Consciousness - An Introduction (ch4)

How can the mind be seen as theater? - Chapter 4

The theater as a metaphor

Hume states that the mind is a kind of theater where different perceptions appear, pass by, come back again and mix in different situations. Such a comparison sounds attractive and in this chapter the advantages and disadvantages of making such a comparison will be explained.

What does it feel like to be you? Some people will describe this as a situation where the "I" is somewhere in their heads and they look at the world with their eyes. The "I" can hear sounds that reach consciousness. If you close your eyes, it looks like you are looking at mental images. Thoughts and feelings come into the consciousness of the 'me' and then leave again.

If you make a similar description of the 'I', then this is what Dennett calls 'Cartesian theater (CT)'. This means that we feel that our "I" is somewhere in our brain. In this place, eveyrthing we are conscious of is present together.Dennett also states that many materialists (who reject dualism) implicitly still believe there is a place where the consciousness takes place and that there is someone to whom consciousness happens. Such a vision is dualistic in essence. Dennett calls this vision 'Cartesian materialism' (CM).


Both CT and CM have a dualistic approach. You are a supporter of CT if you believe that there is a space, place or stage within which conscious experiences happen. You are a Cartesian materialist if you believe that consciousness does not exist separately from the brain and that there is a sort of theater in the brain where everything comes together. If the Cartesian theater exists, we should be able to locate it in the head.


The place where consciousness happens

When we perform actions, we can find the brain processes that cause them. There is no specific part of the brain where our consciousness comes from. A lot of parallel processing takes place in the brain. In addition, there are complex feedback processes that the brain uses. So there is a lot of integration.

There is also no specific time in which the consciousness must express itself. It is true that information first comes in and that actions then follow, but between both there is multiple parallel processing. There is therefore no magic moment in which input is translated into output or a moment in which the consciousness is experienced.

The mental screen

Shepard showed participants a picture of blocks stuck together in space, but from different points of view. The blocks were rotated and the participants had to say whether it was the same image or not. To do this you have to rotate the position of the blocks mentally.The question is where in our head the mental rotation of the forms takes place. Shepard and Metzler discovered that the moment when people realized that it was the same image correlated with the time needed to actually rotate the blocks in space. So if a picture in the head has to be rotated very much (for example 180 degrees), it will take longer to decide whether it is the same image as the picture has to be rotated a bit (5 degrees).

These results show that something measurable happens in the head when people have to imagine things. However, the results do not show that consciousness is responsible for these representations. In addition, the results do not show that there is a mental screen on which images are projected (as with CT).

Mental rotations

Mental rotations can manifest unconsciously. It has been found that when we scan a visual image mentally, the visual cortex is activated, just as it happens when we look at an object. If you believe that there is a mental screen on which a rotated image is projected and that the 'I' consciously or unconsciously looks at that screen, then the question is where that screen is in the head. The 'I' should, think for itself and be able to look at the mental screen. This is very unlikely. We can only say that there is processing in different parts of the cortex. This allows us to solve rotation problems, look at mental rotation and describe this.

Alternatives to Cartesian theater

The problem that arises in the concept of Cartesian theater is the same problem described in chapter 3. We are aware of some actions, but not of all actions. We also know that all actions, perceptions and wishes are related to neural activity in the brain. The question that arises is therefore: what makes some events conscious and others unconscious?

Some of the alternative theories hold the theater metaphor in their minds, while other theories ignore the possibilities of a Cartesian theater. Examples of these alternative theories are discussed below.

Global workspace theory (GWT)

This theory of Baars is based on the theater hypothesis. He states that conscious events happen in the theater of consciousness. He states that there is a big difference between the limited number of items available in consciousness and the many unconscious processes that are present. He believes that consciousness in the theater serves as a spotlight on the stage. With the spotlight, attention is focused on different actors (ie events from the outside world), so that we become aware of these events. The bright light is surrounded by events of which we are very vaguely aware.

The interactions between the stage, the audience and what happens behind the scenes are based on the idea of ​​a 'global workspace architecture'. This view states that the brain is so structured that it is only possible to deal with a number of items at a time in the 'global workspace' (working memory or short-term memory). We can hold about seven items in our working memory.


Baars states that consciousness is not an incident, but he also states that it is not something mysterious. According to him, consciousness is the working part of the entire cognitive system. What causes us to be aware of an event, according to Baars, is that the event is processed within the working memory and that the event is made available for the rest of the (unconscious) system. Baars sees consciousness as a variable with different values. He thinks that we should therefore think in terms of 'more conscious' or 'less conscious' instead of 'conscious' and 'unconscious'. He calls this 'contrastive analysis'. He does not, like CT, state that there is a fixed place where consciousness is located in the brain. He does state that somewhere in the brain the information comes together from areas that have to do with working memory. His theory assumes that things can be in or out of consciousness. According to Dennett, Baars therefore has a Cartesian materialistic view. Baars states with his theory that availability of information in working memory explains the feeling of consciousness. However, he can not explain how and why that happens.


Neuronal global workspace

A similar theory is Dehaene's 'neuronal global workspace' model. This theory also states that unconscious processes are competing for access to the limited capacity of the global workspace, the working memory. This working memory probably works thanks to an extensive network of different brain areas. Information that has gained access can thus be extensively passed on to other areas of the brain.

The availability of information (global availability) that arises in this way offers the possibility of (non) verbal expression. There are two possibilities:

  1. when the information comes into the global workspace, it becomes conscious or

  2.  if the information has become available to be expressed, it is the same as 'being aware' .

Theories that do not start from theaters

Many theories completely reject the controversial image of the stage and the theater. For example, Libet does not believe in the equation of consciousness and a theater with his theory of 'neuronal adequacy'. He states that we become aware of an event when neurons fire for a certain period of time. Many events remain unconscious because this threshold value is not reached by neurons.

Another example is the 'astonishing hypothesis' by Crick. This theory states that your joys, worries, ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are nothing more than the coming together of nerve cells. According to Crick, conscious experience is equivalent to the action of neurons. Conscious experience is therefore not caused by neurons and the consciousness also has no interaction with neurons. Consciousness and the functioning of neurons are the same thing. Crick states that consciousness is most closely related to neural activities in the lower cortical areas of the brain. To become aware of something, these cortical areas need to be supported by a kind of short-term memory.

The "eliminative materialism" of Paul and Pat Churchland equates conscious experiences with brain activity. They state that it is quite simple: neural processes and subjective experiences are the same. "Electromagnetic waves do not cause light, do not correlate with light; they are light. That is what light is. "

The multiple drafts model of Dennett

Dennett states that we can best avoid CM if we ban the entire concept of CT. In his view, we no longer have to think in terms of a theater or an audience. Dennett is in favor of the multiple drafts model. This model states that all mental activities (perceptions, emotions and thoughts) in the brain arise through parallel processes in different brain routes. These processes ensure that sensory input can be interpreted. These processes would constantly be revised. For this reason our perceptions and thoughts are constantly being revised and transformed.

But which versions of our perceptions and thoughts are conscious? If you think in terms of CT then you would say that only some versions can be seen by the public. Dennett calls such an explanation the 'myth of double transduction'. In Dennett's theory, there are only multiple designs of feelings, thoughts and perceptions with which the brain works. Some of these designs (drafts) are used to guide behavior or produce speech, while others are stored in memory.

Dennett states that, as claimed by CT, there is no question of an audience. We talk about our experiences and therefore feel that there is a kind of 'I' that is responsible for this. According to him, it is an illusion that there is an observer (the 'I'). We ask two more questions:

  1. is this theory CT, and

  2. how does this theory explain subjectivity (ie the fact that we feel we are experiencing something)?

In this theory there is no CT, since Dennett does not believe in the comparison of consciousness with a theater and an accompanying audience. In addition, he states that subjectivity should not be seen in terms of what the "I" experiences. Yet he has a view on the issue of subjectivity. There is always a translation of a parallel stream of events in the brain and these events can be translated and /or interpreted in different ways.


Resources: Blackmore; Susan. (2010). Consciousness, Second Edition An Introduction. Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor & Francis.

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