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New Ideas in Psychology 19 (2001) 77}84

Short communication

Against the spotlight model of consciousness

Benny Shanon
Department of Psychology, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel

The spotlight metaphor for the characterization of consciousness is examined. It is argued
that, in e!ect, models based on this metaphor are not explanatory. In crucial respects, the
models are not informative and they can account neither for the speci"c qualities of human
consciousness nor for its function. In the spirit of pragmatic analyses in language, it is suggested
that consciousness be viewed as an act. With this, a shift is made from a selectional to a
generative perspective of consciousness. The proposal is grounded in a general critique of
cognitive modelling in terms of underlying mental representations.  2001 Elsevier Science
Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Consciousness; spotlight

1. Against the spotlight model of consciousness

Perhaps the most common conception of consciousness is to view it in terms of
a spotlight (often the terms searchlight or torchlight are employed). By these,
consciousness is regarded as a beam of light that is shed upon the mental storehouse
of information * the cognitive material illuminated by the beam becomes conscious.
Thus, what consciousness consists of is, in e!ect, the de"nition of a partition: Out of
the entire set of stored information * out of the total repertory of mental representations * a subset is created. With the exclusion of the subset, what comprises the large
set is not amenable to consciousness * only what comprises the subset is.
The spotlight (henceforth, SL) model of consciousness permeates the literature (see,
for example, Crick, 1984; Lindsay & Norman, 1977; Natsoulas, 1993). By and large, all

E-mail address: (B. Shanon).

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B. Shanon / New Ideas in Psychology 19 (2001) 77}84

cognitive theories that de"ne consciousness in terms of selective mental awareness

assume the SL picture. Further, it seems to me that in most cognitive theories of
consciousness, even when no explicit mention of it is made, the SL metaphor
is assumed. At "rst glance the SL view appears so evident as to be almost inevitably
true. But, "nding this view problematic, in this paper I would like to present a case
against it.
Even before beginning to present my case, and in order to dispel some expected
misunderstandings, let me make a comment regarding the scope of the present
discussion. The topic here is the SL model qua model of consciousness. The model
may, however, also be applied to perceptual, and especially visual, attention. Indeed,
SL is the dominant metaphor in psychological models of attention (see, for instance,
Posner, 1980; Posner, Snyder, & Davidson, 1980; Downing & Pinker, 1985). The
present discussion, however, is concerned exclusively with consciousness. Some of the
remarks made here may be applied to attention, some may not. Given that the two
topics * consciousness and attention * are conceptually distinct and since they
involve di!erent empirical considerations, at this stage I prefer to con"ne the discussion to consciousness and to not say anything about attention; for a critique of the
SL metaphor in the context of attention the reader is referred to Driver and Baylis
Let us begin by spelling out explicitly the assumptions upon which the SL model is
1. In general, the cognitive domain comprises a storehouse of information, i.e.,
a totality of internal mental representations.
2. As a rule, the mental representations are in a `dormanta state in which they are not
amenable to consciousness. Indeed, at any given moment the majority of mental
material is not amenable to consciousness.
3. Consciousness consists in a local, temporary change whereby a relatively small
subset of cognitive material becomes amenable to consciousness.
4. In essence, conscious and non-conscious mental material are the same. Except for
the speci"c quality of being amenable to consciousness, the cognitive material
pertaining to the two sets is of the same type. Indeed, any speci"c material that is
conscious at one point of time is a material that in other points of time is not
These assumptions are of two types * general assumptions that pertain to one's
view of what cognition is, and ones which are specixc to the characterization of
consciousness. Assumptions (1) and (2) are of the former kind, assumptions (3) and (4)
of the latter. We shall begin with the speci"c assumptions.
What do the speci"c assumptions tell us about consciousness? In fact * nothing:
What is being said is that a subset of mental material is marked as being conscious out
of a larger set which, except for that subset, is not. Except for this marking, there is no
di!erence between the set and its subset. In other words, what the SL model tells us is
that there is some mental material that is conscious and some such material that is
not. Except for noting this di!erence, the SL model is not indicating any di!erence

B. Shanon / New Ideas in Psychology 19 (2001) 77}84


between the two sets of mental material. Thus, in e!ect, the SL model is nothing but
the restating of the state of a!airs that the model of consciousness (any model, for that
matter) is meant to explain. The model, in other words, is vacuous.
Indeed, the selection de"ned by the SL model does not account for the speci"c
quality of being conscious. This selection may apply and yet no manifestation of
consciousness be exhibited. At most, the SL model could specify a structural property
associated with consciousness, but what is intrinsic to consciousness is left unaccounted for.
Furthermore, the SL model does not provide any potential reason for the di!erence
between that which is conscious and that which is not, let alone any explanation for
why the noted cognitive state of a!airs is as it is. By the SL model, consciousness adds
nothing intrinsically di!erent than that which pertains on an already given state of
a!airs. If so, then it is not clear what the need for consciousness is. If, in essence,
consciousness does not change anything, why have it? Basically, it appears that the SL
model cannot o!er an answer to this crucial question.
Other problems have to do with mechanism. How does the partition between the
conscious and the non-conscious come about? In terms of the pictorial metaphor
of the SL model the question amounts to the following: Who is it that is in charge of
the spotlight, what is this agent doing, and how? This agent is, apparently, the self.
What the self is is a di$cult topic about which cognitive psychology has very little
to say; surely, this is not the place to discuss this in any depth. Yet, prima facie it
seems that self and consciousness are very much linked to one another (see Chapters
IX and X of James, 1890/1950). Thus, the question arises as to whether the mechanism
that the SL model requires is not the very same phenomenon that this picture is
supposed to explain. In other words, not only is the SL model vacuous, it is also
Now, even though the SL model is presented in the literature in the context of
consciousness and attention, when regarded from a more abstract perspective, it
appears to be in line with models encountered in other domains of psychology and in
other human disciplines. In particular, consider language and the representation of
meaning. How is it that a word is endowed with meaning? I gather that most cognitive
psychologists would say that by virtue of some underlying, covert mental structure
that serves as the semantic representation of the meaning that the overt articulated
word expresses. But, as pointed out at length throughout the later work of Wittgenstein (1953, 1958), this conceptualization is inadequate. The postulation of an underlying representation solves nothing. By and large, the phenomena pertaining to the level
of words and which the model is purported to explain are pushed o! to the level of the
corresponding, underlying representation: How does the semantic representation gain
its meaning? How is it interpreted? How is it linked to levels and entities other than
itself * in particular, how does it achieve reference? All these questions remain
unsolved. Thus, nothing substantive has been gained by the postulation at hand. As
argued in Shanon (1993a; see also Bickhard & Treveen, 1995) the postulation of
underlying mental representations only serves by way of satisfying our naive conception that in order for linguistic and other expressions to be meaningful they have to be
the expressions of other, supposedly deeper entities. But this is precisely Wittgenstein's


B. Shanon / New Ideas in Psychology 19 (2001) 77}84

point: In itself, the postulation of underlying, covert mental elements does not warrant
the otherwise dispensable duplication of cognitive levels.
If not underlying semantic representations, what can account for the meaning of
linguistic expressions? What Wittgenstein suggests is the matrix of the relationships
between each linguistic expression and all other expressions in the language as
manifested in the way these are actually used by the speakers of that language.
Subsequently, students of language (see, Austin, 1962; Bar Hillel, 1971; Searle, 1969)
have proposed that linguistic behavior should be viewed not as the overt expressions
of underlying covert structures but rather as an act that cognitive agents perform. In
Austin's (1962) phrasing, we do not express things with words, rather, we do things
with them. Just as for any physical tool (e.g., a hammer) to be functional no hidden
underlying structures need to be postulated, so is the case with words. In Shanon
(1993a; see also Shanon, 1987), I extended the conceptual, philosophical critique of
mental representations with a cognitive-psychological critique based on a comprehensive survey of the empirical phenomenology of human behavior. This critique
examines not only language but also other cognitive faculties * memory and
learning, perception and motor behavior, a!ect, thinking and reasoning. This is not
the place to summarize the critique, but only to state its principal conclusion, namely,
that semantic representations cannot serve as the basis for the workings of mind. This
is tantamount to saying that the general assumption (1), stated above, is not warranted.
Assumption (2) too is, I think, unwarranted. Again, the arguments against it have to
do with basic and general conceptual issues in cognition, and they would lead us way
beyond the scope of this speci"c discussion. Here let me just observe that even though
it is usually taken for granted, the notion of `dormanta mental representations is
a very problematic one. The mind is not a physical object or an artifact, like
a cupboard or a library. Rather, it is a biological, living system. And in the biological
domain, inert static entities do not exist. In order to maintain what may, for an
external observer, seem to be an inert, static state extra energy has to be invested.
Cognitive models in which assumption (2) holds are thus not as simple and straightforward as they seem to be, and neither from a psychological point of view nor
from a biological one do they actually make sense.
My general critique of underlying mental representations has led me to a radical
conclusion, namely, that by and large the domain of the cognitive coincides with the
domain of the conscious. The quali"cation `by and largea comes by way of also
including that which can be readily rendered conscious. This is, in fact, the view
advocated over a 100 years ago by William James who maintained that unconscious
mental states do not exist (see James 1890/1950, Chapter VIII). Recently, and on the
basis of di!erent considerations than those presented here in James, Searle (1990,
1992) has come to similar conclusions. By contrast, the entire cognitive revolution (as

 This quali"cation brings to mind Freud's (1900/1953) notion of the preconscious; the present considerations and those associated with the Freudian preconscious are indeed similar, but they are not necessarily
the same.

B. Shanon / New Ideas in Psychology 19 (2001) 77}84


well as the psychoanalytical enterprise) is based on the claim that the domain of the
mental comprises not only that which is conscious but also psychical material which is
not conscious. Indeed, the view dominating contemporary cognitive psychology is
that more often than not psychological processes are in fact not amenable to
consciousness. By way of specifying the locus in which these processes take place,
a covert underlying psychological level is postulated * the level of semantic representations. As argued at length in Shanon (1993a), I deny the existence of such a level.
Let me not be misunderstood: I do not deny that there are processes which are
outside the scope of the conscious. What I maintain is that such processes, and the
substrates upon which they apply, are not cognitive or mental in the sense that
manifest (hence conscious) patterns of behavior are. The full-#edged cognitive patterns are generated out of a substrate which is qualitatively di!erent. The process of
this generation is one of di!erentiation and "xation whereby patterns with wellde"ned structural properties are created out of a substrate lacking such properties. In
Shanon (1993a) I call the process of this generation crystallization, and I maintain that
this is one of the two fundamental operational features of the human cognitive system
(the other one is being and acting in the world). In general, I argue, representational
(or rather, representational-like) cognitive structures are not the basis for mental
activity but rather the products of such activity.
Let us return to consciousness. What kind of thing is consciousness? In the
literature it has been suggested that consciousness is a state, a faculty, or an emergent
property. Guided by what I have learnt in the linguistic domain, I suggest that
consciousness is an act. A fundamental capability of the human cognitive system is
that it can generate conscious mental material. The key term here, note, is generation.
It is to be contrasted with selection. Selection is a mapping between two sets of the
same type, generation is a mapping between two sets of di!erent types. By the picture
of the SL model, consciousness is a selectional process. I suggest that, on the contrary,
it is a generative one. (Note: The term is used here not in the Chomskian sense, but
rather in the vernacular sense as employed, for example, in conjunction with artistic
creation.) Like language, consciousness is a feat of creation. It is an act in which
patterns are created that exhibit properties not exhibited by the substrate out of which
they are produced (for another, speci"c case in which a generative approach is
suggested instead of a selectional one the reader is referred to Shanon, 1992).
Viewing consciousness as an act is both in line with what is, to my mind, a coherent
and correct general view of cognition and non-trivial as far as the speci"c domain of
consciousness is concerned. Acting, I maintain, is (along with crystallization) the
fundamental operational feature of the human cognitive system. Using linguistic
terms, I shall say that the cognitive system is primarily pragmatic, not semantic (as the
representational view, and all theories of the information-processing type hold).
Adopting this general view, we note that consciousness is not an empty mapping
between entities that are otherwise not di!erent from each other. Nor does it consists
of a redundant duplication of a distinction that already exists on another level (that of
covert underlying structures). Rather, consciousness is an act that generates something new. With this observation, the door is open for novel answers to the question
`What is the function of consciousness?a For indeed, it is preposterous, I think, to


B. Shanon / New Ideas in Psychology 19 (2001) 77}84

claim (as some cognitive scientists of the representational school have) that consciousness is an epiphenomenon with no function; see, for instance, Rey (1983) and Thagard
(1986). It simply does not make sense that such a major feature which our biological
species exhibits is devoid of functional advantages. A detailed presentation of my
answer to the question just noted is given in Shanon (1993b). It is also grounded in the
non-representational perspective of Shanon (1993a).
The only item in the literature that I have found that speaks of cognition in similar
active-generative terms is by Ilenkov (1977), one of the members of the Soviet school
of activity theory. `Thinkinga, he writes, `is not the product of an action but the action
itself, considered at the moment of its performance, just as walking, for example, is the
mode of action of the legs, the &product' of which, it transpires, is the space walkeda (p.
35). The same, I believe, is true of consciousness.
Let me summarize. The SL view is wrong because none of the tenets by which it is
de"ned is true. This is so for reasons both general and speci"c. The general considerations that lead me to object to all the tenets indicated at the outset of this paper have
to do with a comprehensive critique of the foundations of cognitive science, one that
I cannot present in full detail here. The speci"c considerations are those that pertain
speci"cally to the domain of consciousness and to its account by the SL model. On
this level, I have argued, the SL model is both vacuous and circular, and it leaves
unexplained all the key questions regarding consciousness.
The SL model does not account for what it is purported to account for * the
generation of consciousness and the distinction between the conscious and the
non-conscious. But perhaps the model can be useful with respect to a more limited
question, namely, the structural characteristics of consciousness. Even if the general
psychological picture in which the SL model is grounded is wrong, even if the
distinction between the conscious and the non-conscious in the manner of the SL
model is not warranted, even if consciousness is not a selectional process * could not
the SL framework still be handy for the de"nition of speci"c properties of the realm of
the conscious? Metaphorically, one might argue, the model may be wrong with
respect to the distinction between what is under the spotlight and what is outside, yet
it may have something valid to say with regard to the beam and the area illuminated
by it. In particular, it could be argued that the SL model may serve for the characterization of various features of the illumination; for instance, its focalization, constancy,
continuity and homogeneity. The model may also be said to serve for the speci"cation
size and shape of the area being illuminated. In this conjunction, it is important to
appreciate a most basic assumption of the SL model that so far I have not spelled out.
It has to do with spatiality: Whatever the particular values of the parameters of either
beam or illuminated area are, the SL model assumes that these can be speci"ed in
"xed, spatial terms.
However, the assumption of spatiality is wrong. Here the problem is not conceptual
but factual. The SL model assumes that the various features of consciousness are to be
characterized by "xed parameters which are structurally determined. In contemporary cognitive terms we would say that the parameters the SL model assumes pertain
to the given architecture of the cognitive system. It seems, however, that this is not the
case. An explicit argument to this e!ect is presented in Hirst (1995). Hirst notes that

B. Shanon / New Ideas in Psychology 19 (2001) 77}84


there is no intrinsic limit on consciousness. `The amount of information held in

consciousness at any moment will vary as a function of the nature of the material, the
degree to which people can segregate competing messages, their perceptual and
attentional skills, the e!ort they put into the task at hand, and the automatic nature of
the underlying processes. Consequently, limits on conscious experience re#ect underlying processing rather than the amount of information the stage lights of consciousness can illuminate at the same timea (p. 1316). The characterization of the scope of
consciousness in terms of cognitive work rather than in structural-architectural terms
is, of course, in line with the non-representational action view presented here.

This paper was written while the author was a Golestan fellow at the Netherlands
Institute of Advanced Studies. The author thanks Arie Peled, Amnon Levav, Uri
Hasson and Yoel Strimling for their useful comments on an earlier version of this
manuscript. Thanks are also extended to Dr. Asher Cohen for pertinent references.

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