This is a continuation of posts on Morsella’s passive frame theory of consciousness.
Content is generated by modules that have input from bottom-up sensory paths, and from top-down paths. The generators are sensitive to context – a picture of a snake and a real snake are different. And they are unconscious – we cannot unsee a visual illusion even if we have knowledge of the real presentation.
The contents enter consciousness in an automatic manner. They are pushed in unconsciously not pulled in consciously – they just seem to happen, to ‘pop up’. The contents are under the control of unconscious associations – a word presented as a purely visual stimulus can be a phonetic representation in consciousness.
As well as sensory content generators, there are generators of action-related urges. Morsella uses the example: “when one holds one’s breath while underwater, or runs barefoot across the hot desert sand in order to reach water, one cannot help but consciously experience the inclinations to inhale or to avoid touching the hot sand, respectively. Regardless of the adaptiveness of the expressed actions, the conscious strife triggered by the external stimuli cannot be turned off voluntarily.”
Thus the sensory presentation and the urges are generated in a way that is insulated or encapsulated from voluntary control. “Thus, although inclinations triggered by external stimuli can be behaviorally suppressed, they often cannot be mentally suppressed. One can think of many cases in which externally triggered conscious contents are more difficult to control than is overt behavior.”
The contents of consciousness are independent of one another whether they are memories, stimuli from the environment are whatever, and this is adaptive. Cross contamination would interfere with successful behavior. The safer influence by context-sensitivity is unconscious, not the result of a conscious whim. This is an important point of difference with some other theories. “This view stands in contrast to several influential theoretical frameworks in which both the activation of, and nature of, conscious contents are influenced by what can be regarded as over-arching goals or current task demands. Because of the principle of encapsulation, conscious contents cannot influence each other either at the same time nor across time, which counters the everyday notion that one conscious thought can lead to another conscious thought. In the present framework, not only do contents not influence each other in the conscious field, but as Merker concludes, content generators cannot communicate the content they generate to another content generator. For example, the generator charged with generating the color orange cannot communicate ‘orange’ to any other content generator, for only this generator (a perceptual module) can, in a sense, understand and instantiate ‘orange.’ Hence, if the module charged with a particular content is compromised, that content is gone from the conscious field and no other module can ‘step in’ to supplant that content. As Merker notes, in constructing the conscious field, modules can send, not messages with content, but only ‘activation’ to each other. This activation, in turn, influences whether the receiver module will generate, not the kind of content generated by the module from which it received activation, but rather its own kind of content (e.g., a sound). Because messages of content cannot be transmitted to other content generators, the neural correlates of the content for X must include activation of the module that generates X, for a content cannot be segregated from the process by which it was engendered, as stated above.” Thus it seems that the contents of consciousness are not marshalled onto a stage or theatre but rather a network is formed connecting the original generators or modules.
The mosiac of independent content is discontinuous and arises in each conscious moment which quickly follow one another. What is watching this content? The passive frame theory says: “ “Importantly, the collective influence of the combination of contents in the conscious field is not toward the conscious field itself; instead … the conscious field is apprehended by the (unconscious) mechanisms comprising the skeletomotor output system. Thus, the conscious contents of blue, red, a smell, or the urge to blink are the tokens of a mysterious language understood, not by consciousness itself (nor by the physical world), but by the unconscious action mechanisms of skeletomotor output system. Why do things appear the way they do in the field? Because, in order to benefit action selection, they must differentiate themselves from all other tokens of the field—across various modalities/systems but within the same decision space.”
I have to add that this may indeed be the original evolutionary reason for consciousness and it may be the over-riding determinant of the mechanisms involved. However, it seems to me that having created a moment of consciousness the brain is loath to throw it away. It is somehow saved and used to form an episodic memory.