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Consciousness Cannot Be Limited to Sensory


Qualities: Some Empirical Counterexamples:
Commentary by Bernard J. Baars and Katharine A.
McGovern (Berkeley, CA)
Bernard J. Baars & Katharine A. McGovern

The Wright Institute, 2728 Durant Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94704, e-mail:


Published online: 09 Jan 2014.

To cite this article: Bernard J. Baars & Katharine A. McGovern (2000) Consciousness Cannot Be Limited to Sensory
Qualities: Some Empirical Counterexamples: Commentary by Bernard J. Baars and Katharine A. McGovern (Berkeley,
CA), Neuropsychoanalysis: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Psychoanalysis and the Neurosciences, 2:1, 11-13, DOI:
10.1080/15294145.2000.10773274
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15294145.2000.10773274

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Commentary on the Unconscious Homunculus

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Shear, 1. (1997), Explaining Consciousness: The Hard


Problem. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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Christof Koch
Division of Biology, 139-74
Caltech, Pasadena, CA 91125
e-mail: koch@klab.caltech.edu
Phone: 626-395-6855
Fax: 626-796-8876
Web: klab.caltech.edu

Consciousness Cannot Be Limited to Sensory Qualities: Some Empirical Counterexamples:


Commentary by Bernard J. Baars and Katharine A. McGovern (Berkeley, CA)

The idea proposed by Crick and Koch that conscious


contents are confined to sensory events is attractive,
in part because it is easier to study consciousness in
the senses than anywhere else. The last 10 years have
seen particularly good progress in studies of the visual
cortex, where the question of visual consciousness has
almost become normal science. This is an exceptional
event in this period of scientific evasion of consciousness (and unconsciousness as well), and it bodes well
for a better understanding of both of these essential
concepts. Francis Crick and Christof Koch have made
pioneering contributions to this emerging literature.
According to Crick and Koch, Freud wrote at
times of consciousness as "a sense-organ for the perception of psychical qualities" (1900, p. 615). However, the expression "psychical qualities" would
seem to extend beyond sensations to other mental
states like thoughts, feelings, intuitions, concepts, beliefs, expectations, and intentions. Fifteen years later
Freud wrote of this point as an analogy: "to liken
the perception of (unconscious contents) by means of
copsciousness to the perception of the external world
bybteans of sense-organs" (1915, p. 171). It is only
Bernard J. B,.ars is Institute Faculty Professor at the Wright Institute
in Berkeley, California, and author of a number of significant books and
articles on the problem of consciousness.
Katharine A. McGovern is a cognitive psychologist and Adjunct Professor at the Wright Institute. She has a special interest in the problem of
emotional feelings in the Jamesian "fringe" of consciousness.

in 1923 that he seems to take it literally: "It dawns


upon us like a new discovery that only something
which has once been a perception can become conscious, and that anything arising from within (apart
from feelings) that seeks to become conscious must
try to transform itself into external perception" (1923,
p. 19). This is essentially Crick and Koch's claim,
following Iackendoff. If we extend the notion of perception to events like mental images, inner speech, and
somatically referred sensations, which are internally
generated perceptlike experiences, it seems as if all of
our mental lives can be understood as sensory in some
way. It is in fact quite an old idea. Long before Freud,
Plato and Aristotle made their claims upon it.
Shortly before 1900 a long and intractable controversy took place in Continental psychology about
precisely this issue, in the so-called ' 'imageless
thought" debate. The Wurzburg School of empirical
psychology asked, can thoughts exist without images,
which are internally generated sense experiences? It
was a difficult claim for the nineteenth century to resolve. The debate is therefore quite old. Note that this
is not a neuroscientific question primarily, but a psychological one, dependent on the best information we
can get about the actual experience of human beings.
In the next section, therefore, we will provide some
evidence the reader can assess experientially, to see
whether his or her own conscious experience is fundamentally sensory.

12

Baars-McGovern

Some Empirical Cases

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1. Homonyms preserve sensory form while


changing meaning. Consider the following word-pairs.
The first is called a prime, a word that tends to change
the meaning of the second, target word, which is always "set." The word set was chosen simply because
it has many different meanings. Does the conscious
experience of "set" change for you, the reader, as a
resfilt of the prime?
a.
b.
c.
d.
e.

tennis: set
Boolean: set
table: set
chess: set
ready, go: set

Were you conscious of differences between the


different meanings of set? If so, rather subtle aspects
of meaning and association must have differentiated
between visually identical stimuli. That result suggests
that your conscious experience is not limited to the
visual sensory contents (Baars, 1997).
One might argue that mental images, which can
be considered to be quasi-sensory, provide the differences in meaning. That is possible, but images associated with meanings are not the same as the meanings
themselves. Thus one may experience the mental image of a Venn diagram when given the words, "Boolean: set." But a Venn diagram is only a visual
representation of the technical meaning of a Boolean
set; it is not the same as that abstract meaning.
2. Synonyms preserve meaning while changing
sensory form. Just as meaning can change without
changing the sensory qualities of a word like set, so
sensory qualities can change with only small changes
in meaning. Thus love and adoration are similar abstractly, but not sensorily. Entire sets of synonyms
can be found, such as love, fondness, liking, passion,
tenderness, ardor, etc. These words are not identical
in meaning, but their meaning clearly overlaps significantly. That is not a result of any sensory similarity. As we look from one word to the next, what is it
that is in our awareness that tells us they are similar?
Clearly there is something that is not just sensory.
3. Habituation of meaning. Now consider the
perceived loss of meaning of a repeated word (often
called "semantic satiation"). Try repeating the word
repeating a dozen times, for example. Does its meaning tend to fade from consciousness? If it does, this
suggests that meaning, again, is a conscious but nonsensory entity, however difficult it might be to de-

scribe in detail. Notice, by the way, that the faded


meaning of a satiated word can be reinstated rapidly
by putting it into a meaningful sentence. If you repeated "repeating" a number of times to the point of
satiation, some of its meaningfulness should return
when it is consciously considered in a sentence like
"I'm tired of repeating this word over and over again"
(Baars, 1988). Again, nothing has changed in the sensory aspect of the word.
4. Abstract ideas. From Plato onward, Western
philosophers have worried about the paradox of abstract ideas, which do not have a concrete referent,
but are clearly conscious. This is especially clear for
mathematical ideas, like equal, prime, or real number.
The entire Platonic tradition from Socrates to Roger
Penrose draws profound implications from the fundamental fact that we can be conscious of contents that
can never be fully captured by sensory events
(Baars, 1997).
5. Consciously accessible intentions and expectations. "Intense" expectations and intentions appear
to become conscious in some way. The classic example is given by William James, who pointed out in a
famous passage that the intention to say a forgotten
word is not sensory in content. Suppose we try to
recall a forgotten name. The state of our consciousness
is peculiar. There is a gap therein; but no mere gap.
It is a gap that is intensely active. A sort of wraith of
the name is in it, beckoning us in a given direction,
making us at moments tingle with the sense of our
closeness, and then letting us sink back without the
longed-for term. If wrong names are proposed to us,
this singularly definite gap acts immediately so as to
negate them. They do not fit into its mold and the gap
of one word does not feel like that of another (1890,
p. 243; emphasis added).
6. Fringe experiences. As James (1890) emphasized, and as Bruce Mangan (1991,1993), David Galin
(1994), and one of us (McGovern, 1993, 1999) have
recently rediscovered, there is a class of mental events
that are quite precise (in the sense of controlling accurate responses) but which have almost no sensory or
featural conscious aspects. In the experimental psychology literature such phenomena are studied in the
domain of metacognition (see Nelson, 1992; Metcalfe
and Shimamura, 1994; Yzerbyt, Lories, and Dardenne,
1998, for recent work in this area) and are called
"feelings of knowing" (FOKs) , "tip of the tongue
experiences" (TOTs), or intuitions. Feelings of knowing, for example, are well established as being quite
accurate in directing problem solving, guiding study
during learning, and controlling the flow of conscious

13

Commentary on the Unconscious Homunculus

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contents, without giving rise to focal sensory consciousness. Judgments of beauty, rightness, wrongness, meaningfulness, self-association, relational
concepts, and the like, are all in this category of what
William James called "the vague" or "the fringe."
James thought that perhaps one-third of all conscious
experiences were like this, and that they played a central role in the functioning of the mind. Arguably, however, they are always present, usually simultaneous
with focal conscious contents. Mangan (1993) has argued that the function of some fringe events is to circumvent the capacity limits of focal consciousness.
We cannot resist letting James describe the fringe
of consciousness for us.
Every definite image in mind is steeped and dyed in
the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying
echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of
whither it is to lead. The significance, the value of the
image is all in this halo or penumbra that surrounds
and escorts it~r rather that is fused into one with it
and has become bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh;
leaving it, it is true, an image of the same thing it was
before, but making it an image of that thing newly
taken and freshly understood [1890, p. 246].

7. Feelings of emotion. McGovern (1999) and


Galin (1994) have argued that emotional feelings have
much the same character as William James's fringe of
consciousness. That is, the affective coloring or "feeling" of an emotion is not a sensory quality but rather
a nonfeatural (to use Galin's term) quale that accompanies the sensory contents of emotion-provoking episodes. As psychotherapists have been fond of noting
for some time, the affective qualia of emotions are
themselves information bearing-pointing to content
or computation which is currently not in consciousness. In contrast to the case of metacognitive "feelings" where the nonconscious contents being referred
to are cognitive representations, in emotional feelings
the nonconscious content is hypothesized to point to
goal, value, and belief representations (Lazarus, 1991;
McGovern, 1999).
In sum, Crick and Koch's hypothesis that consciousness can be reduced to just sensory events, or
even to imagined or remembered sensory events, cannot account for this evidence. Consciousness is more
complex than we might like it to be. This might be an
achievement of the primate brain, which has a very
large nonsensory cortex (the frontal lobes, which constitute two-thirds of the cortical surface in humans).
In animals without this massive nonsensory cortex it

is possible that more conscious contents are sensory.


If that is true, then nonsensory consciousness may be
largely a primate, and by extension, a distinctively
human trait.

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Katharine A. McGovern
The Wright Institute
2728 Durant Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704
e-mail: kamcgovern@aol.com