A New Take on Consciousness

I just started reading Out of Our Heads by Alva Noë. [1] Noë operates from the premise that consciousness is not merely a mental process that comes from the machinations of the brain. In a wonderfully insightful metaphor he states, “Consciousness is more like dancing than it is like digestion.”

Brain and environment

The idea that consciousness is a process of interaction between the brain and the environment is thought provoking. My musings about consciousness and matters of neuroscience frequently turn to trying to place my brother Michael in a light that would enable me to understand him. Mike hit the trifecta in terms of understandability. He is very low functioning, autistic and nonverbal.

Mike is aware of his environment. At his group home, he recognizes familiar staff members; he knows where the food is. He knows what it means when he and the rest of his housemates gather in the dining room at certain times of day. Mike is conscious in the sense that he interacts with his environment. However, it is impossible to tell what dance of consciousness he is dancing.


My brother has been a mystery to me as long as I have had consciousness. I have always wanted to know his mind; there have been times where I have doubted that he even had a mind. I have concluded that he indeed has one; it is an ‘other’ mind. Noë speaks to this topic:

“It can seem, then, that the closest we can come to knowing other minds, in a theoretical respectable way is having some account according to which behavior and neural activity provide criteria of a person’s psychological state.” [2]

Mike in striped shirt, cryingThe problem in understanding my brother, on more than a rudimentary level – meaning more than being able to predict that he will go to the kitchen and look for food if he is hungry, or go toward the bathroom (if we’re lucky) when he has to void himself – is the inability to apply reliable criteria that accounts for other more complex of behaviors, such as laughing, crying, slapping himself.

He does try to convey some of his desires. For instance, if he wants to go outside (presumably), he takes my arm and brings it to the door for me to open it. In this case, his psychological state seems clear: he has a desire to be out of doors. Others of his behaviors have clear antecedents. For example, if he is frustrated in attaining his desire, it is mostly predictable that he will slap himself or otherwise show his presumed frustration.

Breaking through?

How does one break through to be an acknowledged part of his environment? Is it possible? Perhaps it is possible to decode his reactions to his environment by scrupulously accounting for his actions in response to what happens around him. But exhaustive logging may not be successful, since we don’t even know how he experiences his environment. Is he sensitive to certain sound frequencies, smells? Is his underwear irritating him?

Furthermore, even if we are successful, we only have half of the conversation: we know his psychological state. Some scientists believe that a hallmark of severe autism is the inability to attribute psychological states to others. This condition is known as mind blindness. One way to think of this is to consider a ‘mind-blind’ Tarzan. He will never understand that Jane’s name is ‘Jane’, no matter how many times she points at him and says “You Tarzan,” then points at herself and says, “Me Jane.”

I am so grateful that Mike is in a group home where his professional caregivers maintain his environment and pay attention to his needs. This frees him up to dance with his environment in his own way.

[1] Noë, A. Out of Our Heads. New York: Hill and Wang 2009 print

[2] Ibid pg 30

7 thoughts on “A New Take on Consciousness

  1. Laughing and crying are really interesting examples of consciousness to cite. I caught the end of a very interesting programme on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday morning (9-9.30, The Life Scientific) in which a scientists was discussing laughter as the only genuinely universal and shared language. Autism wasn’t discussed on the programme but being human was, and it set me thinking about laughter as social communication and the absence of it (for the most part) in my autistic son. I am planning to write something based on the programme at some point! Thanks for another interesting reflection…

    • Laughing and crying are very interesting indeed. One would think that these are transitive verbs – laughing or crying about something. But my 5+ month old grandson was in the store with his mother the other day, she told us. He just started giggling for no reason at all. The listened and looked, but couldn’t identify any external stimulus. Maybe it was an internal thing that literally tickled him. But as you say… interesting to think about.

      I’m looking forward to your post!



  2. Have you tried to understand the world the way that your brother does? I know that question seems condescending, but it is not.

    To get a sense of what I mean, live a day where you depend on people to open the door, cook food, or turn on the tv. What is it like to live where you don’t understand the rudimentary parts of our lives that we take for granted. Try to spend a day communicating with nothing but noises and motions. See if you don’t want to slap yourself in frustration.

    The primary problem of communication is being able to communicate in a way that the other party understands. Have you approached this problem from the perspective that he is speaking a language that you don’t understand? That you are speaking one that he does not understand?

    I’m not claiming to know anything. I’m simply asking questions because the answers are most interesting to me. The way you describe him is much how I see my dog. I don’t mean that to sound derogatory, simply that the level of communication seems similar.

    My questions would be something like: is his frustration because he can’t understand or because he can’t communicate the ideas he is having? Can he show grattitude? Does he? Is there a hint of greater thought than he can communicate?

    I wonder is he trapped in a brain that won’t allow him to communicate?

    • Thank you for commenting. I don’t think of your questions as condescending. I’m glad you asked them.

      As you can imagine, I’ve thought quite a bit about these issues. To the best of my understanding, people like my brother, on the low-functioning end of the autism spectrum see the world as if they are the only occupant. Everything else in their universe is an extension of themselves. My brother knows how to negotiate through his world, and usually accomplishes his goals. Yes, he does slap and bite himself, perhaps out of frustration, an outlet for his emotional state, or it could be a complex Tourettic motor tic, as some docs have suggested.

      I was just now researching articles that discuss communication issues with profoundly retarded autistic people. Most of them discuss language acquisition in those individuals who are educable, so I haven’t had any luck with the scientific literature thus far.

      In terms of communicating with him in his own ‘language’, if he has one, the question is, how does one do that? We can imitate noises he makes, count with him, clap hands rhythmically… my parents tried all this for years. Is his internal language knowable? Does he even have internal language? That is the question we in the family have struggled with throughout his whole life. Perhaps it is on some level beyond our capability to sense or integrate.

      As far as I can tell, my brother gets what he needs through the people who care for him every day. I don’t see him as trapped. Frankly, I have no idea if he has thoughts above the basics – food, water, bathroom.

      I have seen in retrospect, through looking at the photos of him I’ve taken, that he does have emotional states of mind. But I think they are related to his own inner state of mind that is inaccessible to anyone else.

      Thanks again for your comment. I hope I shed some light on your questions.

      • You have shed some light… my curiosity is much deeper. I don’t think that his inner emotional states are inaccessible.. he shows them to you but perhaps in a way that you do not understand. I see this problem with animals in general. To know how a dog feels you have to communicate at their level.

        My thoughts here are that your brother can only communicate at the same sort of level. He can tell you he wants to go outside or eat etc. He is probably trying to tell you more but you and the doctors can’t understand it because of a communication failure.

        I do not believe that any mind does not communicate. We only have to be able to communicate with that mind… it’s our job, not the other being’s. We have the ability to adapt.

        I’m willing to bet that your brother does have thoughts above what you have perceived. He has likes and dislikes. He has moments of enjoyment and moments of frustration. I’m willing to bet he has moments of contentment and idle happiness.

        When I say trapped in a brain that can’t communicate, I do not mean he is like you and I but can’t express it… I mean he is sentient and has a brain that does not work like yours and mine. He is different.. not a failure. Even you and I do not function exactly the same.

        Does he respond to touch? To emotions?

        • I didn’t say he was a failure. What I am saying is that whatever his states of mind may be, they are inaccessible to me. I know he has emotional states but no idea what triggers them most of the time. I do agree with what some autism researchers hypothesize, namely autistic people at the lower end of the spectrum do not have a theory of mind, namely, they can’t imagine that anything in their world has a separate consciousness.
          Check out ‘autistic aloneness’ as defined by Bleuler and characteristics of autistics as characterized by Leo Kanner and others.

        • Didn’t mean to put you off, myatheistlife. Communication with my brother is a big issue for me. In many of my posts I mention that when people interact with people like my brother, they tend to overlay their own sensibilities on him. This is something I resist doing so that I can try understanding him on his terms, whatever that may be, without inserting my idea of what he is thinking. I try to observe scrupulously.

          Each and every person functions in a different way. However, the common denominator is language or some other means of exhibiting one’s state of mind. People in conversation continually check to see if they understand what the other means. Absent that, there is no way to know 1) if one get’s his or her point across or 2) if one understands the other’s point properly. There is none of this with my brother.

          Perhaps my approach is not valid, but I can’t see how imposing my view on what my brother’s state of mind is, without verification from him, is any more valid. I think it is less valid, in fact.

          At any rate, do read some more of my posts about communication. Perhaps they will clarify more about my thinking.

          Thanks for reading!


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