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Responding to X in Light of Y: The Aim of Consciousness

The conscious field is always doing the same thing, somewhat mindlessly.

Key points

  • Humans have the ability to respond to X in light of Y, stemming from the conscious field.
  • Robotic systems struggle with this type of context-sensitive response.
  • The conscious field is always doing the same thing, permitting the response to X to consider the response to Y.

When responding to a stimulus, humans can respond to it while taking into account the other stimuli composing the stimulus scene and considering memories, beliefs, desires, and urges. This usually happens effortlessly. For example, when responding to a bar of chocolate, the response to the tasty treat could be influenced by the other stimuli composing the scene (e.g., does the chocolate belong to someone else?), by one’s level of hunger (e.g., “how hungry am I?”), and by the memory of what the doctor said about cutting down on sweets, even during the holidays.

Source: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Source: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

This type of on-the-fly, “context-sensitive” action is particularly difficult for robots. For example, when playing chess on the computer, a human will immediately stop the game if he or she smells a gas leak, but a robot will keep playing the game. The robot can beat one in chess but cannot stop the game because of a gas leak or some other unexpected and equally important event.

Very quickly and with very little effort, humans can respond to a stimulus (e.g., the chess pieces) while taking into account a wide variety of other stimuli (e.g., the smell of a gas leak). In addition, humans take into account memories, beliefs, and general knowledge.

Regarding memory, when I was very little, my mother once told me to drink from the milk bottle on the left of the fridge and not from the one on the right of the fridge. The one on the right was flavored with cinnamon, which I did not like at the time. The two milk bottles looked identical. Because of memory, my action was correct: I selected the milk bottle on the right of the fridge, which was the milk I liked.

Morsella et al. (2016) proposed that this human ability to have such “context-sensitive” responses emerges from a particular structure created by the brain: the conscious field. The conscious field is composed of all the things one is conscious of at one moment in time: the smell of lavender, ringing in the years, memories of what needs to be done, and urges and desires (e.g., the urge to use the restroom). Each thing that one is conscious of is called “conscious content.” For example, the smell of lavender is just one of many contents in the conscious field when sits in a garden. Another conscious content in that scene might be the sight of a fountain.

This ability of humans stems (somehow) from the structure of the conscious field, which solves the “context-sensitivity” problem by simply having each conscious content have influence over “action selection” (i.e., what we decide to do next). Just as a hammer can pound nails and remove nails because of their peculiar structure, humans can have context-sensitive actions because of the conscious field.

The conscious field permits what is called “collective influence.” Thanks to collective influence, one does not simply grab and eat the chocolate treat, as desirable as it is, because of the activation of another, competing, conscious content (e.g., the memory of what the doctor recommended). The two contents (tasty treat and memory of what the doctor said) are activating incompatible response inclinations (called “response codes”). One response code is to grab the chocolate; the other response code is not to grab it.

According to one theoretical approach (Morsella et al., 2016), this "collective influence" is the primary function of the conscious field. From this standpoint, the aim of the conscious field is the appropriate, context-sensitive activation of response codes. This is what consciousness is for. And it is no small feat. Consider that robotic systems have a problem with the generation of context-sensitive actions.

When the conscious field is not working properly, actions lose this type of context sensitivity. Actions are no longer influenced by all the kinds of information by which they should be influenced (e.g., one grabs a chocolate that belongs to someone else or goes ahead and drinks the cinnamon milk).

The appropriate activation of response codes leads to a situation in which one responds to stimulus X in light of Y (which could be another stimulus or memories, beliefs, desires, etc.). Responding to X in light of Y is what the conscious field was designed for (through evolutionary processes, of course).

As one gets older and more knowledgeable, the Xs and Ys certainly get more complicated and sophisticated. For example, I recall that, at a recent dinner, I refrained from telling a funny story about a neighbor’s dog because I remembered that one of the dinner guests happened to miss his dog very much. Me telling the story might sadden this person, so I decided not to tell it. This type of action selection is quite context-sensitive.

Another example would be that, to a three-year-old child, a small rubber ball would be something for throwing or rolling. To Einstein, however, that stimulus object could be for throwing, rolling, or for theorizing about the universe or, perhaps even for the generation of atomic energy, as the nuclear fission of the atoms of the rubber ball could provide more energy than thousands of gas stations (as Einstein noted).

Of course, a child would never respond in Einstein’s way to the ball (it would be impossible). But it is important to remember that, for both Einstein and the child, the conscious field, when presented with the ball, is doing the same exact thing: affording the response to X (the ball) in light of Y. Between Einstein and the child, the Ys are certainly different. But the conscious field always performs the same operation (responding to X in light of whatever Y there is).

The conscious field performs this same function over and over, achieving collective influence. It is just doing it over varied contents, contents that change across situations, across people, across ages, and across different holidays.


Morsella, E., Godwin, C. A., Jantz, T. K., Krieger, S. C., & Gazzaley, A. (2016). Homing in on consciousness in the nervous system: An action-based synthesis. Behavioral and Brain Sciences [Target Article], 39, 1-17.

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