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Consciousness, Plasticity, and Connectomics: The Role of Intersubjectivity in Human Cognition

Micah Allen and Gary Williams
Frontiers in Psychology, 2011, 2.


Consciousness is typically construed as being explainable purely in terms of either private, raw feels or higher-order, reflective representations. In contrast to this false dichotomy, we propose a new view of consciousness as an interactive, plastic phenomenon open to sociocultural influence. We take up our account of consciousness from the observation of radical cortical neuroplasticity in human development. Accordingly, we draw upon recent research on macroscopic neural networks, including the "default mode," to illustrate cases in which an individual's particular "connectome" is shaped by encultured social practices that depend upon and influence phenomenal and reflective consciousness. On our account, the dynamically interacting connectivity of these networks bring about important individual differences in conscious experience and determine what is "present" in consciousness. Further, we argue that the organization of the brain into discrete anti-correlated networks supports the phenomenological distinction of prereflective and reflective consciousness, but we emphasize that this finding must be interpreted in light of the dynamic, category-resistant nature of consciousness. Our account motivates philosophical and empirical hypotheses regarding the appropriate time-scale and function of neuroplastic adaptation, the relation of high and low-frequency neural activity to consciousness and cognitive plasticity, and the role of ritual social practices in neural development and cognitive function.


Others, like Julian Jaynes, argue "We first have to start from the top, from some conception of what consciousness is, from what our own introspection is. We have to be sure of that, before we can enter the nervous system and talk about its neurology" (p. 18). Because the first approach is bound to improperly delimit the explanandum and thus prove explanatorily evasive, we will follow Jaynes in emphasizing the importance of phenomenologically driven definitions as a mutual constraint on scientific explanation. It is our contention that an empirically sound and phenomenologically driven approach to cognition and consciousness will allow us to begin explaining the enigmatic nature of human subjectivity rather than explaining it away. Moreover, coming to terms with phenomenal experience is at the heart of the solving the mind–body problem and other issues related to the naturalization of subjectivity.