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Why Most Neuroscientific Theories of Consciousness Are Wrong

The importance of extended time consciousness.

Key points

  • The dominant brain theories of consciousness lack the concept of extended time.
  • We experience the unity of the present moment as a fundamental property of consciousness.
  • Succesful future brain theories of consciousness must incorporate the dimension of time.

The mind-body problem addresses one of the fundamental questions of science and humanity. How is consciousness related to the body and brain? How is subjective experience connected with the material world?

Consciousness is associated with the brain. There is no doubt about that. But how exactly the two relate is not understood. This is the mystery of consciousness: how does experience, which does not seem to be tangible from a scientific viewpoint, fit into the grand scheme of the objective world?

 Image by Marc Wittmann
Conscious experience always has intrinsic value
Source: Image by Marc Wittmann

The natural sciences are mainly concerned with the 3rd-person perspective concerning entities in the world, objects, and processes. This includes many areas of classical psychology that deal with the observation of outward behavior. Conscious experience, however, relates to the 1st-person perspective.

There is something that feels like being and experiencing. Conscious experience is inherently given to me. This quality of being mine involves an experienced self, a me. What seems like complicated phrasing over the last few sentences is very easy to understand.

That is because we all share the same type of experience. What it feels like has intrinsic value for me. The sip of iced water when I am thirsty, the tasty meal when I am hungry, and having sex with my beloved partner.

Although psychologists may study these behaviors from a 3rd person perspective, objectively, so to speak, the experiences associated with these behaviors are the essence of what it is like to be a human being.

In recent years, several theories of consciousness have been developed that provide functional frameworks for explaining consciousness, yet almost all remain in the 3rd person perspective. Among those theories are the integrated information theory (IIT), the global neuronal workspace theory (GNWT), and the predictive coding theory (PCT). A comprehensive discussion can be found in an article by Northoff and Lamme (2020). What these theories all lack is the dimension of time.

In a 2021 article by my Australian colleague Lachlan Kent and myself, we emphasized this under-represented aspect in the debate: time consciousness. Consciousness and the felt present moment extend in time and can be described as a continuous flow of events in a felt present moment. My feeling of thirst or the subsequent relief when drinking the iced water is not an instantaneous event but lasts a considerable time. A flow of time is perceived by an event that is anticipated (the glass of water I grasp), then experienced (drinking), and later remembered (feeling the relief). Nevertheless, we experience the unity of the present moment as a fundamental property of consciousness: The gulps of ice water running down my throat.

One example I like very much was coined by the U.S.-American philosopher Dan Lloyd. He thought about how people hear the musical phrase of the Beatles song “Hey Jude.” Anyone familiar with the song will anticipate the “Jude” as soon as Paul McCartney’s voice intones the “Hey.” Even though the word has not yet been voiced, “Jude” is already present. Likewise, when “Jude” is heard, the “Hey” remains present. That is, the line “Hey Jude” is perceived as an experienced whole. Our perceptions, movements, and interpersonal communication with others are behaviorally and experientially chunked into meaningful units with a certain extension.

These examples should convince the reader that the question of how we perceive time is fundamental to understanding temporally extended consciousness. I wrote about attempts to measure extended consciousness in a recent Psychology Today blog. Any theory of consciousness must necessarily include time consciousness, and only then can it explain how the brain achieves this feat at the level of the brain.

Lachlan Kent’s and my analysis in the paper (2021) suggested that most leading theories cannot explain continuity or flow within an extended conscious experience because they are constrained to discrete, nonconscious functional moments without extension. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule.

The two related models, the sphere model of consciousness (Paoletti et al. 2022) and the consciousness state-space model (Berkovich-Ohana & Glicksohn 2014), for example, incorporate the dimension of an extended consciousness on two levels and make attempts in search of the implementations in the brain. The most developed neuro-phenomenological model which explicitly incorporates a temporal integration mechanism pertaining to a “width of present” on longer time scales of several seconds is the temporo-spatial theory of consciousness (TTC) by Georg Northoff.

There is one important advantage of studies into time consciousness. Whereas many experiential qualities are not instantiated in neural activity, time is. What does that mean? When seeing the color red, my neurons are not red. The feeling of thirst does not imply that my neurons are thirsty. But the felt duration of an experienced event could be represented in the brain by exactly that duration of neural activity.

References

Berkovich-Ohana, A., & Glicksohn, J. (2014). The consciousness state space (CSS)—a unifying model for consciousness and self. Frontiers in Psychology 5 (341).

Kent, L., & Wittmann, M. (2021). Time consciousness: the missing link in theories of consciousness. Neuroscience of Consciousness, 2021(2), niab011.

Northoff, G., & Lamme, V. (2020). Neural signs and mechanisms of consciousness: is there a potential convergence of theories of consciousness in sight? Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Review 118, 568–587.

Paoletti, P., Leshem, R., Pellegrino, M., & Ben-Soussan, T. D. (2022). Tackling the electro-topography of the selves through the Sphere Model of Consciousness. Frontiers in Psychology 1534 (836290).

Northoff G., & Huang Z. (2017). How do the brain’s time and space mediate consciousness and its different dimensions? Temporo-spatial theory of consciousness (TTC). Neuroscience Biobehavorial Reviews 80, 630–645.

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