Consciousness and the Brainstem

I am under the impression that philosophers who talk about consciousness by and large focus on state consciousness and neglect creature consciousness, perhaps because they think that creature consciousness reduces to (is analyzable in terms of) state consciousness, or at any rate state consciousness is the ontologically more fundamental notion.  Is this correct?

To explain a bit further:  state consciousness is what makes a difference between a conscious belief (or desire, percept, etc.) and an unconscious one; creature consciousness is what makes a difference between someone who is normally awake or in REM sleep and someone who is in a coma or in non-REM sleep.  It is tempting to suggest that someone is creature-conscious if and only if she has at least one state that is state-conscious.  Thus, one might think, creature consciousness is analyzed in terms of state consciousness.  Is this what most philosophers think?

At any rate, even if one thinks that creature consciousness does not entirely reduce to state consciousness, one might still think that creature consciousness is not important for the ontology of phenomenal consciousness.  Perhaps it’s just an auxiliary functional notion, which does not make a difference to the holy grail of phenomenal consciousness.

If this were a correct picture of what most philosophers think, it would explain why philosophers seem to pay so little attention to the role of the brainstem in consciousness.  It is well known that the brainstem modulates the global state of the brain so as to determine whether the organism is awake, asleep, more or less alert, etc.  This seems extremely relevant to creature consciousness, but not directly relevant to state consciousness (under the prevailing picture tentatively sketched above).

Well, is it even true that philosophers who talk about consciousness pay little attention to the brainstem and its role for consciousness?  If so, is my diagnosis correct?

If I’m on the right track, we should consider the possibility that this approach is missing something important.  That is, suppose that creature consciousness were ontologically more fundamental than state consciousness.  Then, it would be a mistake to develop theories of state consciousness without saying anything about creature consciousness.  Rather, a correct approach to consciousness should begin with an account of creature consciousness.  It might be that progress on the question of what makes a state state-conscious can be made only by building on an independent account of creature consciousness.

By the way, these reflections are partially motivated by a target article forthcomign in BBS, in which the Bjorn Merker, a neuroscientist, argues that the brainstem can sustain phenomenal consciousness even in the complete absence of the cerebral cortex!  Needless to say, this goes way beyond the orthodoxy about the brainstem.


  1. Nice post, G.

    It is dificult to evaluate what the majority view is here. While I would agree with the sorts of claims in the first two paragraphs, I think, for instance, David Rosenthal would not.

    As I understand Rosenthal’s Higher Order Thought theory of consciousnness, an organism has creature consciousness just in case is is awake and responsive to stimuli. This is fully consistent with it utterly lacking states with state-consciousness, since being awake is fully consistent with utterly lacking higher-order thoughts. My impression of why creature consciousness doesn’t get much attention by HOT-heads isn’t because it reduces to state-consciousness, but because they don’t see it as raising any interesting philosophical propblems.

  2. Ralph Ellis

    It is true that not only philosophers, but also neuroscientists and neuropsychologists have had a corticocentric bias. However, I have argued for years that subcortical and emotional processes are necessary and sufficient for consciousness. E.g., see my CURIOUS EMOTIONS (John Benjamins, 2005). I’m very excited about the Merker finding because it’s further support. Here is an example of the reasons I think this way: The idea that emotion is the indispensable ingredient of consciousness in all modalities is not new. Cytowic and Damasio have suggested it; Damasio shows that we can gradually eliminate cortical areas without eliminating “core consciousness,” whereas knocking out emotional areas renders all types of consciousness impossible. However, opponents can insist that “emotional” brain areas are also areas that release neurotransmitters to the cortex having nothing to do with emotion, and are merely necessary in the way that supplying electrical current is necessary for a radio. The radio (the cortex) is what makes the music (consciousness). The subcortex only gets the power to the radio.
    What is needed is a coherent story about the specific way in which emotion grounds other conscious states. I suggest that such a story is offered by Jaak Panksepp’s emotional “seeking” system, combined with arguments for the emerging “enactivist” approach to consciousness and some new evidence from ERP, perceptual priming, and motor imagery studies such as Donaghue’s monkeys that play computer games by moving the joy stick “with their minds,” i.e., by forming motor imagery. The thrust of the argument is that the motivation to activate motor imagery relative to environmental situations is a necessary ingredient in all consciousness, including perceptual consciousness. Initiating motor processes is efferent rather than afferent; this explains why the sum total of afferent processes can never produce consciousness, not even perceptual consciousness. A significant amount of motivated efferent activation, however, does produce consciousness. The modality and qualitative content of the consciousness may depend on what kind of afferent input is present, but the existence of consciousness does not. The story is therefore just the reverse of what the initial critics of the emotivist view charged. A significant amount of motivation toward efferent action is not only necessary but also sufficient for consciousness, whereas afferent input is necessary for perception only in the way that the perceived object is necessary: it affects the what-content of the consciousness, but is not part of the substrate of the consciousness. It is what the consciousness is about, but not what does or executes the consciousness.
    That afferent processing of input is neither necessary nor sufficient for consciousness is definitely established by inattentional and change blindness, ERP results, and perceptual priming studies. The specific role of emotional processes, especially Pankse

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