This is a comprehensive lay summary of the scientific paper What is consciousness for? by Lee M. Pierson and Monroe Trout. Covering the key insights and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.
The core function of consciousness, according to the authors of this research paper, is to enable the act of free will. To inform us about our surrounding environment and our desires, so that we can direct all our actions towards what is the most important aspect for every human: surviving the given moment. The power of choosing, by ourselves, what we need to do is a key element for our growth as a species and possible only because we are conscious.
The Core Idea:
Our consciousness transforms our idle existence into an active pursuit toward achievements and the continuation of our species. Only when we are aware of what is happening – within us and around us – we can direct our actions towards things that can be beneficial for us. In short, consciousness triggers self-serving actions that help us remain alive.
- Our ability to be aware of our own existence allows us to actively control our actions.
- We can only think and do things that are within our consciousness.
- Pleasant/painful experiences dull our senses and force us to respond to situations automatically.
8 Key Insights from What Is Consciousness For?
- Insight #1: What Is The Function of Consciousness?
- Insight #2: There Are Two Types of Animal Movement
- Insight #3: There Are Two Aspects of Consciousness
- Insight #4: The Act of Free Will Requires Constant Effort
- Insight #5: We Can Focus Only On Things That Are Within Our Consciousness
- Insight #6: Focused Attention Means Flexibility. It Prepares Us For The Ever-Changing Environment
- Insight #7: The Ability To Freely Choose Our Actions Is Dimmed When We Experience Pain Or Pleasure
- Insight #8: The More We Practice A Skill, The Less Awareness We Exercise
Insight #1: What Is The Function of Consciousness?
“The ultimate adaptive function of consciousness is to make volitional movement possible,” states the authors of this paper. Volitional, meaning the ability to direct our thoughts according to our own free will, our own personal, self-serving desires. Without awareness of our own being, self-directed thoughts and actions are not possible.
The above-mentioned is the greatest benefit. Free-will movement is described as “cash value”. The ultimate purpose of our consciousness is to provoke actions that will help us survive and replicate.
Without our ability to direct our actions towards the most favorable position in the current moment, we’ll perish.
In short, consciousness lays the groundwork for generating thoughts that help us realize what is happening around us. And they, respectively, permit us to make some sort of movement.
Insight #2: There Are Two Types of Animal Movement
Consider the consciousness as the CEO of the brain. Once the boss realizes what is happening around him, he gives orders to the muscles that trigger volitional movement.
Based on this, the authors classify two types of movement that exist in the animal world (which includes us as well): automatic and volitional.
The automatic movement of species can be described as doing something without actively thinking about what you’re doing – walking down the street, eating, or mindlessly scrolling on social media, for example. Basically, you’re doing the activity, but you’re not actively aware of the whole process.
Volitional movements, in contrast, are things you initiate consciously. These are non-random, self-generated actions that you’re completely aware of.
For example, you can be walking down the street, passively, and suddenly realize that you are late for a meeting. This conscious awareness will initiate a volitional movement. You will basically start running to the place where the meeting is.
The authors of the paper state: “Volitional action does not merely require consciousness; it is the raison d’être of consciousness.” In translation for the non-French readers, the expression “raison d’être” means: the most important.
Insight #3: There Are Two Aspects of Consciousness
Similarly to the above insight, the authors report that there are also two major aspects of consciousness: volitional attention and conscious experience.
When we try to focus on a certain task, we actively practice this activity. Or in other words, it is a difficult task to focus on something. For example, when we read a book, sometimes we have to force ourselves to focus on the text if sudden thoughts, totally unrelated to what we are reading appear in our heads. This is the active aspect of the consciousness called volitional attention.
The passive aspect is called conscious experience. When you’re feeling pain or hunger, for example. Or, when you realize that you are late for a meeting. The actual realization of your lateness is passive, initially at least. As you can imagine, this passive awareness often leads to some sort of action. If we’re hungry, we’ll most probably attempt something to satisfy our appetite. And when we are late for a meeting, we’ll do something about this.
Insight #4: The Act of Free Will Requires Constant Effort
The main problem of free-will movement and making progress on tasks is the never-ending desire of the brain to direct us toward other activities. Mainly, leisure activities.
We are constantly bombarded with information from our surrounding environment. On top of that, the brain has its own agenda. It constantly makes visual images of things that are much more enjoyable than what we are doing right now – or what we need to do.
To remain focused on a task, great mental effort is required. This is probably one of the most important aspects of the research. Not solely because progress requires attention, but also because free will requires attention.
We can exercise our ability of free will only when we direct our actions towards tasks that are self-initiated. In other words, when we personally approve the things we’re doing.
This is a lot harder than it seems. You may think that you have full control over your body, but the thoughts that keep popping in your head all the time derail your focus and often make you do things that don’t lead to any sustainable progress.
Effort of attention is … the essential phenomenon of will.” William James
Insight #5: We Can Focus Only On Things That Are Within Our Consciousness
Besides giving us the power to decide what to do, the secondary function of our awareness is to override automatic activities that are not beneficial for us.
However, this can only happen if we’re aware of what’s happening right now. You can’t switch from one task to another if you’re not consciously aware of the two tasks. Again, this is something that requires mental effort. Also, proactively monitoring yourself and being fully aware.
For example, you cannot say, “I will stop watching television and start reading a book” unless you’re aware that you, your I, is watching television. And, unless you already have in mind the activity of reading.
It might sound stupid at first, but this is an important component of our ability to freely direct our attention and thus our actions. We can only do things that are present in our minds. Which, as you might already figure out, also means that we can’t do things that we’re not aware of.
Insight #6: Focused Attention Means Flexibility. It Prepares Us For The Ever-Changing Environment
Forcing yourself to perform a specific task, to think about a specific problem, is an energy-exhausting job. It requires time and a lot of effort to direct your thoughts towards a single thing. Why then nature grant us this skill?
In one word: flexibility.
A zombie-like human not possessing the ability to sustain or control his attention will always do the default thing. He’ll also act the same way even when things change.
Our consciousness allows us to reprogram and replace set behavior so we can find the best possible output based on the situation. It gives us the power to be aware of what’s happening around us so we can act impulsively when we have to.
For example, a human walking around the forest, not possessing the ability to control his actions freely, will always start running when he hears a scream. In contrast, a volitionally attentive person can hide or even consider going towards the loud sound to observe what’s really happening.
The authors explain “that only conscious organisms are “neophiliacs” (novelty-lovers).”
Creaturs acting automatically can’t cope with novelty because they can’t handle different situations properly. Only creatures possessing self-awareness are capable of dealing with unfamiliar conditions.
Put simply, we avoid doing things we don’t understand – we act automatically. The only way we can understand them though, is by volitionally thinking about them.
Insight #7: The Ability To Freely Choose Our Actions Is Dimmed When We Experience Pain Or Pleasure
The feelings of pleasure and pain jam our self-control and we begin to act automatically. We let go of our self-discipline to avoid pain or to quickly get pleasure. This is so because we are aware, consciously, of the consequences – positive or negative.
For example, because we know that bears can hurt us, literally tear us apart, if we see one coming our way when we’re hiking, we will immediately start running. We won’t pause to consider what to do. The interesting thing here is that if a person is not consciously aware of the negative consequences – what a wild bear can do to a fragile human – that person won’t run away.
Similar things happen when we’re interacting with something – a person or a thing – that can give us positive sensations. That’s how seduction works. If you’re in a relationship but if you’re very close to an attractive person, you can forget your current status and act automatically – kiss the other party. That’s also why we’re so attached to our phones. The interface, the whole experience, everything is designed to give us positive sensations. It’s easy to get lost in clicking.
The stronger the pain/pleasure, the harder it becomes to act with intention.
Insight #8: The More We Practice A Skill, The Less Awareness We Exercise
The authors of this paper give the following example to understand this concept better: “Consider the classic example of the skill of driving. When one is first learning how to drive, one must pay attention to a great number of specific actions such as turning, braking, accelerating, watching the road, and so on. Eventually, with practice, these actions become in large part automatic and require only a few general conscious intentions to execute properly.”
Our brain naturally groups certain actions in order to make the execution more efficient. After all, thinking is an effortful task and requires brainpower – as already mentioned. And the more brainpower we use, the more energy we exhaust. It’s quite normal for an operating system to want to decrease usage in general.
Sadly for us, this means that we stop paying attention to things when we’re used to doing them – as in the driving example. What was previously a conscious experience becomes an automatic experience that can lead to errors.
- Actively observe your actions: It’s easy these days to end up doing activities that won’t help you advance in life. Social media and online rabbit holes are all around us. But these types of activities can be categorized as passive. Unimportant. Dangerously destructive even. So, to direct your actions towards what you need to do, you need to be in control. To actively monitor yourself and change courses when you spot yourself misbehaving. After all, we can change our actions only when we realize that we are doing something we shouldn’t.
- Curate the information you consume: You will never visit, nor will want to visit, Haiti, if you don’t know that this place exists and also what you can see there. Similarly, if you don’t know that Apple just launched whatever new version iPhone comes next, you will never want it. The brain can only imagine, and want, things that are within its consciousness. That’s why it is so important to carefully curate the information you consume. Part of what you encounter will sharpen your mind, help you expand your worldview, and give you more options to tackle problems. But the other part will only make you want to purchase more things – probably such you don’t really need.
- Pleasure/pain motivates automatic action: If we place a jar of cookies right next to us when we’re working, we will sabotage ourselves in countless ways. Three in particular. First, we’ll impulsively eat more cookies because they are right next to us. Second, we’ll provoke an internal dialog that goes something like this, “Should I eat a cookie? No, just had one. I should wait! But they are so delicious…” And third, we’ll constantly interrupt our stream of thoughts, and instead of working, we’ll think about cookies. When we’re aware that pleasure/pain experiences are near, we act automatically. Our volitional actions are suppressed. So, hide the jar of cookies when you’re working.
- We have awareness of awareness: We can force ourselves to pay attention to a single object for long periods of time. Even if our thoughts are going in other directions, hypothetically, we can sustain our attention on, say a flower, for days. This meta condition is quite different from what other existing species have. Actually, only we, humans, have the ability of second-order consciousness (to think about thinking). To use this enhancement in your everyday life, consider the consequences of your actions. Anticipate what will happen when you do X. Monitor your thoughts when performing certain tasks. These insights will prepare you for possible errors and also help you better understand yourself as a person.
- Keep your skills sharp: As mentioned in Insight #8, we become less aware of our daily activities. That’s why we “automate” driving and never think of taking a different route to work. However, precisely this lack of awareness makes us predisposed to errors. That’s why, if you’re a writer, for example, to prevent your writing from sounding dull and lifeless at some point in your career, it’s a good idea to occasionally try different things. Read different genres. Experiment with the words you use. These practices will refresh your mind and help you see things like never before.
Consciousness evolved to enable creatures to act freely. To give people the ability to direct their actions and self-manage themselves.
This self-serving and seemingly narcissistic approach is of great importance for our survival. Without consciousness, we’ll merely respond to what’s happening. Or worse, respond automatically to situations that require serious consideration. Self-awareness cleared the fog and provided us with the ability to focus on the most important aspect of our current reality. Namely, to remain alive.
In ending, the ultimate function of consciousness is to give us the ability to choose, for ourselves, what is best for ourselves.
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