I’ve been reading a number of papers on the “science” of consciousness – I’ll let the quotes express my skepticism – and I thought this clever metaphor from Francis Crick and Christof Koch, in their influential 2003 Nature review, was revealing. They compare the competition among our sensations to a democratic election, in which all those fleeting stimuli must fight for our limited attentional resources:
It may help to make a crude political analogy. The primaries and the early events in an election would correspond roughly to the preliminary unconscious processing. The winning coalition associated with an object or event would correspond to the winning party, which would remain in power for some time and would attempt to influence and control future events. ‘Attention’ would correspond to the efforts of journalists, pollsters and others to focus on certain issues rather than others, and thus attempt to bias the electorate in their favor. Perhaps those large pyramidal cells in cortical layer 5 that project to the superior colliculus and the thalamus (both involved in attention) would correspond to electoral polls. These progress from early, tentative polls to later, rather more accurate ones as the election approaches. It is unlikely that all this happens in the brain in a fixed time sequence. The brain may resemble more the British system, in which the time between one election and the next can be irregular.
It’s a revealing analogy. While there certainly is an intense competition among our multiplicity of neural representations – the sensation that wins is what you perceive – the metaphor of voting presupposes a vote. It assumes that, at some point, those pyramidal cells or the PFC or some other nub of flesh will settle the argument; a winner will be picked. The point is that, although Crick and Koch set out to demolish the old ghost in the machine – the ghost is just a trick of matter – they can’t escape the allure of imagining a “voter” somewhere in your head.
I’m certainly not arguing that such a metaphysical ghost exists. (What Gertrude Stein said about Oakland is also true of the cortex: “There is no there there.”) Like Crick and Koch, I believe our head holds a raucous parliament of cells that endlessly debate what sensations and feelings should become conscious. These neurons are distributed all across the brain, and their firing unfolds over time. This means that we are not a place: we are a process. As the influential philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote, our mind is made up “of multiple channels in which specialist circuits try, in parallel pandemoniums, to do their various things, creating Multiple Drafts as they go.” What we call reality is merely the final draft. (Of course, the very next moment requires a whole new manuscript.)
And yet, and yet…There is the problem of the election. If this blink of conscious perception is a vote, then where is the voter? We can disguise the mystery with euphemisms (top-down attention, executive control, etc.) but the mystery still exists, as mysterious as ever. We deny the ghost, but still rely on models, metaphors and analogies in which the ghost controls the machine.