The Science of Consciousness:

Chapter 8: Cognition and Consciousness

What this chapter is about: What are the cognitive correlates of consciousness?

Why are we so conscious of so little? How is consciousness related to attention?

This is a a very broad chapter covering a lot of material, some of which necessarily I think overlaps with the chapters on perception and on the brain. it is also a repository of a few topics that don't fit in that well anywhere else. Where else can I put quantum mechanical theories of consciousness?

Language, thought, and consciousness

Bourguignon, Nicolas J. (2022). The emergence of language in the human mind and brain—Insights from the neurobiology of language, thought and action. Psychological Review,

Awareness, self-awareness, recursion, and higher order theories of consciousness

See also Chapter 1 on definitions of consciousness and Chapter 5 for self-awareness in animals.

Awareness is experiencing something - as Wikipedia helpfully puts it, awareness is the state of being conscious of something. I am being harsh with Wikipedia here because awareness is difficult to define because my awareness is private: you can't know what I'm experiencing; you cannot share my pain. I am confident many animals are aware. We are aware of qualia, the atoms of sensation. I am aware of the sensation of the colour of the rose to the left (although I am not sure how to describe it - orange? yellow orange?)

Self-awareness is being aware of our own awareness. It's taking our own awareness as the object of our awareness. There has been much debate about the extent to which some animals are self-conscious (for example, see discussion of the mirror test of self recognition in Chapter 5). I am fairly confident some animals have some kind of self-awareness. I think Beau has some self-awareness. I guess, but I just don't know.

Meta-awareness is being able to think about awareness. I think it's distinct from self-awareness. I think Beau sometimes definitely reflects on his mental states; he knows he is feeling sad.

Self-self-awareness is beng aware of my self-awareness. I am pretty confident this statement makes sense and I ssupect only humans are capable of it.

Beyond that nothing makes much sense to me. You might claim that you are aware of being aware of of your own self-awareness, but I'm sceptical. It reminds me of Chomsky's self-embedded sentence structures (see my books on language). I can understand the sentence:

The rat the cat chased laughed.


The rat the cat the dog hunted chased laughed.

But beyond that my comprehension is limited, at best algorithmic by counting words in from the beginning and end of the sentence. We can claim that in principle these structures are infinite, but as a psychologist I'm interested about what is the case in practice.

Self-embedding, and thinking about ourselves thinking, are often talked about as being recursive. Recursion is defining or explaining something in terms of itself, or at least a simpler version of itself. Self-awareness is awareness of awareness. Self-embedding is embedding a structure of the same type within another structure. As the old joke goes:

Recursion (definition) - see recursion.

With recursion it's easy to get into infinite loops, but that need not be the case if you're defining something in terms of a simper version of itself (as is the case of self-awareness). The programming language LISP (now sadly slmost defunct) made much use of recursion.

In Chomsky's more recent thinking about language, recursion is central and gives language its power (and what sets it apart from animal communiction systems). However, Daniel Everett claims that the language of the Pirahã of the Amazon does not use recursion (the Pirahã use very few numbers too, which might be linked to the structure of their language. Is it just coincidence that humans are the only animals to use recursion in language and unambiguously to be self-aware? I doubt if the Pirahã lack self-awareness, so the answer is probably yes, or rather both are mediated by general intelligence.

While we can be aware without any kind of language, it's impossible to imagine being self-aware without some kind of symbol for the self. Having a symbolic representation isn't the same as having a language - there are too many hard and fast claims and dichotimies in cognition and psycholinguistics.

Higher order theories of consciousness (HOT theories)

R. More to come. For a good recent review see:

Brown, R., Lau, H., & LeDoux, J.E. (2019). Understanding the higher-order approach to consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 23, 754-768,

The Physics of Consciousness now has its own page.

Further review questions

1. Is self-awareness all or nothing?

2. Write a recursive program in a language such as Python or C. There is plenty of help online.

Beau just after a haircut. What does he think? How does he think? What did he think about duing his haircut? How would he rate it, marks out of four? Without language, is his laguage of thought mainly visual and olfactory?

Qualia. What colour is this rose?