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The Conscious BrainReview - The Conscious Brain
How Attention Engenders Experience
by Jesse J. Prinz
Oxford University Press, 2012
Review by Glenn Carruthers
Jun 25th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 26)

In The Conscious Brain Jesse Prinz provides an updated statement of his AIR (Attended Intermediate-level Representation) theory of consciousness (Prinz, 2000) and investigates some implications of his account for a variety of traditional issues in consciousness studies. The book seems aimed at an interdisciplinary audience and is intended to by digestible by academics from a variety of backgrounds, the theory itself being generated from and tested against data drawn from animal and human neurosciences whilst being applied to problems vogue in philosophy.

What is the AIR theory? There are a variety of statements of the central explanatory hypothesis (location 6169, 2115, 1966 in the kindle edition) each committed to more or less detail regarding the implementation in the brain of particular cognitive functions or types of representation. The central tenant of the hypothesis which appears in all of these statements is that consciousness is attending to certain kinds of mental representations -- those called intermediate-level representations (location 1966). The hypothesis is then developed by providing an account of these intermediate-level representations and the mechanism by which we attend to them. Although this account is provided at both a cognitive and neural level of description, here I will focus on the cognitive level so as to keep this review to a readable length.

What are intermediate level representations? Following Jackendoff, Prinz supposes that sensory systems employ three types of representation organised into a processing hierarchy (hence the talk of levels) (location 1109). Focusing on vision Prinz suggests that the low level is analogous to a pixel array (location 1132). At the low level objects are not represented, but rather the features of objects are. Here we get representations of things like edges and luminance blobs. Intermediate level representations provide representations of the objects presented to us from a particular point of view -- i.e. from where one is located. High level representations also represent objects, but in a view-point independent way (location 1145). For example, if one walks around a parrot in a cage the intermediate level representation of that parrot keeps changing as it is viewed from different angles, the high level representation, in contrast, remains the same. It is the intermediate level representation which, according to the AIR hypothesis, is the conscious representation. Not all intermediate level representations are conscious, however, so how does one become conscious?

In short, according to AIR, it is attended to. In other words attending to the intermediate level representation is necessary and sufficient for making an unconscious percept conscious (section 1 of chapter 4). What then is attention? For Prinz attention is a change in the processing of intermediate level representations that makes them available for encoding in working memory (location 2034). Where to be encoded in working memory is for the intermediate level representation to be maintained (in sensory cortical areas). It is important, however, that it is not actually being encoded in working memory (being maintained) that makes an intermediate level representation conscious, it is its mere availability to working memory which constitutes consciousness.    

Such is the central hypothesis at the guts of the book. The central explanatory hypothesis of the book, that consciousness is attending to intermediate-level representations, has a variety of implications which Prinz explores. For example, Prinz takes a stand in debates surrounding the function of consciousness arguing (in chapter 6) that on the AIR hypothesis consciousness provides agents with a 'menu' for possible actions. The latter two thirds of the book examine implications of the hypothesis and attempts to provide independent grounds for accepting such implications.

The AIR hypothesis promises a powerful explanation of consciousness, derived in a rigorous naturalistic fashion from empirically discovered differences between conscious and unconscious visual perception and offering clear predictions. The AIR hypothesis would be falsified by an instance of being conscious of a low or high level representation, or by a dissociation between attention to intermediate level representations and consciousness. For all its promise, however, Prinz's arguments for the hypothesis or its implications in the book remain unconvincing, often resting on misinterpretations of others or even being inconsistent with arguments provided against alternative views. Because of this the book adds little to Prinz's previously published works on the AIR hypothesis in which the arguments for it are more compellingly presented. Let us look at some examples.

Prinz notes that the AIR theory suggests that there can be conscious experiences which occur without an explicit experience of the subject or self who is having the experience. There can be consciousness without self-consciousness. In chapter 7 he argues that this prediction turns out to be true and more than this, there is never an experience of the self as subject (location 4489). Aside from this making some phenomena unintelligible, such as some kinds of out of body experience (Blackmore, 1984), Prinz at times relies on misinterpretations of others to support this claim. For example, in section 3.2 of chapter 7, Prinz argues that we cannot reduce a feeling of being a subject of experience to the feeling of being an embodied subject -- often called a 'feeling of ownership' (for why these are the same, see Carruthers, 2009, 2013) -- because "the leading theory of body ownership" (location 4931) fails. The account criticised is a hypothesis that multisensory integration of different perceptions of the body is sufficient for the feeling of ownership, a view attributed to Tsakiris (2010) at location 4852. Prinz is apparently unaware that Tsakiris has argued over several publications, including that which he sites, the multisensory integration alone cannot possibly account for feelings of ownership. Of course Prinz may still be right that a feeling of being an embodied subject/body ownership can't provide a sense of being the subject of experience, but arguments involving misinterpretations of others don't add to the debate.

Such a misinterpretation of others is plainly seen in Prinz's discussion of the feeling of authorship. For example, he attributes to Wegner the view that we never experience ourselves as the authors/agents of our actions, but rather we merely infer that this is the case. Far from this, however, Wegner plainly thinks there is such an experience in addition to the inference:

The experience of consciously willing an action has been described as an authorship emotion (Wegner, 2002), a feeling that ties the basic fact of the causal event to a bodily response... The experience of conscious will need not be a veridical expression of how the action came about (although people tend to interpret it this way), but it does serve to authenticate the action as something done by the self. Authorship seems to be a self-recognition of agency, then, that has both a rational component (knowledge that one was the agent causing the action) and an experiential component (the feeling of consciously willing the action) (Wegner, Sparrow, & Winerman, 2004, p.  839).

Aside from providing misinterpretations of some positions from which he attempts to develop arguments in support of the AIR hypothesis Prinz's arguments against others can also be used to challenge his own view. In objecting to some forms of (the independently implausible) enactivism Prinz says this: "…it is not clear how mere dispositions would give rise to experience." (location 3895). Prinz here seems to be objecting to another view on the grounds that dispositions cannot explain experience. However, Prinz himself seems to put dispositions to work in explaining experience when he analyses attention as availability to working memory. In other words, the 'A' in AIR seems to be a disposition, i.e. the disposition for an intermediate level representation to enter (be maintained by) working memory. As stated the objection seems to cut both ways.

These are not the only objections which can be raised to the arguments for the AIR hypothesis as laid out in the book, but I will not list others without justification in this short review. I chose these two cases as they were examples surrounding issues close to my own heart or because they were particularly worrisome. It is striking that the examples I've chosen here arise largely in discussion of some applications of the AIR hypothesis and not the hypothesis itself (that said I'm not entirely convinced Prinz has successfully avoided the objections to the role of intermediate level representations raised from location 1548-1744). It is possible to that a reworked discussion of the implications of the hypothesis could render the position defensible, but I would direct readers to Prinz's papers on the topic to make this judgement.

 

Blackmore, S. J. (1984). A postal survey of OBEs and other experiences. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 52(796), 225--244.

Carruthers, G. (2009). Is the body schema sufficient for the sense of embodiment? An alternative to de Vignemont's model. Philosophical Psychology, 22(2), 123--142.

Carruthers, G. (2013). Toward a Cognitive Model of the Sense of Embodiment in a (Rubber) Hand. Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Prinz, J. (2000). A neurofunctional theory of visual consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition, 9(2), 243--259.

Tsakiris, M. (2010). My body in the brain: A neurocogntive model of body-ownership. Neuropsychologia, 48, 703--712.

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will. MIT Press.

Wegner, D. M., Sparrow, B., & Winerman, L. (2004). Vicarious Agency: Experiencing control over the movements of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(6), 838--848.

 

 

©  2013 Glenn Carruthers

 

 

Glenn Carruthers


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