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What are Theatre Models of Consciousness?

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What are Theatre Models of Consciousness? How do they help explain the phenomenon of consciousness?

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"Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved" (Sutherland, 1989). Indeed consciousness is an extremely intractable problem. One way in which consciousness has been explained is using the metaphor of a 'theatre'.

Theatre metaphors have been useful throughout science "as tools to help us make the leap from the known to the unknown" (Baars, 1997). For example the clockwork metaphor of the solar system has helped astronomers in the 16th Century understand the planets and visualizing the atom as a tiny solar system is undeniably a helpful starting point for understanding subatomic structure. But just how useful is the theatre metaphor in explaining consciousness today?

Baars (1997) suggests that "the theatre concept helps us to think about brain functioning in an interesting way". Obviously they must be used with caution and care and are always partly wrong, however according to writers such as Baars they provide the best starting point we can find.

If the theatre concept is a good starting point then can the model adequately explain the whole phenomenon of consciousness? Surely it can only provide us with a starting point upon which to build our understanding? If the concept is only basic then how can it even attempt to explain the 'Hard problem'? (Chalmers, 1995). These are key questions that will be addressed when evaluating theatre models of consciousness.

A theatre model suggests that consciousness is the publicity organ of the brain, a facility for accessing, disseminating and exchanging information. The theatre combines limited events taking place on the stage with a vast audience. The concept was further described by Francis Crick (1993) as containing a spotlight, "outside the 'spotlight' of visual attention is processed less, or differently, or not at all."

The theatre model has been suggested by a wide variety of researchers included cognitive and brain scientists. One of the foremost models is the 'Cartesian Theatre'. This is a metaphorical picture of how conscious experience must sit in the brain. Events are organized into two categories "not yet observed" and "already observed".

The Cartesian theatre assumes that conscious experience comes together at a single point in the brain. This is reminisant of Descartes in that he thought consciousness might be located within the pineal gland in the brain, and in the theatre we observe ourselves as the observer.

This model has however been severely criticized on many levels. Minsky (1985) found a logical difficulty when using the model to try and explain the conscious phenomenon involving very short interviews. He found that it was unclear which short interview result fixes subjective sequence in consciousness.

Dennett takes an ant dualistic approach has identified a major problem in the fact that when the brain is investigated there is nothing there to suggest any kind of theatre or a central point. However the response to this critique ...

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