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by Robert G. Kunzendorf and Benjamin Wallace (editors)
John Benjamins Publishing, 2000
Review by Marcel Scheele on Oct 16th 2001

Individual Differences in Conscious ExperienceConsciousness is an ill-understood phenomenon. Not only because of the difficulty of the subject -- it is a conceptual as well an empirical morass -- but also because the topic has long been eschewed in systematic research by philosophers and psychologists. Since a decade or so, this has changed (the attention, that is) and consciousness research is well under way. The series 'Advances in Consciousness Research', started in 1995, is one of the results of this newly developed attention.

According to the editors of this volume, the main driving force for composing the book was that the new wave of consciousness research has concentrated too much on general phenomena. Discovering such general phenomena is important in order to state general (scientific) laws on the subject matter, but, they claim, one should search for these laws observing certain empirical constraints. Investigating individual differences in subjective experience are thought to provide these constraints. This book investigates these individual differences.

A remark on these 'individual differences' is in order. One might expect that by this it is meant to investigate individual persons' consciousness. But that is not the case in this book. By 'individuals' is meant: groups or classes of individuals. The idea is that often groups of individuals can be distinguished by the fact that they have in similar situations different conscious experiences. The nature and reasons of these differences are investigated in this book. For instance, different groups of people have a different degree of hypnotic susceptibility. It can be investigated whether the nature of the hypnotic experience is also different (Pekala & Kumar).

After a short introduction on the (meager) history of research on individual differences in subjective experience the remaining thirteen papers are organized along three themes, corresponding to 'types' of consciousness: The first (and largest) part of the book is devoted to (full fledged) consciousness. The second (and smallest) part is devoted to subconsciousness. The third part considers self-consciousness.

The quality of the papers is high in general, although some are rather encyclopedic. How interesting the paper is, is also related to the background of the reader. A psychologist interested in statistical quantification will be more interested in papers in which the experiences of large groups of people are measured and analysed (Katz, Mattes & Beauchamp, Giambra, Hartmann, Singer & Singer & Zittel) a neurologist will be more interested in papers in which empirical data is gathered on the relation between consciousness and neurophysiological processes (Chapman & Nakamura & Flores, Richardson, Schwartz, Wallace & Fisher). Philosophers, like myself, will be more interested in papers in which there is some theoretical and conceptual analysis (Chapman & Nakamura & Flores, Schwartz, Reber & Allen, Wallace & Fisher, Kunzendorf).

The audience of the book is clearly intended to be fellow academics in the field of consciousness research. That does not mean, however, that the book is of no interest to people outside this field. The approach of the volume as a whole is quite broad and gives, as said, quite a good overview of the field of research. Some articles on the neurophysiology of consciousness presuppose quite some serious knowledge of the field (esp. Chapman & Nakamura & Flores), but not all. The same goes for some of the articles on statistical research (esp. Giambra). Thus, parts of the book could be of interest of people outside this particular field and for educated laypersons.

A positive feature of the book is that there really is an added value in it being an edited collection of papers. The authors keep themselves consistently to the subject under discussion and it seems to me that a large amount of current research on this topic is covered.

A bit disappointing, although possibly unavoidable, is that there is not quite a movement towards a general overarching theory of (a part of) consciousness at all. The volume should be seen more as laying groundwork for theorizing, rather than providing theories itself (although some articles do offer some interesting theoretical ideas).

Another disappointment is that quite some papers are not really theoretically and/or experimentally at the front of the field, but are rather reporting on a body of literature (esp. Katz, Mattes & Beauchamp, Richardson, LaBerge & DeGracia, Pekala & Kumar). An advantage of this is that the book contains an overview of much of the literature on the subject (which would have been really useful if collected in a complete literature list at the end of the volume; now it is quite hard to assess the comprehensiveness of the literature overview).

This concludes the general overview of the book. I will continue with a couple of remarks on two of the contributions. Being a philosopher, my attention was raised by the model of consciousness given in "How we Hurt" (Chapman & Nakamura & Flores). It gives a framework for understanding pain awareness that elaborates partly on the 'Multiple Drafts Model', proposed by Dennett and Kinsbourne (1992). The fact that this article provides some empirical underpinning of this 'constructivist' model is important. The constructivist model proposes that there are several parallel 'drafts', or 'immediate models of the self', as the authors call it here. Internal procession and interaction with the outer world results in one of these immediate models coming to the foreground, thus 'being the experience'.

In this article, research is reported on individual differences in pain experience. The constructivist model can now be shown to explain this data better than certain classical views. But, I would add, this is certainly not yet a firm foundation for the theory. All the model does as yet, is explain (maybe a bit better) the known data; there is not much prediction of new empirical data, so we must refrain from definitive judgments as of now, and continue research.

The chapter by Gary Schwartz: "Individual Differences in Subtle Awareness and Levels of Awareness" also contains some interesting material. He considers subconscious awareness of odors. It is well known that different people have different olfactory capabilities. What has been found, however, is that with certain people there exists a discrepancy between their reporting on the smell, which can be above average successful, and their reporting on their awareness of the smell, which can be absent in such cases. This phenomenon implies a parallel process to blindsight: 'blindsmell', the author suggests. Taking data such as this into account, the author proposes a model of awareness divided along a scale from 'pure awareness' (awareness without this being consciously experienced) up to 'awareness of awareness of awareness' (e.g. self-consciousness). The 'blindsmell' phenomenon can now be argued to be a kind of pure awareness.

Especially interesting in this account is the idea that pure awareness can be a kind of 'awarenessability' of a stimulus registered by a biological system. This implies that many subconscious processes are not so much distinguishable in nature from conscious processes, but only in grade. Also this model could be combined with the constructivist model described above, where there might be many instants of pure awareness at any one time, but only one coming to the foreground at a time. This all sounds very exciting, but should be investigated empirically more thoroughly. Also conceptually there might be a problem with the notion of 'blindsmell'. It seems to me not altogether clear that the phenomenon captured by this term is parallel to the phenomenon of 'blindsight'. For one thing, blindsight is a phenomenon that occurs after physiological damage to the visual cortex, whereas this 'blindsmell' just seems to be a standard difference in perceptual capacities in humans. That jeopardizes the possibility of generalizing the model Schwartz proposes. So, at least the model needs some conceptual as well as theoretical refinement.

In conclusion it can be said that this book is a useful addition to the literature on consciousness. In part because of the empirical and theoretical research that is reported, but also because some interesting directions of future research are indicated and opened, regarding the research on individual differences in consciousness.

© 2001 Marcel Scheele

Marcel Scheele is a philosopher. He received his masters degree in the Philosophy of Mind at Leiden University (Netherlands). His thesis was on the functionalist theory of mind. Currently he is doing Ph.D. research at the Delft University of Technology on the philosophy of technology. The research concerns the nature of technical artifacts. It is especially concerned with the question how users bestow different functions on these objects and how this relates to 'the' function of an artifact. The main area's of inquiry to this effect are the notion of function, social ontology, collective intentionality, and meaning. He is also still working in the philosophy of mind.
Buy the book from Barnes & Noble.com.

This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001