Thursday, January 5, 2012

Consciousness Fills In the Blanks

by Richard Crews
One of the most remarkable attributes of consciousness is our ability and inclination to complete, through imagination, the scene around us. Think about it: At any particular moment, even with our eyes open and looking around attentively, we can actually see--that is, record on our retinas--only a small fraction of what is around us and what is changing in it. But our experience is that we are aware of all of it. If we see someone walking toward us and then look away, when we look back we expect the person to be appropriately closer. Even if the person has stopped or turned while we were not looking, our consciousness immediately reinterprets their position as reasonable and even expected, just as if we had been looking at the moment they made the change.

Hearing is even less complete than seeing, and contributions by our sense of smell, for humans--unlike dogs--is close to zero. The tactile senses, unless our skin is burned or cut, and also the kinesthetic senses (that send feedback to the brain about the positions of our muscles and joints) pretty much always operate under the radar. Their readings on our environment are very sparse and incomplete and contribute almost nothing to consciousness filling in the blanks.

Self-awareness is another remarkable attribute of consciousness, and it depends heavily on the brain creating an environmental context. Self-awareness means experiencing ourselves as a discrete entity, different from and separate from others, and separate from the world around us--the world maintained in our imaginations by consciousness filling in the blanks in our perceptions.

Human consciousness eminently qualifies for the "Aunt Tilly Principle," that is, consciousness, like Aunt Tilly, is easy to recognize but hard to define or explain. Attributes such as the various forms of memory and different kinds of cognition and problem-solving are facile parts of our learned repertoire of mental activities, but their explanation and precise quantification is very difficult to accomplish. The ability of our consciousness to fill in the blanks and create a sense of completeness in the world around us is similarly facile and important, but elusive.