Spatial Awareness and Fringe Consciousness

Document Type: 
ASSC Conference Item
Article Type: 
Theory of Consciousness
Date of Issue: 
Murray Shanahan
Event Dates: 
23-26 Jun 2006
Event Location: 
Oxford, UK
Event Title: 
10th annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness
Event Type: 
ASSC Conference
Presentation Type: 
Number of Pages: 
This poster outlines an account of conscious spatial awareness, based on global workspace theory, but also drawing on the hypothesis that conscious content has a focus-fringe structure, according to which fringe consciousness carries hints of material that can be brought into focal consciousness if required. The main challenge is to explain the fact that our conscious awareness of space seems to encompass regions we cannot immediately see or touch, such as the street around the next corner or the back of an object on our desk. We don’t, of course, perceive these regions of space directly, but we are aware that they’re out there, and we know something of the possibilities for action they afford (the relevant “sensorimotor contingencies”). According to the present paper, accompanying the focal awareness of a consciously perceived surface there is always a fringe-borne awareness of the sensorimotor possibilities afforded by the three-dimensional configuration of objects to which that surface belongs. To accommodate such a notion within global workspace theory, the contents of the fringe must, like the contents of focal consciousness, be broadcast. So the question arises of how a whole set of hints of potential sensorimotor trajectories might be encoded and disseminated. One possible answer appeals to the idea of encoding spatial structure in time. Instead of simultaneously broadcasting a set of spatially organised features (the different facets of a solid object, say), spatial features are broadcast one at a time in rapid series (facet A, facet B, facet C, and so on), with each transition from feature x to feature y accompanied by an echo of the motor activity that would lead from the perception of x to the perception of y (such as turning an object in the fingers). When conjoined with a mechanism for simulating interaction with the environment by means of an internally closed sensorimotor loop (Shanahan, 2006), this temporal encoding of the fringe (which is reminiscent of certain proposals for solving the binding problem) may also explain the “systematicity” of conscious thought, that is to say the capacity for its elements to be assembled in arbitrary combinations.
ASSC_10_Poster.pdf1.2 MB