Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness

ASSC promotes research within cognitive science, neuroscience, philosophy, and other relevant disciplines in the sciences and humanities, directed toward understanding the nature, function, and underlying mechanisms of consciousness.

Global Workspace Theory (GWT)

Baars uses the theater metaphor in order to give an intuitive idea of his theory of consciousness known as Global Workspace Theory.

Baars tell us about a “theater” in which the spotlight on the scene represents the focus of consciousness directed by attention. The complete scene corresponds to the working memory, which is the memory system that stores the conscious contents of the mind. The information retrieved under the spotlight is globally broadcasted throughout the theater to two different types of unconscious processors: the audience and the ones behind the scene. The latter are unconscious contextual systems that create the events taking place in the scene.

The spotlight metaphor is also used by Crick (1994) when he argues that the visual information processing in the brain takes place centered in a spotlight, whereas in other regions of the visual field the information is less processed or not processed at all.

The theater metaphor used by Baars is essentially opposed to other metaphor known as “Cartesian theater”. Even thought both ideas sound similar they are actually divergent. The idea of a Cartesian theater refers to the existence of a concrete point in the brain, the pineal gland, where Descartes thought the link to the soul was located (Finger, 1995). Theories that pretend to localize consciousness in a central concrete point of the brain are broadly rejected by scientific community. However, scientists are looking for the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC), although they are not believed to be in a concrete point, but formed from neural coalitions (Crick and Koch, 2003).

Coming back to the theater metaphor developed by Baars, it is important to remark that the scene is composed by the working memory. This is the place where the actors compete for the spotlight space of attention. When they get there, they appear as conscious contents of the mind. The selection of the spotlight position is to a great extend done behind the scene. Unconscious processors select the conscious contents (the play in the scene) using contexts and beliefs. Baars indicates that the “director” can take decisions in the field of working memory driven by goal accomplishment. The play director also works behind the scene; this means that usually we have no access to the reasons why we do things. This conception resembles to the ideas of other authors who argue that the conscious self confabulates in order to deduce the reasons why the subject perform the actions (Ronsenthal, 2000; Morin, 2002).

According to Baars, consciousness is the key to access to the vast domain of unconscious knowledge. Consciousness is used for rapid learning and accurate recognition. It also activates a great number of unconscious routines providing coordination and control. Conscious experiences activate unconscious contexts which help to interpret future conscious events. In sum, consciousness provides a framework for global access to the vast unconscious contents of the mind. It seems that recent advances using brain imaging techniques (fMRI, PET, etc.) confirm Baars’ hypothesis. (Baars, 2002, Baars et al. 2003). Anyhow, more neurological insight is needed to completely confirm Baars’ assumptions.


(Baars, 1988) BAARS, B.J. 1988. A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness: Cambridge University Press.

(Baars, 1997) BAARS, B.J. (1997). In the Theater of Consciousness. Global Workspace Theory, A Rigorous Scientific Theory of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4, pp. 292-309.

(Baars, 2002) BAARS, B.J. (2002). The conscious access hypothesis: Origins and recent evidence. Trends in Cognitive Science, 6, pp. 47-52.

(Baars et al., 2003) BAARS, B.J. RAMSOY, T.Z. y LAUREYS, S. (2003). Brain, conscious experience and the observing self. Trends in Neurosciences. Vol. 26, No. 12, pp. 671-675.

(Crick and Koch, 2003) CRICK, F. y KOCH, C. (2003). A framework for consciousness. Nature Neuroscience, 6. pp. 119-126.

(Crick, 1994) CRICK, Francis. (1994). Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. Scribner Book Company.

(Morin, 2002) MORIN, A. (2002). Do you “self-reflect” or “self-ruminate”? Science and Consciousness Review. Dec. No. 1.

(Rosenthal, 2000) ROSENTHAL,  D.M. (2000). Metacognition and Higher-Order Thoughts. Consciousness and Cognition 9, pp. 231-242.

The “Machiavellian intelligence” hypothesis

The most popular theory that tries to account for the extremely fast evolution of human brain is the “Machiavellian intelligence” hypothesis (also known as “social brain” hypothesis).

Human brain has evolved much faster than other mammals. In only 25 million years lots of mutations have taken place in many human genes. The Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis might explain this phenomenon, and could give us the reason why we have such a big and complex brain. According to this theory, the intense social competition was (and still is) the main reason why the human brain evolved to a highly complex organ consuming 20% of our energy. Natural selection supported those individuals whose social strategies provided them with social and reproductive success. Sophisticated “Machiavellian” strategies, involving social behaviors like lying, cunning or leadership were the means to be successful in the emerging complex society.

Sergey Gavrilets and Aaron Vose, from the University of Tenesse, have provided data that supports this hypothesis. They have designed a mathematical model to simulate the development of human brain according to the Machiavellian intelligence theory. In their model, the genes control brains that invent and learn social strategies (memes). These strategies are used by males in their competition for mates. The model suggests that cerebral capacity evolves faster that learning capacity, and the advantage of having a large brain decreases as the exposure to memes increase in modern societies.

Source: The dynamics of Machiavellian intelligence . Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0601428103. Abstract.

What is Machine Consciousness?

First of all, I would say that the concept of machine consciousness is not really new. What I think is new is the application of the latest scientific or philosophic models of consciousness in the Artificial Intelligence arena. Basically, machine consciousness central objective is to produce consciousness in an artificial system, and one of the greatest challenges here is to understand what actually a conscious process is. What we currently have is plenty of hypotheses which could be somehow applied to engineered artifacts. However, we don’t know to what extend these hypotheses correlate with the reality of human mind. This is the reason why we always keep a closer look to the latest advances in neuroscience. As the brain and cognitive sciences develop, more insight in the mind processes is gained.

There is no doubt that machine consciousness field has to be related to human consciousness studies (I’d better say scientific consciousness studies in general, as there are proofs of conscious behaviors in other mammals). Therefore, as part of the AI discipline, machine consciousness has to follow a multidisciplinary approach, where neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, physics, etc. All play a significant contribution role to the matter. Obviously, engineering play its central role here as well; at the end of the day, we are talking about machines.