Consciousness, memory, booze

I was having a read of Neuroskeptic‘s interview with Dr Srivas Chennu on PLOS Neuro earlier (recommended), and found myself nodding vigorously in agreement on reading this quotation:

Consciousness is not just being aware of something, but also being aware that you were aware of it yesterday.

I don’t read too much about consciousness research, but I find sometimes that consciousness researchers neglect the crucial aspect of memory. It is quite possible to appear to be conscious (moving, responding to stimuli, holding conversations) without storing memories. Consider becoming black-out drunk. If you’ve never done this, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it (unless you are a consciousness researcher, in which case it’s completely essential research), but it is interesting from a philosophical perspective. At some point during an evening of drinking, you completely cease forming memories, but your behaviour is not dramatically different from your usual drunken antics. Are you conscious during this period?

What about when you were an infant and unable to form longer-term memories, were you conscious then? No one can remember, so you can’t just ask someone “were you conscious when you were 3 months old?” – but most people can answer affirmatively if you ask “were you conscious when you were 6 years old?” even if they’ve forgotten much of what they did at age 6.

One of the current popular theories of consciousness, integrated information theory (IIT), doesn’t take into account memory (Scott Aaronson’s detailed post on IIT is great). It does many other strange things like predicting small amounts of consciousness for items that intuitively would not be conscious in any way, but I suppose this just helps to show that whether something is conscious or not is determinable only by the something itself. If it can remember(?). Medical consciousness researchers have got their work cut out for them.

  • Nice post! I experienced another drug-based phenomenon once, on antidepressants (mirtazapine). Mirtazapine causes sleepiness. One time an hour or so after taking them I was very sleepy but not quite asleep, and at a certain point I started talking in a rather strange way.

    I didn’t intend to start talking. The words just ‘came out’. I forget now exactly what I said, but it was perfectly grammatical, and it was not complete nonsense – it related to what was going on at the time, albeit in a strange ‘dream logic’ way.

    I found this very interesting because normally, I think before I speak. Or at least I think I do! Normally I’m conscious of a meaning that I want to convey, and then I talk about it. I don’t plan out the exact words, but I think something. But in this case, as far as I remember, I was speaking entirely ‘unconsciously’ and I only became aware of it by hearing my own voice.

    This shook my confidence in the idea that language is a uniquely human capacity that’s inherently tied to our human consciousness.

    • Cheers! Interesting stuff. Sounds similar to an out of body experience, while still being within your body. I’m not sure if a scientific account of consciousness will ever happen but these sorts of abnormal experiences are essential to thinking about the problems. It’s very easy to make assumptions based on everyday experiences that don’t actually hold generally.

  • emma

    So do you think people with amnesia are not conscious?

    • I’m not sure, I presume yes (they are) instinctively.

      I guess we all experience the forgetting of specific memories to a certain extent; does that mean we weren’t conscious during those experiences really? Say I argue that, because I can’t remember anything that happened on 2nd May 1993 (for example), I wasn’t really conscious then, so it wouldn’t have been unethical to cause me pain in some way. But then if you went back in time and caused me (significant) pain then, I might well remember it now because that’s the sort of thing you remember better anyway – pain, unusual experiences etc. Whereas if you went back in time and caused me pain while I was awake but blackout drunk, I still wouldn’t remember, because I was physically unable to form memories.

      If amnesia sufferers lack the mechanisms to form memories as they experience things, are they conscious during those experiences? I don’t know. HM’s declarative memory was destroyed, but he could still learn new motor skills – though this was probably considered to bu “unconscious” learning. If memory is necessary for consciousness, does that just mean episodic memory?

      Dunno mate.

  • Jan Moren

    I’ve long thought that “consciousness” as a term is a bit problematic. I suspect it’s wrapping up several quite different abilities and phenomena in a way that seem to belong together only on the surface.

    Self-reflection, which is your focus here, is certainly one part of it. And of course that’s not a binary phenomenon; any simple system does some minimal amount of self-monitoring. Another one is autonomy or agency; the degree to which you can set and control your own goals.

    In your drunk example, self-reflection is impaired, while autonomy is (unfortunately) not. You can decide that making a giant herring-and-natto pizza right now is a really good idea without having a clue what you’re doing. With neurosceptic’s drug induced example below, autonomy was impaired while self-reflection was not. They’re both continuous rather than binary; they’re both aspects of what we call “consciousness”; and they’re largely independent of each other.

    So to me the question is just how helpful it is to treat “consciousness” as a singular phenomenon, and (frequently at least) as a binary state, rather than a continuum. I suspect it is rather like the “admiralty constant”; an occasionally useful shorthand to describe a system, but without any direct grounding or correlation with the real thing.

    • True, and I’ve not really thought how to break it up much before so interesting to read your take. Of course, everyone’s idea of what consciousness is or means is probably different – presumably we all experience “consciousness” differently, and really we only have those experiences to work from. So it’s admirable that people try to study it scientifically (and potentially useful medically) but I don’t think there will ever be a scientific theory of consciousness as such.

      Now tell me more about this herring-and-natto pizza…