Information is everywhere. Not only in the things you read and hear in the media, or in the tools you use to navigate through the world (such as the maps or street signs that help guide you), but it can also be found in non-linguistic forms. This includes being able to recognize that your friend is in a good mood through her facial expression, or sense the oncoming storm by the quiet stillness in the humid air, or know you are hungry by the way your stomach feels. Essentially, all these forms of information convey a message that can lead to some kind of action, be it prepare for a celebratory drink with your friend, or move inside to avoid a downpour, or buy the ingredients you need to make yourself dinner (or order takeout, if you’re prone to lazier actions).
Most—if not all—of the things we experience contain information. There is information in words, objects, actions, sounds, music, temperature, self-movement (proprioception), internal states (hunger, pain), emotions, and social interactions. These types of information rely on the organisms that can process, interpret, and use them in some way. But information also has a life of its own—it is encoded in the fabric of our universe and in the regularities or “laws of nature” that it follows. One could almost say that information feeds life. But how true is this about consciousness? To understand this better, we can focus on the dynamics between consciousness and attention (Montemayor & Haladjian, 2015).
We know that most living organisms process information selectively. For example, organisms that navigate through complex environments, seek food, and avoid predators must be able to process relevant information to perform the behaviors necessary for survival. Attention evolved to perform the task of selective information processing and does so at various levels of sophistication. It can process specific information about physical features (like colors or shapes) or gather overall spatial information (the spatial relationships between objects). It can also be more focused and support the construction of detailed object representations that enable learning, decision-making, and performing actions. Attention has evolved to be one of the most useful aspects of perception and cognition, and it drives most of what we do everyday.
Conscious experience also relies on the attentional processing of information, but it seems to be less selectively driven, more integrated and unified, and more engaging. There is a difference between information for attention and that for consciousness (as we discussed in a previous post). Yet, consciousness is essentially informational and is now being approached through a theory of information that indicates a higher-level integration of this information (for the classic formalization of the notion of information theory in communication, see Shannon, 1948; for a novel account of consciousness as integrated information, see Oizumi, Albantakis, & Tononi, 2014). This informational approach to consciousness is a welcome and necessary development, but more research needs to be done in this area. If the integrated information approach is correct, then there must be a difference between conscious and unconscious information, and this could entail another difference between consciousness and attention.
One could argue that without information, you could not be consciously aware of anything. Try, for example, to be fully aware of absolutely nothing. Is it even possible? The attentive processing of information is a crucial component for our conscious experience. Still, much of the information that is processed by attention never reaches conscious awareness. Although attention seems to require agency or the involvement of personal action (Fairweather & Montemayor, 2017; Wu, 2011), a majority of attentional processing happens automatically and in the background (as we have argued in this previous post). Why is this so?
Imagine you are in an extremely stimulating environment. Say, for example, you’re riding a bicycle through the center of Amsterdam for the first time. Although you may be comfortable riding your bike through a small town in Northern California, it is nothing compared in intensity to this new experience. Your brain is processing a lot of information: the other cyclers moving along with you (most of them passing you), the vehicular cross-traffic, the tourists unintentionally walking into the bike path, the bell from the tram approaching the intersection. These are all important things to process that allow you to ride through the city without incidents. You also need to pay attention to signage to make sure you are going in the proper direction and when you need to stop at a signal and when it is safe to proceed. Then there is less relevant information, like the cool breeze on your face, the smell of fresh stroopwafels coming from the bakery you just passed, or the church bells signaling midday. And don’t forget the information you get from other sources, like the soreness in your lower back, your slight headache, or the feeling of hunger triggered by the smell of stroopwafels. These types of information enter awareness occasionally, but usually they stay in the background of experience. And all this while, there are many other bits of information that may be processed but rarely enter awareness, like the birds flying overhead, or the color of the parked cars you pass, or the people talking at the crowded sidewalk cafés.
Taken together, all of this can be too much information. Especially the first time you ride through Amsterdam, as you try to make sense of what information is most relevant and what you can keep in the background. This way of prioritizing attended information could be the purpose of consciousness—to give you a rich experience when you need it but to also keep things in the background. Otherwise, experiencing all the information that is processed by attention would be overwhelming.
Indeed, we often feel that having too much information is exhausting. Not only in terms of making decisions, where too many options sometimes make this process difficult, but also in the stimulation we receive from our surroundings. This is especially true for humans since we have the ability for sophisticated interactions with the world. When riding your bike through the busy streets of a new city, you learn quickly what needs to be prioritized by attention. The sound of a bell from a nearby tram will usually demand more engagement than the bell of a nearby church. Consciousness helps prioritize attended information. And still, not everything that helps you navigate through a chaotic environment needs to enter awareness. Sometimes it does, like when you nearly turn in front a tram. But otherwise, most of the information is treated as low priority. Consciousness limits the information that enters awareness, so that when you need to pay attention to important things you have the resources to do so.
If you were truly aware of all the information that flowed through you, it would be difficult to function. Doing normal things like walking through the supermarket or going for a bike ride would be unachievable. Imagine taking in all the products on display at the store while hearing the sounds of children crying and store announcements at the same time. While perhaps it can be an enlightening exercise to truly attend to everything and understand how it is connected to your conscious awareness, it is not practical for humans to do this all the time.
Perhaps consciousness evolved to limit the awareness of information, particularly in our extremely social world comprised of complex interactions. But unlike attention, consciousness not only limits information, it also makes it personally engaging and experientially rich. This is an important characteristic of human consciousness. Since artificial intelligence does not face the information processing limits we do, it will become “smarter” than us and will have an entirely different method for prioritizing attended information; also, AI will not likely have a form of conscious attention that we could recognize as such (e.g., see Susan Schneider’s article). It is precisely our limited conscious experience that sets us apart from other intelligent animals (and machines) and defines our ability to function in a complex environment.
- Harry Haladjian & Carlos Montemayor
Fairweather, A., & Montemayor, C. (2017). Knowledge, Dexterity, and Attention: A Theory of Epistemic Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Montemayor, C., & Haladjian, H. H. (2015). Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Oizumi, M., Albantakis, L., & Tononi, G. (2014). From the phenomenology to the mechanisms of consciousness: Integrated Information Theory 3.0. PLoS Computational Biology, 10(5), e1003588.
Shannon, C. E. (1948). A mathematical theory of communication. Bell System Technical Journal, 27, 379-423.
Wu, W. (2011). Attention as selection for action. In C. Mole, D. Smithies, & W. Wu (Eds.), Attention: Philosophical and Psychological Essays (pp. 97-116). Oxford: Oxford University Press.