The cartesian folk theater: People conceptualize consciousness as a spatio-temporally localized process in the human brain

Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 151 (4):781-803 (2022)
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The present research (total N = 2,057) tested whether people’s folk conception of consciousness aligns with the notion of a “Cartesian Theater” (Dennett, 1991). More precisely, we tested the hypotheses that people believe that consciousness happens in a single, confined area (vs. multiple dispersed areas) in the human brain, and that it (partly) happens after the brain finished analyzing all available information. Further, we investigated how these beliefs arerelated to participants’ neuroscientific knowledge as well as their reliance on intuition, and which rationale they use to explain their responses. Using a computer-administered drawing task, we found that participants located consciousness, but not unrelated neurological processes (Studies 1a & 1b) or unconscious thinking (Study 2) in a single, confined area in the prefrontal cortex, and that they considered most of the brain not involved in consciousness. Participants mostly relied on their intuitions when responding, and they were not affected by prior knowledge about the brain. Additionally, they considered the conscious experience of sensory stimuli to happen in a spatially more confined area than the corresponding computational analysis of these stimuli (Study 3). Furthermore, participants’ explicit beliefs about spatial and temporal localization of consciousness (i.e., consciousness happening after the computational analysis of sensory information is completed) are independent, yet positively correlated beliefs (Study 4). Using a more elaborate measure for temporal localization of conscious experience, our final study confirmed that people believe consciousness to partly happen even after information processing is done (Study 5).

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