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Learning experience: let’s take consciousness in from the cold

Despite being considered a scientific taboo in the past, the study of consciousness is slowly gaining momentum. emmakate deuchars

Until 20 years ago, scientists interested in empirical work on consciousness – our private subjective experiences – hid it by minimising or eliminating the “c-word”, the use of which was a career-limiting (or at least fund-limiting) move.

Consciousness defied scientific characterisation until, at the very beginning of the decade of the brain (1990-2000), the late Nobel Laureate Francis Crick and others began a dialogue that made an empirical science of consciousness viable. For 20 years, the mainstream science of consciousness could be generically called the ABC-correlates of consciousness, and the most widely published science is the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC).

It sounds very simple: we measure a subject’s neuron behaviour while a subject reports an experience. Repeatable patterns emerge. We publish.

Now, following a tsunami of empirical work, journal articles and books, you’d think we’d all be gleefully splashing about in the nascent science of consciousness, shedding light on the natural world like never before.

But we’re not.

The overall message is in the negative: there is still no account of consciousness that an engineer might use to construct a conscious machine.

We don’t know what the role of consciousness is in humans (or elsewhere). We don’t know what causes it. We cannot explain its kinds. We can’t prove consciousness is necessary, present and is/is not operating in anything (organism, inanimate object or artefact).

Despite the overall negative result, there are many remarkable findings and reasons for optimism. To convey these, however, requires a little background.

Zeal Harris

Consciousness 101

For technical specificity, the science of consciousness has converged on a small but effective terminology. A few terms, cherry-picked from philosophy, seem to have stuck.

To “do” science-of-consciousness is to pursue an account of what’s called phenomenal consciousness.

Phenomenal consciousness refers directly to, and only to, a very specific thing: the privately experienced first-person perspective each of us has. It’s a unified composite of the following kinds of experience:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Smell: olfaction
  • Taste: gustation
  • Touch: e.g. pressure, temperature …
  • Situational emotion: e.g. mad, bad, glad, sad …
  • Primordial emotions: e.g. hunger, thirst, fear, orgasm …
  • Imagined, dreamt and pathological versions of all of the above.

Each of these experiences has a qualitative feel to it from a first-person perspective. Subjective qualities are referred to as qualia in the plural, or quale in the singular. If the brain is regarded as a subjective content-provider, then the “contents of phenomenal consciousness” are a collection of qualia.

Your visual scene may involve the “redness of red”. The red quale is used to construct a redness experience. This introduces the next phrase: that it is always “like something” to have qualia.

In our wakeful state, we can ask “what it is like” to be a bat or a rock or a computer or a bacterium. But if you are in that portion of sleep that is dreamless then “it’s not like anything”.

Finally, we have the phrase states of consciousness. These are overall brain states such as coma, slow-wave sleep, REM sleep, vegetative and so forth.

The science of states of consciousness is not the science of phenomenal consciousness, although each informs the other.

If you are in a coma, all phenomenal consciousness is gone, and it is “not like anything”. Not being in a coma is necessary, but insufficient, to generate any kind of phenomenal consciousness.

The above basic terms apply to scientist and lay-person alike and, after 20 years of grinding in the machinery of critical argument, could be taught to all in the knowledge that they won’t be suddenly overturned.

A single science outcome

The ABC-correlates of consciousness confirm that, contrary to appearances, the physics that causes phenomenal consciousness is contained in and unique to the cranial central nervous system (the brain).

This means phenomenal consciousness is not delivered by the spinal central nervous system or the peripheral nervous system or muscles or the huge nervous system in the gut.

This result does not mean the external natural world or a subject’s body is uninvolved in the generation of phenomenal consciousness.

It merely means the physics that makes it “like something” is located within the cranium in humans. In the case of visual consciousness the implication is that you see with your brain, not your eyes.

There are a significant number of simple findings such as this, and they’re easy to report when the background basics are understood.

Ay, there’s the rub

Some 20 years ago there were no mainstream institutions with specialist training in consciousness issues and science. Now they exist, but are sparsely embedded around the world, usually in cognitive science and psychology courses.

In the non-biophysical sciences and engineering, the science of consciousness is essentially invisible.


This cannot last. Eventually, a form of fundamental physics must connect through the intervening sciences to neuro/cognitive science. Consciousness is expressed by a natural but trans-disciplinary process and, as such, training must be cross-disciplinary.

But beyond this is a much deeper implication.

Consider an explanation of scientific observation (empirical evidence) which we now know literally originates in the phenomenal consciousness of a scientist. Objectivity is revealed as ultimately mediated by the subjectivity of the scientist. To explain phenomenal consciousness is therefore (shock horror) to explain us – scientists and our ability to objectify.

If you chose to become a scientist prior to 1990, did you know that, for no reason ever given, you signed up for explaining everything in the natural world except scientists? Feeling a little uncomfortably sacred, are we?

Thankfully, 20 years on, we now get to apply normal scientific doubt to the centuries of taboo operating at the heart of our own activities.

A new experience

There are fundamental technical problems with the ABC-correlates paradigm and, taken on their own, these are complex enough. But the science of consciousness is also:

  • fundamentally entwined with the consciousness of scientists
  • central to the lives of all of us
  • poised to address the fundamentals of scientific behaviour in a way that has not happened in 300 years.

To rise to this challenge, I believe we are ready for a cross-disciplinary education in a few basics, and look forward to implementing a short tertiary course called Consciousness for Engineers and Scientists.

I like to imagine that one day it may end up being taught in secondary schools. Why not?

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