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The Future Evolution of Consciousness
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by John Stewart 34 Consciousness


What potential exists for improvements in the functioning of consciousness? The paper addresses this issue using global workspace theory. According to this model, the prime function of consciousness is to develop novel adaptive responses. Consciousness does this by putting together new combinations of knowledge, skills and other disparate resources that are recruited from throughout the brain. The paper’s search for potential improvements in the functioning of consciousness draws on studies of the shift during human development from the use of implicit knowledge to the use of explicit (declarative) knowledge. These studies show that the ability of consciousness to adapt a particular domain improves significantly as the transition to the use of declarative knowledge occurs in that domain. However, this potential for consciousness to enhance adaptability has not yet been realised to any extent in relation to consciousness itself. The paper assesses the potential for adaptability to be improved by the conscious adaptation of key
processes that constitute consciousness. A number of sources (including the practices of religious and contemplative traditions) are drawn on to investigate how this potential might be realised.


An improved capacity to develop novel adaptive responses has often been given as the reason why evolution favoured the emergence of consciousness. Consciousness is increasingly seen as a process that confers evolutionary advantage by enhancing the ability of an organism to discover new and better behavioural adaptations (Baars 1988; Dennett 1991; Metzinger 2003 and DeHaene and Naccache 2001).

Global Workplace (GW) theory attributes this capacity of consciousness to its ability to assemble novel combinations of knowledge, skills and other resources for the development of new adaptive responses (Baars 1983, 1988 and 1997). This enables consciousness to, for example, recruit the resources needed to construct composite mental representations of alternative responses and their consequences, enabling the most adaptive response to be identified.

This paper explores the extent to which the adaptability conferred by consciousness can be enhanced in humans. In particular, it seeks to identify the potential for changes in the functioning of consciousness to improve its ability to discover better behavioural adaptations.

Addressing this issue has been greatly assisted by the recent development of information processing theories of the functioning of consciousness. An understanding of consciousness from an information processing perspective enables us to assess its potential for further improvement. We can judge how well consciousness performs its functions, and whether changes in the processes that constitute consciousness could overcome any limitations and enhance its ability to adapt behaviour effectively.

This paper uses the information processing framework embodied in GW theory to assess the potential for improvement in consciousness. Of the competing information processing accounts of consciousness, it currently attracts the widest support (Baars 2002; DeHaene and Naccache 2001; Kanwisher 2001; and Dennett 2001).

The paper focuses on those improvements that can emerge through the processes of cultural evolution, rather than through genetic change. It therefore considers only changes that can be learnt and can be transmitted culturally.

We begin in Section 2 by outlining and developing the main features of Baars’ GW theory that are relevant to our task. This analysis of GW theory is drawn on in Section 3 to identify how the functioning of conscious processes might be improved to enhance the adaptability and evolvability of humans. The search for potential improvements is aided by developmental research that identifies how adaptability is significantly enhanced in other domains when declarative knowledge is used to assist adaptation. In section 4 we use GW theory and other sources to begin to identify practices and experiences that could enable humans to acquire skills and capacities that would realise the potential to improve the functioning of consciousness.



Religious and contemplative traditions have accumulated a substantial body of declarative and procedural knowledge about how to modify the functioning of consciousness. This knowledge has the potential to significantly increase human adaptability and evolvability. By enabling conscious processes to be modified, it opens the way for declarative modelling to optimise the functioning of consciousness. This would enable the full capacity of consciousness to discover new adaptations to be used to adapt and enhance consciousness itself. However, the development of these capacities would not just significantly enhance adaptability - it would also change what occupies the GW through time, and therefore what an individual is conscious of. It would change the experience of what it is to be a human being.

However, the explanations and interpretations developed by the contemplative traditions to account for the practices they use and the experiences and capacities they produce are prescientific. Their theories have not been disciplined by the scientific method. In particular, they have unnecessarily introduced a plethora of theoretical entities unknown to empirical psychology and science that have little predictive value. Nor have the theories taken advantage of the powerful models and understandings embodied in standard learning theory, clinical psychology, information processing models of cognition, and other areas of cognitive neuroscience.

It can be expected that these deficiencies will be corrected as the knowledge accumulated by the contemplative traditions is integrated into the framework and practice of scientific psychology. As this integration proceeds, it is likely that far more powerful models of the phenomenon and associated processes will be developed, and that these in turn will enable more effective practices and interventions to be developed. Such a re-interpretation of pre-scientific declarative and procedural knowledge in the light of the conceptual frameworks and models of other domains is an important step in the declarative transition in any domain. In particular, it enables discoveries, models and understandings from other areas to be applied to the domain in question, and vice versa. Science has been the key vehicle for this process in the most recent 400 years of human evolution. This paper is a contribution to the early stages of this interpretation and integration process for consciousness (see Walsh and Shapiro 2006 for a recent overview of progress).

The integration of the discoveries of contemplative traditions with scientific psychology can be expected to greatly assist and accelerate the unfolding of this declarative transition across humanity in general. The successful accomplishment of the transition would open up adaptive possibilities of great evolutionary significance. It would, for example, provide humans with the possibility of choosing to pursue evolutionary goals directly, rather than continuing to pursue proxies for evolutionary success. It would also enable these goals to be pursued more creatively and successfully. Furthermore, as the transition extends to more aspects of consciousness, humans would increasingly be able to choose to adopt particular modes of consciousness to match the needs of different circumstances, just as we now can choose to adopt particular physical postures to match the needs of different physical tasks.


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John Stewart is a member of the Evolution of Complexity and Cognition Research Group, the Free University of Brussels

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