Breaking Down Human Consciousness

By Ross Pomeroy - RCP Staff
July 07, 2020
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Consciousness is a paradox – both intimately knowable and nearly impossible to pin down. As humans, we know we have it but haven't a clue how it arises. It's a facet of intelligent life so nebulous that it stretches both science and philosophy to their limits.

When something is this maddening, it helps to break it up into simpler parts. Christopher Tyler, a visual neuroscientist at the Smith-Kettlewell Brain Imaging Center and a Professor at the City University of London, outlined ten properties of human consciousness in a recent paper published to the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

According to Tyler, consciousness' first property is privacy. Simply put, there is no way (outside of science fiction) for any conscious being to completely share the conscious experience of another.

The second property is unity. As Tyler wrote, consciousness must "occur either in a single brain site or in a unified neural net of some kind in the brain, rather than in multiple independent brain sites."

A third property is interrogacy: the ability to formulate questions. Though not widely recognized by other consciousness aficionados, Tyler insists that this is an integral facet. "Complex systems other than the brain, such as galaxies, biological organs and the Internet, incorporate extensive recursive interactions and consist of energy processes that undergo development and evolution comparable to those in the brain. Although these systems can be said to process information, however, they cannot meaningfully be said to ask questions," he wrote.

Another property is extinguishability. Consciousness is not always on. For example, humans lose it when we fall asleep or are anesthetized.

Fifth, consciousness is iterative, in that it tends to repeat through states. Consciousness "is thus not a state per se," Tyler expounds, "but an iterative sequence of repeated sub-processes, each often entailing a resonance with previous ones."

Consciousness' sixth property is operationality. This is the "working" in "working memory," Tyler says. Consciousness is not itself a collection of memories, but the state which accesses and utilizes those memories for decision-making and cognitive thought.

The seventh property is multifacetedness. "Consciousness by its nature incorporates all varieties of human experience, from logical thought processes and imaginary journey planning through the irreducible qualia of direct sensory and indirect imagery experiences to the array of emotional experiences and primary internal states..." Tyler writes.

An eighth property of consciousness is complex interconnectivity. According to Tyler, "Consciousness is capable of exhibiting multiple connectivity from any facet to many other facets of human thoughts and feelings, unconstrained by logic."

Ninth, consciousness is autosuppressive. It tends to burn out if in one state for too long, driving the conscious being to seek novelty. This feeds creativity and ingenuity.

Consciousness' final property is self-referentiality. Our conscious selves refer to consciousness as a fundamental component of our experience.  Consciousness can recognize and refer to itself.

Tyler insists that all of these properties are testable, and provides a variety of ways for doing so empirically.

In the end, Tyler seems to ascribe to the notion that consciousness' ultimate function is to be a "gatekeeper for memory storage". Consciousness sorts, files, and recalls our experiences, using them to mold us over time into the beings that we are.

Source: Tyler CW (2020) Ten Testable Properties of Consciousness. Front. Psychol. 11:1144. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01144

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