Extended Consciousness and the Value of Neuroscience

From January 2016 to August 2017

We have known since at least the mid-1960s that the brain responds more to stimuli it was not expecting. Novel stimuli capture our attention. This well-known fact forms the basis for several contemporary theories of theories of mind, including Andy Clark’s and Tony Chemero’s notions of embodied cognition. Clark argues that our brains are fundamentally ‘prediction machines’, while Chemero holds that noticing unexpected events is key to understanding the larger cognitive system of which our brains are one part. Both Clark and Chemero also believe that expecting some event to occur in the world is somehow tied to our conscious experiences.

Chemero, like psychologist J.J. Gibson before him, advances the radical thesis that cognition and consciousness are actually two sides of the same coin. However, identifying consciousness with cognition either means consciousness exists at multiple levels and in multiple places in the world—which is counter-intuitive, or more work needs to be done to delineate consciousness from cognition. Still, while these more radical views do not solve any of the hard problems associated with explaining consciousness, there is much useful about phenomenal experience one can learn from this perspective. Importantly, recent neuropsychological research in action selection and other areas can help us to refine notions of consciousness from an ‘embodied cognition’ perspective.

Neuroscience data tell us that consciousness is not identical to all cognition; it is not even identical to all brain-based cognition. Instead, it is deeply linked to one very important part of our cognitive processes: perceiving our world just prior to action. We distinguish objects in our environment based on how we (potentially) interact with them. For example, we perceive living things by their visual features and our concomitant emotional responses to them, but inanimate objects based on how we use them functionally. But now we can go further: we can tie perceptual differences not only to the differences in how we interact with animate and inanimate objects, but also to decisions we make regarding how to move and to consciousness itself. This project aims to articulate exactly how neuroscience data can help us understand and refine how consciousness fits into a model of embodied cognition.

In addition, embodied cognition approaches often assume a non-material understanding of the mind and mentality. The mind is not comprised of neurons or brains, but rather is found in the interaction of the brain with the world. It is both subjective and objective at the same time. A second part of this project is to explain how something like neuroscience, which presupposes that there are only physical things in the universe, fits with these non-physicalistic models of the mind. Obviously, one view is not going to reduce into the other, but there are other ways of understanding how our scientific models can inform one another. This project will also try to outline what these ways are and how they are important for our basic understanding of the universe and of scientific progress.

Image: Patch cables, Nic McPhee

Valerie G. Hardcastle

Principal Investigator