20 November 2009

Direct Access to Mind

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:26 pm

This post is based on some comments I wrote to myself toward the end of an earlier post-and-discussion about cognition and empiricism. In my post I summarized some of the empirical evidence supporting the contention that much, if not most, human cognition takes place outside of conscious awareness. However, I decidedly did not propose that all of cognition is unconscious. We consciously attend to things, reason, solve problems, assemble stored memories, plan, evaluate information. And we’re self-reflexive about it: we are consciously aware that we’re reasoning, problem-solving, etc.

Doesn’t this mean that we have direct access to our own minds, at least to some extent? I’d say yes. If’ I’m aware that I’m solving a problem, and if both my awareness and my problem-solving are mental processes, then my mind has direct access to some of its own activities. If we’re consciously aware of the activities and outputs of our own consciousness, then that’s not just direct self-relation but also direct self-awareness of the self-relation. Consciousness is an emergent property of brain activity; unless we believe in the soul or some form of panpsychism there is no source of consciousness other than brain activity. So consciousness has to be in direct relation with the unconscious brain activity that generates it — doesn’t it? — even if that direct relation doesn’t take the form of conscious awareness of brain function. My hand is in direct connection with itself, even if  it can’t hold itself in its grip. A bridge is in direct connection with itself, even if it can’s support itself on itself.

What I definitely don’t have direct access to are the unconscious workings of the mind, which mostly have to do with the neural structures and synaptic firings from which my conscious thoughts arise. Similarly, I have some direct conscious access to my digestive tract — I’m aware of being hungry, or nauseated, or needing to pee — even if I don’t have access to the biological processes generating my awareness. If having access to the unconscious biochemical level is the only thing that counts for direct access, isn’t this to reduce mind from its emergent states and functions down to the biochemical brain functions?

But let’s go back to the issue of direct access. The brain is the source of both conscious and unconscious cognitive activity. Consciousness and unconsciousness together comprise mind. Just because I’m not consciously aware of unconscious processes doesn’t mean that my mind has no direct access to itself. My unconscious has direct access to itself, making and breaking synaptic connections, even if I’m not consciously aware of it. So too with my digestive tract: it has direct access to itself, enzymatically processing nutrients, shunting off waste products, and so on, even if my conscious mind has no direct access to these processes. Direct access of something to itself isn’t the same thing as direct conscious access to itself.



  1. I wish I had more time to comment….

    First, I agree completely and enthusiastically with what you are saying. I just wanted to add a few expansions and clarifications that might be useful in thinking this stuff through.

    1. Direct access: the answer could be none more yes. You have the conceptual key. To take it further, this means that our perceptive apparatus *and* our motor apparatus has direct access to the world, in pretty much the exact same way. Neurons talking to neurons is no different, really, than photons talking to retinae, or feet talking to stones. This sort of thing is what I mean when I say that we are “embedded” in the world.

    2. In talking about the activity of our minds, one of the easiest mistakes is to mix levels of description. So when you say “hunger”, that’s a different level of description than “a network of neurons”. And also, it’s easy to use what we’d consider “qualia” in place of a whole emergent property of a bunch of complex things happening at a lower level. I don’t think you’re making those mistakes, but there’s a way of thinking about it that I think can make avoiding that easier for anyone trying to grok what you’re saying. Here it is:

    Imagine the “visual system” as a neural network “module” that picks up signals from the eyeball, transforms them, and sends them off to other modules. Not all of these other modules get the same thing — some get, say, information needed to resolve stereoscopic images, and others get, say, motion information, etc., etc. Your “consciousness” receives output from the visual system module and it is this that impinges upon your awareness.

    One very important thing to note about the visual system module is that it is “loose” — it doesn’t always involve the same set of neurons, and very often, it uses pieces of networks used by other modules for other purposes. A “module”, in other words, is not a static chunk of brain, or anything like that.

    Okay. Now imagine that “consciousness” is a module just like the visual module. It’s a loose neural network whose emergent property is the stage upon which our awareness plays out. How is it different from the visual module? Aside from structural considerations, it’s really the same, *except* that it gets its inputs not from the nerves that are in contact with the world, but from the nerves wholly *inside* the brain. And beyond that, it gets inputs from *itself* (which isn’t really all that uncommon in the brain).

    Taking that all together, consciousness can be seen as a sensory organ that senses the brain. A sensory organ that overlaps with other systems and also senses itself.

    Okay, I’m out of time. Sorry for the rushed formulation. Hopefully I can post more later.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 20 November 2009 @ 3:49 pm

  2. I like theses propositions, Asher. “consciousness can be seen as a sensory organ that senses the brain” — one could contend that consciousness and brain are two different objects, that consciousness is something that emerges from brain but that is not reducible to brain. That’s fine. But you could just as easily say that “brain is a sensory organ that senses the brain,” since as you point out it has neuronal connections that monitor its own state. I was making a similar case at the emergent level: “consciousness is a cognitive system that monitors consciousness.” Both statements are true.

    I can’t quite figure out what it could mean for something not to have direct access or relationship to itself. Direct self-awareness is a specific kind of access, one having to do with knowledge about oneself — an epistemic self-relationship. But how could a rock not have access to itself? I’m not even referring to the rock’s access to the molecules making it up, but to the emergent rockness itself. What would it mean to say that a rock does not have access to itself? I’m not sure.


    Comment by john doyle — 20 November 2009 @ 4:11 pm

  3. John, two cursory remarks:

    1) I’m hesitant to endorse the unconscious-consciousness polarity, which I think has certain Jungian undertones. At the same time, I think when you talk about the unconscious determining consciousness, it risks a reprisal of the old “surface-depth” model, whereby the unconscious is seen as some sort of swirling noumenal vortex of pre-linguistic libidinal drives bubbling beneath the realm of conscious appearances. What I like about Lacan is that he involves both of these issues by showing how the unconscious and consciousness are mediated by the structural form of language, which is the transcendental dimension. This also relates to the second point: if we posit a mediating third term, call it the *structure of the unconscious*, then we can move to a topological model rather than the classical or orthodox determining-determined model.

    2) I also second Asher’s point about not confusing the neuronal with the mental (not to be confused with unconscious/consciousness, mind you—the biological and the structural are qualitatively different). Here, I think, is where the issue of reflexivity comes in. As Catherine Malabou argues, contemporary neuroscience is interested in finding a statistical/empirical correlation between the neuronal and the mental, but this implies that we can “think both at once.” Instead, while the neuronal conditions and structures the mental, there is always a reflexive activity by which the mental can semi-autonomsly rearrange the neuronal due to the brain’s inherent plasticity (more fundamentally, one can pinpoint this odd structure at the level of the synaptic nerves themselves, which paradoxically function as both cause and effect). Differently said, if we take the two levels—neuronal and mental—and try to draw a line to connect them, we face the problem of whether or not they are transcendently separate or immanently flat. But the whole point of how synaptic nerves function as cause and effect demonstrate that, transcendentally speaking, once the two planes or levels are intercepted by a transversal, we get a kind of unrepresentable “X” that structures or conditions the representations: this is where reflexivity comes from, the basic biological indeterminacy of the whole thing. Moreover, I would argue that reflexivity and unconscious come together here, since while we can adequately represent both neuronal and mental, we cannot represent the “X” that opens up the space for the reflexive retroaction.


    Comment by bryank — 20 November 2009 @ 4:35 pm

  4. Thanks bryank. I’m pretty consistent in referring to unconscious cognitive processes rather than THE Unconscious of psychoanalytic theory, as I discussed in the last post but one. Cognitive activity that’s unavailable to consciousness is unconscious pretty much by definition, no? To solve problems, plot trajectories through the world, think about the house you grew up in, etc., you consciously tap into information that you’re not continually rehearsing — it’s stashed away in the neural network. I don’t see anything really controversial about this model.

    I don’t think I’m confusing neuronal with mental, or at least I’ve tried to be careful not to do so . I’m saying that the mental has direct access to the mental, and that the neuronal has direct access to the neuronal. Whether the mental has direct access to the neuronal I suppose depends on how you think of causality. There’s some assembly work in the movement from neuronal to mental, which we could call “translation.” But I don’t think there’s any third party that acts as translator: it’s an autopoietic process, a self-organizing system. Wouldn’t you say that the mental is an emergent property of the neuronal, such that the ideas you entertain in consciousness are assembled from synaptic connections but aren’t reducible to those connections? If so, then we’re on the same wavelength. I agree with this: “the mental can semi-autonomsly rearrange the neuronal due to the brain’s inherent plasticity.”

    Can you elaborate on this idea: “transcendentally speaking, once the two planes or levels are intercepted by a transversal, we get a kind of unrepresentable “X” that structures or conditions the representations”


    Comment by john doyle — 20 November 2009 @ 4:56 pm

  5. […] Emergence, and Marbles Filed under: chaos, emergence — Asher Kay @ 4:34 am Riffing off a nice post by John at Ktismatics on whether we have direct access to our own […]


    Pingback by Causation, Reduction, Emergence, and Marbles « Dead Voles — 21 November 2009 @ 1:34 am

  6. […] Emergence, Epistemology, Immanence Leave a Comment  Over at Ktismatics John has an interesting post up making the case that we have direct access to our minds. John writes: In my post I summarized […]


    Pingback by Direct Access and Mind « Larval Subjects . — 30 November 2009 @ 11:53 am

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