Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Experiential Blanks

I'm on the road, at the biennial consciousness conference in Tucson. Yesterday, Russ Hurlburt and I led a workshop on the use of beepers to explore the stream of experience (the topic of our recent book). As part of the workshop, we "beeped" the audience -- a few random beeps sounded through speakers, interrupting our PowerPoint presentation, and each audience member was to reflect as best she could on her "last undisturbed moment of inner experience" just before each beep. For each beep, we selected a random audience member to describe her experience, and we interviewed her about it, we argued with each other about it, and other members of the audience pitched in, too. Great fun, I thought.

I was especially struck by one of the audience member's reports. He said that, as best as he could tell, he had no inner experience whatsoever, no consciousness, no phenomenology, at the moment just before the beep. He did have an experience a few moments before the beep -- one of feeling his nametag pressing against his chin (he was absent-mindedly playing with it) -- but at the moment of the beep itself, nothing. Russ was talking, but he didn't have any auditory experience. If I understand him correctly, he felt he had no sensory experience of any sort, nor any emotional experience, nor any imagery, nor any conscious thoughts, no experience at all.

People do sometimes say this when they are sampled with beepers, Russ has found in his decades of study. I've also heard a couple of reports of this sort among the forty or so people I've interviewed using Russ's beeper methodology -- but in both of my own cases, the subjects had fallen asleep and the beep had woken them.

Now I confess that I incline toward a rich view of experience -- according to which we generally have constant visual experience, constant auditory experience, constant tactile experience of our feet in our shoes (though peripherally and faintly, of course!), and much else going on with us experientially at any one time. I'm not at all sure that this view is right, but to think that we have waking moments with no experience whatsoever...!

This is one of the cool things about beeper interviews: People say things you'd never expect them to say, they describe their experience in ways you (and even they) might have thought impossible, with all sincerity. It jars me from my complacency.

11 comments:

Tanasije Gjorgoski said...

Hey Eric,

I find it weird that people would *remember having no experience*.

Though, being inclined to naive realism, and being suspect of the "phenomenal experience", I believe that what the person reports is simply that he wasn't seeing or hearing anything, and also that he couldn't remember that he was thinking, nor what he was thinking. This is something which I think happens when we are thinking absentmindedly, and are interrupted by something.

Related to this, I find the following a fascinating and funny phenomenon - When after being interrupted in thinking sometimes we can remember we were thinking something, but can't really remember what we were thinking. And how first we get that feeling 'I'm on the verge to remember', (though when trying to analyze this feeling, makes me fail to remember :) ), and then when we start remembering, it all suddenly comes back, but also our thinking is taken in some other "mode" of thinking related to that subject matter.

Anibal said...

I tend to belive in a "rich experience view" as well.

Input from the outside-in are represented and processed by preexisting inner states that shape incoming data.

Our mind/brain continuum is dinamically alive and is not a passive repository of information it is in constant activity, there is rest base-line activity of mood, intrusive thoughts, spontaneous recollections...
The talk it has had to be a great fun!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Anibal and Tanasije! I think your suggestion, Tanasije, is quite a reasonable one -- though I wouldn't insist on it.

Genius said...

might be interesting to do this sort of experiment together with a brain scan (and some knowledge of the areas of the brain that are usually active during higher thought processes).

Of course that might be a bit more expensive than the normal test.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yeah, that would be neat. I have to confess, though, that I'm suspicious of brain imaging techniques I don't understand. A lot of parameters and mathematics and assumptions underneath those pretty pictures....

Badda Being said...

Now I confess that I incline toward a rich view of experience -- according to which we generally have constant visual experience, constant auditory experience, constant tactile experience of our feet in our shoes (though peripherally and faintly, of course!), and much else going on with us experientially at any one time.

This seems to be less a view of experience than of consciousness. Specifically, it seems to be a view of consciousness as simply entailing a constant stream of experience. If that is the case, then what is really being asked by the question “Is conscious experience rich or thin?” is whether consciousness is rich or thin with experience, which is insoluble on definitional rather than empirical grounds. It's a question of how expansive our definition of consciousness should be. Should we allow room for experiential blanks or not?

How we decide to answer that question opens up different kinds of additional questions. For example, if we decide that we can't be awake and not have experiences, can we nonetheless sleep and have experiences? Or shall we decide that an experience of something must be of something that really exists? (Must I have bugs crawling under my shirt in order to be said, properly speaking, to have the experience of bugs crawling under my shirt?) But how would we then determine whether something is real?

But if we decide that we can be awake and not have experiences, how do we then distinguish between waking and sleeping moments?

Maybe one way to reach an answer to "rich or thin" question is to consider what further questions we might like to pursue.

I'm not at all sure that this view is right, but to think that we have waking moments with no experience whatsoever...!

Do you have any basic assumptions about what it means to be awake that the idea of an absence of experience conflicts with? If not, I wonder how we should interpret your incredulity or contrary disposition.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Badda! I'm not sure I understand your comment, since "consciousness" and "experience" sound pretty synonymous to me (at least in the senses I mean to be using them). I'm on board, though, with the last suggestion in your post -- maybe the implicit assumptions behind my finding the report hard to believe need to be jettisoned!

Badda Being said...

I thought you understood them differently because you also used the phrase "conscious experience." If "consciousness" and "experience" are synonymous to you, then I don't see why you would use consciousness as a modifier of experience. It would be like referring to visual sight.

But let's say then that "conscious experience" is just loose talk and that "consciousness" and "experience" really are synonymous. I have this vague sense that you further equate consciousness with being awake. Or do you rather think that consciousness may obtain even during sleep? It does seem normal after all to say that we experience things during sleep, at least while dreaming, but then again, to say that we may therefore be conscious during sleep might seem unconventional if not downright contradictory.

If "consciousness"/"experience" is synonymous with "wakefulness," then it's just obvious that we can't have waking moments with no experiences whatsoever, in precisely the same way that it's just obvious that we can't have vision with no sight whatsoever. This is probably not the most charitable way to understand you, though, given your sense of the insolubility of the "rich or thin" question: by this understanding, consciousness/experience obviously would be rich.

But if "consciousness"/"experience" is not synonymous with "wakefulness," then try substituting "wakefulness" for every instance of "consciousness" in my first comment and see if that helps you understand the point I was trying to make there.

Badda Being said...

How about this: if "consciousness" and "experience" are synonymous, then experiential blanks are nothing more than moments of unconsciousness, in which case consciousness/experience is rich by definition, whereas the thin view would be that you can be conscious (have experiences) and unconscious (not have experiences) at the same time.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Badda, that helps me see the source of some of our miscommunication!

Taking consciousness/experience synonymously and as not the same as wakefulness, I at least don't see it as obvious that we do sometimes lack consciousness while awake. Maybe others (you?) do think it obvious that people frequently have moments of pure experiential blankness when awake. But how do we resolve this? Therein lies the methodological difficulty at the heart of consciousness studies!

Badda Being said...

What do you find incredible about waking moments with no experience whatsoever if, for you, wakefulness is distinct from consciousness?

Or, more to the point, how does your incredulity even bear upon the "rich or thin" question if you regard consciousness and wakefulness as distinct? For you do seem to think that it has some bearing based on this paragraph:

Now I confess that I incline toward a rich view of experience -- according to which we generally have constant visual experience, constant auditory experience, constant tactile experience of our feet in our shoes (though peripherally and faintly, of course!), and much else going on with us experientially at any one time. I'm not at all sure that this view is right, but to think that we have waking moments with no experience whatsoever...!

* * * *

I think that resolving the problem of apparently conflicting testimony is a matter of clarifying your terms.

If "consciousness" and "experience" are synonymous, then experiential blankness, or the absence of experience, is the same as the absence of consciousness, in which case, again, consciousness is rich by definition.

If "consciousness" and "experience" are synonymous, then, during moments of experiential blankness, there is no consciousness anyway to which the "rich or thin" question could even apply.

But the very fact that you put forth the "rich or thin" question suggests that you regard consciousness and experience as distinct, or at least that you are asking about Consciousness (or conscousness-sub-one) which may or or may not be traversed by consciousness (or consciousness-sub-two) all the way through, that may nor may not be punctuated with moments of unconsciousness.

So it's no wonder that you get conflicting testimony: you're very solicitation sends confusing messages.

There is nothing to resolve but the meaning of your terms.