Abstract: Consciousness is a distinguishing trait of human experience, but does it cause behavior or serve other useful functions? Recent critiques, especially from studies of automatic processes and brain functions, have suggested that it is inefficient and ineffective for controlling action and unnecessary for perceiving the environment. This talk reviews experimental studies on how manipulations of conscious thought cause changes in behavior. It draws new conclusions about what conscious thought can and cannot do -- and what it can do better than unconscious processes. It goes on to argue that the core functions of conscious thought are for relating to the social and cultural environment.
Baumeister, Roy F. , E. J. Masicampo, and Kathleen D. Vohs (2011)
Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior? Annual Review of Psychology 62: 331-361
Baumeister, Roy F. and E. J. Masicampo (2010) Conscious Thought Is for Facilitating Social and Cultural Interactions: How Mental Simulations Serve the Animalâ€“Culture Interface
Psychological Review 117(3) 945â€“971
FEELING EVOLVED FOR SOCIAL PURPOSES?ReplyDelete
Weren't pinworms already feeling ouch long before our ancestors became social?
That's what I was wondering too!? In his point of view no social animals have had the need to develop consciousness...Delete
Oups *no non-social animals*Delete
That means every animal living in a group is prone to develop consciousness too. And does it mean the bigger that group, the more likely it is, the more rapid it has to develop?Delete
Does this mean social insects should have develop consciousness too? They do need to communicate? Would the size of the group be of importance? That is a really good question what would interacting with more people than less contribute to the development of consciousness? You would probably learn more than only just with your kins for example.Delete
Brain size has been shown to correlate strongly with size of social group in primates. Perhaps Baumeister is mistakenly labelled some sort of information-capacity or processing function as consciousness. His lecture strongly supports the evolution of the mirror neurone system in humans, as well as the chronology of bipedalism and language/tool appearance. The question of consciousness rides here upon how we define it, in terms of the concepts such as thought, learning, and *feeling*.Delete
You say "Perhaps Baumeister is mistakenly labelled some sort of information-capacity or processing function as consciousness". I would say that he definitely did not talk at all about feeling. Instead, his argument was only about how human use higher-level cognitive processes to manipulate conscious thoughts. He showed that conscious thoughts are data that can be manipulated using all sorts of higher-level processes (e.g. through logical thinking, social communication, introspection, creation of meaning, etc.). However, he did not even encountered the problem of why we feel something when we use such higher-level processes, i.e. why did they became felt processes?Delete
ROY BAUMEISTER’S REPLY:Delete
To Harnad Cluster
Most theories about consciousness distinguish two kinds or levels. One is simply the presence of an experiencing agent. This much we have in common with most other animals. The other level is the more uniquely human one, and that includes self-awareness, abstraction, reasoning, and the like.
Thus, when we talk about the capacity to feel pain and such basic things, we are dealing with the more basic level, and yes, it is generally assumed that animals (and possibly even insects) have this. As to why it has to be felt, well, my thought is that pain cannot serve its valuable functions unless it is felt, but my talk did not go into this.
Human evolution presumably built on this basic capacity for phenomenal awareness. Intentional communication with language is a key to being human, and that seems to require consciousness. (For example, it is difficult if not impossible to carry on a conversation or give a lecture while one’s conscious mind is elsewhere.)
A key difference comes in recognizing that there are other minds with contents different from one’s own. This is a basis for self-awareness, intentional communication, and much more.
I'm always impressed when I'm exposed to a scenario like Prof. Baumeister talk. It requires such an impressive amount of knowledge from different domains and perspectives.Delete
However, in regards of this particular scenario and considering this part of Prof. Baumeister's answer just up there (I'm copying it just to make it clearer)
"A key difference comes in recognizing that there are other minds with contents different from one’s own. This is a basis for self-awareness, intentional communication, and much more"
I'm wondering how this scenario is different from one that could explain the origins of ToM. I know a lot of people did this connection on FB, but since no one seems to have posted it on the blog, I would like to ask:
-What is the difference between Conscioussness problem seen as the OM problem and the ToM? In other words, how much this great scenario could explain the origins of ToM?
Being the devil's advocate here, but your thoughts imply other animals are conscious. We haven't solved the other's mind problem yet, so suggesting other animals feel to disprove an hypothesis is not valid in my humble opinion.ReplyDelete
From that perspective, we have no reason to work on consciousness at all, seeing as I can't even be sure anyone else has a mind. And since some animals exhibit the behavioral correlates of feeling, and since that's enough for us to decide that other humans feel, then we have no reason to think that feeling is an exclusively human phenomenon.Delete
And prof. Harnad would point out that we're conflating the other minds problem and the mind-body problem, I think!Delete
Vincent LeBlanc is actually really talking about the other's mind problem (we cannot know if someone else feels) and not the mind-body problem (what is the causal role of feelings?)Delete
I know. He's bringing it up to question the assumption according to which whatever definition of consciousness we come up with has to apply to animals. His point is that if we haven't solved the other minds problem, then we have no idea that non-human animals have a mind (and are therefore conscious and feel). And if we do not know that animals feel (because we have not solved the OM problem), then saying "a theory of consciousness that does not explain animal conciousness is a bad one" is wrong-headed because we don't even know animals are conscious.Delete
My first point is that if the OM problem is not solved, then humans cannot be said to be conscious. Since we take humans as conscious on the basis of behavioral correlates that are (in part) exhibited by some animals, we are justified in requiring that a theory of consciousness can account for non-human animal cases.
My other point is that the OM problem is not really relevant, the real problem being the mind-body problem.
ROY BAUMEISTER’S REPLYDelete
Yes, I am assuming that the more basic level of consciousness is present in other animals: they feel pain and pleasure, and so forth. When you accidentally step on your dog and it yelps and scrambles away, for example, the assumption is that it felt pain and that feeling mediated its response. I suppose it would be possible to explain its behavior without assuming it feels pain. But this is difficult to sustain if you live with animals.
The more advanced level of consciousness, conscious thinking, is in my view pretty much limited to humans, though our closest primate relatives are moving in that direction. But they do not really pass all the theory of mind tests (just some of them).
Knowing that one exists as a mind as part of a community of similar minds is a basic and universal human experience. Much of our conscious thinking is devoted to simulating what is going on in the minds of others (and dealing with all of that).
As a social psychologist, I’m not very excited about trying to prove or disprove the existence of other minds. It is such a basic fact of life that it should be a foundational assumption, not a dubious hypothesis. Dealing with other minds is essential to how we operate as human beings (including what we are doing right now, in this exchange!), and so the challenge is to understand what mental capacities and processes are needed to make that possible. The capacity for conscious thinking, in the form of mentally representing sequences of ideas that are not direct stimuli, may be crucial for that.
I was under the impression he defined that he would be discussing 'human' consciousness, what has been called a ‘higher’ form as opposed to Dr. Morsella’s more basic definition of consciousness. Furthermore, how do we know the pinworms are feeling ouch and not just detecting/sensing and responding (like robots or how Dr. Sossin’s argues aplysia do not have consciousness.) I guess this also relates to Vincent’s comment I just saw about the other’s mind problem. However, if the ‘human’ consciousness is mostly related to the development of being social beings, are there not animals with highly evolved social structures? Where would we draw the line where we agree certain animals have this consciousness or not?ReplyDelete
I also found quite interesting the point made by one of the questions asked, about how related his discussion was to language, and maybe it is more an explanation of language than consciousness itself.
Izabo Deschênes (enrolled in the course)
Also, just thought of this and I may be way off, but would there be any way to relate Dr. Baumeister’s social explanation of consciousness to Dr. Haggard’s (I hope I am not misquoting or completely misunderstanding him) but during the discussion session at the end of the other day where he speculated that perhaps the evolution of consciousness was somewhat related to the concept of responsibility (in social context)?ReplyDelete
ROY BAUMEISTER’S REPLYDelete
Yes, certainly there are animals with complex social structures but presumably without the full degree of human consciousness. Still, those structures lack some vital features of human consciousness.
It is less social life per se than culture that is the key. I have argued at length that what makes us human is not being social animals but rather being cultural animals (see Baumeister, 2005, The cultural animal: Human nature, meaning, and social life, Oxford University Press). Culture depends on language – all known cultures use language, for example. Culture is also based on sharing information and on using flexible systems for joint action based on multiple complementary roles.
The relationship between language and consciousness is quite important and I was sorry not to hear any talks dealing with that, though I suspect you have had them elsewhere in the summer institute. Language is a tool for using meaning, and the incorporation of meaning into mental processes may account for some of the distinctive features of human conscious thinking. Sartre argued in Being and Nothingness that consciousness blends being and nonbeing, as in seeing what is there in contrast or other relationship to what is not there. In my view this is a profound insight that has been missing from much discussion of consciousness. The meaning of something relates (by association and distinction) it to other phenomena and thus transforms the ‘feel’ of it. For example, you can look at the table and see that your keys aren’t on it. A non-conscious being has trouble doing that. A computer, for example, might scan the table but to ascertain the absence of keys it has to have a second representation of what the table would look like if keys were on it and then compare the two representations, and it has to be programmed to say in the latter case that the keys aren’t there. The human experience of lack seems more direct and doesn’t require that sort of programming.
Thank you for the reply!Delete
CONSCIOUSNESS IS NOT ALL ABOUT SOCIAL BEHAVIOR: The idea that consciousness evolved to allow organisms to be social is a total simplification. I have a much stronger preference for Damasio's general idea that consciousness conferred organisms somehow an advantage in seeking homeostasis overall. In that framework, social behavior is only one of millions of things that organisms need to do to maintain homeostasis.ReplyDelete
You seem quite adamant about your stance. The growth in human brain mass (cranial capacity) has been closely linked to evidence of social group size. There is a serious evolutionary 'cost' for increasing brain size, so (while it is not "proof") it isn't difficult to presume that at least some part of the brain increase is related to hominin social groups. Once you've accepted that, the next steps to suspecting that language and consciousness (not the same) are also related is easy.Delete
Am I speaking of higher levels of consciousness than "just" feeling? Probably - I still haven't internalized or made sense of the question of what is the minimal requirement for basic consciousness.
Diego and Bruce, you use the term consciousness to refer to the higher-level capacities implicated in manipulating thoughts (and this is actually how Pr. Baumeister used the term also, he did not refer to feelings). I agree that those higher-level capacities have many different functions and thus their development cannot be explain solely by the advantages they confer in social communication. I want to point out also that Pr. Baumeister did not explain how a zombie would be unable to teach his child not to put his hand in the fire (that is the example he gave). In fact, he just stated it as if it should be taken as granted that feeling is required for cultural transmission. This is nonsense. Cultural transmission is doing, it has nothing to do with feeling. I think I repeat a bit what Pr. Harnad says about doing and feeling, but I find it really misleading that those two key concepts are so often undistinguished by many speakers.Delete
ROY BAUMEISTER’S REPLYDelete
The opening comment seems quite forcefully stated but doesn’t quite make sense. First, again it is necessary to distinguish the animal-style consciousness from human conscious thinking. Being social is not required for the former, but it certainly could be for the latter. Also, again, my argument has to do with being cultural, as a highly advanced special case of being social. As to the argument about homeostasis, well, that seems vulnerable to the same complaint you thought you were making about my view. Plenty of organisms maintain homeostasis without consciousness, and certainly without human conscious thinking.
It would indeed have been useful is every speaker had explicitly put forth their working definition of consciousness. Dr. Baumeister clearly is referring to a very specific type of conscious process, namely human conscious thought. This example demonstrates yet again that we cannot do away with Pr.Harnad's so-called 'weasel words'. Terms such as meta-cognition, consciousness and feeling can all be put together in a framework in which all refer to a specific subset of mental events.Delete
The idea that the purpose of the brain was to enable social interaction struck me as strange. Sure, the brain is extremely useful for that in humans, and presumably in other social animals, but finding out what the brain is for should start by an investigation of what organisms with a brain (or brain-like structures) have in common. According to Wolpert, it's that they all need to control action.ReplyDelete
I'll leave a link to his TED talk, as I don't have any references close at hand, but I'll get some when I can.
From what I remember, he stated that the purpose of consciousness (and not of the brain) is to unable social interaction.Delete
He stated that the purpose of the human brain was to facilitate social interactions, which I take to mean that in the case of humans, the brain has a mainly social function. A charitable interpretation would be the following: the human brain has evolved for the same basic functions as that of other animals with brains (action control) but has specific adaptations which make it really, really good at facilitating social interaction.Delete
I was being uncharitable, granted. But I still think there should be some form of nuance here. If the focus was less on these distinctively human features, I think we'd have a more interesting basis for developing a theory of consciousness.
ROY BAUMEISTER’S REPLYDelete
I see the same issue here of confusing basic animal consciousness with human conscious thought. I assume that we have something in common with other animals, including the control of thought. Indeed, the origins of the central nervous system are in digestion and locomotion: moving around to get food. Nothing social there. But if you want to get food the way modern humans do, such as purchasing it at a grocery store or supermarket, you’d better be conscious. You need to be aware of yourself as a mind among a community of minds, to understand how to interact with them based on shared assumptions (e.g., how money works), and so on.
In my talk I spoke separately about the purpose of brains per se (taking in information and using it to guide action) as opposed to the purpose of the specifically human parts of the human brain. The latter I think more and more is to enable the person to tap into the group, understand its systems for doing things, share its stock of information, and so forth.
There will not be a single solution to the problem of explaining consciousness. First it is necessary to explain the minimal, basic requirements for the original, basic forms. Morsella and others have focused on this. This is where controlling action (e.g., to escape damage, as signaled by pain) is vital. The second problem is to explain the much more complex and advanced form of consciousness that our species has.
Great to see you here, Roy. I've felt for a while that I wasn't really addressing the questions you wanted talked about at the conference. I would like to do that if possible.ReplyDelete
On the cultural environment, while that is clearly one of major functions of consciousness in social species and humans in particular, the mammalian brain basis of consciousness goes back 200 million years. That's not counting ancestral (vertebrate) aspects of consciousness, but it's good to stick with mammals, because the anatomical basis is so clear.
So that includes "loner" animals as well as social animals. All of them are conscious. ALl of them have perception and voluntary control. One could argue that all mammals have at least TWO social periods in their lives, namely infant-mother bonding and mating. But those acts can be quite isolated.
How you are defining the "mammalian brain basis of consciousness"?Delete
ROY BAUMEISTER’S REPLYDelete
Hi Bernie, we were sorry you didn’t make it. That’s the second time I’ve missed out on the chance for an extended conversation with you!
See my comments above. People seem very confused about whether we are explaining basic phenomenal awareness (exists in loner animals, and serves basic functions of integrating stimulus and response, plus coordinating information scattered around brain and mind) or human conscious thought (with self-awareness, abstract reasoning, symbolic understanding, etc.). Are you suggesting your consciousness is nothing more than what simple solitary animals experience?
If my note is correct, Dr. Baumeister summarized the subliminal priming research saying that the unconscious can only process words and not sentences. But isn't that because these stimuli are so brief that we are not giving the unconscious enough time to process all the info when we present sentences, thus a limitation of the experimental method used? From the split-brain research and hemi-neglect work, isn't it clear that subconscious processing can interpret meanings from somewhat complex stimuli like a schematic picture of one side of the house burning? And I wonder how sophisticated a word can be processed subliminally for meaning extraction?ReplyDelete
I believe it works the other way around - if the experimenter presents more than a single word (or even a long or complex word), the conscious mind intervenes and it is no longer subliminal. Same reason for the brevity of presentation - if it shows for too long, the conscious mind jumps in.Delete
ROY BAUMEISTER’S REPLYDelete
Relevant evidence is covered in our 2010 Psych Review article, and some of it was acquired from Baars’s TICS paper. In dichotic listening, the unconscious has all the time it needs to process all the words in the unattended channel. It responds to single words embedded in that channel but not sentences. Also look at our logical reasoning studies (Consciousness and Cognition, 2008).
Thank you, Drs. Anderson and Baumeister for your comments.Delete
I will definitely have to read the literature myself, but I am not completely convinced that the unconscious cannot process more than words because of the evidence shown by Dr. Lau at his talk. The seemingly distinct veiws of yours vs. Dr. Lau, on this subject, I hope, is not because of differences in semantics! This is one sure thing that I learned from the conference: we just cannot agree on what we mean by consciousness. It's probably likely then that we don't agree on what is unconscious!
Baumeister highlights the selection pressure that arises from social living. This is consistent with SI theory, in that optimal social interactions may be in conflict with relfexive behaviors, and consciousness represents the "felt" control of these reflexive behaviors.ReplyDelete
ROY BAUMEISTER’S REPLYDelete
Yes! But it also does more than that, of course. Much of conscious thinking is not involved in the direct control of action, such as restraining reflexes. But most of it is devoted to dealing with other people and the cultural system in general.
Dr. Baumiester's talk, together with Dr. Cisek's provided an alternate theory of consciousness and it's adaptive advantage, far beyond the characterizations of consciousness as a simple presence of awareness or feeling we have receive thus far.ReplyDelete
One provoked thought from the talk: consciousness is not merely the (inferred) presence or absence of feeling, but the ability of an organism to experience a feeling (insert any SH synonym here), and relate and integrate these feelings across time and space, such that any experience can be drawn on for one's future utility, and shared amongst kin.
Here's one Harnad-inspired thought: Baumeister has strong arguments that conscious processes are useful for social and cultural interactions. However, all these conscious processes could be effected without consciousness. (Take logical reasoning, for instance. We can easily write computer programs that make logical inferences when given various premises as input, but nobody would claim such programs are conscious.) So why are those processes conscious? Could Baumeister appeal to something like Baars's global workspace theory to answer this question?ReplyDelete
Global workspace theory is about neural events, which is doing and not feeling. Thus, I would say no. Also, there is no explanation about why the coordinated activity of a system, which is postulated in the global workspace theory (if I understand it well), should be a sufficient condition for feeling. Such coordinated activity is also about doing.Delete
ROY BAUMEISTER’S REPLYDelete
Would be interesting to see what the philosophers say about whether computers really perform logical reasoning. In my view, if they do, they are simply doing what human minds have programmed them to do. Computers don’t exist in nature, only in culture, and indeed on earth that means human culture. I’d be willing to bet even if we find life on other planets, it won’t be making computers without conscious beings who design them as part of a cultural system of (very considerable) accumulated information.
I'm not entirely sure this question makes sense, but here goes: If the social sharing of information is the fundamental human trait that enables the success of our species, then how can you explain selfishness?ReplyDelete
I take what Baumeister said to be very horizontal in terms of information/sharing. Being selfish takes the others out of the picture and one puts oneself and their needs above everyone else's. So what I don't understand is how the notion of selfishness came about? Why would one want to be selfish?
ROY BAUMEISTER’S REPLYDelete
Ha, yes, selfishness is good. In my book on human nature (The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life, 2005, Oxford U. Press) I use that as a good example of nature against culture. Nature gave animals brains so that they could take care of themselves and their kin. Thus, genetic selfishness is natural. Cultural systems require some suppression of selfishness in order for them to function. People must, for example, wait their turn, respect the property of others, pay taxes, maybe risk their lives in battle, all of which go against selfishness. Moral rules (found in all cultures, I believe) are essentially exhortations to restrain selfishness and do what is best for the group or system as a whole. Consciousness is needed for that.
Well you don't come to life being selfish, you depend on others to grow, learn and survive. You would just by that be a social animal (and then need consciousness as Baumeister pointed out). What could be an answer is that as an organism your main goal is to survive and procreate so that your genetic line continues. Being selfish is one way to survive. You can see that in the animal world too, they call them "cheaters": they use others to get what they want. In fact you are using the cooperative behaviors of other so that you don't have any cost to pay to have what you want. So it might not be an "adaptative" behavior in a social world but it's still useful to survive without having to pay that much a cost.ReplyDelete
In fact yes a baby is "selfish" (have to be!) but you get what I mean!Delete
I found very intriguing the idea that consciousness is the place where the unconscious constructs meaningful sequences of thought. Perhaps there is something intrinsic to conscious representation that allows specifically for such a dynamical linking of representations one to the other. I have the feeling, however, that we may be conflating the causal role of consciousness for the causal role of attention in conceptions such as these. Indeed, following Doctor Graziano, I would suggest that the coordination implicit in the construction of meaningful sequences of thought would be realized by attention, rather than felt consciousness.ReplyDelete
ROY BAUMEISTER’S REPLYDelete
Thanks, not sure what to say. Is attention without consciousness possible? Attention and simple (animal-style) phenomenal awareness goes back far. Human consciousness adds something else.
Thank you for responding, Doctor Baumeister.Delete
I would argue that the literature seems to indicate that attention without consciousness is possible. Many studies suggest that using unconscious primes can reduce reaction times for experimental tasks. Priming has become a standard experimental procedure. The priming stimulus is usually not reported as consciously experienced by the subject—yet, the subject’s reaction times are often reduced with the introduction of priming. That is to say, the subject reacts faster to the task at hand because of a priming cue, this despite her being unaware of the priming stimulus within conscious experience. This is interpreted as an *unconscious* process of attention modulation. That is to say, attention acts upon material that never reached the threshold of consciousness. Attention thus seems to operate at both the conscious and unconscious levels—perhaps mediating the two.
Tallon-Beaudry (2012) suggests that such examples of dissociation between attention and consciousness implies that both are separate phenomena, and can happen independently of one another. Indeed, she offers neurological evidence to support her claims: both phenomena seem to be associated to different wavelength bands.
I am still very sympathetic to an approach that tries to link serial information processing to consciousness—however, IMHO, I believe we need to be wary of not confounding our variables.
In Baumeister talk language/speech and mentalizing seem to be central for an explication of consciousness. Given that autistic patients present impairments in communication and mentalizing I was wondering if a research on autistic spectrum disorders and consciousness could be useful to find a more detailed definition of consciousness.ReplyDelete
ROY BAUMEISTER’S REPLYDelete
It might indeed!
If consciousness and social interaction with pairs are so linked, I wonder how or why do we infer consciousness to other species who's behavior can be radically different from our's. With this comes the fact that I don't think we can deny other species the possibility to have "higher order consciousness". Rather we just can deny ourselves the capacity to fully know (or to fully know that we don't know) what shape can the consciousness of other species can take.ReplyDelete
What is consciousness? How, when and why does consciousness emerge? http://www.consciousnessexplained.orgReplyDelete