Bruce Bridgeman (1992) The Ontogeny of Consciousness. Psycoloquy: 3(22) Consciousness (7)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 3(22): The Ontogeny of Consciousness

Reply to Fielding on Bridgeman on Consciousness

Bruce Bridgeman
Dept. of Psychology
Kerr Hall UCSC
Santa Cruz, Ca. 95064
(408) 459-4005


I first address some definitional issues then examine the the marginal cases Fielding proffers as examples.


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


1.1 A useful way to probe the conceptions of consciousness and language in the target article is to examine the fringes of consciousness, to define what happens in marginal cases. Fielding (1992) has addressed the issue with two such examples, consciousness in neonates and in dreams. But first he addresses definitions (his para. 1.2), and here I think there was a simple failure of communication.

1.2 The genetic homologue of cereal processing that I offered in my para. 3.4 was not an example of the process of planning, but only of the duplication of a morphological feature through a relatively simple and common genetic change. The example of cereal grains was meant to make plausible the alternative that an entire neurological system could have been duplicated in a single step at some point in evolution. Gene doubling can occur as an abrupt mutation, without evolutionary pressure, and it can remain with a species if the duplicated system assumes a useful function. Large groups of genes can double together in the same step. The cereal grains wound up with twice as much nutritive cereal; we might have wound up with two planning mechanisms. The planning system that mediates the parallel-to-serial playout of speech might have evolved in this way, but I conclude in the target article that it did not, because the existing planning mechanisms had enough flexibility to mediate speech without major changes.

1.3 Fielding brings up the word "intent," which, along with intentionality, forms one of the key areas of interest for philosophers of mind. In my conception, words like "intent" can be recognized as descriptions of the operation of a plan-oriented psychology. An intent is nothing more or less than a plan. Intentionality is the existence of a plan that is controlling behavior, and one becomes aware of intent in the process of executing a plan. What decides how intents get translated into actions? Simply another plan at a higher level. Eventually we work back to the highest level of plans, probably built-in ones with imperatives such as "survive" or "reproduce."


2.1 Neonates lack a functional neocortex and there is no evidence that plans influence their behavior. Fielding asserts that few would suggest infants are not conscious, but where is the evidence that they are? They certainly fail the memory test (target article para. 2.10) for awareness, for the neonate cannot report his experiences even after language is later acquired. And there is no behavioral evidence that they execute plans. In the beginning, neonates are more like the simple animals I described in para. 2.5. Fielding admits that "it may be argued that the quality of such consciousness is meaningless to the neonate," but to me the concept of a meaningless consciousness is an oxymoron. My theory would have to predict that consciousness emerges gradually through ontogeny, as plans begin to influence behavior and later as language begins to mediate it. Plans and speech develop together, since they stem from the same source. Different kinds of consciousness would emerge at different stages.

2.2 Dreams pass the memory test of consciousness because they can be reported retrospectively with language. But they are reported as experiences, memories of sensorimotor interactions with the world. In dreams not only language but also action and experience are internalized, affecting the memory mechanisms that normally store conventional experience. They become conscious in retrospect to the degree that they enter or remain in episodic memory after waking. (The dreamer fails the memory test of consciousness until then!) Again, we don't need to invent new boxes in the mind to handle dreams. And the phenomenon of dreaming can be included under the umbrella of the new theory.

2.3 Other altered states of consciousness might also be subsumed in the plan-oriented theory of consciousness. Hypnosis, for example, can be interpreted as transferring the planning function to the brain of another (Bridgeman, 1988, ch. 15). The process is imperfect, fortunately, so that control eventually reverts to the brain of the subject. Drugs, of course, can alter the operation of the neurological systems that support planning and consciousness, proving again that consciousness is a physical process that can be influenced by physical as well as informational means.


Bridgeman, B. (1988) The Biology of Behavior and Mind. Ch. 14: Consciousness and high-level control. New York: Wiley.

Fielding, Richard (1992) On Unconscious Babies and Dreamless Sleep: Commentary on Bridgeman on Consciousness. PSYCOLOQUY 3(21) consciousness.6

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