A theory of the evolution of consciousness

In a recent article (citation below) Vandekerckhove, Bulnes and Panksepp put forward a theory of how consciousness has changed with the evolution of the brain. They envisage three types or stages of awareness: anoetic (without knowledge), noetic (with knowledge), and autonoetic (with meta-knowledge). The theory has each type building on the previous, both during evolution and during childhood development. They even postulate that the process may go backwards during the deepening of dementia.

Looking at each stage:

Anoetic: awake with a flow of awareness of here and now (not past and future), of the self (core self) in the world with phenomenal quality (qualia) of multimodal sensory-perceptional and body experiences, and affective feeling (emotional and homeostatic). It depends on subcortical neural networks, thalamic sensory relay nuclei, basal ganglia, and especially, midline mesencephalic and diencephalic attentional and affective systems .

Noetic: added to the anoetic flow is semantic memory (but not necessarily using language) and learning. This gives knowledge (implicit and explicit) of specific facts about the self and the world, including facts about the past (but not the feeling of being in the past). It depends on basal ganglia (amygdala, nucleus accumbers etc.), the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, temporal lobes.

Autonoetic: added to noetic awareness is episodic memory and the ability to deal with thoughts, images, fantasies, expectations, memories in ‘the mind’s eye’ and to be aware of one’s awareness. The memory is explicit and in context. The self is biographical. Introspection is possible. It depends on most of the cortex.

I like the idea of the progressive change in consciousness with the evolution of the brain but I have great difficulty with the divisions. It seems to me that there are no postulated mechanisms here. For example, how do we form a semantic memory? I have always pictured this as a by-product of the episodic memory. As episodes pile up illustrating a particular ‘fact’ of the world, this can become a prediction that is separately ‘indexed’ from the episodes that gave rise to it. But without episodes and without semantic-type symbols, how is a factual memory formed? It is in essence an inductive process of forming predictive rules on the basis of experience – so you need the experiences and those are events, the sort that are stored in episodic memory. So, I do not find the problem has been ‘cut at the joints’, but it is such a nice start at studying the evolution of consciousness.

The abstract:

Based on an interdisciplinary perspective, we discuss how primary-process, anoetic forms of consciousness emerge into higher forms of awareness such as knowledge-based episodic knowing and self-aware forms of higher-order consciousness like autonoetic awareness. Anoetic consciousness is defined as the rudimentary state of affective, homeostatic, and sensory-perceptual mental experiences. It can be considered as the autonomic flow of primary-process phenomenal experiences that reflects a fundamental form of first-person “self-experience,” a vastly underestimated primary form of phenomenal consciousness. We argue that this anoetic form of evolutionarily refined consciousness

constitutes a critical antecedent that is foundational for all forms of knowledge acquisition via learning and memory, giving rise to a knowledge-based, or noetic, consciousness as well as higher forms of “awareness” or “knowing consciousness” that permits “time- travel” in the brain-mind. We summarize the conceptual advantages of such a multi-tiered neuroevolutionary approach to psychological issues, namely from genetically controlled primary (affective) and secondary (learning and memory), to higher tertiary (developmentally emergent) brain-mind processes, along with suggestions about how affective experiences become more cognitive and object-oriented, allowing the developmental creation of more subtle higher mental processes such as episodic memory which allows the possibility of autonoetic consciousness, namely looking forward and backward at one’s life and its possibilities within the “mind’s eye.”


M. Vandekerckhove, L.C. Bulnes, & J. Panksepp (2014). The emergence of primary anoetic consciousness in episodic memory Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 7 : 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00210

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