Flexible Interaction as a Criterion for Consciousness

Project Awarded: $29,820

The study of consciousness is one of the biggest challenges facing modern science. In perceptual psychology report-based measures are the ‘gold-standard’ for attributing ‘consciousness of an object’ (henceforth consciousness) to a subject. There are, however, long-standing problems with the reliability of report as a measure of consciousness. Other accounts have attempted to avoid these problems by identifying objective measures that are correlated with consciousness. However, these ‘no-report’ paradigms continue to rely on report for validation of their measures. Our goal is to identify an objective measure of consciousness that does not rely on report for validation and cannot be attributed to adaptive unconscious processes. Here, we propose one such measure and seek to test whether or not it is capable of dissociating consciousness, reportability, and unconscious, automatic processes in normally-sighted populations and in patients who possess visual field deficits following brain injury.

In order to develop an objective measure of consciousness, we will appeal to intentional accounts of consciousness that claim a subject is conscious of an object if information about that object is available to them for use in explicit reasoning and intentional action. We will argue that reasoning and intentional action are dissociable, and that evidence of intentional action is sufficient for the attribution of consciousness to a subject. Finally, we will argue that intentional action can be differentiated from automatic, unconsciously mediated behavior by virtue of the flexible use of information in performing a task. This line of argument will lead us to posit a ‘flexible interaction criterion for consciousness’ (FI) that says: If a subject exhibits the capacity to use information about an object to reliably guide their action in an object-appropriate and flexible fashion, they are conscious of that object.

In the empirical phase of this project we will test two competing hypothesis. Hypothesis (1) states that the process that makes information available for reasoning and intentional action is an all or nothing process. Hypothesis (2) states that different processes make information available for use in different tasks. As such, (1) and (2) make different predictions regarding the dissociability of FI from reportability with (1) predicting that they will not dissociate and (2) predicting that they will. Our intention is to investigate these two possibilities in both normal subjects and in subjects with selective brain injury.

Team members:

 Robert Foley, Rotman Postdoctoral Fellow in the Philosophy of Neuroscience, The Rotman Institute of Philosophy and The Brain and Mind Institute, The University of Western Ontario

Robert Foley, Rotman Postdoctoral Fellow in the Philosophy of Neuroscience, The Rotman Institute of Philosophy and The Brain and Mind Institute, The University of Western Ontario

 Robert Whitwell, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Psychology, The University of British Columbia

Robert Whitwell, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Psychology, The University of British Columbia