Donald Laming (1992) Some Commonsense About Consciousness. Psycoloquy: 3(23) Consciousness (8)

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Psycoloquy 3(23): Some Commonsense About Consciousness

Commentary on Bridgeman on Consciousness

Donald Laming
University of Cambridge
Department of Experimental Psychology
Downing Street
Cambridge, England CB2 3EB


Consciousness has been the subject of much misunderstanding. Bridgeman (1992) offers a strategic insight when he declares (2.9) "It is meaningless to look for a box labelled "consciousness" in a brain model, or to try to localize it in the brain's anatomy. The operations that make us conscious occur in the context of controlling behavior." Nevertheless, his analysis is neither so simple nor so natural as it might be. This commentary reassembles the elements of the target article in a more compelling interrelationship.


consciousness, language, plans, motivation, evolution, motor system.


1.1 Consciousness is said (2.9) to be "a result of the operation of the planning process." At the same time (2.8) "not everything that is experienced consciously is related to plans. Perceptions, to the degree that they enter the episodic memory, also have the ability to... generate consciousness." Even worse (2.10), "Planning seems necessary to evoke consciousness, but it is not sufficient." Which of these assertions are correct?

1.2 I argue below that "plan" has two distinct usages in the target article, whence the confusion. That confusion is most easily dispelled by putting the "plans" aside for the time being and attending directly to the notion of consciousness.


2.1 It is not possible to discuss consciousness purposefully without first saying what is meant by the term. It is conventional to test (2.10) "whether someone was aware of an event or action by asking whether they can describe it from memory." So "consciousness" is the attribute of episodes recorded in memory. "Planning" need not enter into it.

2.2 Many people find the identification of consciousness with the functioning of memory unsatisfactory because conscious experience has a truly distinctive quality - for example, the "what it actually feels like" to be in pain (Sommerhof, 1990, p. 92). There is a simple answer.

2.3 When my wife broke her arm, she was manifestly in pain. But her pain did not feel TO ME like my own pain does - not one bit. The distinctive quality of consciousness, the "what it feels like," is a CONSEQUENCE OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE EXPERIENCE AND THE EXPERIENCER. The voice I hear when I speak and the voice I hear when my speech is recorded on tape and played back to me are two different voices. My listeners hear the second voice; only I hear the first.

2.4 I am happy to presume that my wife and (to take two other examples) Bruce Bridgeman and the Editor of PSYCOLOQUY have conscious experiences of a quality similar to mine; but I have no empirical evidence that they do - it is mere presumption. And while some of their actions seem clearly to be conscious (the writing of a target article for PSYCOLOQUY), and others unconscious (breathing whilst concentrating on that writing), those attributions of consciousness and unconsciousness are still conjecture. I have, in fact, no way of determining whether any specific behaviour on the part of any of these three was or was not conscious. Indeed, it is only too easy to develop a psychology which leaves consciousness out of the picture altogether, and that is what experimental psychologists have done.

2.5 Consciousness is not itself observable (I except, of course, the use of the term to describe a physiological state of unresponsiveness). It is simply a notion which is used in interpreting one's own and other people's behaviour.

2.6 Do animals have consciousness?

   2.6.1  I live with two cats; let's call them Boss Cat and Junior.
   Boss Cat can open doors by pressing on the lever of the door handle
   with his paws, so my wife and I are awakened early each morning by
   his entry into our bedroom. On a cold morning either cat might
   snuggle himself under the quilt. I believe, but cannot, of course,
   be certain, that the cats have learned to do this simply from seeing
   humans tucked up in bed.

   2.6.2  The cats are fed twice a day and are capable of letting you
   know when they think it is suppertime. One or other of them will ask
   (miaow) to have the door opened. If you follow the cat through the
   door, he will lead you straight to the kitchen where the food is
   kept. If you do not follow, but close the door behind him, he will
   miaow from the other side of the door to be let back into the room.

   2.6.3  Boss Cat can hold a simple "conversation." He does not, of
   course, utter any words, but he has the concept that one party
   vocalises (miaow) and then the other party responds, then the first
   party vocalises again (miaow) and so on. It is plausible that he
   should be able to identify human speech as such since units have
   been discovered in the Medial Geniculate Nucleus of the cat which
   respond differentially to human speech sounds (Keidel, 1974).

   2.6.4  Boss Cat is aptly named. There are occasions when the two
   cats will sit more or less side by side; but many more occasions
   when Junior has to scarper. On some of those occasions Junior is
   physically assaulted; but on others he scarpers before the assault
   materialises. I can only judge Boss Cat's mood from what he does
   (assaults Junior) or from Junior's pre-emptive retreat. Junior can
   judge Boss Cat's mood directly.

2.7 On the basis of these examples I believe those cats have conscious experience of a quality similar to that which I have, BUT WITH RESPECT TO A RELATIVELY RESTRICTED RANGE OF STIMULI.


3.1 If my conscious perceptions, the perceptions actually recorded in memory, are sufficiently abstracted from the physical stimulus, there has to be a preconscious analysis of the perceptual field of which I am not aware. If my conscious actions are of a similar complexity, there has to be a post-conscious unpacking of higher level instructions of which, again, I am not aware. This is one sense in which "plan" is used in Bridgeman's target article.

3.2 Language provides an excellent example. I can understand what is said to me without being aware of all the individual morphemes that make up the utterance, or even of the accent of the speaker. If I listen to someone speaking in a foreign language that I do not understand, I do not get their meaning; instead, I am aware of their individual morphemes and have the (erroneous) impression that they are speaking excessively fast. Likewise, I can express an idea (in my own language) without having to concern myself with the particular movements of the vocal tract that are required. If, when speaking, I had to occupy myself, consciously, with individual movements of my vocal muscles, my ability to speak would be much restricted thereby. So, a SUBPLAN - the first of Bridgeman's usages that I identify - is a necessary concomitant of the abstract level of our conscious experience. the execution of a subplan is not itself conscious.

3.3 A computer program provides a useful analogy. When I write a program in FORTRAN and wish to print a result, I merely write "PRINT 1000,X,Y,Z." I do not have to write the print routine itself; that routine is inserted automatically by the compiler. I merely provide some print parameters in a FORMAT statement. I have no idea how the print routine works; I do not need to know. The action of printing a result is, as it were, "unconscious."


4.1 When I am thinking what to say by way of comment on Bridgeman's target article, I turn over various ideas in my mind, rehearsing them mentally in words that I might subsequently type into my wordprocessor. Those thoughts are stored in my memory in verbal form for recall at the keyboard. The whole corpus of preparatory rehearsals is a SUPERPLAN, using the word "plan" now in a second sense.

4.2 A superplan is conscious. It directs me to recall a sequence of ideas from memory, in order, and to type them out in words or to take some other coordinated sequence of actions. I periodically lean back in my chair (as at this point) and think "What next?." As Bridgeman points out, similar high-level superplans might direct a wide range of behaviours, typically conscious behaviours. A superplan is the manner in which we strive for behaviour of yet greater abstraction.

4.3 Returning to my analogy, if I am writing a computer program to fit a model to data, I usually have to write my own subroutine to calculate the model's predictions. Unlike the PRINT order above, this subroutine features in explicit detail in my program listing. It is, as you might say, "conscious."

4.4 The confusion I noted in 1.1 above can be resolved if "plans" are separated into two kinds: (a) low level subplans such as drive, preconscious perceptual analysis and postconscious verbal articulation; and (b) high level superplans such as direct the reading of a map or the planning of a comment on a PSYCOLOQUY target article. Are these two categories of plan really distinct?


5.1 At this point the question becomes empirical and is largely beyond my present knowledge. But I make one comment and one conjecture:

5.2 Superplans can develop into subplans. Watch a three-year old child laboriously writing his name in capitals. Look at that same person twenty years later signing a cheque!

5.3 The analogy of the computer program is again helpful. If I am repeatedly fitting a related family of models to different sets of data, I can create my own library of model routines and have them included in my program merely by inserting a simple directive. I have to write and debug the routines in the first place (as superplans), but thereafter they do not appear in my program listing (they have become subplans). Commercially available libraries (e.g., those published by the Numerical Algorithms Group) work on this principle.

5.4 Now for my conjecture: A plan directs that certain material be recalled from memory. If the content that is recalled is itself sufficient to complete the action or to construct the percept (i.e. a subplan), we are conscious only of the cue for recall (the idea we wish to express or the percept we see) and not of that which is recalled (the detailed process of expression or of perception). But if the content recalled directs the recall of yet further memories (i.e, a superplan), we are conscious of the cues for those further recalls as well -- of the entire process of composing a comment for PSYCOLOQUY.


Bridgeman, B. (1992). On the Evolution of Consciousness and Language. PSYCOLOQUY 3(15) consciousness.1

Keidel, W.D. (1974) Information processing in the higher parts of the auditory pathway. In E. Zwicker & E. Terhardt (Eds.), Facts and Models in Hearing. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. Pp. 216-26.

Sommerhof, G. (1990) Life, Brain and Consciousness. Amsterdam: North-Holland.

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