Consciousness is an ill-understood phenomenon. Not only because
of the difficulty of the subject -- it is a conceptual as well
an empirical morass -- but also because the topic has long been
eschewed in systematic research by philosophers and psychologists.
Since a decade or so, this has changed (the attention, that is)
and consciousness research is well under way. The series 'Advances
in Consciousness Research', started in 1995, is one of the results
of this newly developed attention.
According to the editors of this volume, the main driving force
for composing the book was that the new wave of consciousness
research has concentrated too much on general phenomena. Discovering
such general phenomena is important in order to state general
(scientific) laws on the subject matter, but, they claim, one
should search for these laws observing certain empirical constraints.
Investigating individual differences in subjective experience
are thought to provide these constraints. This book investigates
these individual differences.
A remark on these 'individual differences' is in order. One might
expect that by this it is meant to investigate individual persons'
consciousness. But that is not the case in this book. By 'individuals'
is meant: groups or classes of individuals. The idea is that often
groups of individuals can be distinguished by the fact that they
have in similar situations different conscious experiences.
The nature and reasons of these differences are investigated in
this book. For instance, different groups of people have a different
degree of hypnotic susceptibility. It can be investigated whether
the nature of the hypnotic experience is also different
(Pekala & Kumar).
After a short introduction on the (meager) history of research
on individual differences in subjective experience the remaining
thirteen papers are organized along three themes, corresponding
to 'types' of consciousness: The first (and largest) part of the
book is devoted to (full fledged) consciousness. The second
(and smallest) part is devoted to subconsciousness. The
third part considers self-consciousness.
The quality of the papers is high in general, although some are
rather encyclopedic. How interesting the paper is, is also related
to the background of the reader. A psychologist interested in
statistical quantification will be more interested in papers in
which the experiences of large groups of people are measured and
analysed (Katz, Mattes & Beauchamp, Giambra, Hartmann, Singer
& Singer & Zittel) a neurologist will be more interested
in papers in which empirical data is gathered on the relation
between consciousness and neurophysiological processes (Chapman
& Nakamura & Flores, Richardson, Schwartz, Wallace &
Fisher). Philosophers, like myself, will be more interested in
papers in which there is some theoretical and conceptual analysis
(Chapman & Nakamura & Flores, Schwartz, Reber & Allen,
Wallace & Fisher, Kunzendorf).
The audience of the book is clearly intended to be fellow academics
in the field of consciousness research. That does not mean, however,
that the book is of no interest to people outside this field.
The approach of the volume as a whole is quite broad and gives,
as said, quite a good overview of the field of research. Some
articles on the neurophysiology of consciousness presuppose quite
some serious knowledge of the field (esp. Chapman & Nakamura
& Flores), but not all. The same goes for some of the articles
on statistical research (esp. Giambra). Thus, parts of the book
could be of interest of people outside this particular field and
for educated laypersons.
A positive feature of the book is that there really is an added
value in it being an edited collection of papers. The authors
keep themselves consistently to the subject under discussion and
it seems to me that a large amount of current research on this
topic is covered.
A bit disappointing, although possibly unavoidable, is that there
is not quite a movement towards a general overarching theory of
(a part of) consciousness at all. The volume should be seen more
as laying groundwork for theorizing, rather than providing theories
itself (although some articles do offer some interesting theoretical
Another disappointment is that quite some papers are not really
theoretically and/or experimentally at the front of the field,
but are rather reporting on a body of literature (esp. Katz, Mattes
& Beauchamp, Richardson, LaBerge & DeGracia, Pekala &
Kumar). An advantage of this is that the book contains an overview
of much of the literature on the subject (which would have been
really useful if collected in a complete literature list at the
end of the volume; now it is quite hard to assess the comprehensiveness
of the literature overview).
This concludes the general overview of the book. I will continue
with a couple of remarks on two of the contributions. Being a
philosopher, my attention was raised by the model of consciousness
given in "How we Hurt" (Chapman & Nakamura &
Flores). It gives a framework for understanding pain awareness
that elaborates partly on the 'Multiple Drafts Model', proposed
by Dennett and Kinsbourne (1992). The fact that this article provides
some empirical underpinning of this 'constructivist' model is
important. The constructivist model proposes that there are several
parallel 'drafts', or 'immediate models of the self', as the authors
call it here. Internal procession and interaction with the outer
world results in one of these immediate models coming to the foreground,
thus 'being the experience'.
In this article, research is reported on individual differences
in pain experience. The constructivist model can now be shown
to explain this data better than certain classical views. But,
I would add, this is certainly not yet a firm foundation for the
theory. All the model does as yet, is explain (maybe a bit better)
the known data; there is not much prediction of new empirical
data, so we must refrain from definitive judgments as of now,
and continue research.
The chapter by Gary Schwartz: "Individual Differences in
Subtle Awareness and Levels of Awareness" also contains some
interesting material. He considers subconscious awareness of odors.
It is well known that different people have different olfactory
capabilities. What has been found, however, is that with certain
people there exists a discrepancy between their reporting on the
smell, which can be above average successful, and their reporting
on their awareness of the smell, which can be absent in such cases.
This phenomenon implies a parallel process to blindsight: 'blindsmell',
the author suggests. Taking data such as this into account, the
author proposes a model of awareness divided along a scale from
'pure awareness' (awareness without this being consciously experienced)
up to 'awareness of awareness of awareness' (e.g. self-consciousness).
The 'blindsmell' phenomenon can now be argued to be a kind of
Especially interesting in this account is the idea that pure awareness
can be a kind of 'awarenessability' of a stimulus registered by
a biological system. This implies that many subconscious processes
are not so much distinguishable in nature from conscious
processes, but only in grade. Also this model could be combined
with the constructivist model described above, where there might
be many instants of pure awareness at any one time, but only one
coming to the foreground at a time. This all sounds very exciting,
but should be investigated empirically more thoroughly. Also conceptually
there might be a problem with the notion of 'blindsmell'. It seems
to me not altogether clear that the phenomenon captured by this
term is parallel to the phenomenon of 'blindsight'. For one thing,
blindsight is a phenomenon that occurs after physiological damage
to the visual cortex, whereas this 'blindsmell' just seems to
be a standard difference in perceptual capacities in humans. That
jeopardizes the possibility of generalizing the model Schwartz
proposes. So, at least the model needs some conceptual as well
as theoretical refinement.
In conclusion it can be said that this book is a useful addition
to the literature on consciousness. In part because of the empirical
and theoretical research that is reported, but also because some
interesting directions of future research are indicated and opened,
regarding the research on individual differences in consciousness.
© 2001 Marcel Scheele
Marcel Scheele is a philosopher.
He received his masters degree in the Philosophy of Mind at Leiden
University (Netherlands). His thesis was on the functionalist
theory of mind. Currently he is doing Ph.D. research at the Delft
University of Technology on the philosophy of technology. The
research concerns the nature of technical artifacts. It is especially
concerned with the question how users bestow different functions
on these objects and how this relates to 'the' function of an
artifact. The main area's of inquiry to this effect are the notion
of function, social ontology, collective intentionality, and meaning.
He is also still working in the philosophy of mind.
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This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001