Consciousness

In 1879, when Wundt started the first experimental psychology laboratory, he regarded consciousness as the main focus of psychology. By 1900, however, many psychologists had become frustrated at the lack of progress toward a science of consciousness, and by the 1920s behaviorism seemed much more promising. Behaviorism seemed to be achieving its advances by avoiding any speculations about consciousness.

How has psychology returned to one of its early themes?

Now psychologists are once again grappling with the issue of consciousness. New tools, notably brain scanning techniques, have provided new insights into the processes at work during conscious and unconscious mental activity. But many questions remain. What are the brain mechanisms of consciousness? If science is objective, relying on shared knowledge, can consciousness-which is essentially private-be studied scientifically at all?

What position, originally taken by John Watson, still finds favor with some psychologists?

Even today, psychologists disagree about the answers to these questions. Some echo the arguments put forward by the father of behaviorism, John Watson, in the 1910s and 1920s. Watson pointed out that consciousness was subjective, by definition. It was defined by the fact that we experience it internally and cannot share it directly with others. Therefore we cannot have an objective science of consciousness. We can only study things about which we can gather data, such as behaviors or activities of the organism. A psychologist sympathetic to this point of view might argue, "You can say you are studying consciousness, but when you study brain scans or attention, you are studying observable things, so you are in fact studying behavior."

Some modern-day psychologists regret the fact that so many scientists are talking (and writing speculative books) about consciousness again. They see this as a repetition of the fruitless investigations of the 1880s. Others consider the mysteries of consciousness a central problem for the field, but they are not sure we have the tools to understand consciousness in today's science. Still others feel we are on the brink of achieving key insights into the nature of conscious awareness.

Many scientists do not see consciousness as something outside the realm of science. University of California philosopher John Searle expressed this point of view in his book The Re-emergence of Mind (1992):

What viewpoint was expressed by philosopher John Searle?

Consciousness...is a biological feature of human and certain animal brains. It is caused by neurobiological processes and is as much a part of the natural biological order as any other biological features such as photosynthesis, digestion, or mitosis. (Searle, 1992, p.90)

What do Tononi and Edelman propose, concerning brain mechanisms of consciousness?

Many scientists have made specific proposals about brain mechanisms that might produce consciousness. For example, Tononi and Edelman (1998) review evidence that the biological substrate of consciousness is a dynamic core of neurons, widely distributed but not equivalent to the whole brain, which can organize itself in a tenth of a second to form a unified response such as a thought or a perception. They predict that a "distinct set of distributed neural groups" will be identified through brain scanning as the basis of conscious experience.

For a great many other perspectives on consciousness, see the archives of the PSYCHE-D discussion group. It ran from April 1993 to October 2007. During this time, the topic of consciousness emerged as acceptable and then "hot" for experimental psychologists and neuroscientists. The complete, unedited archive of the mailing list PSYCHE-D is preserved at archive.org at this URL:

http://www.archive.org/details/PSYCHE-D.

The discussions are preserved in log files that contain a month's worth of discussions. To view these files, click the http lilnk in the left column, then click on the desired log file. That should give you the option to download it or open it with a text editor or word processor. The log files show long, detailed, mostly-polite discussions of such topics as quantum effects on consciousness.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey