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Does Consciousness Have a Function?

Perhaps, the most fascinating question about consciousness is the Hard Problem. It’s the problem of explaining why and how subjective experiences arise from complex electrochemical interactions happening in the brain. It is Hard because the working of the brain should be fully described in term of physical interactions, leaving no room for subjective experiences to fit within our current views of the physical world.

This theoretical position is so powerful that scientists often cannot escape from the view that consciousness is an epiphenomenon that plays no role, but just appears as a by-product of information processing in the brain. Even if consciousness researchers may not explicitly admit that they take this position, it is a position difficult to argue against.

The Hard problem is contrasted with Easy Problems, which are about explaining neural mechanisms of objective and observable aspects of consciousness such as the report of conscious perception or voluntary action. Easy Problems are the kind of problems that neuroscientists are usually working on.

The problem of Easy Problems is that they are not easy at all. To work on Easy Problems, we first need to know what kind of functions are associated with consciousness. Many authors have discussed cognitive functions that may require consciousness. The list includes non-reflexive behaviour, intention, imagination, planning, thought, short-term memory, attention, metacognition, emotion and so on. However, there is nothing decisive about such a list at this moment. In fact, empirical studies have revealed quite a range of cognitive functions can be performed outside of conscious awareness even when the stimuli relevant for the task are not perceived consciously. Even functions thought to be tightly linked with consciousness such as attention, working memory, and executive control can be performed in the absence of conscious awareness. Such empirical findings further corroborated the belief aligned with the theoretical cul-de-sac of the Hard problem.

Nevertheless, we should still keep searching for biological functions of consciousness. Easy Problems may not be as sexy as the Hard Problem (because the name suggests they are easy), but the importance of solving Easy Problems should not be undermined. Specifically, we need to understand what is enabled or caused by items that enter consciousness as oppose to those that remained unconscious. This fundamental problem about consciousness is termed the Hard Question by Daniel Dennett, and relatively little attention has been devoted to directly answer this question. Without solving the Hard Question, we are not even ready to attack Easy Problems.

To appreciate the Hard Question, we should distinguish consciousness as a biological phenomenon and conscious experience. When we consider functions of consciousness, they are the functions that are enabled by stimuli that enter consciousness or the functions that can be performed only in awake humans or animals. Functions in this sense should not be confused with the question of what kind of effects conscious experiences (or qualia) exert on physical systems. Because of the conflation of these two different meanings of functions of consciousness, sometimes the validity of asking the Hard Question seems to be questioned. But once this distinction is clear, we are ready to tackle the Hard Question as a target of empirical research.

In our recent article published in Neuroscience of Consciousness, we aimed to offer our tentative answer to the Hard Question by hypothesising possible functions of consciousness. While many cognitive functions are known to occur without consciousness, several lines of empirical evidence in neuroscience and psychology revealed tasks and conditions in which consciousness appears to be necessitated (e.g. trace conditioning). In the paper, we started off by reviewing existing ideas about functions of consciousness and then aimed to propose a unified account for the diverse consciousness demanding tasks in terms of a common underlying function.

The gist of our hypothesis (called the Information Generation Hypothesis) is as follows: the function of consciousness is to generate possibly counterfactual representations of an event or a situation using generative models of the environment and the self, which are learned through interactions with the environment. The term counterfactual here is used to refer to situations or events that are not happening in front of the agent at the present moment. Such representations allow the agent to interact with the information stored from the past (i.e. short-term memory) or to plan ahead through mental simulation of possible future (i.e. imagination or planning). Importantly, this formulation of functions of consciousness explains in a coherent manner a range of non-reflexive cognitive phenomena such as intention, imagination, planning, short-term memory, attention, curiosity and creativity. Another important implication of this hypothesis is that it is a departure from the traditional view that the brain is a passive information processing machine. Instead, the hypothesis suggests that contents of consciousness are the results of active reconstruction of the reality.

Finally, our depiction of the role of consciousness opens up a new avenue for understanding the relationship between consciousness and (general) intelligence. A functional advantage implemented by the information generation architecture enables an agent to perform mental simulations for planning future action sequences for novel goals. This function of consciousness endows the agent with the ability to achieve novel goals that are difficult to attain only with a collection of reflexes. This flexible application of knowledge (i.e. generative/forward models) is a hallmark of intelligent behaviour and hint at the origins of consciousness in the course of evolution.

Feature Image credit: Geralt via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. […] Click here to view original web page at blog.oup.com […]

  2. Sitaram Agrawal

    It has become a fashion to describe consciousness in different possible way by different means without experiencing the same. It is something like describing sweetness without experiencing what sweetness is. The famous story of a few blind people describing a big elephant in their own way. One calling the elephant as a big piller by touching the leg, another calling it a rope and so on.
    When the human mind goes beyond the senses and completely calm and there is just awareness, is the first step for comprehending CONSCIOUSNESS.

  3. Alan chee

    The mind devolves functions to the brain as the brain evolves being influenced by the conditions in our universe. Consciousness is the manager for the brain’s evolution and feedback loops to the mind.

  4. Peter van der Werff

    Neuroscientists, psychologists and spiritual people have different definitions of what is consciousness. So, please, first solve this disparity. 😇

  5. Elizabeth Shanta

    Speculation isn’t science, like all of us the scientist too need to go beyond modulated ego consciousness where the impossible – possible.

  6. ThereisaGod

    Epiphenomenon, my arse. The brain is an interface not a source.

  7. Daniel Zanou

    We cannot understand consciousness without apprehending the inward-man. We are not solely flesh. We know all humans are born unresponsive and unconscious. Any baby who fails to pick the first breath will see his body thrown away.
    What’s entering the body? Do you believe something enters the body at birth?
    Why do we die? All humans lose consciousness in three ways: sleep, shock and death. Do you believe sleep and death are losses of consciousness?
    We should start our quests from there. Scientists are not asking the right questions to get helpful answers. Science is objective and step by step we are coming to speak an unique language when it comes to consciousness.

  8. Evelio Reyes

    And the point of the article is…?

  9. Paul Brennan

    The brain is nothing more than an interpreter. The brain just like us humans does the best it can. The answers regarding what consciousness is or is not will never be gleaned from the brain. Consciousness does not reside in the brain/ body. The brain/body resides in consciousness. Everything resides in consciousness. Also the brain and the mind are not one and the same. Until this is accepted very little progress will be made in these endeavors. I know some will be offended or upset, but I didn’t make the rules. Ones perception is a variable that must be included, if not running in circles will be the result.

  10. Charles Harwood

    I wonder though how you explain the ability of those trained to perceive the information of someone outside of themselves even at great distances? Perhaps consciousness is not only a function of the brain or other organ of the body but a system within a larger system – the “mainframe” of consciousness that connects us all.

  11. Robert Pullman

    Perhaps subjective experience arises via resonance.

  12. YON - Jan C. Hardenbergh

    I really like the idea that the purpose of consciousness is to update the generative models used in predictive coding.

    It is a better articulation than Dehaene ” Consciousness is needed for neurons to exchange signals in both bottom-up and top-down directions until they agree with one another. In its absence, the perceptual inference process stops short of generating a single coherent interpretation of the outside world.”

    And it fits with Barrett’s definition “your brain is wired to model your world, driven by what is relevant for your body budget (allostasis), and then you experience that model as Reality…”

  13. . John fralich

    Prakriti is feminine specific awareness the doer, a subject object relation.purusha is non specific male awareness.high indifference is aloof with no inclination yet siddhis are on the table.self is still pure subject. Object is vacant.wolf” consciousness without an object and without a subject” pure being comes without support . As children, we look into the sky. The known doesn’t fit. The unknown is really us as the unknowable. A religious connotation ultimately doesn’t fit.it becomes an egregore to which man is creator and created. Pure awareness is sunyata ,without sign, and a name given by Ramana to a man. When pure consciousness meets pure consciousness, there is no thing.

  14. Om

    Pure consciousness people are still in the jungle those are stay camly without unnecessary distract other creatures or other people or ather things , only they utilise what Upsulately necessary of things..

  15. […] Read More […]

  16. Satya Narayan Singh.

    Consciousness is behind life principle. It is one and the same in all the lives .it is one and all.. It cannot be seen on any instrument.

  17. Neil

    Many artists would say that imagination and creativity is an unconscious process rather than a conscious one. Indeed there are a few scientists whose inspiration has come from dreams and unconscious inspiration.

  18. Sphere

    The only function of the aspect of consciousness they are talking about (and calling consciousness) is that of selecting which rising thought is given control over the “hardware” at the moment.

    Consciousness itself is easy, and not even emergent. Consciousness as we feel it arises from the interacting consciousness of our cells. It is a continuation of the initial impulse of intent (action) which underlies the forming of what we call matter; which is nothing more than patterns of action which tend to repeat. That is to say we are conscious simply because there is nothing but consciousness.

  19. Cynthia Schreiber

    Consciousness is like love. One cant describe it. It’s from the Universe and a mystery like love. It’s real as real love. Love101

  20. Stephen J. Bauer

    I think the better question is what function does the consciousness fulfill? The function of the consciousness is survival, pure and simply. Without consciousness to drive the biological life force, the body would die off quite quickly.

  21. Edgar Ancker

    I think that Tibetan Buddist’s have more experience in this field , than anyone alive now. The Science of Mind.
    What did the Buddha have to say about this most interested subject.

  22. Byron Varvarigos

    Does consciousness have a function?The question is inane: without consciousness the question could not have been asked, the article could not have been written, and comments could not have been made or viewed. My comments of frustration apply no matter the definition of consciousness. Duh, duh, duh. No, I haven’t read the article. I might, if a better question is asked.

  23. Roy. T

    The function of consciousness is to monitor the system and find ways to increase its efficiency

  24. Tam Hunt

    This strikes me as a valid hypothesis with a lot of data to back it up. My view is that consciousness is the problem-solving leading edge of any organism and many problems that required conscious intervention at some point have been taken over by subconscious agents, thus freeing up the conscious mind for steadily more complex tasks, at least in cephalized vertebrates. Rinse and repeat and lo behold you get something as incredible as primates who can type complex thoughts on keyboards.

  25. twitter.com/gmybird

    It was 20 K years ago, that a Pre Vedic Saint Ashtavakra declared “I am the Consciousness”. Saying “I have the Consciousness” a;ways raised question like ‘then who is the ‘I’.

  26. MR PETER CODNER

    Begs the question consciousness of what?

  27. […] Nonetheless, we regularly see scientific publications proposing a function for consciousness. A recent Oxford University Press blog post, for instance, claims that ‘the function of consciousness is to generate possibly […]

  28. […] Nonetheless, we regularly see scientific publications proposing a function for consciousness. A recent Oxford University Press blog post, for instance, claims that ‘the function of consciousness is to generate possibly […]

  29. […] Does Consciousness Have a Function? […]

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