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Time and the observer: The where and when of consciousness in the brain

  • Daniel C. Dennett (a1) and Marcel Kinsbourne (a2)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 May 2011

We compare the way two models of consciousness treat subjective timing. According to the standard “Cartesian Theater” model, there is a place in the brain where “it all comes together,” and the discriminations in all modalities are somehow put into registration and “presented” for subjective judgment. The timing of the events in this theater determines subjective order. According to the alternative “Multiple Drafts” model, discriminations are distributed in both space and time in the brain. These events do have temporal properties, but those properties do not determine subjective order because there is no single, definitive “stream of consciousness,” only a parallel stream of conflicting and continuously revised contents. Four puzzling phenomena that resist explanation by the Cartesian model are analyzed: (1) a gradual apparent motion phenomenon involving abrupt color change (Kolers & von Grünau 1976), (2) an illusion of an evenly spaced series of “hops” produced by two or more widely spaced series of taps delivered to the skin (Geldard & Sherrick's “cutaneous rabbit” [1972]), (3) backwards referral in time, and (4) subjective delay of consciousness of intention (both reported in this journal by LIbet 1985a; 1987; 1989a). The unexamined assumptions that have always made the Cartesian Theater so attractive are exposed and dismantled. The Multiple Drafts model provides a better account of the puzzling phenomena, avoiding the scientific and metaphysical extravagances of the Cartesian Theater: The temporal order of subjective events is a product of the brain's interpretational processes, not a direct reflection of events making up those processes.

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