Raising Consciousness

Bridging the divide between humanistic and neurobiological and neuropsychological understandings of consciousness.

April 3, 2023

I’m old enough to remember the first feminist consciousness-raising groups that sought to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of sexism and the ways misogynistic bias was embedded in language, popular culture, workplaces, stereotypes, public policy and science. I also vividly recall the rise of the Black Consciousness movement and the struggle to free minds of racist ideas that had been internalized as a result of colonialism, apartheid and Jim Crow.

In both instances, the goal was to unmask the false consciousness that concealed power, naturalized inequalities and rendered hierarchy invisible. Social activism and disruption of the symbolic order were essential if society was to overcome the attitudes, ideologies and values that blocked the path to social justice.

The concept of consciousness was central to the humanities during my intellectually formative years. Key figures like the French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan and Louis Althussar, the French Marxist philosopher, helped to radically revise the concept of ideology not as false consciousness but as the “common-sense” understanding of reality constructed through language, emotions and social representations.

Meanwhile, leading U.S. historians including Bernard Bailyn, David Brion Davis, Eric Foner and Eugene Genovese considered the conceptual lenses and intellectual and ideological frameworks that informed consciousness as central to understanding why the American Revolution occurred, why abolition arose and why the Civil War occurred.

Of course, those same years showed a special interest in drug-induced altered states of consciousness.

At the very same time, the philosophic, psychological and neurobiological study of consciousness was undergoing rapid advances as scholars investigated the phenomenological, experiential, subjective, semantic and neurobiological dimensions of consciousness.

Although there was some cross-pollination, the sad fact was that much of the discussion of consciousness was highly siloed. Perhaps now, a generation later, we can bridge the divide between humanistic and the cognitive, neurobiological and neuropsychological understandings of consciousness.

An authoritative essay by Janet Metcalfe, a professor of psychology and neurobiology and behavior at Columbia, and Hedy Kober, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at Yale’s School of Medicine, which helps unravel the mysteries, history and complexities of consciousness, offers a path forward.

Entitled “Self-Reflective Consciousness and the Projectable Self,” a chapter in a collection entitled The Missing Link in Cognition: Origins of Self-Reflective Consciousness, the essay begins with Descartes’s 1637 Discourse on Method and the French philosopher and mathematician’s famous assertion that there was only one claim that he could not doubt: his consciousness. And what was that? His ability to think: to doubt, understand, affirm, deny, will, refuse, imagine and sense. To imagine the future and to reminisce about the past. To scheme, lie, manipulate and deceive.

Consciousness, in short, is our ability to self-reflect, read other people’s minds and emotions and project ourselves into the future and the past and across space. It is, as the theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey puts it, our inner eye.

Without consciousness, according to Descartes, a living creature is little more than an automaton, in Metcalfe and Kober’s words, a “‘mere’ mechanism, regardless of the complexity of the[ir] behavior.” It is the capacity of the inner eye to interpret our cognitions “as motivations, feelings, goals, hopes, intentions, fears, thoughts, [and] memories” rather than as “p300s, serotonin imbalances, hippocampal activation or reverberating Hebb nets,” that provides the basis for “the most advanced achievements of humans including our culture.”

That consciousness can take various forms and operate on several levels is not a new notion. At various times, William James (who coined the phrase “stream of consciousness”) defined consciousness in materialist, dualistic and phenomenological terms. Endel Tulving, the Estonian-born Canadian experimental psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, played a pivotal role in identifying the varieties of consciousness recognized by psychologists today. There is “awareness, phenomenology, noetic and anoetic consciousness, [and] sentience.” There’s self-awareness and projective awareness—the ability to attribute intentions, goals, thoughts, memories, plans, emotions to other living entities (and even inanimate objects).

As Metcalfe and Kober demonstrate, “Beings that do not have a fully developed sense of self-reflective projectable consciousness may nevertheless have … other kinds of consciousness.” Indeed, the authors marshal evidence that nonhuman primates exhibit many of these modes of consciousness.

What these nonprimates do not clearly and uncontrovertibly reveal are three key aspects of consciousness that are found in neurotypical human adults: episodic memory—the ability to time travel; a theory of mind—the ability to understand and reason about other people’s mental states; and metacognition—awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.

(Metcalfe and Kober take note of the argument advanced by some cognitive psychologists that those on the more extreme end of the autism spectrum may lack a theory of mind as well as the widely accepted claim that people’s metacognitive abilities are impaired by cognitive distortions, bias and categorical thinking.)

Consciousness, of course, raises not one hard question but several. Why humans are conscious rather than unconscious. How consciousness can be explained in terms of neural mechanisms and brain processes. How and why consciousness evolved through the evolutionary process. How consciousness develops over the human life course, especially during infancy, childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.

Many psychologists attribute the evolution of consciousness to the social nature of human life. As Metcalfe and Kober put it:

“Having an inner eye—which gives a quick and accessible description of how one feels and thinks oneself, what one wants, plans and fears—may allow one to make similar attributions to other people and quickly. Facility at predicting the behavior of others, by getting inside their minds, provides an enormous social advantage.”

In their essay, Metcalfe and Kober cite a wealth of evidence indicating that chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans have metacognitive capabilities and that chimps and gorillas show signs of episodic memory.

An understanding of consciousness is as important to humanists as it is to cognitive and developmental psychologists and neurobiologists. In Metcalfe and Kober’s words: “our consciousness of ourselves” is the “most quintessentially human kind of knowledge.”

Issues at the very core of the humanities—aesthetic and emotional sensibilities, empathy, curiosity, identity, learning and an understanding of power and the human capacity for dishonesty and deception—are entwined with our understanding of consciousness.

What are the implications or lessons that humanists might draw from Metcalfe and Kober’s essay?

  1. Consciousness exists on various levels that are susceptible to humanistic analysis and interpretation. Consciousness is more than perceptions, thoughts and feelings. It encompasses memories and various subjectivities—tastes, opinions, preferences, aspirations, fears and identities—that humanists can recover and analyze.
  2. Consciousness can be historicized. Historical consciousness itself has a history. It has evolved from the mythological and various stage theories and a Whiggish lens to be superseded by less linear, more contingent and dialectical and dialogic understandings of change over time that take account of social, geopolitical, economic demographic and cultural processes and conflicts.
  3. Consciousness inevitably colors behavior. Actions and decisions are inevitably mediated by emotions, memories, hopes, fears and perceptions that exist independently of supposedly objective realities. Precisely because human beings have minds, humanities need to pay close attention to the understandings, identifications and feelings that shape behavior.
  4. Consciousness can be altered. Much as cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to identify and modify thought patterns that negatively affect our behavior and emotions, so too it’s possible for people to reassess, re-evaluate and reframe their perceptions and achieve a higher level of awareness. Effective social movements help people do this. So, too, can educators by introducing alternate perspectives and exposing and critiquing embedded assumptions.
  5. Through metacognitive practices, students can become more fully conscious. Instructors can nurture greater self-awareness in the classroom by instilling a growth mindset, helping students recognize what they don’t understand (for example, through frequent quizzing), introducing them to the cognitive distortions that warp thinking and encouraging students to reflect on their coursework and what they are learning.

If you’re a humanist, place consciousness front and center in your teaching. It’s not just that human actions are inseparable from consciousness or that history and literature are records of shifts in human consciousness. It’s because the essential point of a liberal education is to raise consciousness.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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