Exploring Consciousness and Perception

Perception and Consciousness represent the psychological lens through which we experience reality. There is some debate as to the precise nature of both phenomenon which will need to be outlined to proceed further we need to understand how both concepts are best understood and why they are more often then not closely linked together. Perception has two distinct meanings which are both applicable here: (1) Represents our ability to see, hear, smell or otherwise become aware through the senses of the world around us and its contents, and (2) is represented by the way in which something is understood, regarded or interpreted. In both cases, this is an accurate definition but alone neither represents a wholly complete explanation of the phenomenon. So, to regard, understand or interpret something, we must have something to regard, understand or interpret – we would normally understand this to come from experience or reality either through our present sensory experience or through our memory of past experiences. While perception is best understood as “perspective”, or “point of view” – consciousness is generally understood as a state of psychological awareness, cognition or alertness of one’s sensory input or perception. There are many theories of consciousness, far too many to explore adequately here, but for our purposes, Berger and Naney (2016: p428) provide four theories which arguable best account for this state of mind:

Attentional theories: A perceptual state P is conscious iff P is suitably modulated by attention (see Prinz 2012).

Global-workspace theories: A perceptual state P is conscious iff P is ‘‘in’’ the global workspace and so suitably available for broadcast to the rest of the mind/brain (see Dehaene et al. 2006).

Higher-order theories: A perceptual state P is conscious iff one is suitably aware of P (see Lau and Rosenthal 2011).

Recurrent-feedback theories: A perceptual state P is conscious iff it is realized by the appropriate state(s) of the brain, most likely recurrent feedback loops between higher and lower sensory areas (see Lamme 2003).

Notice that the dialogue on consciousness seems to be dominated with the language and concept of awareness and attention. Each of these theories has merit but arguably the most accepted is the “Global-workspace” concept and is understood as a theory that suggests that many mental functions operate on a non-conscious level and that metal activity becomes conscious when it is made available to the so-called global workspace. There is some evidence derived from research that supports the idea of a largely non-conscious mind that is periodically impacted on by conscious attention. The theory suggests that the “global workspace” enjoys long-range neural connections to many brain areas, where it can make information available for a wide-reaching impact over one’s state of mind and behaviour. The evidence is largely purported from neuroimaging data comparing conscious and unconscious perception. Differences consist in differing activation of the frontal/parietal areas and widespread connections to other areas of the brain (Berger & Nanay 2016: p428).

All mental activity is either conscious or unconscious, and as such plays a roll in any phenomenon experienced through out mind. This includes the physical senses, our memory and another key component of perception – imagination. All these elements combine to help us to understand and interpret the world around us, but there remain two dominant schools of though with regards to exactly how our mind does this. The representational model, also known as Representative Realism or Indirect Realism amongst others, posits that the world we see in our experience is not the real world itself, but merely a virtual-reality of sorts which we construct in our mind as an internal representation. As such, we only know our ideas or interpretations of objects in the world, because a there is barrier between the mind and reality that prevents first-hand knowledge of anything beyond our own mind. This thought goes as far back as Aristotle and begins to emerge through the Epistemological writings of John Locke and David Hume in the 17th and 18th centuries. It has since emerged through cognitive psychology and neuroscience as probably the most coherent theory of perception – and though there are many more that are worthy of consideration they are often riddled with difficult questions and complications, while the concept of representation continues to provide the best model of perception since it provides a ready-made explanation for consciousness in the form of the Global Workspace. The relational model on the other hand, which understands perception as a kind of relationship between the mind and reality, suffers from the problem that it cannot easily account for non-conscious perception and imagination. Berger and Nanay (2016) explore this problem in detail and dismantle quite adequately the most common responses that Relationalists have in accounting for unconscious perception.

In any case unconscious perception provides an interesting framework for understanding how our impressions of the world around us form in our mind. Namely that we when we perceive the world around us our initial judgements seem to be made on an unconscious level – where our representation of what we are seeing emerges. In part this initial experience is a kind of threat assessment, before it is them interpreted as one kind of experience or another. This is where the idea of a feedback loop does seem to make sense when considering consciousness, where we seem to be constantly assessing the aesthetic qualities of our experience while searching for objects and events for moral and ethical evaluation. But understanding this as simply a neural conduit that is constantly active at the peripheral of the global workspace accounts for this idea just as well.

There are many questions about consciousness that are not even close to being answered within the human species let alone amongst other animals with a neural physiology to our own – and this is before we even begin to investigate the current research being conducted into the consciousness of lifeforms without any kind of recognisable neural physiology, at least not as we understand it – which simply highlights a deep epistemological problem in understanding consciousness in anything other than human creatures – I might suggest here though admittedly without going deep into the science of the topic of non-human consciousness that we need an understanding of perception and how something perceives, and to the researchers credit this work is going hand in hand (see @tigrillagardenia – https://www.minds.com/blog/view/824983739378614272). However, perception and consciousness are not at all well understood in humans – in part this is a problem of definition, perception and consciousness are not concrete terms with a specific scientific meaning. What meaning there is to be found here is still quite open to reinterpretation and reevaluation since the science on these concepts is anything but settled. Nevertheless, we have seen significant progress in recent years with improvements in neuroimaging have become readily available to researchers focusing on cognition and consciousness – but there is a long way to go here and a lot to understand and learn.

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