Study Guide

In the Theater of Consciousness

by Bernard J. Baars

In the Theater of Consciousness Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Few readers would be astonished to learn that reading requires an act of consciousness. What many may not realize is that much of the act of reading also depends on a variety of unconscious mechanisms. For various reasons, since the early years of the twentieth century, the bulk of psychological research has confined itself to description and analysis of these unconscious mechanisms, while dismissing consciousness as an ephemeral and essentially meaningless byproduct of the brain’s workings. By the final decades of the century, however, many theorists had come to realize that this approach is too limiting and that consciousness plays a central role in aiding an organism in its struggle for survival. In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind provides an overview for the general reader of the body of evidence that brings consciousness back into the research spotlight.

Evidence, for the scientist, does not exist apart from a theory. Lacking a theory, one lacks grounds to decide how to generate evidence, to specify which evidence is pertinent to the problem in question, and to understand what the evidence gathered means. Bernard J. Baars employs what is called Global Workspace theory as the framework within which he lays forth findings from various branches of research, including psychology, brain imaging, neurobiology, cognitive science, and philosophy. One of the theory’s early precursors was William James, the foremost American psychological theorist of the nineteenth century, ignored ever since by behaviorist-slanted academic psychology. Baars cites James’s Principles of Psychology (1890) numerous times throughout his book, showing how James, using simple introspection, generated ideas about consciousness that very closely match those of recent scientists using far more sophisticated techniques.

Ironically, though, introspection has returned as one of the techniques that brain scientists use, after having been dismissed for nearly a century as unreliably subjective, unquantifiable, and not consistently repeatable. When used with other more objective techniques, such as brain imaging and stimulus/response studies, introspection, or reporting of subjective experience, has proved valuable because it converges well with the objective data. It can thus be demonstrated that inner experience really does correlate with the outer world, at least for relatively healthy brains.

Yet much occurs in the mind that is not subjectively reportable—the vast domain of the unconscious. This contrasting phenomenon offers to the researcher a valuable method by which to define consciousness more precisely. Often, for instance, a stimulus that escapes conscious notice—a subliminal message perhaps—will influence the reporting of conscious contents. By pinpointing the crossover of unconscious contents to the conscious mind, researchers can not only locate those areas of the brain involved with consciousness but also specify the functions and tactics of consciousness. These methods—introspection, contrastive studies—join the sophisticated experiments of the modern laboratory, generating the exciting new data of which Global Workspace theory attempts to make sense.

At the core of the theory is a metaphor of the mind as a theater, with consciousness operating on a central stage while the mind’s unconscious components work their effects as either directors or audience. According to Baars, this model is very different from what he calls the Cartesian Theater Fallacy, in which the conscious soul conjoins the physical body at a single point in the brain located within the pineal gland. Global Workspace theory, he maintains, recognizes a wide variety of sources of the information that helps to shape conscious experience as well as a number of different regions that are directly conscious. Nevertheless, throughout the book he speaks of the focus of consciousness that stands in the spotlight on a central stage, which sounds very much like the Cartesian fallacy he rejects. Unfortunately, he sometimes leaves it unclear where the metaphor ends and physiological reality begins.

This is not to say that the metaphor is not useful in organizing the various aspects of the mind in an easily understandable way. The model places consciousness within a brightly lit spot of attention onstage, with the rest of the stage occupied by the data available to humans through their senses and by working, or short- term, memory—the sort of memory humans rely on to dial a telephone number they have just read. A number of experiments have demonstrated that while humans can be conscious of only one sensation at a time, all of their senses are being processed and filtered through unconscious channels, becoming available when attention is...

(The entire section is 1948 words.)