On Consciousness & the Brain with Bernard Baars
Ep 16: ”Global Workspace Theory: Exploring Origins and Evidence - Part One”
"One of the major features of the Global Workspace hypothesis began with limited capacity, that there has to be a compensatory event in the brain happening, and the most plausible one, for various reasons, including other people's work, of course, was that there's some kind of very wide recruitment of brain resources that happens as a function of becoming conscious of something."
– Dr. Bernard Baars, originator of Global Workspace Theory and Global Workspace Dynamics, a theory of human cognitive architecture, the cortex and consciousness.“Global Workspace Theory: Exploring Origins and Evidence - Part 1” with Ilian Daskalov & Alea Skwara
In episode 16 of the Podcast On Consciousness, psychobiologist and author Bernard Baars, and Student Interviewers Alea Skwara, a PhD candidate at UC Davis and Ilian Daskalov, a senior undergrad student at UC Irvine unpack the origins and various components of Baars’ Global Workspace Theory (GWT), a theory of human cognitive architecture, the cortex, and consciousness. GWT is a widely used framework for the role of conscious and unconscious events in the functioning of the brain, a set of explicit assumptions that can be tested, as many of them have been in the last twenty years. Global Workspace Dynamics (GWD) is the most current version of GWT – attempting to take into account the complexities of the living brain.
Bernie opens the conversation with the point that consciousness has largely been perceived as a passive state. When scientists initially started recording brain activity, the collection of brain regions which were active in the absence of a given task were considered to be “the brain’s metabolic baseline.” This notion, however, has received plenty of pushback in recent years, and this baseline is now regarded as an active cognitive task.
In an effort to get everyone on the same page, Ilian asks Bernie to define consciousness for the listeners. By using a metaphorical comparison to Galileo and his thermometer, Baars indicates that our current science is only able to give us an “operational definition,” which may differ from what consciousness actually is. In addition, by reiterating one of Baars’ metaphors, Alea explains that awareness is like a shining spotlight in a theater, while the unilluminated part of the stage, which is the majority of it, is where all the unconscious processes occur.
Origins of Global Workspace Theory
Ilian asks Bernie about the origins of Global Workspace Theory, and what inspired his thought process.
Bernie shares his story on how he became interested in studying consciousness, which was initially ignited by the limitations of strictly behavioristic views imposed upon the scientific thinking of the time. Additionally, by exploring altered states of consciousness through the practice of transcendental meditation and inspired by the field of artificial intelligence, Bernie began to formulate a model to explain the nature of awareness. The key to any scientific concept is “relative evidence.” Without that we simply get lost. And the history of speculation about consciousness is mostly about people getting lost, arguing about semantic questions and frankly wasting time. What we want, in fact, is to study nature through facts. Baars has argued that “contrastive evidence” involves the most relevant set of facts, such as sleep and waking states.
The Bottleneck Paradox: Exploring the Limited Capacity of Consciousness
Diving further into the various characteristics of Global Workspace and the questions which the theory attempts to answer, Bernie and Alea examine one of its most notable features, namely Limited Capacity, or the process of being aware of only a small percentage of what is happening in one’s mind. Limited capacity appears to be a genuine feature of the brain that continues to be a paradox. In the history of science, puzzles like this are the hardest fundamental questions to solve.
Building on this topic, they also incorporate the subject of parallel integrated computing, which describes how a number of processors simultaneously tackle the same problem in order to reach the most optimal solution.
Global Access, Integration, and Some Clarifications
The discussion then moves on to the core prediction of GWT, which is “widespread integration and broadcasting.” Bernie uses the example of a chirping bird to explain that integration is the process of sound traveling to both ears at slightly different times, all the while being perceived as one.
Furthermore, Alea summarizes the broadcasting aspect of Global Workspace as the ability to “hyper focus on a narrow piece of experience.”
In the final segment of the episode, Ilian and Bernie discuss some of the common misconceptions about Global Workspace Theory. Referring to the analogy of a traffic jam’s changing epicenter, Baars explains that the Global Workspace is a dynamic hub in the brain - and not static - as commonly thought.
In Episode 17 - Part 2 of our series on GWT, Bernie, Ilian, and Alea will explore the links between cutting edge brain evidence and how that supports or updates our understanding of consciousness and the Global Workspace Theory. They will begin with Bernie’s co-authored paper from 2013 -- “Global Workspace Dynamics: Cortical “binding and propagation” enables conscious contents” -- the result of four decades of cumulative work, which is important because it pulls all the current strands together. Three recent scientific papers will be unpacked that point out a plausible way in which all our sources can converge - can come together into a single conception.
This is only a start and we hope that this conversation triggers further questions.
Get a 40% Discount for your copy of Bernie Baars' acclaimed new book On Consciousness: Science & Subjectivity - Updated Works on Global Workspace Theory
Alea Skwara is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis where she studies cognitive neuroscience. Her primary research focuses on compassion and responses to suffering. The main question that Alea is currently trying to answer is whether meditational practices can expand the range of people that a person can feel compassion for.
Ilian Daskalov is a senior undergraduate student at University of California, Irvine where he studies Cognitive Science. He holds an associate degree with honors from San Diego Mesa College. His research interests include sleep, psychedelics, and artificial intelligence. He is passionate about communicating science and promoting critical thinking.
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