Conscious and Unconscious Response:
Perspectives from Cognitive Neuroscience and Theoretical Physics

Robert Sylwester PhD (Member)
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon, Portland

August 2014

The following two articles by Robert Sylwester are adapted from a series of articles on "The Futures That Students Will Confront," published in Information Age Education Newsletter ( The IAE Newsletter has regularly reported on the scientific developments in consciousness. It recently compiled its published articles into a free downloadable book, Consciousness and and Morality: Recent Research Developments (2013). Research activity continues unabated on perhaps the most significant mystery remaining in the neurosciences, a mystery that's perhaps finally approaching a basic solution. This book and the following article (below) report on intriguing new developments and extensions in the field. But before you go any further, watch this fascinating three minute video of a bird that must follow eight separate steps in order to solve the problem of getting a stick that's sufficiently long enough to retrieve some food. Then ask yourself if the bird's behavior approaches the level of a rationally conscious response:


What's the point of consciousness? The brain-wide information sharing system that now seems to define consciousness allows relevant cortical and subcortical systems to interact before agreeing to one interpretation of an event. This shared decisional system within a single brain could also help us to understand how groups of brains might also democratically solve complex cultural issues. It also makes it possible to finally consider the possibility of machine consciousness a couple thousand years after Socrates suggested how important it was to "know thyself".

In his recent highly acclaimed book, Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts (2014) the world-renowned neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene analyzed and reported on the consciousness research that his and other laboratories carried out. Dehaene believes that advanced research technologies during the past 20 years now allow neuroscientists to finally free themselves from a disembodied consciousness and to strongly support the existence of brain correlates, which are probably centered in our brain's dorsolateral prefrontal cortex but are then connected with most other brain systems (Dehaene, p. 101).

To paraphrase Dehaene: The previous black box of consciousness is now open. Thanks to a variety of experimental paradigms, scientists have learned how to make pictures visible or invisible, and then to track the patterns of neuronal activity that occur only when conscious access exists. Understanding how our brain handles seen and unseen images has turned out to be not as difficult as initially feared. Many electrophysiological signatures have manifested the presence of a conscious ignition. These signatures of consciousness have proved solid enough that they are now being used in clinics to probe consciousness in patients who have massive brain lesions. What's wonderful is the realization of how far the search for discovery has now gone.

Three significant factors that drive this new development are: (1) the emergence of a better definition of consciousness, (2) the realization that consciousness can now be credibly studied, and (3) an increased understanding of and respect for the nature of subjective phenomena.

The quantity and quality of the research Dehaene describes is very impressive, a major step forward. His book requires a basic understanding of brain systems and research procedures, but at that level it is clearly and impressively written.

The Unconscious Mind

We're only conscious of our conscious thoughts. Outside of research labs we're unaware of our unconscious operations, so we tend to overestimate the role that consciousness plays in our physical and mental lives. Daehene believes that the research credibly indicates that our brain contains unconscious systems that constantly monitor our environment and assign values that guide our attention and thus shape much of our behavior. The initially meaningless incoming stimuli become a set of opportunities that in parallel are carefully and unconsciously sorted according to their relevance to current goals. Only the most relevant stimuli draw enough attention to enter into consciousness. Below that level unconscious systems ceaselessly and statistically evaluate probabilities. Much of our attention thus operates largely in a subliminal manner.  Think of TV weather forecasters who combine a myriad of unconscious statistical observations before they consciously and briefly predict weather probabilities during the next few days -- and how often they get it wrong.

In another recent acclaimed book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman also makes the similar significant point that much human decision making is automatic, reflexive (Kahneman, 2013)

The Conscious Mind

We're not zombies that only function unconsciously. Consciousness is an evolved property that emerged because it usefully fulfills specialized processes that an unconscious mind can't perform alone.

Since most inputs into our brain are initially suppressed, consciousness includes the need to be awake, vigilant, and to have a specific attentive focus (all of which Dehaene suggests have both unconscious and conscious elements). Since we can simultaneously deal with only a few inputs at most, the determination of the significant and insignificant is important.

The concept of conscious access is the central element in our understanding of consciousness in that at least some of the information that we specifically attend to must eventually reach cognitive levels that allow us to report our thoughts to others. Being awake and attentive aren't enough.  Conscious access implies a sense of self, the 'I' who is interpreting and commenting on the results of conscious experience.

Research laboratories can now use advanced imaging technologies that will activate only if the subject is having a conscious experience. For example, specific remarkably stable bursts of high level neuronal activity (that Dehaene calls signatures of consciousness) change massively and predictably regardless of the sensory input that activated the conscious experience.

Dehaene and his collaborators further theorize the concept of a global neuronal workspace that begins in the frontal lobes but is widely distributed throughout our brain. It identifies potentially relevant information from the vast number of sensory inputs from within and without our body. Consciousness is the evolved system that allows us to keep information in mind within our brain's global workspace (but detached from the external world) while we decide how best to respond to it. It's closely related to what other cognitive neuroscientists call our working brain.

Dehaene relates this reductive element of consciousness to the spokesperson of a large organization who reduces the complexity of an issue to a simple non-technical announcement that expresses its substance. The global workspace thus maintains conscious thought that it can incorporate into understanding past and current events and making future plans. The philosopher Daniel Dennett wryly calls such increased activity in the global workspace as "fame in the brain".

Various maternal hormones sedate a preconscious fetus. Birth triggers a massive surge of stress hormones and neuronal stimulations that activate the various systems that regulate consciousness. Conscious behavior begins slowly and sluggishly, developing over a 20 year period as parents and educators well know. Delivery is thus the genuine birth of a conscious mind.

Illness and accidents can result in conditions that adversely affect conscious capabilities. Schizophrenia, dementia, coma, and vegetative states are examples. Dehaene is optimistic that the direction of current research and clinical intervention will help many whose conscious capabilities are now limited.

Animals and Machines

Mammals and many species of birds seem to have the neurobiology necessary for a global workspace and thus for reflexive and conscious response. Many also have metacognitive capabilities (the ability to know the limits of one's knowledge). The difference between human and animal consciousness probably exists within our capabilities with articulate language and theory of mind (to be able to represent and reason about what others think). On the other hand, the ability of such tiny social animals as ants and bees to function effectively within their societies and environments suggests that the concept of consciousness itself might need to be reconsidered.

That issue might also refer to the concept of machine consciousness. Dehaene suggests that in principle, he sees no reason why machines couldn't have some form of consciousness.

As a social species, we have a tribal tendency to adopt the conscious beliefs of others. We thus tend to develop cultural beliefs either by conscious choice or by default (such as accepting parental beliefs) and so we often allow such organizations as religions and political parties to influence our thinking through their biased basic perspectives. In effect, they do our preliminary thinking. Is this any different than accepting the opinions of newspaper columnists or TV pundits? How socially-driven human beliefs relates to machine consciousness provides an intriguing problem, one that the article below will explore.

Our understanding of the field of consciousness is thus growing rapidly, but so are the questions about it.

The Future of the Mind

The previous article explored recent advances in our understanding of consciousness from the perspective of an internationally renowned cognitive neuroscientist, Stanislas Dehaene. This article focuses on the perspective from the renowned theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, as explored in his excellent non-technical The Future of the Mind: The scientific quest to understand, enhance, and empower the mind (2014). Kaku takes readers on an incredible tour from the beginnings of consciousness and intelligence to the increased roles that robotic technology will play in future cognitive behavior -- and then on to possible explorations in other planets.

Telescopes that could compress space and thus allow us to see galaxies up close had been invented 350 years before we could make the major step forward to enter the space age. Conversely, it only took 15 years from the invention of brain imaging technology to bypass our skull and observe brain functions up close.

Nature functions on gravity, electromagnetism, and weak/strong nuclear forces. Part of the rapid progress in the ability to observe brain function occurred because physicists now have a good understanding of electromagnetism. These govern the electrical signals that process neuronal activity and are also the basis of the most advanced imaging technologies. Cognitive neuroscientists, who understood about 30 brain regions prior to imaging technology, now understand the basic roles of several hundred.

A Conscious Brain

Consciousness is central to human rational thought. Animal consciousness is predicated on the kinds of information that's important to the species' survival (which differs in bats, dolphins, and humans for example).

Many brain sub-units cobble together, each competing with the others in feedback loops to create a model that best represents and responds to the current challenge. The feedback loops process how we relate to space, time, society, and a possible future. This conscious activity feels smooth and continuous. The internal almost collegial brainstorming that we engage in (often at multiple levels) seems so normal that we're not really aware of it. Eventually our brain's CEO (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) makes up its mind after evaluating the past, assessing the present, and simulating the future. If we make a wrong decision we'll typically come up with an explanation that makes the decision appropriate. Or else we'll just laugh it off.

The laughter of humor depends on the punch line. We can imagine how the story will turn out on the basis of our extensive understanding of the physical and social world. Laughter is the release when the punch line provides an unexpected conclusion. That's the essence of humor. Our survival depends on our ability to foresee and effectively respond to unanticipated events. Humor certainly has other values but a sense of humor develops and maintains this capability in a pleasant non-threatening way. Play, games, and gossip are similar to humor in that they deal with unexpected outcomes to the solutions that folks develop.

Beyond Our Current Brain

The size of the female birth canal led to a human brain that's 1/3 of its adult size, leading to an extended juvenile dependent period that's focused on nurturing and formal education. We've become a very successful social species with a current life span in the upper 70s. The chimpanzee is our closest genetic relative, sharing 98.5% of our genes. It has half our life span and lacks both articulate speech and human technological capabilities. We thus have a slight genetic and social edge that scientists are now trying to understand. With the world's current population at seven billion and exponentially growing, humans dominate an already crowded earth.

What do we humans need to know about our cognitive capabilities and limitations in order to live in a probably increasingly complex world, given the profound ecological challenges that confront humans and the rest of the biosphere and the effect of advances in science and technology? Kaku devotes much of the rest of his book to this issue. His basic point is that we've pretty much maxed out the cognitive capabilities that we've developed through evolutionary processes. It may however be possible to use a combination of gene therapy, drugs, and imaging capabilities to increase our intelligence and collaborative potential in order to enhance our survival and that of the rest of the biosphere.

A relatively inexpensive approach would be to encourage the development of delayed gratification in children. The evidence is strong from longitudinal studies that children who are willing to delay gratification mature into adults who are socially and vocationally successful. Compare the costs of regular maintenance and replacement. It's much cheaper to provide regular maintenance of such things as a public building or a bridge or to respond in a timely manner to massive issues such as global warming, but we seem to prefer to not tax ourselves a little now, opting instead for our children to tax themselves substantially.

It's not that we don't intellectually understand the cost of delay. We have a rich history of the cost of cultural economic neglect. Knowing what has happened in the past is basically the initial element in problem solving the present with an eye to the future. For example, Kaku provides incredible descriptions of new technological discoveries that will enhance intelligence and motor control for people who suffer from various sensorimotor disabilities. Will we encourage the development and adoption of such technologies or continue to warehouse the disabled?

Altered Forms of Consciousness

The complexity of the human brain with its trillions of synaptic connections mediated by more than 50 neurotransmitters suggests that things can and do go wrong because of the failure of various checks and balances that carry out assigned tasks. Addictions and such forms of mental illness as schizophrenia and obsessive/bipolar disorders can disable people. Other forms of mental illness can affect personal and family life.

We humans have gone from demonic possession to ostracism to talk therapy to drugs to the current situation in which all these solutions are still on the table -- artificial intelligence (AI) providing the latest potential therapy. Can such robotic technologies affect both normal and dysfunctional cognitive capabilities? Not an impossible thought since such previous technologies as dictionaries enhanced memory, clocks kept time, autos extended mobility, and phones enhanced communication at a distance.  Kaku describes several of the promising new AI systems.

Pattern recognition and common sense are the two basic problems that confront AI. For example, robots have a problem with the essence of such things as a chair. They can easily translate a chair into lines/edges/dots/pixels but the great variety of coverings, sizes, and shapes mystify a robot (albeit not a four year old child). Further, imagine the computer code that can interpret such a phrase as "muggy weather is uncomfortable", something humans can easily understand. Common sense is currently common only to humans.

A Robotic Future

Life forms emerged on earth 3.5 billion years ago when the ocean's stirred organic soup produced the self-perpetuating bubbles that became our planet’s earliest lifeforms. Error-prone copying resulted in a continuous production of diverse forms of life. Those that best adapted to the current conditions flourished, while the incidence of less-adapted forms decreased. Sentient conscious people appeared 200,000 years ago. Kaku suggests that we're probably still several decades away from developing robots that can function normally in human society. Even then such issues as self-awareness, recognizing emotions, feeling pain, and developing ethical behavior indicate the great distance between what robots can do now and will still need to master in order to meet potential environmental challenges.

Could the basic concept of evolutionary progression continue into the future as human wetware and robotic hardware merge, something analogous to the symbiotic relationship that we already have with bacteria and immune cells? Many of us now wear glasses and some have pacemakers, cochlear implants, or artificial retinas. Most people carry a cell phone. Will the emerging wetware/hardware combination stop at that or will we reach a point at which replicating inorganic material can exist within humans as bacteria and immune cells currently do? Given the concept of evolution, does a scientific reason exist why;it can't?

Cognitive neuroscientist Douglas Hoffstadter suggested to Kaku in a discussion that we might begin to think of robots as being our children. We should begin to love them as we do our human children, realizing that robots might take over in the end (as our human children do now).


Dehaene, S. (2014). Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts. New York: Penguin.

Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. A link to the synthesis of the book:

Kaku, M. (2014). The Future of the Mind: The scientific quest to understand, enhance, and empower the mind. New York: Doubleday.

Sylwester, R., editor (2013). Consciousness and and Morality: Recent Research Developments. Eugene OR: IAE. Microsoft Word file. PDF file.

Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit three books for IAE ( He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information:

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