In a recent series of articles, I’ve tried with limited success to explain the conception of consciousness that seems to me to be the most reasonable. Some common metaphors come easily to mind, but they’re not really satisfactory.
The brain may be a processor, but mere processing is not consciousness, or this netbook would be asking for a coffee break about now. And a flowing stream is more unidirectional than it should be.
So I’ve been looking for a different conceptualization. While I was listening to music the other day, a very different metaphor came to mind, one that comes much closer to what all the research suggests is going on. I’m not claiming that it’s a point for point analogy, but even that could maybe be accomplished, with a little fudging and a lot of indulgence.
I suggest that it could be useful to think of consciousness not as a computer or as a stream but as a concert hall. This may not be a common conceptualization, but I think that it’s a pretty good fit.
Consciousness can be thought of as a dynamic interplay of physical structures in the brain and the body on one hand, and the physical and social environment on the other. The contents of consciousness are constantly changing, as the elements of the processes of which it is constituted change. This is not a one-way process, a mere processing, as it were. It is better understood as a complex back-and-forth, in which the brain structures provided by biochemistry constantly join and regroup in response to signals from the body and experiences with the external world. The brain is a given in some senses, but in others it is shaped and its functions are redefined by the events that it perceives and to which it responds.
How might the image of a concert hall during a performance make all this vital and complicated interaction make more sense?
The concert hall has a physical framework. It is a building that follows the rules of sound construction (pun intended). This building has entry points, a lobby or two, an auditorium with rows of seats, perhaps some boxes with special sight lines, dressing rooms, utility closets, bathrooms, a snack bar, an orchestra pit, and a stage. These facilities are joined by corridors and passages, and they all share an environment managed by the control systems of electricity, heat, air conditioning, and lighting. The places and spaces of the hall are themselves occupied, utilized, and, within the limits of the design, managed by a staff of support workers like ushers and custodians, lighting technicians and wardrobe assistants.
People from outside the building interact with it in many ways. Some are patrons of the arts who have a close and ongoing relationship with the hall and the activities within it. Some are performers, both permanent occupants like the members of the house orchestra and the one-and-done headliners who come and go with a changing programme. The music that’s performed also originates not in the building but in the world outside, and the pieces that are chosen for performance influence the size and composition of the orchestra; the kinds of headliners invited; the physical characteristics of props, costumes, sets, and the rest; and not least, the size and composition of the audience that attends a particular performance.
On stage, at the centre of attention, is the performance. For the audience, all attention is directed here. At the same time, for the curtain puller and the sound engineer and the concession vendor and the usher, while they are essential to the performance, their duties draw their attention elsewhere. Without them, the concert would not succeed. The performers must command attention. Yet for the offstage workers, commanding attention would only distract from, or even ruin, the performance.
From the outside, passing pedestrians see the marquee signs advertising tonight’s show. They see the lights and the lineup of buses and taxis that await the audience at the end of the show. They may be able to look into the lobby and catch a glimpse of some of the activity within. But they remain apart, able only to relate what appears to be happening to their own experiences of similar events in the past, or to the depictions of concerts in print or other media. They aren’t participants, but they have a pretty good idea what’s happening in there.
I won’t belabour the comparison any further by detailing which parts my description represent which parts of consciousness (“The building is the brain,” and such like). But I really do think that this is a pretty accurate representation of the processes we call cognition.
If the comparison works, you’ve already done these extensions yourself. And if it doesn’t, you lost interest and went away some time ago.