There’s a strange paradox about consciousness. On the one hand we tend to believe that it’s a completely private space; so I can never somehow get access to your consciousness and you can never get access to mine. On the other hand it’s the only part of our mental life that we can actually talk to each other about.

So says the neuroscientist Chris Frith in a podcast titled ‘What is the point of consciousness?’ in the always thought provoking series Philosophy Bites.

So what is it for? We like to think consciousness is in the ‘driving seat’, that we are ‘consciously’ making our decisions and choosing our actions.

But Frith points out that lots of psychology experiments show that consciousness seems to lag behind decisions and actions, rather than the way round we like to believe; which is driving and directing them. It seems a lot of what we what we do is automatic: driven by subliminal processes, autonomous brain processes, reflexes and the subconscious.

So what’s the point of it? The hard core view, Frith points out, is that consciousness is just an evolutionary by-product and has no actual ‘function’. As Victorian zoologist, biologist and anthropologist Thomas Henry Huxley said:

“Consciousness has as much function on human behaviour as the steam whistle of an engine has on the workings of the engine.”

But the fascinating alternative thesis Frith develops, is that the purpose and evolutionary benefit of consciousness is not to drive but to post hoc rationalise our actions. After all, as Frith says, the whistle might not affect the engine itself – but it certainly draws the attention of others.

And through a series of clever psychology and neuroscience experiments Frith shows that:

  • People recall things more accurately when they compare notes with others;
  • We change our subsequent actions based on our conscious (and often inaccurate) retelling to ourselves and others of why we did things.

Frith’s fascinating conclusion is the point of consciousness isn’t real-time decisions; it’s to reflect with others on what we (and they) did, and to learn from it – as highly social beings.

So rather than consciousness being the solitary business of ‘I think therefore I am’, its purpose is to help us reflect and explain – so we can navigate and learn from each other. Consciousness isn’t about being ‘locked in’ on our own – with Descartes’ evil demon – instead it has evolved to help us make our way in our social and sociable human world.

It turns out we seem to actually hover above and slightly behind what we do; rather than right in the thick of it. Perhaps consciousness is indeed the conscience on our shoulder.

2 thoughts on “On the shoulder

  1. Hi John, I don’t know if you’ve read David Eagleman’s “Incognito” . He sees the different parts of the brain competing against each other to find solutions and thinks this is the way forward for AI as well. A taster here.

    1. Terrific Stuart! I read somewhere some time back that we’re more a bundle of Apps than a tidy Operating System; which has to make sense when you think of how capabilities and brain structures will have evolved. I’ll watch a bit of David Eagleman and find out more… Hope you’re safe and well.

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