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Review/Commentary of “In the theater of consciousness: The workspace of the mind.”

Aditya's picture


Bernard Baars’ book “In the theater of consciousness: The workspace of the mind” was an overall excellent and stimulating read. Baars takes the reader on a scientific journey through consciousness starting with methods of studying consciousness, moving to exploring consciousness in great detail from many different perspectives devised from empirical data, and ending with the uses of consciousness. At few points throughout the book, it is difficult to remain focused such as when Baars continually analyzes many of William James’ writing. However, Baars methods of studying consciousness emphasize the involvement of subjective experience. He provides many different exercises which can be performed by the reader that validate his ideas, making the book highly interactive, and the didactic manner, fun. Learning about Baars' ideas through these interactive tasks was similar to sitting in on a Neurobiology class when Paul teaches vision and asks us to “close one eye”. There was substantial overlap in material between the book and the class and furthermore the book extended on ideas we went over in class as well as contributed new relevant material. This book added tremendous value to the Neurobiology and Behavior class experience.

 The Theater Metaphor

Consciousness is metaphorically compared to a theater throughout this book. A clear distinction is constantly made between unconsciousness and consciousness in this book just as we separated in class the I-function from the unconscious part of our brain that does things such as like fill in the blind. There is overlap and extension of ideas learned in class.

In a theater, before the show starts, one may notice numerous things occurring such as people talking, the stage, and doors leading backstage. However when the lights dim and the show starts we see a spotlight that focuses on actors one at a time, brings them to life on the stage, and a story is told.

Baars compares the stage to working memory. Just as the stage holds many actors, our working memory holds many of the things running through our mind at a certain instant. When the spotlight is cast on individual actors they spring to life and we become aware of them. Consciousness is the spotlight that when cast on things in our working memory, brings them to life to our I-function. Baars thinks of the actors on stage as the numerous thoughts in our working memory competing for our consciousness. This notion highlights that consciousness is limited in space and that we cannot be conscious of everything in our environment. Baars backs this idea up by mentioning two-channel experiments in which a different audio stream is presented to each ear and when a person is told to focus on one of the streams, he has no conscious recollection of the other stream even though it is being presented to him. Furthermore, Baars describes the audience as the unconscious part of the brain which consists of millions of specialized abilities. Audience members work together through what our class would call corollary discharge signals to carry out the details of the simplest action. His theory suggests that this unconscious part of the brain requires a stage (working memory), a spotlight (consciousness), and a director (executive functions), in order to ‘mobilize these specialized unconscious networks in pursuit of survival and reproduction’.

I think the audience’s role is where the metaphor begins to weaken. The audience is described as the unconscious parts of the brain which we in class have shown to play roles in filling in blind spots or being aware of spatial information of objects in our environment. However in an actual theater, the audience most likely does not influence what is occurring on stage. What is on stage has been already organized and planned by people behind stage such as directors. However Baars has defined directors to be unconscious contextual operators which set expectations for consciousness. To elucidate idea Baars mentions that when reading we have inherent expectations of syntax of the sentence such as verb conformity. We are not consciously looking for verb conformity but when the verbs do not conform to the sentence, this stands out in our head because it does not meet our unconscious expectations. Returning to my main idea, the role of the audience in theater does not fit well the definition Baars attributes to audience in terms of consciousness.

 Exploring Consciousness through Interactive Examples and Interesting Evidence

Baars highlights the relationship between the unconsciousness and consciousness throughout the book. One way he did this was by asking readers questions with answers that most know but not in their working memory. Ex. What are three synonyms for talkative? He highlights that there is a little pause before the answers come. This pause is the unconscious subunits working together to find the answer and bring it to consciousness. This was interesting because it was one of the first interactive engaging activities between Baars and the reader and it used a very simplistic method to illustrate a serious point.

Shifting to evidence that most readers cannot relate to, blindsight was a topic brought up in both this book and in our class. One domain of blindsight includes when an individual with damage to the visual cortex reports not consciously perceiving objects presented to their damaged fields of vision, while tests show that their unconscious still perceives them. In our class, we have used this to conclude that the I-function may be rooted in the cortex. Baars takes this notion to the next level. Similar to what we discussed in class  Baars suggests that even though we cannot consciously perceive objects, the neurons that detect the size, shape, and color of this object are still being activated as shown by blindsight.  However, he suggests that the role of the cortex is possibly to coordinate these different neurons in the  visual brain areas together to form the conscious image. To me this was extremely interesting because it added on to our conclusions from blindsight  of not only is consciousness possibly in the cortex but that consciousness might simply be the coordination of multiple unconscious units.

The realm of consciousness is further explored and defined to the readers through interactive experiments. Baars states that unconscious factors are at work during conscious experience. For example, just reading the words of this sentence requires that you see the shape of the ink, identify these shapes as words, speak these words with the inner voice in our head, and give these words meaning. Baars challenges readers to try to look at the words but not process them, not pronounce them in our head with our inner-voice, and not give them meaning. As a reader, I found this very interesting because trying to shut off my inner-voice was impossible, trying to read the words in the book without processing them was not possible. These unconscious processes have become so automated that our I-functions loses control of these once controllable functions. The implications of this seem almost dangerous and add to the findings from our class that the unconscious part of the brain has substantial power independent from the I function.

Another interesting point that Baars mentions is the process of learning. He brings up how children can learn the complex rules of language such as correct grammar use and verb tense just by listening to others around them. The rules are not explicitly taught to them. Baars highlights that learning is in essence a magical process. Furthermore, he expands on this idea of learning by stating that our consciousness just puts us in situations where our unconscious subunits can memorize the information presented. The information is become more automated. For example, playing a sport like basketball well requires that we no longer have to consciously think about bouncing the ball up and down. This skill becomes automated. Baars concludes that our unconscious is doing the learning while our consciousness just provides the scenario.

Baars presents other interesting findings including the specific evidence of involuntary and voluntary control of actions. Conscious voluntary control and spontaneous involuntary unconscious control of smiles were localized to specific brain structures. It was found that subjects with damage to the facial part of the motor cortex could not voluntarily smile but could smile spontaneously. Damage to areas just below the cortex result in the exact opposite deficits. A clear division between conscious voluntary control, and unconscious involuntary control is seen, highlighting direct neural correlates of consciousness. This division in labor furthermore is worth mentioning because it illustrates one of the more simplistic organizations of consciousness.

I felt that from the many interesting observations and ideas he presented, Baars came to relatively insipid conclusions. He used a simple example of being chased by an ox to conclude that consciousness is useful for prioritizing, problem solving, decision making, the recruitment and control of actions, error detection, learning and adaptation and gateways to the self. I thought he should have spelled out a network of consciousness in more detail, especially highlighting the relationship between the unconscious and conscious parts of the brain.

However, using the theater metaphor to study consciousness was highly interesting and very helpful in understanding consciousness. It provides a framework for how consciousness might work, and highlights the relationship between the unconsciousness and consciousness. He provides evidence for this relationship with empirical studies of people who have brain damage, explores dreaming and mental disorders, and also provides interactive exercises that can be performed by the reader. I have sampled only a few of the more interesting pieces of evidence in this paper. The interactive exercises take examples of things we do in everyday life and uses it to breakdown the conscious and unconscious components and how they work together. This makes the book very enjoyable, easy to relate to, and fun to read. There is much overlap with the course material when Baars discusses blindsight, the picture in the head, dreaming, language among other things. Furthermore this book contributes more relevant material such as ideas of inner voice, biofeedback, lucid dreams and empirical evidence of neural correlates for voluntary control.

Although there is more material our course could have covered, it did an adequate job of allowing us to study the material we did cover in depth, and in great detail. Our weekly reflections and opportunities for open dialogue in class allowed us to share our own different perspectives on the material with each other. (The fact that we did have different perspectives on the same material is an illustration of how consciousness is subjective). However, I think this book would be excellent reading material for the course because it would allow students to continue learning about other relevant ideas outside of the classroom and enrich the experience of Neurobiology and Behavior.


            Baars, Bernard. In the theater of consciousness: The workspace of the mind. New

York: Oxford University Press, 1997.