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Baseline Consciousness

Essentially, baseline consciousness (also known as basal consciousness and core consciousness) refers to a state of consciousness characterized by a lack of conscious content. More specifically, baseline consciousness involves 1) not thinking about nor paying attention to anything in particular, and 2) not being engaged in any particular motor actions. In other words, baseline consciousness is that state of consciousness you experience when you are sitting (or standing) still, and not really focusing on anything or thinking too hard. If you take a moment right now to consider the contents of your consciousness, you can very easily get a feel for what baseline consciousness is by now imagining your conscious state, without the content.

Why is baseline consciousness important and why should the neuroscience community be paying more attention to it? Precisely because the neural activity associated with baseline consciousness is the neural correlate of consciousness (NCC) that we should be looking for. A lesson easily learned from physics is that you need to simplify problems in order to solve them. You do not start out investigating the dynamics of ten gravitational objects interacting with each other in order to infer the inverse square law of gravitation. Instead, you start out by investigating the dynamics of just two interacting bodies. In a similar manner, we will not solve the relation between mind and brain if we investigate neural activity underlying consciousness in subjects performing various cognitive tasks or binocular rivalry experiments. The relation between mind and brain will be solved by first determining the relation between neural activity and baseline consciousness. Since baseline consciousness can be easily induced in non-human primates, this opens up the door for invasive procedures and methods that give us much better resolution of neuronal activity than the non-invasive methods of fMRI and PET. Nonetheless, fMRI and PET will be useful for determining the likely neural activity associated with baseline consciousness in humans.

For further reading on the subject of baseline consciousness, I would recommend Searle's 2000 article in Annual Reviews of Neuroscience entitled 'Consciousness'. Here is an excerpt:

The research program that is implicit in the hypothesis of unified field consciousness is that at some point we need to investigate the general condition of the conscious brain as opposed to the condition of the unconscious brain. We will not explain the general phenomenon of unified qualitative subjectivity by looking for specific local NCCs. The important question is not what the NCC for visual consciousness is, but how does the visual system introduce visual experiences into an already unified conscious field, and how does the brain create that unified conscious field in the first place.


So what we have to look for is some massive activity of the brain capable of producing a unified holistic conscious experience. For reasons that we now know from lesion studies, we are unlikely to find this as a global property of the brain, and we have very good reason to believe that activity in the thalamocortical system is probably the place to look for unified field consciousness. The working hypothesis would be that consciousness is in large part localized in the thalamocortical system and that the various other systems feed information to the thalamocortical system that produces modifications corresponding to the various sensory modalities.

To put it simply, I do not believe we will find visual consciousness in the visual system and auditory consciousness in the auditory system. We will find a single, unified, conscious field containing visual, auditory, and other aspects.


Instead of thinking of my current state of consciousness as made up of the various bits—the perception of the computer screen, the sound of the brook outside, the shadows cast by the evening sun falling on the wall—we should think of all of these as modifications, forms that the underlying basal conscious field takes after my peripheral nerve endings have been assaulted by the various external stimuli. The research implication of this is that we should look for consciousness as a feature of the brain emerging from the activities of large masses of neurons, and which cannot be explained by the activities of individual neurons.


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