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Michael Arbib
Bernard Baars
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Bernard Baars

Bernard Baars is a neurobiologist who has helped to develop an ancient metaphor of the mind as theater into a widely-held model and research framework of human consciousness called Global Workspace Theory.

In the Baars model of consciousness, there are six basic elements to the theater metaphor - a stage, spotlights (that focus attention), actors (with their speeches) an audience, that regularly contributes comments about their own ideas, goals, and knowledge bases (perhaps at a subconscious automatic level), a director (or executive function), and "contexts."

If we think of contexts as the current total contents of the "stream of consciousness," as William James called it, it includes many unconscious contributions plus all the current perceptual data that shape the interpretation of the current experience. Context helps to answer to the question "What's happening to me?"

The Theater of Consciousness resembles Daniel Dennett's model of the mind as made up of a huge number of functional homunculi, each with its own goals and purposes.

Dennett's homunculi should not be confused with what Dennett called the "Cartesian theater," in which a single homunculus sits at the center of the brain. This was the idea of a "self as observer" (of what goes on in the consciousness) that was refuted by Gilbert Ryle in his book The Concept of Mind.

Here is Baars' description of the theater of consciousness:

Figure 2-1. A theater metaphor for conscious experience. All unified theories of cognition today involve theater metaphors. In this version, conscious contents are limited to a brightly lit spot of attention onstage, while the rest of the stage corresponds to immediate working memory. Behind the scenes are executive processes, including a director, and a great variety of contextual operators that shape conscious experience without themselves becoming conscious. In the audience are a vast array of intelligent unconscious mechanisms. Some audience members are automatic routines, such as the brain mechanisms that guide eye movements, speaking, or hand and finger movements. Others involve autobiographical memory, semantic networks representing our knowledge of the world, declarative memory for beliefs and facts, and the implicit memories that maintain attitudes, skills, and social interaction. Elements of working memory - on stage, but not in the spotlight of attention - are also unconscious. Notice that different inputs to the stage can work together to place an actor in the conscious bright spot, a process of convergence; but once on stage, conscious information diverges, as it is is widely disseminated to members of the audience. By far the most detailed functions are carried on outside of awareness.

Baars notes that the information-carrying capacity of the conscious stream is very limited. But the access to information structures in the brain is truly vast. Since we have no idea of its information storage capacity, the brain may have access, within seconds, to any of its past experiences.

In our model of information consciousness, an experience recorder, reproducer, and sequencer (ERRS) may provide many of the actors and audience members in the Baars Theater of Consciousness.

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