Consciousness studies in the popular media

One thing that I find frustrating, as I’m sure many of us do, is the quality of attempts to bring the study of consciousness (and the mind/brain more generally) to those outside of academia. I don’t just mean oversimplifications (God brain area found!), but how much of what is said is simply false (I’ve included an example from a while back below). Many people, more qualified than I, have discussed the impact of this on education (e.g. classes where once the students have read lord of the flies the girls discuss the mental states of the characters and the boys make a map of the island…) and attitudes toward gender differences (under the amusing title of ‘neurosexism’). So, I don’t think this is a problem of mere academic interest, but a problem that can have real impact on people’s lives. I take it that, as we are discussing things in blog form here, many of us are interested in brining the study of the mind to a wider audience, so my question is this: what can we do to improve the standard of public discussions of the mind, brain and consciousness (etc!)?

and now as promised an example and a retort (well, a list of mistakes is perhaps a better term) by Laura May Bottrill and I:

Having read Ray Tallis’ article “consciousness,
not yet explained” (or ‘you won’t find consciousness in the brain’-
depending on whether you get the e or print version) (New Scientist No2742, 9
January 2010) we felt obliged to respond, for we would hate for the wider public
to believe that this gave an accurate view of consciousness studies.
Consciousness studies is, in fact, progressing nicely and whilst we feel we
could simply recount notable recent discoveries and progress, we would like
here to point out what we think are some mistakes in Tallis’ presentation so
that the public are not duped.

In the first paragraph Tallis claims that ‘most’ researchers
believe that consciousness will soon be explained in terms of brain activity.
He suggests that he will attack this on the grounds of a lack of precision of
the correlations in neuroimaging studies. The problems of neuroimaging as a
tool for discovering correlates of any mental phenomenon (not just
consciousness) are many and varied and we are, in a manner, sympathetic to Tallis’
concern here.

However, here we feel he is making a more fundamental
mistake. In particular it seems obviously false that ‘most’ researchers believe
that consciousness will be explained in terms of neural activity. There are
some who do, the positions of Metzinger and Tononi immediately spring to mind,
but other proposed explanations of consciousness have very little to do with
brain activity. Notably Functionalists (e.g. Dennett’s multiple drafts account,
or Higher Order Thought accounts advocated by Rosenthal and others) explain
consciousness in terms of Functional relations (usually some form of
computation) between one mental state and others. Other researchers, including
one of us, seek to explain particular conscious phenomena in terms particular kinds
of representation which the brain engages in. The mistake Tallis makes here is
the claim that those in consciousness studies are ignoring the cognitive in
seeking to explain consciousness in terms of the neural, when in fact much
consciousness research focuses on the cognitive.

So, perhaps Tallis means his claims to only apply to those
with reductive or eliminative tendencies- those who do hypothesise that ultimately
consciousness will be explained by neural activity alone. This might be a
charitable reading; however, Tallis seems to get these views wrong as well. We
know of no theorist who proposes that discoveries of correlations between
neural activity and conscious states constitute an explanation. This is hardly
surprising of course given that the vast majority of consciousness researchers
have taken introductory psychology or critical reasoning courses. We wonder why
Tallis would spend so much time attacking a laughably weak position that no one
actually holds.

Eventually Tallis moves onto a rather more interesting view
that consciousness represents the world. Here he suggests that any reductive
account of consciousness will be left with the “insuperable problem of” how
neural states come to represent the world. He claims that no explanation is
available as to how neural states can be representations. This strikes us as
somewhat odd. Here is a (far from exhaustive) list of references to
explanations of this phenomenon (Dretske 1999; Cummins
1989; 1996; O’Brien and Opie 2000; Palmer 1978; Fodor 1987; Millikan 1994;
Vosgerau 2009).

We wonder why Tallis ignores these discussions, but more
importantly his fundamental misunderstandings of the nature of representation
lead him to make some obviously false claims. He claims that as synapses have
only their current state they cannot represent the past. There are two things
we wish to note about this claim. First it contradicts his commitment to the
claim that physics does not allow for tenses, as on such understandings of
time, all of the states of a synapse exist. A synapse certainly does not have
only its current state on such a view. Given that this is a discussion of
consciousness and representation and not theories of time, perhaps we can
forgive this mistake. Our second concern is far more serious. Even if it were
true that something had only its present state, it wouldn’t follow that it the
past cannot be represented (on that note it wouldn’t be individual synapses
which represent anything- but we guess we may as well ignore facts of
neuroscience as well!). Here is something, in this case a sentence in English, that
has only its present state and still represents the past: “Yesterday I bought
some fish.” Any theory of representation allows for representation of things
other than the present state of the representing vehicle (indeed that is why
representation is such a powerful tool).

Toward the end of his discussion Tallis cites Nagel’s
prominant work on why consciousness is such an unusual problem. Tallis
claims that Nagel is concerned with subjectivity of consciousness- in that one
might view a table as large and another person would see it as small when the
table is in fact 0.66m2. This is precisely not what Nagel is concerned with. Nagel is concerned with the
subjectivity of consciousness in a rather different sense. For Nagel, and
others working in consciousness studies, the problem is not individual
variation in judgements, but rather that all conscious experiences happen to/for someone. A table exists without someone to observe it, but this doesn’t seem to
be the case for consciousness. For something to ‘appear’ we would generally
think it has to appear to someone. Now this is
a serious issue and one that occupies a great number of philosophers. For
example, the work of Dennett (1991) and O’Brien and Opie (1999) can be understood as attempts
to make progress on this issue of subjectivity (and the other problems Nagel

Eventually Tallis does get toward something like a problem
Nagel raises. In particular he suggests that science has to leave behind the
appearance of things to get to their real nature. This is more like it! Finally
we are getting to one of Nagel’s concerns, albeit one which stands independent
of his concerns about subjectivity. But, unlike Nagel, Tallis offers no reason to
suppose this is true. Beyond this the example he offers of getting away from
colour to instead talk of colourless electromagnetic radiation seems fundamentally
confused. Electromagnetic radiation certainly causes colour experiences, but
when we see colours we don’t usually see light as coloured (rainbows and
theatre effects being cases where we do). Normally we see objects as coloured. If Tallis wants to use the example of colour
he ought to talk about the colourlessness of surfaces not of light. At any rate the biggest problem here is that Tallis
once again steadfastly ignores the decades of literature since Nagel first
raised his concerns which seek to solve the problem of leaving behind

To us it seems that Tallis’ has failed to properly represent
the literature and field of study he is commenting on. We sincerely hope that
no member of the public  is duped into believing
that the study of consciousness is a hopeless project or in the state of
amateurish disarray that Tallis would have us believe.

Glenn Carruthers

Laura May Bottrill


Cummins, R. (1989). Meaning and Mental
Representation, MIT Press.

Cummins, R.
(1996). Representations, Targets and Attitudes, MIT.

Dennett, D.
C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. New York, Penguin Books.

Dretske, F.
(1999). The Structure of Belief. Knowledge and the Flow of Information, CSLI

Fodor, J.
(1987). Psychosemantics: the problem of meaning in the philosophy of mind, MIT

Millikan, R.
(1994). Biosematics. Mental Representation. A Reader.(S. Stitch: 243-258.) Cambridge, Blackwell

O’Brien, G.
and Opie, J. (1999). A Connectionist Theory of Phenomenal Experience.
Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 22: 127-196.

O’Brien, G.
and Opie, J. (2000). Notes Toward a Structuralist Theory of Representation.
Representation in Mind: New approaches to Mental Representation.(H. Clapin, P.
Staines and P. Slezak, Greenwood Publishers

Palmer, S.
(1978). Fundamental Aspects of Cognitive Representation. Cognition and
Categorisation.(E. Rosch and B. Lloyd, Lawrence and Erlbaum

Vosgerau, G.
(2009). Mental representation and self consciousness: from basic
self-representation to self-related cognition, Mentis.




  1. I find the target article so bad it is almost not even worth responding to it, so I appreciate your attempt. It is worse than the crap that Egnor (creationist neurosurgeon) parrots about consciousness.

    I found the first point you pick on strange, and probably weakens your case rhetorically:
    In the first paragraph Tallis claims that ‘most’ researchers believe that consciousness will soon be explained in terms of brain activity.

    This just seems right as a sociological claim about scientists studying consciousness. People that fight it tend to be on the fringes of science. Usually philosophers.

    Plus, claims about representational theories of consciousness are not inconsistent with neuroscience explaining consciousness.

  2. Glenn Carruthers

    Eric you say “This just seems right as a sociological claim about scientists studying consciousness. People that fight it tend to be on the fringes of science. Usually philosophers.

    Plus, claims about representational theories of consciousness are not inconsistent with neuroscience explaining consciousness.”

    look fair enough, our problem with what Tallis said there was more that he made it sound like people assumed that consciousness would be explained by the firing of neurons without any account of the representational or computational work being done by them. Like you say there’s no inconsistency between representational and neural accounts (indeed some of the papers we cite would very much like to give us both simultaneously- eventually; also think of modern global workspace models from Stan Dehaene et al). Put another way; it looked to us like Tallis was attacking half of the position not all of it.

    hope that makes more sense now.

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