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  • Neuroscience
  • Cognition and Behavioural Neuroscience
  • Neuroscientific Techniques
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Consciousness


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To locate consciousness in the flow of synaptic activity in the brain, we must first locate it in the flow of information processing in the mind. Two different positions have been debated for centuries. The liberal view maintains that the contents of experience include not only sensory, motor, and affective states, but also concepts and the thoughts they enter into. In contrast, the conservative view maintains that concepts have no intrinsic qualia of their own, and that the contents of experience are therefore restricted to sensory, motor, and affective states. Here I discuss how this long-standing controversy is relevant to several contemporary neuroscientific theories of consciousness. I do so, however, in a manner that is admittedly biased toward the conservative view, since I am among those who believe that it is more consistent than the liberal view with a number of key findings. I focus first on two of the most prominent neuroscientific theories of consciousness—namely, Stanislas Dehaene's Global Neuronal Workspace Theory and Giulio Tononi's Integrated Information Theory. I argue that because both of these approaches assume the liberal view, they are challenged in significant ways by data favoring the competing conservative view. I then turn to a third framework—namely, Jesse Prinz's Attended Intermediate-Level Representation Theory. I contend that because it explicitly endorses the conservative view, it has a unique advantage over the other two approaches. I also point out, however, that it has independent shortcomings that prevent it from achieving adequate explanatory coherence. I conclude by emphasizing that, if the conservative view is in fact correct, a central goal of future research should be to distinguish, at both psychological and neurobiological levels of analysis, between the following two kinds of information processing that often occur simultaneously: first, activation of the modality-specific sensory, motor, and affective representations that constitute the sole ingredients of conscious experiences; and second, activation of the conceptual representations that give those experiences meaning and that may even influence them in a top-down manner, but that never themselves reach awareness.

Keywords: contents of consciousness; theories and models

Journal Article.  9698 words. 

Subjects: Neuroscience ; Cognition and Behavioural Neuroscience ; Neuroscientific Techniques ; Cognitive Neuroscience ; Consciousness

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