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Episode 10: Consciousness

Updated: May 1, 2021

Previous Episode: Mindfulness alleviates existential distress and affords us a systematicity of insights that is transformative through a fluency between scaling-up (meta) and scaling-down (meditation). Attention involves a transparency-opacity shift and integrated mindfulness practices like meditation, meta, and tai chi train our cognition to be able to bring about prajna; a state of non-duality that enhances meaning in life and the agent-arena relationship. Read my post on episode 9 here.

In this episode, Professor Vervaeke examines the nature and function of consciousness, how that relates to insight and the problem with understanding higher states of consciousness.


How do you know you're conscious right now? We often don't know how to answer this question and yet, we so deeply identify with our consciousness.

The Global Workspace Theory

Most of us do things without being conscious. For example, when we talk, we have no conscious awareness of what our brain is doing to allow us to generate a sentence.

Although no one is sure about the complete and exact function of consciousness, the global workspace theory offers a succinct proposal. The GBW theory involves the idea that we can bring certain unconscious processing to our 'desktop' aka working memory, and activate it so that specific pieces of information interact with each other and are then broadcasted back to the existing files.

This process is useful for our minds in the same way it is useful for our computer. We can't access all our files at once because that's overwhelming. We access the relevant files and information, transform those pieces in a way that's relevant to us, and then broadcast the changes that are needed back to our 'storage'.

Baars proposes that this is what consciousness is fundamentally for --- zeroing in on relevant information. The core function of consciousness seems to be to help us realize, become aware of, and actualize relevant information.

Tononi's integrated information theory on the nature of consciousness suggests that consciousness is about how powerfully integrated pieces of information are; how much one piece of information in the brain is causally dependant on interacting and affecting other pieces of information in the brain. The more tight/strong the integration, the more powerful the processing, the more likely that complex will afford consciousness.

Consciousness seems to be a way in which one can coordinate attention and other related abilities of awareness so as to optimize how insightfully one can make sense of the world. That's why people need consciousness for complex situations that require insight and have a high degree of novelty or challenge. It's also why we can reduce consciousness when a problem is easy, well-defined, and doesn't have a high degree of novelty or require insight.

Although this is not a complete account of the function of consciousness, it explains that when we have an insight there's a flash, a 'brightening of consciousness'. It explains why people might want to alter their states of consciousness so that they can alter what they find relevant and salient.

Matson's Sizing Up

Consciousness involves creating a salience landscape; foregrounding and backgrounding different features out of all of the elements presented. Out of the foregrounded features, one creates different figures. These figures form different features (so it feeds back) through which one frames problems.

This is a complex dynamical system that is highly flowing. It involves getting what Merleau-Ponty calls getting an optimal grip on the relevant features; if you get too close you lose too much of the gestalt but if you're too far away you lose the details.

What does an optimal grip do?

An optimal grip reveals an affordance based on your intention (J.Gibson). An affordance is setting up a relationship of coordination between the constraints of the object and the constraints in one's mind so one can engage in an interaction; it's a way of co-identifying. For example, if your intention is to hold a cup, you won't see the shape and the color of the cup, you'll primarily see it as 'graspable' (the affordance).

So consciousness sets up a salience landscape that provides contact of the features, and you engage in a process of sizing up via optimal grip which results in a presence landscape (an affordance network). But what's also important is the ability to track the differences between causational and correlational patterns aka your depth landscape. Think of what kids do when they drop, throw, and move a toy; they try to use their salience landscape to generate affordances. They know through their play that the toy is graspable, dropable, and throwable (affordances). They use the act of throwing and dropping to figure out the causal patterns around the toy. They're transforming the salience landscape into a presence landscape, into a depth landscape.

So if consciousness involves a salience landscape, presence landscape, and depth landscape if you wanted to transform your consciousness you would have to transform all three landscapes. The patterns you track and the agent-arena relationship will be radically transformed. It's not just a flash of insight like the 9 dot problem but rather, a systematic insight. An altered state of consciousness is not an insight in consciousness it's an insight of consciousness. It's a radical transformation of all three landscapes.

Systematic Insight: Piaget and Childhood Development

'As the child is to the adult, the adult is to the sage.' Wisdom is like growing up.

If you show a four-year-old five candies in a compact row and then five candies spread out in another row, the child will choose the spread out candies. Even after being told that both rows have only five candies, they choose the spread out row.

Before Piaget, most scientists who conducted IQ tests would throw away the error because they only paid attention to what the kid got right. Piaget however, found that there was a systematicity to their errors. This points to an underlying set of constraints operating in the child's cognition. The reason a four-year-old would pick the second row is that it takes up more space, which is the only thing that's salient to them. Whereas if we were to make the same choice; our salience landscape would pick up on how the extra space in the second row is not candy space and therefore not relevant. The child's salience landscape is not able to do the necessary sizing-up and so they do not have the same affordances that we do. Our salience landscape is trained to pay attention to multiple variables at the same time. Part of the reason we are wiser than four-year-olds is that we have the ability to see through self-deceptive illusion and zero in on relevant information.

Although we are not likely to fall prey to the systematic illusions of a four-year-old, we likely to fall prey to many systematic illusions that we're unaware of. The only way to become aware of them is to transform our salience landscape, presence landscape, and depth landscape so as to be able to pick up on the relevant information. The ability to have a salience landscape that systematically tracks in-depth presence to zero in on relevant information and make life more meaningful produces a significant landscape. This landscape protects us from bullshitting, allows us to see through illusion, and affords a more comprehensive relationship with reality. Altered states of consciousness have the potential to create such an insight of consciousness, rather than an insight in consciousness.

Higher States of Consciousness (HSC) and Transformation

We know that many people experience these higher states of consciousness. One of the most common characteristics of these states is that they're more real, both in terms of the agent (who you really are) and the arena (what your reality is). People are so moved by this experience that they change their everyday experience so it's in accordance with their HSC experience; there's something about the experience that both challenges and demands change in people. It taps into platonic meta-drives of getting your real self and getting your fullness of contact with reality. For both personal and scientific accounts of these higher states of consciousness refer to Waking from Sleep by Steve Taylor and How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg. About 30-40% of people experience these states. Work from the Griffis lab also shows that a subset of people who have psychedelic experiences have mystical experiences that are deeply transformative and trigger a kind of quantum change.

The Problem of Ontonormativity

Ontology has to do with the structure of reality, normative refers to something making a demand on you to be better.

So why is the ontonormativity of higher states of consciousness problematic?

When we wake up from a dream, how is it that we know that the dream is less real than our everyday reality? It's because we have an overall coherent picture of our lives that makes sense for most of our experiences and is intelligible; our dreams do not cohere with this picture which is why we often call them 'random' or 'bizarre' and consider that state to be less real than what we experience every day.

In a HSC the opposite happens. People have a single experience which does not cohere with the rest of their life but instead somehow challenges it, making everyday reality seem illusory. In this case, instead of rejecting the altered state (like you would for a dream), people reject their everyday experience. Why reject the dream and accept the HSC? What's even more strange is that people often don't really understand the content of their HSC, and can't explain it either. Their experiences seem to be trans-rational and are beyond explanation and justification. There is also no consistency in the content of these states; some people have reported having met God during this experience and others have expressed that they received confirmation for their rejection of God, yet both experiences seem to be powerfully meaningful. How can something so temporary, something that doesn't produce any viable explanation or fit into our everyday patterns make us reject our everyday experience?

Research supports the possibility that HSC can bring about developmental improvement and better people's lives. Yet we don’t have a scientific account as to how and why these states afford us such powerful transformation.

What we need is a descriptive and prescriptive explanation of HSC. A descriptive explanation involves an account of the underlying cognitive, neuroscientific and

information processes (ideas drawn from AI and machine learning) at work that explain the nature of higher states of consciousness.

We also need a prescriptive account of these states. These states do not provide us with any special knowledge or new evidence in the way that science does, the states do not add to our propositional knowing. Rather, HSC involves a perspectival and participatory shift that the next few lectures will explore.

When the child no longer falls prey to the illusion, it's not that they have a new belief or have learned a new fact. They always knew that both rows have five candies. It’s not an increase in knowledge but rather, in wisdom, skill, sensitivity, and sensibility. It’s a change in functioning where the child learns to see through illusion and into reality.

This is why the Buddha refused to answer metaphysical questions about enlightenment; the point is not about the knowledge one acquires during this state but rather how it transforms their functioning and their way of being.

Next time Professor Vervaeke will take a deeper look into the problem of ontonormativity in HSC and how the Buddha integrated that into trying to deal with problems we face around relevance and meaning.

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