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Such conclusions are certainly rather tempting, but our aim here is not to analyze such issues in any detail. The situation is somewhat different when artificial neural networks are taken into account Ferber, , though, as these to a certain extent mimic some biological mechanisms e.

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Yet even such systems do not seem comfortably situated, or to want to fit in specific ecological niches, and neither have they adapted to some specific dynamically changing informational resources — they did not ever evolve so as to act in order to survive, reproduce, and so on, being designed instead just to simulate certain human or animal actions e. If we still do not know all the necessary and sufficient ingredients of consciousness as a natural phenomenon, then certainly we know even less about the feasibility of any artificial or machine consciousness Hollande, ; Torrance et al.

Ultimately, however, it seems quite reasonable to restrict graded consciousness to those systems capable of individuating information and, on the basis of this, building subjective points of view. We shall therefore propose the following global limitation postulate : conscious experience can only be formed by unique information detectors, i. It is likely that only dynamically changing biological or biologically based systems, evolved and situated somewhere on Earth or some Earth-like ecosystem , meet these criteria.

Earthly creatures Millikan, , p. Our aim in the next section will therefore be to analyze this process more precisely, in the hope of establishing some relevant local constraints on graded consciousness.

If, as was suggested earlier, not all information detected by a given organism and integrated within its specialized subsystems e. Many hypotheses and empirical findings concerning selection mechanisms at cognitive and neuronal levels have been put forward in science. One of the more promising correlations links consciousness with novel, non-standard or incongruent information Dehaene and Naccache, ; Mudrik et al. Hence it is that learning and memory are often considered crucial functions for consciousness. See also Cleeremans and Frith Of course, not all discernible differences are equally likely to be detected: the system turns its attention to emotionally, contextually, or perceptually primed contents or stimuli thus attention is also regarded as crucial — see Lamme, Yet according to Lamme , the phenomenon of consciousness cannot be fully understood just in terms of one function or another: what we should rather be looking for is the specific neuronal mechanism responsible for generating consciousness.

Theoretical proposals and empirical models of neuronal selection most often explore the idea of multiple parallel processes distributed throughout the brain structures that selectively generate states of consciousness in diverse configurations and different activity patterns. Borrowing some of their theoretical vocabulary, the process may roughly be described as follows based on sensory perception : When the sensory information passes a certain detection threshold, action potentials in the relevant feedforward neuronal networks are fired, enabling one to discern basic features of the sensing scene crucial for possible motor responses.

Later on in the process, longer-lasting activations of higher and lower sensory areas result in the integration of particular aspects of the information into perceptual objects i. The neuronal activity may then propagate itself onto more distant corticothalamic regions, binding these together into wide-ranging firing clusters semantic pointers, re-entrant loops that may integrate sensory, motor , and executive fronto-parietal areas. It is worth noting that the abovementioned models tend to imply a fairly late and sudden acquisition of consciousness occurring when some particular higher-order cortical activity occurs either more globally GW, GNW, SPC or less so DC, RP , in the corticothalamic complex.

However, they also reveal certain features that may incline one toward favoring the graded and extended view advocated here ones also compatible, to a certain extent, with the ideas of IIT; see Tononi and Koch, For example, in the RP model proposed in Lamme , recurrent activations that operate at a localized corticothalamic level may count as preconscious, or perhaps as conscious but not reportable. The primary consciousness conception introduced in Edelman and Edelman et al.

Moreover, in what SPC proposes, consciousness is thought to be significantly extended globally, being associated there with species of gradually diminished complexity in respect of neuronal structure Thagard and Steward, , p. However, the authors rather arbitrarily assume that fish are the least developed creature possessing consciousness. In addition, the biologically justified picture of consciousness described in recent versions of the GW model Baars, , ; Baars et al. Are we likely to discover mechanisms responsible for selecting states of consciousness amongst some of the lower-level forms of neuronal activity, possibly in the primary sensory and motor areas?

The quantitative methods proposed by IIT may show which of the activity patterns differentiates and integrates more information Tononi, , ; Barrett and Seth, , but since not all integrated information need be conscious see above and Mudrik et al. At the same time, however, outside of the varied neuronal characteristics and functional results, we are rather unlikely to find that extra ingredient in the activation patterns themselves.


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Is it possible, we may ask, to point to any other, perhaps more general, non-neuronal process that might shape selection, avoiding at the same time any arbitrary conclusions about the exact cognitive function or neuronal mechanisms involved? In other words, what might the general difference be between informational and conscious states? The fundamental features of consciousness described earlier in the text, understood as abstract meta-characteristics categories of more detailed features , are good candidates as starting points for this search.

The question now is this: which of these features are shared by all informational states, and which constitute the differentia specifica of consciousness? According to the global limitation postulate , consciousness may be engendered only by systems able to individuate information. Therefore, all informational states relevant to consciousness must be individuated and subjective , though not all of them need ultimately be conscious. This last point in turn raises the issue of unconscious subjectivity — a problem that calls for further analysis elsewhere; see Neisser, Both informational and conscious states are not just internally discernible for a given individual system, but also potentially visible to an external observer e.

Referential content may exhibit a sensory, emotional, perceptual, or any other sort of character — not necessarily one constitutive of any particular object.

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To the extent that all informational states are individuated in virtue of being detected by a specifically situated individual body engaged in unique environmental interactions, bodily determination should definitely also be considered a common feature. The final candidate for playing the role of a general differentiating element here would seem to be pragmatic functionality. The hypothesis that conscious states are selected from informational states by virtue of their usefulness in action certainly seems quite viable, so can pragmatic usability furnish us with a differentia specifica?

It is a trivial consequence of the mechanisms of evolution that a given creature will be better equipped to detect states if these resemble those that commonly proved useful for its ancestors. It is also evident from the perspective of developmental psychology and neuroscience that within biologically primed capacities for detecting this rather than that occurrence, once again, the most likely to be used are those states and action patterns resembling the ones that proved most useful during the relevant individual history.

Consequently, in this context, the assumption that the major role of consciousness is to govern or coordinate action at a given moment of time seems really quite viable, and in the light of this we can propose the following local limitation postulate : that conscious states are informational states selected to coordinate action at a given moment in time. Putting together the global and local limitation postulates just proposed, it seems that the aim of the present paper could after all be fulfilled, and an abstract concept of consciousness arrived at.


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  • This conception will concur with the general idea of IIT about the informational nature of conscious states and the graded nature of consciousness Tononi and Koch, However, the extended range of graded forms of consciousness will be confined to individual systems i. Consequently, consciousness may be characterized quite straightforwardly here: as a phenomenon in which a given individual system utilizes information in action.

    Put more succinctly, consciousness is individuated information utilized in action. The contents are selected to coordinate and adapt divergent actions to the specific conditions of the moment: they are utilized, for example, to grasp objects, to navigate motion, to see, to taste, to react appropriately, to decide, to reason, to think, to talk, to read, to answer questions, and so on.

    Conscious contents actually arise in the very acting process in which different components of actions i. Such interacting structures may refer, for example, to specific visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, or inner-bodily sensations, or to emotional feels, or to the location of certain objects in the surroundings, along with their usability, purpose or name, or to co-relations between things and other creatures, or similar past experiences, remembered events and situations, actual thoughts, ideas, concepts, words, phrases, meanings, beliefs, and so on.

    Acting in a complex and dynamically changing environment, biological creatures are potentially able to differentiate between an infinite number of states; there can be no doubt that such overloaded informational conditions and such an ever-changing environment would have exerted evolutionary pressure, favoring more efficient selection mechanisms and greater plasticity in acting.

    The functional role of consciousness implied by this view may be described as that of providing online integration and refinement adaptation of available actions in accordance with the changing conditions of the moment. As far as we know, such pragmatically driven processes are most likely probabilistic and heuristic in nature i. From this perspective, consciousness may be understood as yet another biological adaptation — a pragmatically functional process that enables the forming of unique patterns of action coordinated and refined on the basis of the private informational states available to a given agent.

    States of Consciousness

    As was argued earlier, one of the characteristic features of conscious states is their referentiality i. Some of the states, namely higher-order or metacognitive ones, refer to other, namely lower-order, states or contents. In most of the cases, however, a given subject is metacognitively unaware of the particular information utilized in action; economy and efficiency of acting dictate that most of the informational states will go metacognitively unnoticed, being impossible to report for the subject.

    For example, walking up a hill we are not aware of most of the complex equilibrioceptive information that our body uses in order to maintain balance we just naturally incline into the slope. Perhaps the most controversial claim supported in this article is that even such forms of information, commonly regarded as genuinely unconscious, count as a rudimentary form of consciousness namely sensorimotor consciousness insofar as they are utilized for the purpose of acting.

    There is insufficient space to analyze the complicated problem of qualia here for that purpose, see Dennett, ; Crane, ; Bayne, , but it is in fact subjectivity that is crucial in this context. The notion of individuated information developed in the present article thus furnishes at least a provisional answer to this objection. It proposes a naturalized conception of subjectivity itself — one based on the uniqueness of biological systems and their individual differences. In many philosophical theories e. Except for certain problems and empirical shortcomings mentioned earlier , such a position also brings the aim of the science of consciousness down to the level of a quest for a certain specific mechanism of generation or, at least, a contrastive threshold between higher-order conscious and lower-order unconscious states.

    The graded, action-oriented approach developed in this article offers a pragmatic explanation of why there may not be any contrastive difference between conscious and unconscious processes at the neuronal level see Peremen and Lamy, It builds up gradually in the individual interacting system so that, at a certain point, the system may become able to report on the contents of its own states, yet this does not mean that it has just acquired consciousness while previously having been totally unconscious.

    This gradational, action-oriented view also has certain methodological consequences. For example, it is definitely more difficult in experimental practice to find evidence for consciousness at lower levels of functioning — in this case, more sensitive measuring methods and tools are needed. If consciousness is indeed to be action-oriented, then perhaps certain quite new action-oriented measuring procedures will also need to be developed.

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    At the same time, the gradational view does not call for a methodological revolution: for instance, contrastive analysis might also be useful here when the contrast or threshold is properly defined and detectable. The change, rather, is above all meta-theoretical, because the thresholds or contrasts used in experiments are to be seen more as operational or practical than as definite.

    Other implications that could have a bearing on methodology might relate to the more holistic and externalistic approach needed when seeking to explain graded consciousness. Certain consequences of the abstract concept of consciousness developed in this article might prove more significant viewed from a metaphysical perspective, but as detailed analysis is not feasible in this closing section, a few such implications will just be briefly indicated below.

    What is more, the phenomenon seems to be fundamentally divided epistemologically because dually accessible , yet can still be, and hopefully is, ontologically unified. In the account developed here, consciousness may be seen as implied by or bound to the unique physical structure of any active system that individuates information. Instead of offering further conclusions, let us end by listing a small number of questions and problems potentially raised by this conception.

    With such a broad notion of consciousness in play, does the traditional distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness still hold valid?

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    Is it possible for a given creature to act without being conscious, or is acting always information-based, and hence to a certain degree conscious? How can information be subjective i. The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

    National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. Journal List Front Psychol v. Front Psychol. Published online Jul Author information Article notes Copyright and License information Disclaimer.