When you hear the word “consciousness”, what did you think it is? All of what you experience and what you believe it is? Let me demonstrate something to you before you make up your mind.

Imagine a day at work, where you:

  • Had someone tap you repeatedly to get your attention, but only felt it the tenth time (Libet 1967),
  • Got up to answer the phone before you even realized you heard it (Martin 1974), 
  • Were told to keep an eye on someone’s coffee, but got distracted when something else crossed your line of sight, and weren’t as aware of what was happening to the coffee (Lehmann 1967).

If you realized that these stimuli altered your vigilance (after the fact), but were never actually aware of what you sensed, what would you think of consciousness now? Is it your active decision-making, the decisions you make on a day to day basis about what you want to do? Well, let me demonstrate some more phenomena before we proceed. 

In that same day, while sitting at your desk:

  • You hear, but do not fully register, your coworkers talking about how “delightful” their dinner was last night; later, while talking with a friend, you are particularly drawn to use the word “delightful”, and you don’t know why (Shevrin 1973),
  • You have to file some paperwork: the first piece of paper has a fan of lines on it, and you filed it pretty quickly; the next piece simply has a square on it, but for some reason you take a little longer to file it. When asked later what was on the second paper, you say a trapezoid (Kolers 1975).
  • You listen to two coworkers talking at the same time; however, you listen to one more intently than the other. The one you are more attuned to says “The spy put out the torch as a signal to attack.” When telling a friend later what you heard, you paraphrase the sentence, but do so in a manner that is closer to what the other coworker said (“The spy extinguished the torch in the window.”), even though you barely recognized what the other said (Lackner & Garrett 1972).

At this point, it should seem pretty clear that neither of these interpretations of consciousness–all of your experience versus active decision-making–are reasonable explanations. Science has been tinkering away–like always–and many cognitive phenomena that are above and below our baseline awareness have been uncovered in the past few decades in laboratories worldwide. Consciousness continues to be an illusory phenomenon, which escapes our grasp everytime we think we have it pinned down. Therefore, it seems reasonable to ask: what really is consciousness?


“The venerable dogma that one’s mental life is self-intimating and introspectively available seems at last to be ready for consignment to the museum of quaint and antiquated myths about how humans work.” (Churchland 80)

That quote may seem very intimidating and enigmatic at first, but it underlies the central claim that philosopher Patricia Churchland makes in her article, “Consciousness: The Transmutation of a Concept”, as she presents countless experiments to demonstrate this, some of which are included in this article. She believes that, given the fact that so much of what we experience and what influences our conscious decision-making goes unnoticed, what we define as “consciousness”, is not what we actually think it is.

But her examples still illustrate the old way of thinking about consciousness. They are very fascinating and eye opening, and she presents them in such an eloquent manner, but, it is not the right way to think about consciousness as a phenomenon. What Churchland illustrates in her article is that, in essence, consciousness does not exist as subjective experience–as the vitality of our existence. Hence, her argument is about what consciousness is not. However, to me, her argument is incomprehensible: although consciousness may not be what we think it is, it does play a role in our lives, in conjunction with subthreshold stimuli and subconscious attitudes. Therefore, I’d like to begin to explain recent prevailing ideas that give us an insight into what consciousness is.

Over the past few decades, a new school of thought within cognitive science has emerged, known as embodied cognitive science. Whereas traditional cognitive science viewed the mind and cognition as strictly within the skull (i.e. the brain), the embodied cognitive framework suggests that there is more to the picture: that the external world also plays a crucial role in the mind.

Two well-known proponents of embodied cognitive science–Andy Clark & David Chalmers (1998)–champion a view known as “the extended mind thesis”, which places a heavier emphasis on our interactions with the external world. One point they make, known as active externalism, posits that there is a two-way interaction between the agent and its environment, to act as a sort of “cognitive system” (C&C 1998). They give us simple examples in which this can be easily analyzed: the games of tetris and scrabble. In Tetris, when one manipulates the blocks as they fall, it becomes easier to find the best place to put them. Just the same, in Scrabble, rearranging your tiles on your rack allows you to see more word choices. There are many other examples of how people use the external world to aid their thought processes: writing down math problems to solve them, writing down things to remember them for later (e.g. a shopping list), or simply counting on your fingers to aid working memory, and so on.

Yet, once again, I don’t believe this quite cuts it either, but for the opposite reason that Churchland’s argument doesn’t: Churchland discounts the central role of agency (the feeling that we are in control of our actions and cause change in our lives)  and believes our experience of the world is rife with unconscious influence. Clark & Chalmers, on the other hand, put sole emphasis on the external world’s influence on cognition and implicate a necessity for our active engagement with it, and I don’t think it is enough to view the agent and its environment as simply interacting with one another in, as they call it, a “coupled system” (C&C 1998). To take into account only the active role does no good to capture the whole picture. To illustrate what my view most concisely, think of consciousness as an iceberg: the small portion of the iceberg that is above the water is our active awareness of and engagement with the world around us. The section below the water, which constitutes a majority of the iceberg, is all of the sub- and unconscious processes going on in our brain. Many recent studies into these unconscious processes show an increasingly growing body of evidence that supports this “iceberg model”. Furthermore, I believe there is an experiment that exemplifies all of the aspects of this phenomenon: the kitten carousel.

While researchers Hein & Held (1963) devised an experiment to demonstrate the role of active engagement with the environment and how it affects an organism’s development, they did not realize how the internal, unconscious influences explain these developmental differences as well. In this experiment, known as the kitten carousel, two newborn kittens were set to go around a carousel, which was surrounded by vertical black and white bars. The kittens were allowed different ranges of mobility: with one kitten, it was allowed to walk and actively explore its environment while harnessed to the rotating carousel. The other kitten, however, was completely immobilized, strapped in a little box, but it could still see the outside world while the carousel rotated. After the kittens were kept in the carousel for a designated amount of time, they were taken out and observed in their normal interactions with the environment. The findings? While the kitten in the active role developed its senses normally and could move around just fine, the kitten who was immobilized had severe sensory and motor deficits. Hence, the disparity between the kitten who actively engaged with its environment and the immobilized one shows that the interaction with the environment was essential in the proper development of the kitten’s abilities. While both the kitten’s movement (or lack thereof) and the vertical striped bars influenced the development of the kitten’s visual system, the unconscious influences that the vertical bars had on the kitten are not active participants in the interaction between the kitten and its environment and thus do not form a coupled system. However, since there still was an effect on the kitten’s development, these unconscious influences cannot be discounted. That is to say, we cannot rely solely on our understanding of what is active to explain what shapes us and what defines our interactions. Conversely, we cannot discount our internal world as an agent of consciousness altogether, just because much of what we do is influenced by things we are unaware of, as Churchland posits.Thus, both our active interactions with the world, exemplified by Clark & Chalmers, and the subliminal (passive) influences on our decisions, exemplified by Churchland, should factor into what we define as consciousness.

Now imagine yourself at work again: this time, at the end of the day, you take into account all of your sensations, all of the unconscious influences on your decision-making, and as well all of your active engagements with the external world. Does this better describe consciousness?


Churchland, P. (1983). Consciousness: The Transmutation of a Concept. 1983. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 64, pp. 80-95. 

Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The Extended Mind. Analysis, 58(1), pp. 7-19.

Held, R., & Hein, A. (1963). Movement-produced stimulation in the development of visually guided behavior. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 56(5), pp. 872–876.

Kolers, P. (1957). Subliminal stimulation in problem solving. American Journal of Psychology, 70, pp. 437-442.

Lackner, J. R. & Garrett, M. (1972). Resolving ambiguity: effects of biasing context in the unattended ear. Cognition, 1 , pp. 359-72.

Lehman, D., Beeler, G., and Fender D. (1967). EEG responses to light flashes during the observation of stabilized and normal retinal images. Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 22, pp. 135-42.

Libet, B., Alberts, W. W , Wright, E. W. Jr. and Feinstein, B. (1967) “Responses of human sensory cortex to stimuli below threshold for conscious sensation. Science. 158, pp. 1597-1600.

Martin, D. G., Hawryluk, G. A., and Guse, L. L. (1974). Experimental study of unconscious influences: ultrasound as a stimulus. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 38, 6 , pp. 589-608.

Shevrin, H. (1973). Brain wave correlates of subliminal stimulation, unconscious attention, primary- and secondary-process thinking, and repressiveness. Psychological Issues, 8 , 2, Monograph 30, pp. 56-87.