What it’s like to be a mental model

S.J. Blackmore 1986

Paper presented at the 28th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association, 1985, Tufts University, MA. August 1985

Abstract published in Research in Parapsychology 1985 Ed. D.Weiner and D.Radin, Metuchen, N.J., Scarecrow, 163-164, 1986

Amidst all the arguments about the nature of consciousness, it is usually assumed that consciousness is primarily a property of humans, brains, or information processing systems. I would suggest instead that it is a property of the models or representations of the world that such systems construct. I propose that all such models are conscious. Indeed, being conscious is simply what it is like being a representation of the world.

Among the implications of this view is that one brain or information-processing system can potentially support many separate “consciousnesses”. This is most obvious in multiple personality, hypnosis, and some altered states, but perhaps these are only extreme versions of what is the normal state: the coexistence of many separate consciousnesses supported by one system.

This seems counterintuitive, but this may be only because “we” are nothing more nor less than one such model. “We” are a complex and stable model consisting of body image, self-image, and the external world of perception, all stabilized by sensory inputs and memory. We may call this the “me-now” model. It is the most complex but not the only model in the system.

One may object that very simple models cannot be conscious, but I would ask, instead, what is their consciousness like? The consciousness of a simple and fleeting model in the retina is simple and fleeting. “My” consciousness is as complex and stable as my model of self in the world.

But, then, why aren’t we aware of the others? This throws new light on the old analogy of the torchlight of attention flickering around the dusty attics of the mind. There are no dusty objects to be lit up, but many models. Only when a model makes sense to, and can be incorporated into, the main “me-now” model do “we” become aware of it (and it of us!).

So the normal structure is of one dominant model and many subordinate models, but this is not immutable. By practice in meditation or by mystical insight, we can restructure the system, dismantle the dominance of “me-now”. In such states, other kinds of consciousness arise spontaneously, and the world and self are quite changed. To understand altered states of consciousness, we should ask what changes have taken place in the models of the world. In mystical experience the changes are profound, and it is not surprising that the effects are deep and lasting.

So what of psi? I began research in parapsychology in the hope of understanding out-of-body and near-death experiences, apparitions, ghosts, and mystical experiences. I thought that the concept of psi could help. But it did not and, I now believe, cannot. I would never rule out the possibility that altered states of consciousness are psi conducive, but if we are to understand consciousness itself, then psi is a red herring – just as the Siddhis are always said to be. I would rather look to personal experience and explore the idea that consciousness is just what it’s like being a mental model.