Consciousness and the unconscious

‘Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery’, wrote Daniel Dennett in 1991: that is, we don’t even know how to think about it yet. For all our advances in brain imaging and despite thousands of fascinating experiments that speak to one or other aspect of the mystery, why we have subjective experience at all (why it isn’t ‘dark inside’; why we aren’t philosophical zombies) remains the ultimate ‘hard problem’. This question is connected (and often confused) with the question of what it means to be conscious as opposed to unconscious (e.g. in medical contexts). Both relate to the question of whether it makes sense to create a dividing line between consciousness and the unconscious, subconscious, preconscious, or nonconscious.

Scientific discussions:

Blackmore, S. (2011). What’s the problem? In S. Blackmore, Consciousness: An introduction (pp. 8-22). London: Hodder Education. (full preview, except figures)

Sets out the great intellectual problem that is consciousness, including philosophical and psychological perspectives and an overview of the ‘hard problem’.

Blackmore, S. (2011). Zen and the art of consciousness. London: Oneworld.

Brings Zen meditation into dialogue with scientific training in describing the experience of sitting with ten koans, from ‘Am I conscious now?’ to ‘When are you?’ and ‘Who is asking the question?’. (excerpts and discussion)

Chalmers, D. (1995). The puzzle of conscious experience. Scientific American, 273, 80-86. (full text)

One of Chalmers’ first articulations of the famous ‘hard problem’ of why we have conscious experience at all.

Dennett, D. (1991). Consciousness explained. Boston, MA: Little, Brown. (partial preview)

See in particular Chapter Two for an account of the mystery of consciousness and the problems of dualism, and Chapter Five for an introduction to the Cartesian Theatre and Dennett’s multiple drafts theory of consciousness.

Wegner, D. (2005). Who is the controller of the controlled processes? In R. R. Hassin, J. S. Uleman, and J. A. Bargh, The new unconscious (pp. 19-36). New York: Oxford University Press. (full preview)

If as a counterpart to the automatic processes of the unconscious we posit processes that are under ‘conscious control’, we end up also having to posit some inner agent (e.g. ‘consciousness’) as a cause of thought or behaviour. Given that this is infeasible, we should understand the operation of ‘controlled’ processes not as starting with a controller, but as resulting in (the illusion of) one.

Cognitive humanities discussions:

Hogan, P. C. (2013). Parallel processing and the human mind: Re-understanding con-sciousness with James Joyce’s Ulysses. Journal of Literary Semantics, 42(2), 149-164. (paywall)

Sets out the consequences for fiction and fictional analysis of the fact that although neural processing is massively parallel, speech and writing are serial. In particular, the paper shows how this discrepancy has led critics to assume that the ‘stream of consciousness’ must have a serial structure in real minds as it tends to in fiction. Joyce’s Ulysses is presented as an example of how spatiotemporal and cognitive parallelism can be conveyed in language, and hence helps us understand the mind as well as literature. The article includes sections on working memory, semantic processing across the two hemispheres, and the distinction between interior monologue and stream of consciousness.

Caracciolo, M. (2014). Punctuating minds: Non-verbal cues for consciousness representation in literary narrative. Journal of Literary Semantics, 43(1), 43-69. (full text)

Suggests that non-verbal cues like punctuation and typographic marks (capitalisation, indenting, spacing) can help to represent features of consciousness that can’t easily be conveyed in words (on analogy with qualities or accompaniments of spoken language such as volume, tone, rhythm, and gesture). They can also create disruptions that may evoke altered, non-ordinary, or unfamiliar states of consciousness such as bizarre dreams, experiences of impossible spaces, or an autistic state of mind. Overall, the paper advances the notion that verbal meaning, paralinguistic cues, and communicative context (e.g. literary narrative) all contribute to guiding reader’s interpretations of the storyworld and the characters within it.

Caracciolo, M. (2012). Fictional consciousnesses: A reader’s manual. Style, 46(1), 42-65. (full text)

Argues that consciousness resists representation; it is not something ‘in the text’, but is attributed to fictional characters by readers on the basis of external signs like gesture and psychological language. Consciousness attribution is one half of the story; the other is consciousness enactment. The interplay of the two is discussed using the opening of Faulkner’s The Sound of Fury, which helps show that the reader can experience the storyworld even if no character does. Consciousness enactment is argued to involve a merging of the reader’s consciousness with the consciousness attributed to a fictional character.

Vermeule, B. (2015). The new unconscious: A literary guided tour. In L. Zunshine (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of cognitive literary studies (pp. 463-482). New York: Oxford University Press. (partial preview), (paywall)

Outlines the differences between the contemporary understanding of the unconscious and the psychoanalytic dynamic unconscious, and reflects on the appeal of neuro-explanations, and the challenges and rewards of leaving psychoanalysis behind. The chapter offers some rough literary equivalents for various experimentally demonstrated features of the unconscious: a visual illusion called the flash lag effect (temporal breakdown in Paradise Lost), heuristics and biases (in Austen’s Emma), and automatic processing (in The Canterbury Tales).