The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Bernard Baars. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Bernie Baars. Bernie is the co-founder and editor in chief of the Society for Mind Brain Sciences. He’s also a former senior fellow and current affiliated fellow in theoretical neurobiology at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California. He is best known as the originator of the global workspace theory, a theory of human cognitive architecture and consciousness. Welcome, Bernie.
Bernard: Thank you, I really like being here.
Jim: Yeah, I’m glad to have you on. You didn’t know this until a few minutes ago, but I’ve been reading your stuff for 25 years, back to some of the earlier papers, and books and things. The global workspace theory, which you are the originator of, has always for me been the… I call it my default theory of consciousness when I’m thinking about this sort of stuff. The evidence that you present is clear, it’s reproducible even by people at home to some degree. While, obviously, the science of consciousness is still a work in progress, I’ve always felt it to be a really solid piece of work.
Bernard: I should mention, obviously, that Alan Newell made up the term global workspace as a computer architecture for AI. I borrowed it from him, and then I started to realize that consciousness, with all the features, all the kind of standard features that we had learned really over at least a century of psychological research, that consciousness somehow solved what I thought were the problems, and the evidence.
Jim: Yep, and it seems to hang together today. We’re going to mostly be talking from Bernie’s newest book, On Consciousness: Science & Subjectivity, which is a republication with some substantial updates of his most important earlier works. For those of you that want to go deeper, get the book, it’s on Amazon. This is the third in our series on the science of consciousness. In December, we had on Emery Brown, who works at the intersection of consciousness science and anesthesia. Last week we had on Christof Koch on the integrated information theory of consciousness, and coming up next month will be Antonio Demasio on new developments in his theories of consciousness. More folks will soon be announced in this series, but today let’s dig into the work of Bernie Baars on the global workspace theory. Let’s start, as you do in the book, with a little bit about the history of the scientific study of consciousness, how far back have you track this thing?
Bernard: Well, that’s an interesting question. I know one of my colleagues tracks it back to 1980. But that’s ridiculous, because every single philosophical tradition in history, as far as I know, talks about consciousness very intelligently. There are lots of contributions from Aristotle, and from Plato, and from the Indian tradition that goes back roughly to the same period of time, and I’m sure from China, if I understood Chinese tradition better than I do, and so on. Consciousness is not something fancy, and other worldly. Although there’s lots of other worldly interpretations that people have, of course, throughout history.
Bernard: Much earlier, actually, than the beginning of written history. I tend to dislike the idea that this is a presentist kind of a thing, that we’re the first ones there. No, we’re not the first ones there, we’re the last ones there, maybe. But in any case, we have this humongous rich tradition, which was really quite empirical. It is not based in fantasy, which is just a usual thing that academic scientists tend to believe, everybody but them is unscientific. That’s not true, there’s all kinds of people throughout human history, as far as we know it, which is obviously a very limited amount, who have talked about this.
Jim: I remember my freshmen humanities course where we talked about Plato’s metaphor of the cave, which one could interpret, in fact, you actually mention in the book, as a theory of consciousness.
Jim: Indeed, now more recently the science of consciousness kind of went through some interesting twists and turns. William James’ famous book on psychology, maybe put too much emphasis on consciousness. He seemed to think that if it wasn’t conscious, it wasn’t psychology, which I think we later found was wrong. Then we got sidetracked again in a different way by the rise of the behavioralists later in the 20th century, where the study of consciousness was actually taboo. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Bernard: Well, you’re exactly right about that. William James wrote his great book, The Principles of Psychology, in 1890, just 10 years before the end of that century. It’s a terrific book, it is so relevant today that I routinely quote from it, I think it should be part of the curriculum, actually, for psychology students. There have been a number of other very important books at various times, but the 19th century was the great century for research involving consciousness. Hypnosis, for example, and conversion disorder, this whole history. Helmholtz did his work on the sensory physiology in that century, it was just a great century. Then everything fell apart after William James died in 1910, and two years later, John Watson comes up with his Behaviorist Manifesto, it is called. It appeared in the leading theoretical journal in American psychology at that time.
Bernard: It had a bang effect, and in the context of the progressive era of that time… Remember this is all kinds of revolutionary activity is happening all over the place. It’s a time of the Bolsheviks in Moscow, and it’s the time of social democracy in Western Europe, and in the United States, it was called the Progressive Era. we had Woodrow Wilson, we had Teddy Roosevelt, and this sense, this kind of excitement that people had about the promise of science. The only trouble with that was that it handicapped kind of the natural psychology that we all learn as children, the psychology of people having conscious thoughts, and feelings, and feeling pain, and crying, and laughing, and so on. That’s our common sense psychology, we tend to dismiss it in the academic world, and I think that is a major mistake.
Bernard: Maybe we’re much too arrogant, and narrow in the things we focus on. The are pros and cons on those kinds of things, sometimes you really do have to focus down and get down to the dirty details. It was a kind of a combination of ingredients by the time I got my PhD at UCLA, and I think very quietly… This is a guess about what was happening at the time, I think the taboo was exactly as you describe it. It was a taboo against the concept, and the word consciousness, and anything that was called mentalistic. But everybody was thinking about it… Not everybody obviously, but what I believe by now is that quietly, behind the scenes… It’s like sex in the Victorian age, you’re not supposed to talk about it in company, but you’re secretly thinking about it.
Jim: Indeed, and then sometime around 1980, there did seem to be at least the beginnings of a turn back. Francis Crick, he had the cover of a Nobel Prize, and later, Jerry Edelman also with the cover of a Nobel Prize, decided that, hell, they could say, “Screw these guys,” and go work on consciousness if they felt like it. That, in some ways, was the turn. It’s interesting, I was doing little career counseling this morning. Literally this morning, with a brand new newly minted neuroscience PhD who’s very interested in the science of consciousness, and would love to find a postdoc position that could combine his strong background with bioengineering and neuroscience with the science of consciousness. But his advisor warned him, “That’s a good way to ruin your career.” That’s still today, I did point him to some institutes where that is not verboten, but it wasn’t very many. It’s oddly enough, even though there’s been real work going on for 40 years now, an advisor to a newly minted PhD at a pretty reasonable university advised a student against working in that area. While the work has begun, the work is not complete.
Bernard: That’s for sure, the whole cloud of associations surround the word consciousness, there’s so much richness there, and there’s so much that’s been neglected, or simply drowned in false ideas, and these taboos. It wasn’t just the word consciousness that was taboo, anything that was mentalistic was taboo, as you know. I once looked it up in [Rajay’s 00:10:11] Thesaurus, where you can see the semantic classifications of English words. It turns out that about 60% of the content words in English are mentalistic, they refer to states of mind of one kind or another.
Jim: Which, of course, is quite amazing that there are still people who other people take seriously, who deny the existence of consciousness.
Bernard: It is extraordinary, yes, and that also… One of the really interesting things about that is, taboos, which are all over the place, every culture has its taboos, as you know, and they’re kind of blind spots in our belief systems. That’s very important, because it also has to do with consciousness, of course, the things that we shut out of consciousness. Either maybe we’re taught to do it, or we’re punished for looking at an attractive person. What we do typically in tribal societies, of course, is quickly look away from the attractive person, or maybe we’ll get punished, or maybe the attractive person will just be snooty and ignore us. That involves control… trying to control, at least, what comes into consciousness. Taboos are also a great topic for people interested in this.
Jim: That’s a very good ironic point. One last kind of philosophical note, before we jump into the body of global workspace theory itself, you do a quick run by on the concept of the philosopher’s zombie. I enjoyed reading Dan Dennett on the job he did of demolishing them. Why don’t you explain to the audience what a philosopher’s zombie is, and what your thoughts are on it?
Bernard: I wish I could explain it, because I have never understood it, it never made sense to me. Sometimes that intuition that something that people seem to passionately believe, that it doesn’t really make sense. Sometimes that skeptical intuition turns out to be right, and so I have compounded my ignorance of the philosopher’s zombie by ignoring it, because I couldn’t figure out how to turn it into something tangible, and scientifically tractable. The philosopher’s zombie, I think, lives in the heads of philosophers, including the philosophers who deny that they are conscious. The whole thing is a very odd phenomenon historically, of course, because philosophers all the way back, 25 centuries and longer, have been profoundly interested, and very creative, very productive, in their thinking about consciousness.
Jim: Yeah, for the benefit of the audience, the idea of a philosopher’s zombie… You see this a lot in the philosophy parts of consciousness, the idea of imagine someone just like yourself, except they’re not conscious. They do all the same things, and maybe every single person in the world except you is a philosopher’s zombie doing exactly as they would do as if they were conscious, but they’re not. As I mentioned, Dan Dennett, in his quite interesting book Consciousness Explained, which to my mind doesn’t quite explain consciousness, but does do some good things. It does do a remarkable job of demolishing the concept of the philosopher’s zombie on the grounds that anything that acted just like you and me, pretty much by definition, must be conscious. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be able to do the things it does, the consciousness is a fundamental biological phenomenon. If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t do what we do, so he did a very good common sense, but scientifically based demolition. Sounds like you came at it from a more just aesthetics almost or sensibility perspective, that this made no sense, so why spend any time thinking about it?
Bernard: Yeah, I think one of the keys for me has been to simplify things, and limit things, but not in an arbitrary way, in a way that’s very content specific. If you’re Galileo in 1600, you want to find out about the speed of the objects falling and gravity. What you do is you work very hard with it, and try to drop things, and so on. It’s very hard to do that when you have a free falling object, so what he did is construct these inclined planes, wooden planes, and take these wooden blocks, and let them slide down at different angles of the incline planes.
Bernard: He’d start off with a fairly horizontal plane, and then he’d go up to the… with a fairly vertical one. Of course, the acceleration increases as we get more and more vertical. Then you can measure, even given the very poor timekeeping tools of that time, 500 years ago, but you can approximate the acceleration of gravity. Galileo knew about that, because Aristotle had talked about it 2000 years before that. Which I always think is really funny, because people read each other on these kinds of things, and then wondered, very cleverly, and very honestly, about what was really going on. Galileo, in some sense, cracked the problem of acceleration in earth gravity that Aristotle had posed in the 4th century BC.
Jim: Let’s take that idea of limiting, and simplifying, and now we’ll turn to global workspace theory. As you present it, particularly in the original book, the 1988 version that’s incorporated into the On Consciousness book. You specifically say that global workspace theory is a functional model of consciousness, what it does, how it does it. You avoid directly wrestling with the so-called David Chalmers hard problem. Could you kind of draw that line a little bit more clearly than I was able to do there on what global workspace theory addresses, and what it has chosen not to address?
Bernard: There’s all kinds of things that it doesn’t address, of course. I mean, this is kind of in the nature of an early theory, that you have to be very selective, and you have to ignore all kinds of wonderful, interesting, questions. You hope, of course, that once you take the first step, those questions will begin to clarify, and various people will jump on it, and try to solve it. In the case of consciousness, we have a whole bunch of mysteries around meditation techniques, for example, that have been practiced in many, many cultures for many, many years. It may go back before the beginnings of recorded history, because it’s a very natural thing to do. That’s an unanswered question, and very fortunately we are beginning to get some cracks in that problem. Not due to anything that I’ve done, but it is very nice, and I’m happy to see it.
Bernard: That’s the only one of the mysteries. If you read any serious novelist, or any serious poet, essentially, you get another entree into a world of consciousness. There’s not a single theory, obviously, that can explain all of those things, it’s impossible. You have to pick and choose, and what I focused on was something that people tend to struggle of, although it’s right there in front of us. That’s what is called the limited capacity problem, and I choose to think that it’s about consciousness. Other people prefer the word attention, but it doesn’t make much difference. The question of limited capacity is… I actually had a near accident, a near head-on accident driving a car in Virginia several years ago, when it was a hilly road, and so the oncoming traffic was obscured whenever it was on a hill, compared to where I was.
Bernard: I couldn’t see much of the coming traffic, I did the left turn when I thought it was safe, and almost had a head-on accident with a small truck. I just rolled down my window and started to apologize to the other driver, because I felt like an idiot. One of the things that’s really going on there, of course, is this weird limited capacity thing, which does not make Darwinian sense. No, Darwinian evolution has to do with adaptation, various kinds of adaptation. The most adaptable organ that we have is the cortex, which fills about 80% of the space in the cranium, so it’s enormous, it’s humongous. If you believe that has no function, then you don’t know anything about Darwinian evolution. Because it has to have extremely important functions, because the cost of storing all that nervous tissue, those 100 billion neurons, those… I believe it’s a quarter of a quadrillion synapses by now, it keeps on increasing.
Bernard: You’re not wasting that biological gold without getting some benefits from it, and so I started to see that as a cost benefit problem, and nobody else seemed to care much about it, because they took it for granted. They knew all the same evidence, of course, they probably knew more of their evidence than I did. But they shrugged their shoulders and essentially said, “Well, attention is limited. It’s so limited that people routinely have accidents where they die as a consequence of this remarkable limited capacity feature of our brains.” You ask yourself, of course, [inaudible 00:20:47] are for survival, and therefore reproductive success, just like everything else in biology. You have to ask yourself, what is the payoff, biologically speaking? Because we’re talking about this very ancient structure, in mammals, the cortex is 200 million years old in evolutionary terms.
Bernard: Obviously, it wasn’t the same organ 200 million years ago, but it was substantially the same, because we can study mammals that are similar to the [inaudible 00:21:21], the transitional mammals 200 million years ago. We know a lot, or we can guess a lot about that, and yet, if you look at kittens growing up together in the same litter, one of the things that they love to do is to ambush each other. What an ambush is, you hide yourself away, and you wiggle your bottom, because it’s so exciting to watch this idiot brother or sister wandering into your trap. Then you jump the victim as soon as the victims heaves into sight. That is an exploitation, predatory exploitation, of limited capacity, because the victim cannot scan every piece of the environment. There are entire species, predatory species, that work by ambush predation. There’s got to be some kind of payoff for these costs. Going extinct is the ultimate cost, from a Darwinian point of view, and so what are the pros to balance the cons?
Jim: I’m going to bring this forward from later in my topic notes, that kind of argument is almost exactly the argument made by John Searle, the philosopher of consciousness. Yet, nowhere in that whole long book of yours do you ever referenced Searle. I was just kind of curious whether you’re familiar with his work, and what your thoughts are on it?
Bernard: Well, I knew John, and I like John, I enjoyed his company, and so on. The thing is that my excuse, ideally, I would do my homework, and read all the philosophers, and so on. But we really have a limited capacity as human beings over a lifetime, over years, as well as over seconds, and so we allocate our resources. I came to the conclusion, after many exposures to philosophy at the time, that philosophers had painted themselves into a corner, and that they… Because they decided, essentially, that philosophy was not supposed to deal with evidence. This happened with Bertrand Russell around 1900, and with a number of other people who followed Russell in Britain. Of course, Britain had this huge prestige, British academia, this huge prestige, and British academia then became extremely behavioristic.
Bernard: Academia then became extremely behavioristic in its own way, extremely skeptical. There are exceptions of course, but the general feeling was very much like the behaviorism that I would encounter in college, for example. And it made no sense to me, I thought they were very intelligent people who have talked themselves into a corner, very much like the scholastics in the medieval scholastics in various countries, because there’s scholasticism all over the place. Scholasticism sensibly comes down to semantic arguments that have no decidability, so you can’t testify or falsify the notion of a creator God, for example, or you can’t falsify the notion of an other worldly soul.
Bernard: So those ideas are appropriately left out of science. There isn’t much that I think should be left out of science because there’s so many revelatory things that we can do in reasonable science and obviously it’s a big debating society, nobody gets to dictate anything. It’s just a bunch of people arguing with each other, but they’re arguing over facts and they can argue in such a way as to be found out to be wrong and being wrong is really, really important in science and in math. If you can’t find out that you’re wrong, then you can’t let go of that and try something else.
Jim: Indeed. And yeah, I sort of agree with you on philosophy. In fact, people listen to the podcast regularly. One of my favorite little phrases which is, when I hear the word metaphysics I reach for my pistol. But I actually do exempt both John Searle and Dan Dennett as philosophers who write extensively on the philosophy of consciousness with full cognizance and full reference to the scientific literature. Searle’s good introductory book is the mysteries of consciousness and Dan Dennett’s book, consciousness explained are both not the norm of self-referential philosophy. So I just threw that in before we move on. Now let’s again, dig a little deeper into your theory. So get away from philosophical and framing ideas. One of the key concepts in Global workspace theory is a conscious content. Could you talk about what that means?
Bernard: Well, I suspect that I inherited that from the 19th century, when everybody talked about… actually way back when, Aristotle talked about it in his book on the psyche, and it’s kind of intuitively obvious. It’s all the conscious sensory events, that we experience and then it’s also the indogenous sensory events. Inner speech is a good example of something that most people, as far as I can tell, have a good introspective sense of. And if you just went in your own mind, what little inner voice is he talking about? That’s the one. And you can study the inner voice, the inner speech, that you can show… actually people showed 50 years ago, that you confuse similar phonemes in inner speech, so that you confuse an S with an F for example, because frenetically, they’re quite similar and from an articulatory point of view, they’re also very similar, they’re sibilants, so-called sibilants, because basically they have no vocalization, they just have air hissing through a slit.
Bernard: So Fs and Ss and choose and shoes, all those things are sibilants and we confuse them when we give people clever little experiments with nonsense syllables. Well, it’s not really a nonsense syllable. Let’s say it’s Sam and then we test people on fam with an F-A-M, they will tend to confuse those with each other under certain conditions. And so we can actually prove that inner speech resembles external speech, observable speech. And now of course, we can actually record the brain activity in broca’s area and wernicke’s area, broca being for speech production, wernicke being for speech perception. And those have been known since 19th century to have that very, very specific function for speech. So we can now observe it using… they keep on getting better, the brain imaging methods, just keep on improving in precision and coverage and temporal accuracy and so on. So increasingly we can actually see activity in the speech areas of the cortex, exactly when people are doing what we ask them to do in terms of speaking and listening.
Jim: Yep, interesting example, how does conscious content correspond to another similar concept which is objects? One of the things that anyone who’s thought carefully about their own cognition and their own consciousness comes to realize, is at least in humans and I believe there’s a significant amount of research that indicates it’s true for higher mammals for sure, is that our conscious perception of our world is seemingly automatically converted to objects. Here, I look at my messy desk and I see three cans of empty sparkling water, a bottle of Poland water, and my paper cup that I had coffee in, I don’t just see raster images or curves or lines or anything, my brain forces, the creation of objects. How does concept of objects relate to the concept of conscious contents?
Bernard: Well, consciously perceived objects are one kind of conscious content, of course. And to explain that, I have to be circular because I have to… by now, I think I understand that, an area IT of the so-called visual hierarchy in the visual brain is the locus individual hierarchy, it’s sort of fairly high up in the visual hierarchy that starts with very simple pixels and then goes on to look for edges and identify shadows and colors and all that kind of stuff. And then you get to objects finally and objects, people and buildings are three categories that live pretty high up in the visual hierarchy, right before it gets into the hippocampus, which is the output of the official hierarchy in many respects, it’s one of the outputs of the visual hierarchy. So evolution at some point, probably very, very early on, settled on object representations as a nice sort of intermediate level of the perceptual world that would allow you to make sense of the difference between a fish and a snake for example, very important for people to tell that difference.
Bernard: And they are treated in the visual system as different objects, which is to say they occupy a different neural vocabulary if you will, in the visual system. The visual system spreads beautifully into semantics also, but semantics has to do with things that are not object categories, they are abstract categories. So if we’re asking about object categories, my only recourse I think is to go back and say, well, this must have been a very useful adaptation because look at how dependent we are on even the metaphorical use of objects. I think about consciousness as a bridge between the disciplines, well, that’s an object metaphor, and it’s nice because people can easily visualize their favorite bridge between two shores and so we end up with an enormous conceptual vocabulary, semantic vocabulary, simply based on similarities to the perceptual objects.
Bernard: Perceptual objects are special, I should say because they have what philosophers call qualia, which is color and texture and any of the features that scientists have studied for centuries. And philosophers tend to talk about qualia as mysterious and inexplicable and they never understood that either. So I suppose in a certain sense, what you’re pointing out is that I have built my own little territory in the world of discussion of consciousness and basically if it’s not falsifiable from my point of view, then it’s not something I’m going to study and learn about, so that explains my ignorance by the way. And not entire ignorance because John Searle is very good, Dan Dennett is very creative and has managed to work outside of the self-imposed confines of practical philosophies. Dan is very, very important. I still have trouble with John’s book so, maybe you can explain it to me.
Jim: Oh, that would take a while. We’ll have to save that for another time. We’re kind of running a little behind our schedule anyway, but hey, offline, I’m happy to explain my view. I do consider myself a Searlerian more or less, with respect to the science of consciousness.
Bernard: Yes. Interesting.
Jim: Yeah, in fact, I quote from Searle regularly, that consciousness is a biological function, as you point out, it’s expensive, both energetically and in genetic information, it is a biological process that must have some important purpose. And Searle to be intentionally controversial, likes to say, just like digestion. Right? And then I like to add, the rut corollary, it often has the same output. That gets you pretty close to the core of the Searlerian perspective, is that consciousness is a biological process that has to pay for itself, just like digestion corresponds to various pieces; the liver, the stomach, the intestine, the lips, the throat.
Jim: Consciousness isn’t a thing you could put your finger on. You can’t go, take someone’s brain open and say, Oh, there’s the consciousness. Rather, it’s a process that operates dynamically based on various components of different parts of the brain, all of which contribute to a greater or lesser degree to something we call consciousness. So let’s move on again. Let’s dig one step deeper into your theory. An important part of the way you’ve presented Global workspace theory is as the theater metaphor. Now, again, referring to Dennett, Dennett famously destroyed the Cartesian theater, but you make a very careful distinction on how your theater isn’t the same as the Cartesian theater. So talk about the role of the theater metaphor in global workspace theory and how you use it and why it’s important.
Bernard: Well, it is a useful prop for thinking about consciousness. It’s very concrete. We know about theaters, theaters historically are very, very important and buildings and hills and so on, have been used as theaters by human beings all over the world. If you’re the leader of a gang of Vikings, for example, what you would do is get on top of one of the ships or maybe climb a hill or even climb a tree and yell out to everybody else, exactly what you thought was the right destination for your fleet of pirates.
Bernard: That conception is really very fundamental. By the time you get real theaters, that’s saying Shakespeare’s time, they’re very arbitrarily put together. You got the famous Circular inn and you drive big wagons, horse-drawn wagons into the Circular inn, and the audience sits in the windows of the inn and the actors struck their act upon the stage of the wagons. This led to the first purpose-built, specially built theaters in Britain. But the concept is very, very basic in human cultures, it’s all over the place. It’s the thing where we display the Pharaoh’s magnificence, so that everybody could bow down and worship the Pharaoh who would be somewhere on top of the pyramid, or maybe didn’t want to climb all the way up, but any case, would be somewhere above the heads of the common folk. And everybody would be taught at a certain risk of punishment, they would be taught basically to bow down and worship and carry out the orders.
Bernard: That kind of thing occurs, I think in pretty much all the city-based cultures that we know about. And it also occurs even in, of course in cultures that are tribal, that don’t have cities necessarily. As soon as you get a city, you get a place for somebody to stand up and tell you what to do. And because you also build walls, you have control over the people you’re talking to, unless they rebel against you of course, which happens quite often. So then they get a chance to control the city.
Bernard: So that’s basically by now, I would call it a media metaphor and not so much a theater metaphor, but it’s a medium, like television and radio and the web. And in fact, of course, the connectome, the street plan of the cortex, looks very much like the web, it has network features that are similar to the web in some respects. And that’s very interesting and totally unanticipated by the way, we had no idea that, that would pop out at some time during our lives. When we were first trying to think about these things, the cortex was just this mysterious organ that we had gross anatomy. You could look at it with the naked eye and we had microscopy of course, people studied it very diligently with a microscope, but we did not have the connections, we didn’t have the synopsis, we didn’t have the neurotransmitters, the chemicals that also serve to signal things and so on.
Bernard: So it was a black box in a sense. You did not really try to understand the cortex. And I should say, when I say that, that there were great exceptions to that. There were people who did try to understand the cortex very, very carefully and they were very often neurosurgeons, people who actually would take off the top of the skull, so they could operate on the brain and do it very safely and without risk of infection and so on. And my great hero in that respect, is a Canadian neurosurgeon from Montreal who’s name is Wilder Penfield. And Penfield was the first one, he actually worked with a team of course, at the Montreal Neurological Institute. But he was a first to explore in a medically ethical way, the brains of epileptic patients who were so badly ill with the epilepsy that they were suicidal or they might have died from the seizures or something along those lines. So these were medical extreme cases, people who just needed to be helped.
Bernard: And the only known way to do that was to try to find what was called the focus of the epileptic storm, which is the location where the epileptic seizure starts. And if you’re a surgeon and you could find out the source of that epileptic storm, then you could very, very carefully excise what was usually sick tissue, either dead or diseased tissue, and excise it, cut it out, put everything back together. And typically people after such surgeries would not realize that anything had changed by the way, which is also, was a very, very great insight from that time and very baffling, of course because you can’t do this with a computer, right? You can’t pull out the circuit board or something like that and expect the thing to recover, but human beings and other animals that have this capacity to recover because we’re biological entities and there were no physicians running around 200 million years ago, trying to fix this up, if we got injured.
Jim: Yeah, let’s go back a little bit to the theater metaphor itself, which I did find to be useful in explicating some of the other aspects of the theory. So one of the ways you described the theater metaphor is you have the theater, which is, let’s call it consciousness, or the plane of consciousness and on it are some conscious contents, objects, and other things, inner speech, retrieve memories, et cetera. And then you have a spotlight that moves from one conscious content to another, and then you have an audience, which I believe you represent as the non-conscious or unconscious, so I prefer the word non-conscious because it doesn’t get tangled up in the Freudian word unconscious. And then behind the scenes, you have the director and the stage manager and the crew and all that sort of stuff. And if you could just weave those pieces together for us and how they touch various parts of the Global workspace theory.
Bernard: Well, in the theater metaphor, of course all these actors are metaphorical, so that you don’t have actual actors, speaking from the stage, what you have is something analogous to that, but something that has to manifest in neural tissue, we have a lot of evidence actually that the neural tissue that’s most important there, is the cortex and especially the posterior half of cortex, which is where the conscious senses… I’m going to use this as an abbreviation, I’m just going to talk about the conscious senses because we all know what they are, but that’s not an explanation of any kind, it’s just a way of referring to vision and hearing and touch and inner feelings by the way, are really, really important, like cravings and feelings of love and fear and so on. But there are well-defined regions of cortex right now that correspond to the classical senses. So we no longer have to talk about these things in abstract philosophical terms, because we actually know cortical regions to which the sensory systems project.
Bernard: So the visual system, very, very important for humans and chimps and monkeys and such, people, not people, but species that are related to us. So vision is so important for us and it projects to the back of the cortex. In fact, a lot of the rear end of the cortex is dedicated to visual processing, which is a little odd actually, because you might imagine a different kind of evolutionary history, where hearing would be more important and hearing is important for us, especially in terms of speech perception, which is one of our species specific specializations, as you know. Humans are the one species with highly developed and highly regulated development of speech perception and speech production, it’s hard to make other critters, even very intelligent critters do speech because we have so much evolutionary preparation for that.
Bernard: But in any case, so vision projects to the back of the cortex, hearing also projects to the back of the cortex, not the same area quite but sill the back of the cortex, touch does, external touch, which is something that Wilder Penfield discovered with his surgical patients and essentially all of the sensory stuff goes to the back. And then the question of course is, well, the front of the cortex is either motor control, which is fundamentally important for humans obviously, or it is planning and future directed activities. So if you’re planning a certain route, let’s say you’re a Cro-Magnon, 30,000 years ago in what is now Southern France and you know perfectly well that in order to get to the place where you want to go, you have to deal with a hostile tribe that’s going to get in your way, and they will rob you of all your good stuff, if they get a chance.
Bernard: So you have to plan around, that particular danger and that kind of geographical planning is something that not just humans, but other mobile animals have to do. In our case, we don’t have much of an inherited image of the geographical world, but we build one up very quickly. Just like when your cat goes out into the garden and starts to sniff at the bottom of a plant, to find out who’s been around and whether dangerous or not, your cat is building up a smell representation of the garden and of course the most important thing in the garden from the cat’s point of view is can I eat it or-
Bernard: … from the cat’s point of view is can I eat it or is it going to eat me? That kind of thing is a mammalian specialty. Mammals are good at it. Other animals are good at it too, of course. We’ve kind of inherited that from ancestral mammals. This whole story begins to have a very significant biological, evolutionary life development course that we are learning so much about from the biologists.
Jim: You mentioned a few times animals, cats, et cetera. What does GWT say about animal consciousness? It’s kind of amazing to go back to someone like Descartes and he thought animals were machines and had no consciousness. That seems kind of unlikely to me. What is GWT and your own thinking on that topic?
Bernard: Well, you have to realize that GWT is a scaffolding, it’s a framework. And as we learn more evidence, we can try to fill in the framework. One of the great acts of filling in, as far as I’m concerned, is the emergence of cortex, over the last 50 years or something like that, as the organ of consciousness. GWT, as such, doesn’t say anything about it. It doesn’t pinpoint the cortex, which fills 80% of the volume between your ears. Cortex is just sitting there for all we knew at that time. But then we started to learn more and more and more about the cortex. And now it turns out that you can consider the system of the cortex, which is called the corticothalamic system, you have to tolerate all these long words here. The thalamus looks like it’s at the center of the cortex, it’s not. But anatomically it’s located there.
Bernard: The corticothalamic system is a single resonant system. And resonance is a very, very powerful idea from physics. It has all kinds of implications. And of course, biology makes use of the tools that the physical world presents us to evolve organisms that can survive and reproduce reasonably well. The physics is [inaudible 00:50:40] relevant to biology at all.
Bernard: What I should say, what I hypothesize at this point, is that when we become conscious of a single star on a dark night, and lets suppose we’re camping out, so we don’t have the light pollution from a nearby city. And we’re smart enough to keep our eyes closed for half an hour so we can darken that and not look at the fire, so our eyes are really at their optimal. Then we look at this single star on the dark night. And we can see it actually very, very well because all it takes is a single photon coming from that star and bleaching a pigment inside of a nerve cell in the fovea, which is the high resolution part of our eyes. And we can actually become conscious of the light from that single star on a dark night.
Bernard: Now, the biological apparatus that makes all that possible is very important and very interesting. One of the implications of the recent evidence, I think, is that you get a kind of explosion of the representation, the neural representation, of that single star. And the French team run by [foreign language 00:52:12], what they propose is to call this an ignition. I just called it an explosion. They call it an ignition, which works a lot better in French I’ll bet. But it doesn’t matter what you’re calling it. Of course, the phenomenon is what’s important.
Bernard: And this ignition appears to occur high up in the object representation part of the official hierarchy. So it’s exactly the place where we see cars and people and houses, these profoundly important objects in our world and our visual world. And if you do the proper experiment, very, very carefully, which they have done, what you can find basically is that the conscious star, I should say the star that becomes conscious causes this ignition high up in the visual hierarchy and an identical visual input into your eyes that does not become conscious, but it’s physically identical, does not show this ignition high up in the visual hierarchy.
Bernard: The hypothesis is that this is the broadcast. This is where all the information has been analyzed. And you’re finally on stage and you have your lifetime opportunity to show your stuff. And so you start to sing or you start to perform a speech or something like that. That is the time when your personal activity has become available to everybody sitting in the audience. And their name may not pay attention, which is an interesting question. But if you sing loudly enough and beautifully enough, and you get a good backup from your chorus or musicians or whatever you have, you’re going to reach the brains of all the people sitting in the audience. That’s the fundamental idea. It’s a very basic idea. It’s not a new discovery. But what’s really new of course, is that we now know the brain basis for that kind of idea.
Jim: Yeah. So that’s some sense the core of GWT, right? Which is that when something gets into consciousness beyond some threshold closely related probably to attention, then something happens that causes the object and attention to be broadcast out into various regions of the brain where the very many non-conscious processes either pay attention to it and do something or don’t. Is that a fair description?
Bernard: Yes, it is. Let me correct something that didn’t answer to your previous question. You were asking about the spotlight. And that goes to a very kind of a subtle distinction that you need to make when you start to think with real clarity and theory, one of the things you need to do, and everybody historically has done this.
Bernard: Newton, for example, at some point had to make a distinction between velocity and acceleration, which are very closely related, but they’re so importantly different from each other that they have to receive different names. And so in this particular case, we have this beautiful, common sense vocabulary to talk about human psychology. One of the terms we use obviously is attention. Another term we use is consciousness. And so the question from a theoretical point of view is you have to define your terms with precision and then be consistent after that point.
Bernard: It’s just like in mathematics where you say, “For this paper, I’m going to call X the following. And I’m going to stick with it. And if you catch me being inconsistent, well, you’re going to reject my paper and that’ll be too bad. I have to maintain consistency.” So at some point fairly early on, I was confronted with that kind of choice because people were constantly mixing up terms that I thought were different. And you know about this because people are still using euphemisms of all kinds for consciousness. Sometimes people talk about perception instead of consciousness. But empirically, we now know that consciousness is orthogonal to sensory perception, so that we can devise experiments in which we can compare conscious sensory input to unconscious sensory input. And that allows us to distinguish between those two conditions.
Bernard: So attention, I decided early on, and basically invited my readers to use the word attention for a selection of conscious content. And because you have to make sense for people, the rationale for that is, “What does your kindergarten teacher say at the beginning of the class?” Was a she at least for me. She says, “Please pay attention, kids.” And as a result of following and understanding what she just said and following her instructions, we become conscious of her. And so in that usage of the word attention, attention is a kind of selective thing. And consciousness is the result of a selective process.
Bernard: And that’s why it’s useful to think about the spotlight. Let’s imagine a little guy up in the rafters steering the spotlight to whatever is the most important and interesting thing going on on stage at any given time. And you can direct the spotlight. People will get very mad at you, especially the actress will if they don’t get the spotlight. And the director tells you basically where to put a spotlight.
Bernard: So there’s a certain subset of all the things we call attention that involve voluntary control of access to consciousness. And let me repeat that phrase. We are able to voluntarily decide certain things to pay attention to. So if you’re a child and your clothes are itchy and uncomfortable, your mother might say, “Well, just don’t pay attention to it. Let’s play a game.” Let’s distract the child. And that often works very well. And for medical reasons, of course, it’s also a very important thing for pain perception. Pain perception is a very, very important thing for obvious reasons. And people often discover this for themselves of course, you can use distraction to direct your attention to your favorite song, for example. And that will, to some extent, relieve a nagging headache, let’s say.
Bernard: And then of course there are painful feelings that are so intense and so intrusive that that doesn’t work. But as a first-line defense, attentional selection or attentional distraction, it’s really two aspects of the same thing, it’s turning the spotlight away from or toward a particular target. And so I started to make that distinction and define it very, very carefully. And I think I’ve used those definitions consistently since that time, not because I want to ignore everybody else who’s making important discoveries about what they call attention. But because from a theoretical point of view, from the viewpoint of a theorist, clarity is everything. If you don’t have clarity with respect to the phenomenon, if you don’t have a different word for velocity and acceleration, if you’re Isaac Newton, you got all screwed up and you’re going to confuse everybody else.
Bernard: So you start off being very clean in your definitions and somewhat arbitrarily. I thought that consciousness was the relevant word for whatever it is that people tell us about in the perceptual world, for example, and that attention had to do with directing resources in the brain. Eye movements are an obvious example. We direct our eye movements towards something that we’re interested in. And there’s this elaborate brain system, of course, for the control of eye movement because we only see a very small patch of the visual world at any given time. It’s about two or three or four degrees of visual arc. So we’re constantly aiming and jumping, aiming and jumping. We don’t know that. But if you look at somebody reading a book for example, and if they let you look up close to their eyes, you will see their eyes aiming and jumping, aiming and jumping.
Bernard: That’s not their subjective experience, of course. But they experienced this flow of words. But that’s what their eyes are really doing. So we can compare that to the spotlight. The spotlight is something that you guide. There’s a purpose. There’s a reason for pointing the spotlight at a particular actor on stage. And similarly, there’s executive attention, which is controlled from the prefrontal cortex, which is actually used an eye movement control. Most of our eye movements are not voluntary, but we can certainly move our eyes to an object voluntarily. And that is the distinction that I find very useful actually, between the word attention and the word consciousness.
Jim: Closely related. Let’s move on to this because this is a perfect bridge to this topic. You talk quite a bit about access as one of the defining characteristics of what is in consciousness, what isn’t, and what’s nearby. In fact, in the book, you have numerous interesting drawings. “Here’s the consciousness. Here are things nearby to consciousness. Here are things further away,” et cetera. And thinking about the theater metaphor and the spotlight and actors that are off stage but come on, et cetera, maybe talk a little bit about the concept of access and how that relates to the concept of consciousness.
Bernard: Right. The phrase actually is consciousness enables access in the brain between region of functions that are normally separate from each other. And that one I actually borrowed from Dan Dennett. So I take back all the bad things I said about phosphors because Dan really is wonderful and has so many things to say, just like all the philosophers in history until the last hundred years.
Bernard: In any case, the word access is actually an example of a very poor use of language. It’s sort of the opposite of the distinction I was trying to make between attention and consciousness, that you want to define what you mean by a term like attention at the very beginning, and then stick with it very, very carefully. In the case of access, I think it has too many meanings. And I believe that consciousness enables access, but I did not sufficiently define what I meant by access.
Bernard: If you can imagine a flow diagram of a computer program or an app of some kind, used [inaudible 01:04:48] arrows that go back and forth between the boxes, right? Your input box, your output box, your memory box and so on. And access, it’s essentially an arrow. And in order to use the word access carefully, you have to indicate where the signal flow is coming from and where it’s going. And all that is implicit in the word access. And when we do these things carefully, like my long-time research partner, Stan Franklin has done with his computer implementation of global workspace theory, which is now very elaborate and important. Stan had to fill out all the gaps, of course.
Bernard: I proposed a theory that was basically a series of flow diagrams and a lot of verbal description and [inaudible 01:05:48]. Stan turned it into an AI system. And so he had to fill in all these things that [inaudible 01:05:58] could leave out without confusing people. At least they thought so. And not just Stan Franklin, but all of his friends in computer science use the term global access very, very routinely because it turns out to be a very handy thing for computers.
Bernard: If I get totally lost on my computer, which happens far too often, I can do a global search for a given file, a file of some kind, and I can search by date. I can search by file name. Or I can try to get around in the various ways if I can’t find it. And I think we all still have to do that because our computers are not intelligent enough to help us with that. That is global access. And it has obvious uses. It’s a helpful function to have.
Bernard: And in the case of consciousness, I think you can argue with that the ignition high up in the visual hierarchy enables access among neural functions that are otherwise separate from each other. And that touches on a wonderful new empirical literature having to do with dissociations in cortex. Cortex hypnosis people have known this for 200 years. Cortex allows you to actually dissociate functions from each other. And when a hypnotist asks you to imagine your hand becoming lighter and lighter and lighter, and your eyes becoming heavier and heavier and heavier, what’s going on is that you’re beginning to dissociate things that would be integrated in normal life.
Bernard: So the likeness of your hand and the heaviness of your eyelids are pretty good examples of things that can happen in separation from other functions. And hypnotists figured this out. And one of my favorite hypnotists actually did a great experiment in the 1980s, where he showed that if you get good hypnotic subjects and people are different than [inaudible 01:08:27].
Bernard: If you get good at hypnotic subjects and you show them a flashing light, and then you tell them, “Imagine a box that blocks the flashing light from your eyes.” So essentially you are no longer seeing the flashing light. That what would happen in cortex. You can pick up the flashing light, in the 1980s, we could do that, using a technique called the event-related voltage or the event-related potential. But basically you would bang the brain. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. And pick up brain activity that would also go bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. And then you would average it over multiple trials because everything was too noisy. And you get this very clean event related potential. Very, very typical. And right now it’s one of the major ways of testing the brain.
Bernard: Anyway, so we had that. And when David Spiegel, who ran that experiment, asked his hypnotic subject basically to block the flashing light, that event-related voltage in the brain disappeared. So, when the consciousness of the flashing light disappeared in the imagination basically of the person whose brain it was, the signaling cortex also became damp down. And I think that was the first convincing demonstration I ever ran into that it’s really true about cortex. It’s not just it looks big, it looks complicated, it looks like everything is coming together in the same place. It’s not just the appearance of it, it’s actually the function of it. And if you ask [inaudible 01:10:23] hypnotic subjects to disappear some object, the cortex will actually change its activity. So, that was kind of neat.
Jim: Very interesting. I guess we’ve been talking a lot about the theory and interesting implications of it, but as we both know, theory has to touch experiment or data to be taken seriously. And one of the things I lik a lot about your books and the work you’ve done is that you do go out and touch experimental results in some pretty profound ways. And as you indicated earlier in some nice, simple ways that even people at home can replicate.
Jim: And in fact, the core methodological approach that I believe you used is called contrastive analysis, where you enable through some interesting tricks, mostly other people have done the work, and you’ve analyzed the research, look at what happens when a thing that could be a conscious content is in consciousness or is not in consciousness. Could you explain this very interesting idea of contrastive analysis and maybe give a few examples and how you believe it supports the global workspace theory?
Bernard: Sure. Contrastive analysis is really a way of comparing conscious events to very similar brain events that are not conscious. So a very obvious example would be the feeling of your chair when you first sat down on it. And you were probably conscious for a few seconds maybe as you made yourself comfortable. And then when …
Bernard: …made yourself comfortable. And then when there are other things to pay attention to, you no longer feel it. But it continues to impact your nervous system. And that’s called habituation and habituation turns out to be very specific thing. It’s not just that the neurons in your bottom get tired of signaling the feeling of the seat, but it’s rather that they have built a representation of your chair that turns out to be quite accurate, but it’s not conscious. And so there were a number of plausible sources of evidence and reasonable theory, very basic kinds of hypotheses, suggesting that there was a ton of unconscious processing going on in the brain. And some of it was very similar to processing that emerged in consciousness.
Bernard: And for myself, because I was interested in language. The most compelling evidence came from listening to two different auditory messages in the two ears. And that’s called dichotic listening. Because it’s dichotomous, you’re listening to one message in one ear, the other message in another ear. And if you make people pay attention to only one of those two competing messages. Then it turns out that the other one will be unconscious. But this is the interesting point, certainly was interesting for me. It turns out that the unconscious ear… Let’s say the speech is coming into your left ear and some different speeches coming into your right here. The task makes you pay attention to the left ear, where somebody is telling you a story and not to the right ear where they’re giving you weather reports. So you don’t hear the weather reports. It’s completely unconscious, people can’t tell us what’s going on in the, what’s called the unattended or unconscious channel. But it turns out that they interact with each other and they interact with each other semantically.
Bernard: So that very beautiful experiment by a man named [inaudible 01:14:20] in the sixties or seventies, I think. Which is very profound, and I don’t even know if he ever realized how profound it was. Where basically you’re feeding people conscious speech that has ambiguities. And it turns out of course, if you look at the dictionary, that almost every word in English has multiple interpretations. Which is actually a big challenge for ears. How do you explain the fact that we can deal with speech so beautifully and so [inaudible 01:14:56], from childhood onward. When it turns out that so many of the words are ambiguous. And that’s why you need cortex by the way. So what you did is put the word bank into the left ear… And bank is ambiguous, because it could be a money bank or a riverbank. And so, at the same time in the unconscious ear, you would put the word river or money, and each one of those associates the different meanings of bank.
Bernard: And then you’re test the people on their interpretation of the conscious word. And it turns out that the interpretation changed. So if the unconscious channel was about money, then people would think consciously about a money bank. And if the unconscious channel was saying river, people would think consciously about a riverbank. And that was the first really compelling information that I learned from a [inaudible 01:16:08]’s experiment that had all kinds of important properties. For example, it’s very high level processing to get to the lexical interpretation of a ambiguous word in any language. A very high level, you have to have a lot of information by the time we get there. So we knew from that, or we could guess, that this has to be a semantic kind of integration between the two ears, even though you didn’t think anything was happening in your right ear.
Bernard: And by now, of course, we have hundreds of phenomena like that, where unconscious events frame… In fact, the word frame is a word that I’ve adopted. A frame conscious events. And once you start looking at the world in that way, everything changes. You start to see framing taking place in all kinds of ways. And of course, in theater arts and in advertising and so on, people are using the word framing all the time [inaudible 01:17:21] trial [inaudible 01:17:22], for that matter. You can take a guilty defendant, and by framing his bad luck story in the proper way, that you may can make the jury more sympathetic to the defendant.
Bernard: So framing via unconscious information or information that is not conscious at the time when we interpret the lawyer’s speech for the defense. Okay, so you plant that earlier on, it’s conscious earlier on, until it becomes in memory, it’s unconscious, but it continues to frame the argument from that point onward. And that’s a very powerful effect. And framing, I called it context in the first book, but then somebody stole the word context for me and used it in a very, very different way. So I’m trying to avoid confusing different meanings of context. And the word framing has become much more popular and much better understood. So I’ve changed my wording. And I’m now going to talk about conscious events being framed by unconscious knowledge.
Jim: Yeah, certainly George Lakoff has done a lot of work. And his collaborator’s done a lot of work in this area. No doubt about it.
Jim: Let’s talk a little bit more though here about the difference between conscious and unconscious, or non-conscious, contents. You talk about, and this is a well-known result in experimental lab psychology, which is that conscious contents, which are not attended, you don’t actually have attention or the spotlight on them using the theater metaphor, are probably non-learnable or very damn close to it. Certainly a lot of experiments that using classical conditioning and using this contrast of analysis of using blanking and some other methods to keep events from coming into conscious awareness, conscious attention, really are much more difficult to learn. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Bernard: Well, I believe that. And a long time ago… This is by the way, one of these recurring questions that people go back to in science and they never quite believe what anybody else has done before them. So they have to retest it because somehow they are convinced there has to be unconscious learning when people are asleep, for example. Or when in this dichotic listening situation, you’re listening to the left here but not to the right year. Well, all the evidence, as far as I can tell is against the hypothesis of unconscious learning. There are various ways to sneak around the problem. And our friend Christof Koch published, I think last year or the year before, an article in which he riddled around that problem. But he did not prove that you can learn unconsciously. He proved that you could consciously prime something in the brain, and then that could be learned without novel conscious access.
Bernard: So I’ve gotten more radical on this kind of thing and more confident as the evidence [inaudible 01:20:47] happening as far as I can tell. And of course I have my own interpretation of the evidence. Anyway, so I’m willing to claim right now that the conscious cortex is the [inaudible 01:21:02] of adaptation in the waking world. The world of waking animals. And as far as I can tell, all learning proceeds via consciousness, especially conscious perception, but not limited to perception. Because it has to involve conscious thinking and conscious subtle feelings of knowing, for example. Intuitions are very, very important. There’s all kinds of conscious events that take place. And my claim right now is that conscious input gets funneled via the sensory systems into the hippocampus. There’s two hippocampi. One wrapped inside each temporal lobe.
Bernard: And hippocampi are the archons that store conscious input for about six hours on average, maybe 12 hours sometimes. And then what happens later on during slow wave sleep, which is our deepest stage of sleep. [inaudible 01:22:11], what happens is that the hippocampus broadcasts its consciously-derived information to the rest of the brain. And that I think is consistent with an awful lot of evidence. And at this point I’m sufficiently confident. You always keep an open mind, obviously. But at this point I’m sufficiently confident to say that learning requires conscious access, let’s just call it for now. Although, the word access again is not so great.
Bernard: But I need to pay attention to your voice if I’m going to recall what you said tomorrow. And teachers know this. If the kids are sleeping in the back or they’re simply not there… They’re just gazing out of the windows, they’re thinking about their friends, and so on. If they’re not there in the present, they do not learn. And that’s true for all of us. And it’s very frustrating by the way, because I keep on hoping I’m wrong on that one, but I don’t think so. I think we really have to be conscious of things to learn them.
Jim: Yeah. It certainly indicates a very important, very valuable functionality for consciousness. If it’s required for learning, then obviously it’s of tremendous value, not just to humans, but to other animals as well.
Jim: Well, we’re getting up here on our time. There’s lots of other things to talk about. But I think we’ve given people a decent view of the theory. The last thing within go-to, assuming you know about it, if not we’ll just to the wrap is Stanislas Dehaene and Christof Koch and their collaborators are working on a very interesting scientific project, which they call adversarial collaboration. Where they’re actually going to do some carefully curated lab experiments that they believe can help differentiate between global workplace theory and integrated information theory.
Jim: Are you up on this project? And if you are, could you tell us a little bit about it?
Bernard: Yeah, I’m a little bit up on it. I’ve known the author of integrated information theory, Giulio Tononi, for 25 years or something like that. And he and I had some very good discussions, very useful discussions, way back when. And then he came up with a theory that was related to my understanding of consciousness. But it a mathematical form that I did not understand, and still don’t understand. And I believe that both Giulio and Christof have developed this, and they’re convinced about it, but then they both are… Well, particularly Christophe is a mathematical physicist and Julio prides himself on his knowledge of mathematics. Which he should obviously. So they tend to think mathematically and I do not see any function for IIT. Now, I could well be wrong about that. And would be easy to prove that. [inaudible 01:25:26] to, everybody has to be responsible for working out the implication of their own ideas. And the burden of proof is always on the proposer.
Bernard: So I’ve been waiting around for Giulio and Christof to tell me, why does it make an evolutionary difference for the cortex to follow this particular pattern of signaling integrated information theory? There’s no question that the cortex doesn’t do integration between different sensory events, for example. There’s no question that the cortex is very sensitive to information. It stops working basically, when you stop giving it information. You fall asleep or you blank out or something like that. So those concepts are profoundly important. I do not understand IIT. I have to confess this. This is my excuse. I suppose what I want from them is, tell me the biological function that is so important for animals, over 200 million years of mammalian evolution… And this is only mammals, before that there’s even a longer period of time of critical evolution. But let’s just take mammals. Why do mammals survive and have more reproductive success as a function of IIT? And if they can give me the answer that will help me to understand it.
Jim: Interesting. Yeah, as I understand it, this is not a quite deep dive into proving or disproving IIT as a one-to-one mapping onto consciousness. Which is the Christof Koch and Giulio… What’s his last… Anyway, the other guy, the author of IIT theory. This is apparently that, again as Christof explained a little bit…. Not as much as I would like, but we’ll get into it more later with some other folks. That GWT and IIT make different predictions about what areas of the brain will be activated when which activities are undertaken that are conscious or not conscious. And that GWT, at least the Stanislas Dehaene variety built on your work though extended and changed a bit, predicts more for brain activation. And the Christof Koch version of IIT predicts more midbrain and a little further back… All this in the cortex, midbrain isn’t the right word. But further back in the brain, than GWT predicts. And that these are carefully curated experiments that the two theories give different results on where the activations will turn up when people are put through their paces.
Bernard: Yeah. I wrote a paper, I think it’s 2013 by now, updating global workspace theory in terms of our radically increased knowledge of the brain. That formulation of the theory talks about a dynamic global workspace, which is very much like a hurricane in the sense that it has enormous stability just like hurricanes do, but it also keeps moving. And it moves in a way that serves biological functions, obviously. So the cortex from this point of view has really become a very dynamic sea on which this hurricane evolves. And there’s some very nice evidence along those lines from the late Walter Freeman, who was a very, very great neurobiologist and mathematician, Robert Cosma, very beautiful evidence about the clicking phenomenon in cortex. It’s a phase change phenomenon in cortex, and it would take too long to elaborate on that. Just very, very beautiful set of results.
Bernard: So, the way people are increasingly beginning to look at cortex right now is that, we have this anatomical structure… It’s enormous, huge, fills basically all of our cranium. Well, almost all. Then we have the physiology of it, which has to do with neurons. Neurons are much more complicated than we normally think they are, but they’re basically neurons. And then we find wave phenomena in this domain of clicking neurons. Neurons are sent to go on and off basically as if they were digital signalers, but they’re not because when you have loosely coupled digital signalers and about a hundred billion of them, then what you get is waveforms. It’s just as you get wave forms with automobile traffic, for example, during rush hour. You have things that look like waves, even though the cars are not. But the car [inaudible 01:30:44] the waves are best represented in as a quasi continuous process.
Bernard: But in any case, they’re oscillatory. So then you can do oscillatory analysis, like Fourier analysis, and decompose waveforms and so on. Which is all tactical babble. And basically what appears to be happening right now is that we’re thinking about the global workspace as this flying red spot of Jupiter.,I think it is. Is it Jupiter that has the great red spot?
Jim: Yes, that’s Jupiter. The great red spot.
Bernard: And the red spot is unbelievably stable. Over apparently long periods of time. But obviously because it’s a hurricane basically, it’s constantly picking up whatever is below it and dropping whatever is enmeshed in this whirlwind back onto Jupiter. So this is dynamic stability. It’s the combination of dynamics that turns out to be extraordinarily stable, surprisingly stable. And that is a very viable conception of the global workspace, which corresponds with a lot of thinking that various people, various brain people especially for example, have done about consciousness.
Bernard: One of the important things about consciousness of course, is that the flow of conscious contents keeps on changing in unpredictable ways. And if you are dreaming or if you’re half asleep… Which is a very interesting and important state, being half asleep. And you can watch the flow of images and thoughts and so on. And they have a spontaneous character of their own, they’re like watching a really good cartoon flowing by. That’s one of the characteristics that people have talked about for ages, and it’s very important. And this did not dynamically stable whirlwind can perform [inaudible 01:33:04].
Jim: All right. Well, I think we are about out of time, and I think this is a good time to wrap it up. There’s lots of other things we could say. We can talk for three hours on this topic easily. But I’d like to thank Bernard Baars for coming on the show today and talking about the global workspace theory of which he was the originator. And we dove into at least some of the topics in the very large, but readable, book On Consciousness, Science and Subjectivity. So thank you very much.
Bernard: Jim, it’s been a pleasure and thank you for being so deeply [inaudible 01:33:40] in this literature. It’s not an easy literature. Many people are afraid of digging deep, but you’re not. And I’m glad to see it.
Jim: Thank you. This is an area I like. And of course the tagline of our podcast is, “Real thinking about deep ideas.” So I say, if I’m not willing to go deep, I shouldn’t go at all.
Bernard: Exactly, right.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.