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The True Nature of Consciousness Revealed

A new study explaining the nature of consciousness in terms of how we perceive our world aims at reconciling between the two well-known hypotheses proposed by researchers in the past. The paper is published in PLOS Biology.

Molecular Thoughts

Consciousness is claimed to be continuous by some, and discrete by others. The first theory suggests that it is a constant, and is uninterrupted. As for the second one, consciousness is described as being composed of discrete moments. The new research conducted by Swiss psychophysicists explains that neither is true, in an attempt to exposing a new model to explain how we process information. In other words, the two diverging hypotheses are not enough to explain what consciousness really is.

Study author Michael Herzog from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) says that the continuous and discrete theories cannot individually account for the reality of consciousness, specially that several studies analysing visual awareness contradict both. On the other hand, concepts taken from the two can be taken to explain the matter.

As per this new model, conscious perception of world events is preceded by unconscious processing of stimuli that make up time slices, lasting for around 400 milliseconds (ms). This processing, the analysis done by unconscious thought, is followed by the latter’s incorporation into conscious perception such that there is a transfer from the first ‘recording’ into what we are conscious of. The time taken for processing will depend on the type of data being dealt with.

Herzog explains that we are unaware of this unconscious processing simply because there is no benefit in knowing it, and that it would, instead, be confusing. As such, elements from the two hypotheses will be occurring simultaneously.

Herzog and his colleague write in their paper about the conscious and unconscious thought as follows:-

“According to our model, the elements of a visual scene are first unconsciously analysed. This period can last up to 400 ms and involves, amongst other processes, the analysis of stimulus features such as the orientation or colour of elements and temporal features such as object duration and object simultaneity.”

What this means is that we do not consciously perceive the world as we are absorbing in the information thereof for that brief moment. During that 400 ms, our senses are taking it all in without us being aware of it. Clarity of it only happens afterwards, when this information is presented to our consciousness in a time period lasting around 50 ms. At this point, the senses are not taking in any new information.

Where do the continuous and discrete hypotheses fit in? The researchers say that the constant transfer appears to be continuous because the brain makes the ‘time slices’ look like it.


One comment

  1. Peter Kinnon on

    As pointed out by others, there is really nothing new tin this that justifies the abundant hype which has followed the media release. Rather any kind of radical revelation as to the nature of consciousness it merely gives a bit more support to the model which has been around for yonks. Namely that sensory inputs are scanned, accumulated and filtered for current significant at lower levels before being passed up to the final arbiter of behavioural response, which, in the case of we snout-less apes is the reflexive mode (awareness of being aware) which ultimately stems from the evolution of complex language.

    Within the realm of biology, particularly in terms of evolution by natural selection, it becomes quite clear that the provision of a navigational feature that involves some degree of self awareness is required for any organism, including plants, prokaryotes, even the humble virus, so as to interact optimally with its environment. It is a measure of its fitness for the prevailing environment and subject to selection pressure accordingly. There is, of course, a great gulf between the level of self-awareness exhibited by our species in comparison to any other. Simply because the level of interaction with the environment required by our particular ecological niche is incomparably higher. As evidenced by the billions of artifacts and systems that have resulted from human activities. Activities arising from the fact that we happen to be not only self-aware but also aware of being self-aware. A feature that has co-evolved with complex language. And ironically, the very feature that leads many to fall in to the trap of recursive loops that induce mystical speculations and similar confusions. Moving away from the more familiar biological aspect we find that self-awareness can be very easily defined in terms of a feed-back loop comprising, in its most primitive form a sensor actively connected to an information processing device. Even a simple thermostat can just about be squeezed into this category. Or we can set up a webcam to look at its own computer. Information regarding the computer is fed back from the web-cam. Moving up, we can add motor output(s) to the loop. This brings us closer to primitive biological systems.


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