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.
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.