In the theater of consciousness

Bernard Baars has been one of the few neuroscientists who has dared to face the central problem of consciousness head-on. This 1997 book, which follows his first and most popular book, “A cognitive theory of consciousness”, aims at shedding some light on that most interesting of phenomena, the emergence of conscious reasoning from the workings of atoms and molecules that follow the laws of physics. This book is one of his most relevant works and supports the Global Workspace Theory (GWT), which is one of the few existing alternatives to describe the phenomenon of consciousness (the other one is Integrated Information Theory, IIT).

Baars’ work is probably not as widely known as it deserved, even though he is a famous author and neuroscientist. Unlike several other approaches, by authors as well-known as Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter, Baars tries to connect actual neuroscience knowledge with what we know about the phenomenon of consciousness.

He does not believe consciousness is an illusion, as several other authors (Dennet and Nørretranders, for instance) have argued. Instead, he argues that specific phenomena that occur in the cortex give rise to consciousness, and provides evidence that such is indeed the case. He argues for a principled approach to study consciousness, treating the phenomenon as a variable, and looking for specific situations that are similar between them but sufficiently different to be diverse in what respects to consciousness.

He proposes a theater metaphor to model the way consciousness arises and provides some evidence that this may be a workable metaphor to understand exactly what goes on in the brain when conscious behavior occurs. He presents evidence from neuroimaging and from specific dysfunctions in the brain that the theater metaphor may, indeed, serve as the basis for the creation of actual conscious, synthetic, systems. This work is today more relevant than ever, as we approach rapidly what can be learned with deep neural networks, which are not only unconscious but also unaware of what they are learning. Further advances in learning and in AI may depend critically on our ability to understand what is consciousness and how it can be used to make the learning of abstract concepts possible.

10 thoughts on “In the theater of consciousness”

  1. I certainly will follow this recomendation.Finished the latest you suggested, as a phisician,anesthesiologist,i,m quite interested in this theme.
    Thanks Prof


  2. “He proposes a theater metaphor to model the way consciousness arises and provides some evidence that this may be a workable metaphor to understand exactly what goes on in the brain when conscious behavior occurs.”

    Julian Jaynes would argue it is not merely a metaphor. Or rather metaphors are more powerful than we give them credit. The metaphor is not a model for consciousness. That metaphor, so Jaynes argues, is consciousness.


  3. Caveat: consciousness is an ultimate mystery, pretty much like existence all together.
    How can we assert that a physical system is or is not self-conscious, according to the principles of natural sciences ?


    1. That is an important question, indeed. Many scientists, writers, and philosophers, most notably David Chalmers, think that consciousness is something else, other than physics, and cannot be explained by physical laws (see, for instance, his interview in the Mindscape podcast, The contribution of Baars is, in fact, exactly in arguing against that position and defending that we will, one day, understand consciousness.
      I actually side with Baars and many others. Consciousness can be explained by the laws of physics, we simply don´t know how, yet.


      1. This is a fascinating topic indeed. However, I quite subscribe to Chalmers position. I think the central crux of the so-called hard problem of consciousness seems to be surmountable. The very essence of the natural sciences seem to exclude an objective test for subjective self-consciousness (e.g., along the lines of the Turing Test for “intelligence”).
        We may even imagine a physical system that simulates so-called neural correlates of consciousness without being
        self-conscious. I think the problem is not yet properly defined in scientific terms.


      2. @Luis Caires – “I think the central crux of the so-called hard problem of consciousness seems to be surmountable.”

        In a later edition of his book, Jaynes further explained how so few understood what consciousness is. As he saw it, many of those writing about it were confusing it with other things, such as biological reactivity and sensory awareness. A central part of his argument was how little we are conscious in most of what we do. Jaynes referred to ‘consciousness’ in a very specific and narrow sense that he saw as necessary in order to cut through the confusion.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. @Benjamin Steele. I would be happy to know about a physical experiment (possibly a thought experiment) that could tell whether something is self-conscious (e.g., possesses the subjective sense of self, as presumably we have) or not. This is not the same as determining what kind of mechanisms a physical system may develop to behave like a conscious entity to an external observer. The latter may be attainable, but the former seems very difficult to achieve. Of course, this is Chalmers easy/hard problem of consciousness distinction. I think that whether an experiment such as the one I suggest above may exist is an open issue.


      4. From a Jaynesian perspective, consciousness is not mere perceptual awareness of the world. Even plants demonstrate some environmental awareness and ability to respond to it, but that is not the same thing as Jaynesian consciousness. So, accordingly, the issue of qualia is separate from the debate of consciousness as such. Instead, language is the foundation of consciousness as introspective mindspace.

        “Defining consciousness so broadly as “awareness of the world,” or all sense perception, then leaves us with no terminology to identify the large gulf we have (because of complex language) with all other animals. These broad definitions must include insects and even microscopic organisms. As you mentioned, it is curious that many other writers fail to address this. A notable exception is Daniel Dennett, whose discussions of consciousness are very much in line with Jaynes (i.e., infants are not conscious until they acquire language, there is no “hard problem,” etc.).”

        To understand Jaynes’ approach, it helps to realize he began his career as a behaviorist researching animals in a lab. He tried to find consciousness in this manner. He found it to be dissatisfying and ultimately fruitless. It’s not unlike the path that Skinner took in turning toward radical behaviorism and verbal behavior:


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