“Consciousness tends to be viewed either as subjective experience of sensations and feelings, or as perception and internal representation of objects. This paper argues that neither view sufficiently acknowledges that consciousness may refer to the brain’s most adaptive property: its capacity to produce states of objectivity.” —A.J. Dijker
With this opening line from a paper published in 2014, Dr. Dijker, a professor of psychology at Maastricht University and an expert in the science of emotions and consciousness research, sets the pace for a thought provoking discussion of the concept of human consciousness. Dijker continues:
A capacity for objectivity may have evolved in different species and can be conceived as a common basis for other elusive psychological properties such as intelligence, conscience, and esthetic experience; all three linked to crucial behaviors in human evolution such as tool making, cooperation, and art.
Consciousness and objectivity defined
When stripped of sensations and emotions and a need to attribute qualities that are merely opposite to “unconscious,” Dijker offers this definition of consciousness as a capacity for objectivity:
[T]he capacity to produce states of objectivity that internally represent objects and their dispositional properties (as well as movements and behaviors predicted by these dispositions) in relatively stable, accurate, increasingly complete, perceiver-independent and neutral ways, unbiased by specific needs, motives, and anticipation of instrumental aspects and rewards.
Peter Tse, a cognitive neuroscientist from Dartmouth, offers a useful example in this interview. He briefly describes the chain of events involved in producing an image from the environment:
So when inputs hit your retina, light impinges upon your retina at time zero and about 250–350 milliseconds later you see something. Now all the preconscious operations that happen in that quarter or a third of a second are not conscious, but they create your consciousness. You go from a pattern of pixels that are two-dimensional on the retina to a full-blown three-dimensional experience of the world and this process involves lots and lots of processing operations
Most of us embrace the common sense interpretation that objects exist independently from us and our perceptions. Watch a baby explore a chair or a ball or any object in the environment and you will observe how confident humans are in our ability to discern any number of qualities about external objects.
What evolutionary advantage would this ability create?
Such perceptions and our confidence in them enable a flexibility in choosing responses to a variety of environmental conditions. This exceptional human quality, Dijker opines, is due not only to our larger brains, but to bipedalism which frees our hands for both power and precision grips, our highly active care systems (due to the need for longer care and training of offspring), and even to language.
Feelings or emotional content of consciousness
Dijker does not deny the feeling and emotional content of consciousness, but rather posits a temporal order in relation to its contents. In other words, objectivity does not mean that feelings or emotions are not involved but are generated by other processes, both preceding and following, perceptually objective states, however brief they may be. He freely acknowledges the existence of feeling/emotional content of consciousness and that it can be a source of bias.
However, Dijker reasserts the necessity of producing objective representations of sensory input and makes the additional claim that these objective states may remain active longer in particular circumstances and/or due to training. He uses as an example the practice of mindfulness. According to multiple studies of mindfulness meditation, it produces a relaxed but vigilant state in which emotional responses to internal and external environmental cues can be held at bay.
Language and objective conscious states
According to Dijker, the ability to create objective states may have evolved multiple times through convergent evolution, but in humans it takes on an additional advantage in the development of human language.
First, language can only be adaptive when it is based on accurate and increasingly complete internal representations of the world; representations that ensure that language has reliable semantic properties. Second, language improves objectivity by creating distance from, and a propositional and impartial view of, the world, allowing us to think about objects without attempting to influence or change them.
If nothing else, the amazing technological achievements of the 21st century attest to this incredible ability to objectively perceive the contents and manipulate the forces of the world around us. The interplay of emotional and feeling content may limit that capacity, but it cannot obliterate it, especially when we remain humbly and intelligently conscious of its influence.
Featured Image Credit: johnhain from Pixabay, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons