations of your body consciousness feeling. On one level, we have reflexive reactions happening at the midbrain level, habitual reactions at the lower forebrain level, and then higher level ones at the cortical level. The reactions from the lower levels manifest in the higher levels as feelings, albeit not always one that give a sharp impression of what’s going on. That’s unlikely though in this case, because all the color sensitive light cones in the retina project to the thalamus and then the visual cortex.

      The other explanation, and this is coming from a GWT (global workspace theory) perspective, is that some of the realizations are probably not winning the attention competition, but maybe they’re coming close, enough to excite what one neuroscientist called the “global playground”. There’s no guarantee that content ever makes it to higher level attention, but it might manifest in the ways you describe.

      On death, it’s hard to say. It seems evident that the brain stops working well in the later stages, and this probably comes with some benefits that might amount to the same thing you’re pondering. I know people who lose consciousness from low oxygen conditions (such as having their blood flow restricted at the neck), but are able to later recover, often report a sort of euphoria in the final stages. Of course, that’s based on memory, which itself is probably not working well under those conditions.

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    1. Can’t say. The TikTok link is to the actual dancer, I believe. Might be worth asking him. It is kind of cool that something like that can now be done by a guy with a TikiTok account.

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