What is special about human consciousness

Triumph of Consciousness

The superiority of the social brain

Merlin Donald's brilliant book refutes the prevailing theories of those naturalists and philosophers who dismiss human consciousness as a waste product of evolution. For him, it's culture and the neural system that made human consciousness what it is. It is precisely this hybrid spirit that makes man's evolutionary head start.

The faculties of consciousness provide the key to the revolutionary developments that man has made on the ladder of evolution.

How can it be explained that our brains are so similar to other primates and yet so dramatically superior? Why does our brain equip the center of our ego with so much autonomy and autobiographical capacity? Donald shows the complexity of consciousness and explains how it could evolve on the basis of culture.

For the author, the human mind is a hybrid product in which matter, namely our brain, is interwoven with an invisible symbolic fabric, namely culture, from which a widely ramified cognitive network arises. This hybrid character of our minds alone enabled the human species to transcend the limits to which the rest of the mammals are subjected.

“In my world, consciousness is the greatest. It makes people into people. ”Merlin Donald

Table of Contents

1 The Paradox of Consciousness
An instrument with limits
A minimalist image of man
The tunnel of consciousness
The greatest paradox of all
The hardliners.
Daring hypotheses
Even more daring hypotheses
Dennett's dangerous idea
2 The guidance system of mental life
The time frame of awareness
Awareness and self-control
The case history of an offensive consciousness
Sassetski's mirror twins
The perspective of narrative literature
Vertical depth and coherence
Inside look
Necessary corrections to the model of consciousness
3 The Awareness Club
The materiality of the mind
The question of proportions
Moving away from the scala naturae
The awareness club
Mobilization of resources
Physicality and I-center
The executive department
4 Three elementary levels of consciousness
The caricature of the isolated mind
Is the brain like a computer?
The dawn of the hybrid spirit
About models and the tertiary areas
Hunt for phantoms.
Level 1: Perceptual attachment and selective attention
Level 2: short-term regulation
Level 3: Medium and long-term regulation
Episodic awareness
A bold hypothesis
5 Condillacs statue
Development dynamics
Unique plasticity
The third man
The birth of constructivism
Mandler's dictum
Helen Keller's extraordinary development path
From the outside to the inside
6 The first hybrid intelligences on earth
Farewell to the solipsistic model
Consciousness and Cognitive Association
The cultural meaning of a multi-center, multi-layered consciousness
The stages of cultural and cognitive evolution
The seed of self-awareness
The battle between culture and the brain
Idea washing
Symbolic innovation and the lexicon
The virtual realities of the oral culture
Collectivity of mind
7 The triumph of consciousness
The powerful impulse of symbolic techniques
The external memory field
A Trojan horse
The layers of culture and consciousness
The coherence of consciousness

Reading sample

“There is no such thing as a holistic self. Every life situation is complete and sufficient in itself. While you are weighing these problems, are you more than an indifference sliding over the arguments I have put forward or an evaluation of the opinions I have expressed? "
Many psychological "theories" are basically too banal to really deserve the name. The Freudian notion of unconscious drives, the behavioristic doctrine that our behavior is based on reward and punishment, or the doctrine that long-term memories in principle never disintegrate, are strictly speaking only elaborations of platitudes. Such commonsense theories actually only support what we have somehow always thought. Instead, we should deal with questions that dig deeper: How can the brain even form such a complex and multifaceted concept as that of "reward"? How can brain cells hold on to different inner states, such as persistent resentment or deep-seated hostility towards figures of authority, over a longer period of time? Even more fascinating is the question of how our brain, when it consists of proteins that last a few days at most, is able to keep memories alive for eighty years. Even extremely complex memories, such as the one of a so-called double-bind relationship with a mother, whom you could never please, remain for a lifetime, although the body no longer contains any of the atoms that made it up at the time. How is that possible? We cannot expect answers from commonsense theories because they avoid such questions from the outset.
Commonsense theories about human mind and intelligence are, in a sense, a sign of timidity. They have a calming effect because they save us from having to face the fact how strange we are to ourselves. We would rather not admit that, in the opinion of many scientists, a theory that really gets to the bottom of the essence of our minds is likely to run counter to common sense just as much as today's theories about the physical universe. We will probably only be able to arrive at a theory of the human mind that comes somewhat close to reality if we say goodbye to a few comfortable clichés and habits of thought. This thought may have been voiced many times, but we have seldom ventured into similar speculative ventures in thinking about mind as we do in thinking about matter. Wherever we took the risk, we found ourselves confronted with unsettling ideas, such as the idea that consciousness is only an illusion and that there is ultimately just as yawning emptiness in our brain as in the interior of the atoms that make it up. Many people, including scientists, shy away from such thought adventures because they fear that too much could be at stake ethically, socially and politically. But there is no legitimate reason why we should avoid educated thought or important questions. They are worth our efforts to pursue, even if we penetrate into forbidden territory in the process.
One of these questions is about our individuality. Common sense tells us that the individual's mind originates in the brain, in an ensemble of innate abilities that equip it for the tasks of life. According to this, a newborn is fully equipped to open up the world by learning and to acquire his own experiences and memories using the tools available to him. This notion seems to apply to most animals, and so we assume that it probably applies to ourselves as well.
Here, of course, common sense can lead us astray. Unlike other species, the human spirit has a collective antipole: culture. We cling convulsively to the idea that we are individuals who can be clearly separated from one another, although to a large extent we are creatures of culture. We could define humans as the only species on earth that combines individual with "distributed" symbolization processes and whose individuals can draw their identity from a collective process and become part of it. This can be observed, for example, in companies and other “corporations”. The human imagination moves between these opposites, between the individual and society. When we adopt a strongly inward-looking perspective, it can seem to us that our mind is the only permanent and real thing and that the world "out there" is an illusion or at best a source of experience. In moments when we are directed to the outside world to an extreme degree, for example when a war breaks out and we are fully integrated into a "corporate" process, we almost merge with the group and lose ourselves in what it says.
The instruments with which we perform our cognitive performance are largely rooted in culture. All the symbolic tools with which our brain works are imported from culture. This raises the question of where the origins of human consciousness lie and what function it has in a living being that is capable of such profound identification with the collective. The basic idea of ​​this book is that the uniqueness of the human mind is not based on its biological makeup, the main characteristics of which can also be found in many animals, but on the ability to build cultures and to assimilate to them. The human mind is thus a "hybrid product" of biology and culture. I want to emphasize that I mean the mind itself and not just specific experiences. He cannot develop out of himself. Since he is linked to a collective process, the sources from which his experience flows are already filtered through the respective culture. The core question of human evolution is thus how cultures come into the world.
The key to understanding human cognition lies not so much in the structure of the individual brain, but in the synergy of many brains. Man is adapted to live within a culture. Its extraordinary abilities are based on the remarkable fact that our species once overcame a previously significant limitation of the nervous system, namely its solipsistic isolation from the outside. Since its beginnings, humanity has relied on "distributed" systems of thinking and remembering, in which mental processes are fanned out across many nervous systems. In an earlier book on the cognitive evolution of humans (2) I stated that the development of the human mind can only be adequately described if one takes into account the cultural achievements of humans, the steadily deepening symbiosis of cognition and culture reveal. But I don't mean that there is such a thing as a mental apparatus of the collective. The spirit of every person remains largely encapsulated in itself and in its physical container. On his own he can achieve remarkably little. He is dependent on culture in almost all aspects that are specifically human, not least in his basic communication and thinking skills.
The word “culture” generally refers less to cognitive processes than to a constellation of common customs, rules and linguistic systems that can be used to define a group of people Structure that defines the parameters of memory, knowledge and thinking for its members as individuals and as a group. Cultures differ considerably in how strongly they regulate the mind of the individual. Culture is not only our best friend, but also our worst enemy, because we are so dependent on it for most of our basic mental faculties that it threatens our mental autonomy. It can rob us of our freedom to just think certain kinds of thoughts. Even if our culture seems to allow us a lot of individual freedom, we can only really call a few of our ideas and experiences our own, because they have always been thoroughly sifted and filtered by culture.
But how did our ancestors overcome the limits of their isolated nervous systems? How could this filigree structure of culture come into being that liberated people from the twilight in which they had previously lived? My answer will surprise some. In this book I want to show that culture, like its two most important products, language and the use of symbols, emerged from a radical change in the nature of consciousness. Culture is a creation of our species, but the roots of this amazing collective achievement lie in the most individual place of all, in the consciousness of the individual. As we shall see, things are very different there from what most people imagine.
In the theory of consciousness that I present in this book, I make sure to limit myself to the functional aspects of the brain. So I'm not trying to explain how consciousness emerged from a purely material entity like the brain. One day we may understand how it came about. In my opinion, however, our current intellectual and scientific capabilities are not sufficient to develop a theory that is even partially viable. We are only just beginning to understand the difficulties involved in this. A mature theory of consciousness must not only describe the causal connections between the activity of the brain and the specific properties of subjective consciousness, but also the transforming power that is inherent in consciousness, as well as the sensory qualities of conscious experience, i.e. emotions, moods, impulses and nuanced emotions such as doubt, envy or ambivalence. We are still a long way from being able to propose such a theory. In the past 30 years we have made great strides in sensory physiology, but our findings on the complex mechanisms of sensory perception and even on the most well-researched sensory channel, sight, do not bring us any closer to solving the core question. Nothing in the layers and pillars of the visual cortex or in the infinitely complex microcosm of the retina gives us the slightest clue as to how a brain might develop an awareness of visual qualities of sensation. Some recent reflections on the origins of consciousness, especially those of Roger Penrose and Francis Crick, are stimulating and extremely valuable, but are unlikely to lead to a major breakthrough in the foreseeable future, for reasons I will refer to later, especially in Chapter 4 want to enter.
What good is a book like this if it doesn't even make a small attempt at a full explanation? The answer is very simple: it can help to understand the problem in more detail. Because the contours of the question of the origin and function of consciousness are still too blurred. If we want to determine whether something very large actually exists, for example the Sankt-Andreas-Graben, which runs through California, we have to move to a distance to be able to see the object. With a microscope we can find out something about the nature of the rock and soil layers around the trench, but we cannot determine whether the trench exists at all and what kind of phenomenon we have in front of us and want to explain. To get an overview, we need a telescope or a satellite photo. It is the same with consciousness. To describe the essence of this complex phenomenon, we need to look at it from a bird's eye view. Someday, when the general geography of consciousness is agreed, the data gathered with our laboratory microscopes may make a lot more sense because it fits into a solid theoretical frame of reference. But first we have to be clear about how the big questions are to be formulated in the first place. Only then is it to be expected that we will be able to establish the precise connections that we need for a fully developed theory.
The main question is still how the concept of consciousness is to be defined. I will take the view that we cannot be satisfied with a narrow definition, since it is an overarching concept. In Chapters 1 and 2 I discuss various aspects related to the definition of consciousness and some of the many attempts to simplify the concept and reduce it to a single dimension. First, in Chapter 1, I look at the thinking of the theorists, whom I call the hardliners. It developed in psychology as well as in philosophy and is based on research results in linguistics and computer science. The hardliners are a heterogeneous group whose common denominator I see in the effort to deny consciousness its complexity and to force it into a simple operational definition.The different schools of hardliners each come up with their own suggestions on how to narrow the definition of consciousness. Some try to reduce consciousness to the field of sensory perception, others postulate that it is completely tied to language. Still others equate it with short-term memory. The interplay of these theories sounds as dissonant as one would expect from an orchestra that does not have a conductor and cannot agree on which piece to play.
I am skeptical of almost all the theses of the hardliners. In Chapter 3 I will elaborate on my objections to them and indicate the direction in which my own theory is aiming. But I would like to mention some of my core theses here. First, I believe that the scope of consciousness is much larger than most hardliners assume. Human consciousness is not exhausted in sensory perception, because this does not give up more than its foreground. Nor does it coincide with language, which is at best its descendant and always subservient slave. Rather, consciousness is a multidimensional, multicentric ability, a firmly established cognitive system with roots that go far back into evolutionary history. It has a guiding function in the mental life of a person and has a special position for a number of reasons. The extraordinary ability to consciously process information can be seen as one of the defining characteristics of our species.
In Chapter 4 I deal with the evolutionary history of consciousness and with the question of which living beings belong to the "consciousness club". As I would like to show, members of this club are also different species of animals with which, judging by the anatomy of their brains and their behavior, we have some aspects of consciousness in common. I am discussing the evolution of the "executive system," a complex brain structure that we inherited from our ancestors and which reflects the stages of development of consciousness. I distinguish three basic levels of consciousness development. Level 1 awareness is based on the mechanisms of perceptual attachment, that is, elementary perceptual coherence, which presumably developed in the common ancestors of birds and mammals. Level 2 consciousness is based on short-term memory, which presupposes the mechanism of perceptual attachment and extends the temporal range of consciousness. We find it mainly in mammals, but possibly also in some other animal species. Level 3 consciousness is based on what I call the "middle time plane" guidance system. Primates, some other mammals living in society and we humans have this form of consciousness. Level 3 consciousness pushes the temporal limits of working memory even further and also adds a metacognitive dimension of verification to conscious information processing, through which the mind is able to monitor its own activity to some extent.
In Chapter 5 I come back to the question of what the distinguishing features of human consciousness are based on. Apparently four essential prerequisites must be met: an extended executive system, an extraordinary plasticity of the brain structures, a greatly increased capacity of the working memory and above all a symbiosis of brain and culture, which I call "profound enculturation". I present a "constructivist" explanation of human cognition that goes back to the French philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac. From a constructivist point of view, based on the experiences accessible to it, the mind assembles itself, as it were, and is guided by a repertoire of innate functions that roughly correspond to the basic components of consciousness. I will also go into the extremely instructive life story of Helen Keller and use this example to work out the crucial importance of culture for the self-construction of a human mind. If we combine the constructivist model of self-construction with a Darwinian derivation of the emergence of consciousness and merge both with a description of the cognitive structures of today's people, which focuses on culture, this results in a sound theoretical foundation, from which we start out the characteristic of be able to fully grasp human consciousness or at least shed light on its essential dimensions.
In the last two chapters 6 and 7, I set out some of the conclusions that flow from this approach and from my earlier reflections on the evolution of human cognition. I will show that our consciousness is the biological basis for the emergence of culture, symbolic thinking and language. Conversely, culture is also the only key to explaining the characteristic properties of our consciousness. Without profound enculturation we are as good as incapable of using the potential dormant in our enormous brain, because the specific design of the cognitive structure is not genetically predetermined. Our brain has developed in coevolution with culture and is adapted in a special way to life in a culture and designed to assimilate to its cognitive algorithms and its structure of knowledge. The conception of our brain "assumes" to a certain extent that a cultural storage system exists that will guarantee its full development.
This is the only feasible way to theoretically grasp the evolution of language in such a way that the connection and continuity with our evolutionary past is preserved. The culturally mediated mental exchange is a distinctive feature of our species that is closely interwoven with consciousness. Human culture began in the distant past with a step of adjustment that had nothing to do with language. In order for language or other unique human creations such as mathematics, sporting competitions, music or writing to arise, new mechanisms that are innate and firmly anchored in the brain did not have to develop. Rather, the skills required for this emerged as by-products of the deepening symbiosis of our brain with the culture based on mental exchange. Language can only arise in the context of a group and is a culture-bound structure that is distributed over many brains.
We humans have developed a new kind of development strategy that aims to move information that is essential for the transmission of ideas and the reproduction of actions into our cultural memory systems. The algorithms characteristic of our minds originally emerged from collectives of brains that were equipped with consciousness and connected to one another via a culture, but the memories in which these algorithms are collected and stored have now developed a certain life of their own and have become one It has become an essential part of the strategy with which we can reproduce the field of human consciousness again and again and constantly push its limits further. The reason for our uniqueness does not lie in our brain, the basic structure of which is also found in other living beings. Rather, it is to be found in the fact that we have developed an existential dependence on our collective storage systems. They contain the key to the self-building of the mind. The great paradox of human existence is that, on the one hand, we individualists and, on the other hand, in order to be able to develop our individuality, we are almost completely dependent on culture. The price for individuality was that we left behind the cognitive isolation and solipsistic isolation in which all animals live and became part of a mental collective.
1 Borges, 1922, p. 94 (with changes by the editing department, cited from the German translation from 2003, p. 9 f.).
2 Donald, 1991.
3 For a definition of the term culture see Kuper, 1994, 1999. My concern here is not to come to a final definition of culture. Rather, I would like to focus on its cognitive functions and the role that it may have played as a distributed "knowledge system" in the evolution of our species. A culture's system stores much more than just "information" in the usual sense. It holds both tacit, tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge. Objects of art, rituals or architectural styles can also store and transmit significant cultural knowledge. In his theory of evolution, Plotkin defines culture as a repository that contains reproductive information for the human species (Plotkin, 1993, 1998).
“Besides that, it's a brilliant book by a cognitive scientist who is firmly based on evolution. «
Peter Jung, MAZ, April 17, 2010