The Conscious Brain: How Attention Engenders Experience

The Conscious Brain: How Attention Engenders Experience

The Conscious Brain: How Attention Engenders Experience

The Conscious Brain: How Attention Engenders Experience


The problem of consciousness continues to be a subject of great debate in cognitive science. Synthesizing decades of research,The Conscious Brainadvances a new theory of the psychological and neurophysiological correlates of conscious experience.

Prinz's account of consciousness makes two main claims: first consciousness always arises at a particular stage of perceptual processing, the intermediate level, and, second, consciousness depends on attention. Attention changes the flow of information allowing perceptual information to access memory systems. Neurobiologically, this change in flow depends on synchronized neural firing. Neural synchrony is also implicated in the unity of consciousness and in the temporal duration of experience.

Prinz also explores the limits of consciousness. We have no direct experience of our thoughts, no experience of motor commands, and no experience of a conscious self. All consciousness is perceptual, and it functions to make perceptual information available to systems that allows for flexible behavior.

Prinz concludes by discussing prevailing philosophical puzzles. He provides a neuroscientifically grounded response to the leading argument for dualism, and argues that materialists need not choose between functional and neurobiological approaches, but can instead combine these into neurofunctional response to the mind-body problem.

The Conscious Brainbrings neuroscientific evidence to bear on enduring philosophical questions, while also surveying, challenging, and extending philosophical and scientific theories of consciousness. All readers interested in the nature of consciousness will find Prinz's work of great interest.


Much of this book was written while sitting in my house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There, gray squirrels regularly scurry across my balcony, hoping to receive a nut. I’ve reinforced this behavior by feeding them regularly, and now, squirrels peer inside all day when I am there, clinging to the screen door and following me as I move about in the house. They seem to be attending to my every move, and when I toss a few nuts out, they bound off looking for them, retaining the knowledge that there are nuts to be found in working memory. If consciousness could be inferred from behavior, it would be obvious that these little creatures experience the world around them. But, famously, no such inference is possible. Consciousness cannot be read off of behavior. To know whether another creature is conscious, we must first figure out what mechanisms produce consciousness in us. In the chapters that follow, I will not address the question about squirrels, but I’ll try to offer an answer to the question on which it hangs: what is the source of consciousness in human beings?

I began thinking about this question in the 1990s, when consciousness studies came of age. Two important things happened then. First, a number of neuroscientists, spearheaded by Francis Crick and Christof Koch, began actively searching for correlates of consciousness in the brain. Second, David Chalmers crystallized and enhanced the major philosophical arguments against the possibility of reducing consciousness to something functional or physical. Thus, two poles emerged: those who sought a scientifically informed reduction of consciousness and those who thought such an enterprise was impossible. I am so constitutionally attracted toward the first of these poles that I see the second on a par with skeptical challenges. It’s true that consciousness might not be part of the physical world, but that is a possibility that we can usually ignore. Since the 1990s, the psychological and biological processes associated with consciousness have been exposed in sumptuous detail. The reductive program is clearly a fertile one, and questions about nonphysical remainders can be postponed until the details are in—a strategy I follow here. The details do not render the dualist challenge inert but help to show that there are many important questions about consciousness that can be answered, and they even help explain why dualism has so much appeal.

Chalmers called his defense of dualism The Conscious Mind. The Conscious Brain is intended not as an antidote but rather as a celebration of the explosion in consciousness studies that Chalmers helped to bring about. Where he sought to synthesize two decades of dualist argumentation, I try here to synthesize two . . .

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