Stanislas Dehaene: Global Neuronal Workspace Hypothesis

We have discovered signatures of conscious processing, but what do they mean? Why do they occur? We have reached the point where we need a theory to explain how subjective introspection relates to objective measurements.

–  Stanislas Dehaene,  Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts

When did reality leave off and fiction begin? I never did get the memo on that. Maybe that’s the problem with us all, if it is a problem – no one ever told us it had happened, or if they had it was somehow lost in translation long ago. So it goes. T.S. Eliot once stipulated that people couldn’t bare “too much reality”, but he never told us that there might be a further problem, the one I’m facing now: it’s not reality, but too much fiction that has become the issue. I mean we keep getting messages from the media Moghuls about Reality TV. Sure, but whose reality? I keep thinking that reality must be in there somewhere: but where is where? Is this a problem of space or time, or maybe – spacetime? I never could get those figured out either.

What to do? There are those that tell us we need to inquire into the nature of being – as if that was somehow the magic key to reality, as if we could finally discover the truth about life, the universe, and everything if we could only grasp existence as it is (i.e., in the parlance of metaphysics: being qua being – being in so much as it is being or beings insofar as they exist). But then I wondered: What does it mean for a thing to exist? That’s when I stopped thinking about things and existence and realized we’d never have access to such knowledge about things and existence for the simple reason that language is incapable of reaching beyond itself much less describing things or existence, whether that language is natural or as latter day philosophers and scientists presume, mathematical. All one is doing is manipulating signs that point to things and existence, rather than giving us those things as they are in them selves. But that was the point, right? There are those who say things do not exist until we construct them, that reality is a model that the mind constructs out of its own manipulation of those very symbols of natural and mathematical language. These philosophers tell us that there is a mid point between things and mind where reality becomes reality for-us in a new object, or concept. For these philosophers it is the concept that ties the mind and reality together in a communicative act of solidarity. So that if we create effective concepts we can all share in the truth of this reality for-us. So reality is a shared realm of meaning between certain minds as they negotiate the unknown realm of being.

Now I’m no philosopher but am a creature who has read a lot of philosophy and have come to the moment like Socrates before me to the realization that what I know is that I don’t know much of anything. But what is the knowing and unknowing that I don’t know? When we speak of knowing something what do we mean? What is knowing? I thought for this exercise I’d begin a Wiki:

Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning. Knowledge can refer to a theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. It can be implicit (as with practical skill or expertise) or explicit (as with the theoretical understanding of a subject); it can be more or less formal or systematic. In philosophy, the study of knowledge is called epistemology; the philosopher Plato famously defined knowledge as “justified true belief“. However, no single agreed upon definition of knowledge exists, though there are numerous theories to explain it.

Knowledge acquisition involves complex cognitive processes: perception, communication, association and reasoning; while knowledge is also said to be related to the capacity of acknowledgment in human beings. (Knowledge)

Well that’s a lot of information on knowledge and ultimately frustrating in that we discover that no one really knows what it is, or at least there is no agreement among those who should know as to what knowledge is. Yet, as we see above it gives us some hints. And, the biggest hint, is that it seems to be connected to the Mind or as that one sentence stipulates: the cognitive processes. This would lead us to that three-pound lump of neurons and biochemical mass in our skull we call the Brain. But, we ask: Can the brain speak for itself? How can we inquire into the nature of the brain and its processes when the very tool we use to inquire with is itself the cognitive processes of consciousness. Can consciousness grab its own tail? Can it see its self in the act of seeing? Isn’t consciousness by its very nature always directed toward something, intentional by its very nature? If it can only ever process that which is outside itself, its environment then how can it ever understand or know itself? Consciousness is no ouroboros  even if we speak about self-reflexivity to doomsday.

In my epigraph Stanislas Dehaene comes to a point in his brain book in which our need to peer into the mysteries of the brain and bring together our self-reflexive subjective notions and our objective and quantified scientific knowledge. But isn’t that the crux of the problem? Can we ever bring those disparate worlds together? Of course Dehaene thinks we can, and has spent fifteen years inventing through trial and error a set of protocols to do just that. As he tells us he proposes a “global neuronal workspace” hypothesis, my laboratory’s fifteen-year effort to make sense of consciousness.1 Now just what exactly is a “global neuronal workspace”? In my mind I picture a Rube Goldberg contraption of strange electrodes, miles of cable, computers emulating the brain’s processes all in some fantastic Frankenstein laboratory with a brain in a vat connected to electromagnetic imaging processor spun upon a cinematic 3-D Screen. Of course this is all fantasy and the truth is more concrete and less fantasy:

The human brain has developed efficient long-distance networks, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, to select relevant information and disseminate it throughout the brain. Consciousness is an evolved device that allows us to attend to a piece of information and keep it active within this broadcasting system. Once the information is conscious, it can be flexibly routed to other areas according to our current goals. Thus we can name it, evaluate it, memorize it, or use it to plan the future. Computer simulations of neural networks show that the global neuronal workspace hypothesis generates precisely the signatures that we see in experimental brain recordings. It can also explain why vast amounts of knowledge remain inaccessible to our consciousness. (Dehane, KL 2711-2716)

Ah, there we go, so that’s the reason we as Socrates told us we are: Blind as Bats, unknowing of the little we know, or even think that we know. Why? Because our brains function differently than that, and knowledge is not one of its strong points – at least for that part of the brain we call self-reflexive consciousness. We do not have access to “vast amounts of knowledge”, not because the knowledge does not exist, but because our consciousness was configured by the brain to do other things like being attentive to specific temporary bits of information, and as a regulatory device within a larger broadcasting system. One needs also to recognize that there is a subtle difference between knowledge per se and information. Consciousness has access to bits of information fed to it by other processes within the brain. Now Dehaene tries to bring in intentionality with a notion of “current goals” and our ability to “name it, evaluate it, memorize it, or use it to plan the future”. But is this true? Do we truly have goals? Or do the goals have us? What I mean is consciousness the one that has intent or a telos – a sense of directional or goal oriented finality? Is this true? Does consciousness actually have the ability to name, evaluate, memorize for future recall and use? Or is this, too, an illusion of consciousness, too?

We’ve come a long way over the past fifteen years or so toward an understanding of the brain, but have we truly been able to bridge the gap between our knowledge of the brain’s processes and our understanding of just why those processes create consciousness to begin with? As Dehaene comments: “Although neuroscience has identified many empirical correspondences between brain activity and mental life, the conceptual chasm between brain and mind seems as broad as it ever was.” The first thing I notice in his statement is this dichotomy between brain activity and mental life as if brain and mind were two distinct things. But is this true? Is there some dualism between brain and mind? Does the mind in itself exist in some transcendent sphere beyond the brain? How are the two connected? Does the mind even exist? Is this notion of a separate mental activity an illusion of our self-reflexive consciousness? What if consciousness is continuous with the brain activities? What if it were just a specialized function of the brain itself, not some special entity in its own right? What if we are still bound to older theological notions of Self, Identify, Consciousness, Mind, Soul, etc. that just no longer hold water, no longer answer the questions of these physical processes? What if the physical processes of the brain were all continuous with each other and that consciousness is just a function within a myriad of other ongoing processes that are neither permanent nor stable, but rather continuously rise and fall, fluctuate and disperse as needed in the flow of the brains own ongoing activities. Why this need for a dualism of Brain and Mind?

Deheane himself sees the problem but seems to continue its discussion as if he too were blind to its illusion:

In the absence of an explicit theory, the contemporary search for the neural correlates of consciousness may seem as vain as Descartes’s ancient proposal that the pineal gland is the seat of the soul. This hypothesis seems deficient because it upholds the very division that a theory of consciousness is supposed to resolve: the intuitive idea that the neural and the mental belong to entirely different realms. The mere observation of a systematic relationship between these two domains cannot suffice. What is required is an overarching theoretical framework, a set of bridging laws that thoroughly explain how mental events relate to brain activity patterns.

Neural correlates tips the hand. With that one statement we fall back into a dualistic or Descartian approach. But as he realizes this approach to consciousness constructs a division between the two realms of brain and consciousness as if the neural processes and mental processes were of a different order of being. Yet, he proposes a framework, a set of bridging laws to “explain how mental events relate to brain activity patterns”. Hmm… isn’t this still to fall into that same trap? All he’s done is to rearrange the words from neural and mental, to events and patterns. But why do we need such a framework to begin with? Is there really some difference between a pattern and its event? Are not the two one and the same, continuous. Is there are reason to see a separation where none may in fact exist? He goes on – and, I think mistakenly:

No experiment will ever show how the hundred billion neurons in the human brain fire at the moment of conscious perception. Only mathematical theory can explain how the mental reduces to the neural. Neuroscience needs a series of bridging laws, analogous to the Maxwell-Boltzmann theory of gases, that connect one domain with the other. … In spite of these difficulties , in the past fifteen years , my colleagues Jean-Pierre Changeux, Lionel Naccache, and I have started to bridge the gap. We have sketched a specific theory of consciousness, the “global neuronal workspace,” that is the condensed synthesis of sixty years of psychological modeling.(Kindle Locations 2743-2745).

I think his approach, personally, is all wrong headed. I do not think any computer model or mathematical model will ever bridge the gap between the one domain and the other for the simple reason that there is no separate domain to bridge. I’ll have to come back to that at a future time. My reasoning has to do with all the new techniques already available that are being used to study the brain’s activities with much effect: Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), Electronic brain stimulation (ESB), Brain Implants, Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS), Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), Magnetic seizure therapy (MST), and psychotherapy, pharmaceutical and biopower medical applications, etc. Through these we can map the brains activity precisely right down to the decision making processes. So why do we need some grand theoretical framework to describe some mapping of brain to mind? Is this a recursion to outmoded forms of philosophical prejudice and the intentionality that has for so long held us in its clutches? Isn’t it time to release ourselves from the intentional universe of philosophical speculation, of trying the mind to consciousness in some elaborate mapping as if that would describe anything at all much rather just an exercise in complexification?

I mean listen to how complicated it gets when Deheane begins trying to philosophize about this new framework:

When we say that we are aware of a certain piece of information, what we mean is just this: the information has entered into a specific storage area that makes it available to the rest of the brain. Among the millions of mental representations that constantly crisscross our brains in an unconscious manner, one is selected because of its relevance to our present goals. Consciousness makes it globally available to all our high-level decision systems. We possess a mental router, an evolved architecture for extracting relevant information and dispatching it. The psychologist Bernard Baars calls it a “global workspace”: an internal system, detached from the outside world, that allows us to freely entertain our private mental images and to spread them across the mind’s vast array of specialized processors. (Kindle Locations 2749-2755).

If we carefully understand the logic of the above we see this underlying intentionality written into its less than adequate descriptions. First is the notion that we can “mean” something. As if we can explain information bound to a specific storage area in the brain that then can be retrieved. None of this is actually visible nor explanatory of the actual processes at all, but is rather a human description or construction after the fact of those processes for our delectation. Obviously we have no other choice than to use natural language and try to explain things that are not in fact what the fact is, but for us to say this is what information means? And then he tells us that this information stored is part of what we term mental representations and that consciousness is never aware of all these bits of knowledge and information but only of those that are selected do the “relevance to our present goals”. But one asks who intends the selection and the goalsfollowing Bernard Baars, terms, the “global workspace”. So the conscious systems seems to be this “s vast array of specialized processors”. This sentence spells out the whole intentional fallacy. As if consciousness was a free intentional entity in its own right that could actively and intentionally make its own decisions between the brain and the outside environment and work with its own internalized set of mental images then send them down into the brain for processing.

Again, I ask, is this true? Sounds like he is trying to slip the notion of Self and Subjectivity back into the equation without naming them as the active agent, but instead reduces self and subjectivity to Consciousness as the Agent between Brain and Environment.  Either way I think there is something too complex in this move and that whatever consciousness is it is not some active agent in its own right, but is rather a bit player in a temporary stage play of the brains ongoing productions. Consciousness rather than being like some unruly Hamlet strutting across the stage is more like his friend Horatio who know one ever sees but who rather sees all anonymously without intent and always fully impersonal and disinterested. Consciousness comes and goes at the behest of the brains own physical needs and processes, and when not needed is sent to sleep or withdraws till called out to effect the brains decisions.


1. Dehaene, Stanislas (2014-01-30). Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts (Kindle Location 2710). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

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