Blindsight: unconscious sight raises questions about consciousness

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The novel by Peter Watts, titled Blindsight is a wonderful extrapolation of what this means about our conscious minds, and what it might mean to intentionally put that part of our minds in the driver’s seat. Also: super creepy in the best ways.


As a control experiment, I’d rearrange the obstacles and have him blindfolded and run through the test again. If he passes it this second time, we’d have a kwisatz hadderach candidate.

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I remember seeing a documentary where people with frontal lobe injuries, where conscious experience is thought to emerge from, but who have a perfectly functioning set of eyes and visual cortex can perceive information concerning their field of view but have no concurrent conscious, visual experience.

I think the implication is that consciousness arises from many factors of perception and visual experience, for example, might call on many different areas of the brain for information concerning what to present to the frontal lobes to be pieced together into what we think of as conscious experience.

However, different perceptual systems in the brain are still processing and exchanging that information regardless of whether there exist the physical pathways for the information to percolate to the volumes of the brain responsible for higher functions which weave it into explicitly conscious experience.

And I say explicit, because if you are aware of the information content of visual qualia without the specific experience of a moving picture, then you are still, in some way, conscious of perceiving information embedded within that stream of perceptual process.

I think they were trying to tie the phenomenon, in some ways, to sub-conscious experience but I don’t think that quite captures the complexity involved.

I’ll see if I can find the doc. BBC from the early 00’s I think.

I used to get migraines pretty frequently that announced themselves with great shimmering blind-spots across most of my visual field. This happened to me once during a game of soccer. I found that even though I couldn’t “see” much of what was going on, if the ball came to me I would still stick a foot out and control it, and I could pretty much play as normal. It was a bit disconcerting at first but apart from having to lie down with a wet towel over my eyes for a few hours afterwards it was strangely enjoyable.

My understanding is that migraines are a type of seizure (not unlike a muscle cramp, nerves activate but can’t re-inhibit due to lack of available salts or oxygen) that occurs towards the rear of the brain, at the far end of the visual processing system that services the cerebral cortex and the “conscious” brain functions such as speech, i.e. the ability to describe what you are seeing to others and to yourself. But the visual system branches off earlier than that, for example taking a more direct route to motor control functions (soccer, walking down a cluttered hall) at the base of the brain that need to happen before you have “time to think” (process information “consciously”). It would make sense if instinctive emotional processing of visual information such as facial expressions also took a more direct route from the eyes to the frontal lobes. More abstract emotional processing of visual information, such as judging someone by their collection of Bieber memorabilia, presumably takes the full circuit through the visual system and cerebral cortex.

I realise that there are limitations to brain-as-a-wiring-diagram model, but if you ask me it’s a whole lot better than this whole ‘consciousness’ racket. Rather than ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ thought, I’m more inclined to think of it as ‘things wired to language processing’ and ‘things not wired to language processing’.


I majored in cognitive studies and I continue to be interested in how our minds work and read about it.

As far as I can tell from all my studies, we have only the slightest glimmer into all that our minds are doing.

What is amazing to me is that we believe in the face of so much evidence to the contrary that our conscious thoughts are some huge percentage of what our minds are doing.

If I had to guess, I’d say we have conscious access to about .05% of what our minds actually do. But somehow we have this illusion that we have conscious access to about 95%.


This is why I like the concept of liminality. Whilst I’m not very taken with the whole proscenium of consciousness concept, if we are willing to model the environment of the proscenium as just another contextual layer of consciousness, then I think the metaphor holds a little more water. The idea that there is a threshold of consciousness which some entrained processes can cross and become conscious experiences like memories or daydreams, thoughts concerning neo-psychic programming and the like, playing out their lives on the stage of consciousness.

Of course, why the mind has given such weight to those thoughts often remains obscured, perhaps to be picked out and given some narrative by a Freudian-esque enquiry but I usually find those explanations unsatisfying.

Whilst I believe that there is a lot of stuff going on under the surface I do believe that most processes going on down there do fit (for want of a better word) into conscious experience but can be very difficult, if not next to impossible, to even notice in the first place.

Once again I’ve got to show my true colours and recommend a healthy dose of meditation, or failing that a heavy dose of psychedelics, to the curious.

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The thought of how much our brains can be doing without us being conscious of it always makes me think of how my father said he’d assign work to the unconscious part of his brain. He’d do a lot of conscious research on a topic, then basically say to some silent aspect of his brain “okay, call me when you’ve got something” and then go about his business not actively thinking about it. He’d then randomly begin consciously thinking about it some time later, and have new insights, new questions, etc., as if he had in fact been working on it - by all accounts, this worked pretty well for him.

I never felt like I had the ability to similarly order my brain around, but I have personally experienced the kind of thought-inertia where things I had been thinking about before come bubbling back up later, with new connections in tow. It makes my concept of self itch.

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I remember taking a class just on how the brain processes sensations, and still have the “simplified” mapping of the optic path burned in my mind. It was hugely complex, convoluted, and amazing. Pretty much all of visual processing happens before consciousnesses, and a lot happens before the signals from the eye even hits the visual cortex (and a lot happens there before the sensation turns into perception). I loved the fact that there were even parts of the path that might as well have been labeled “here there be monsters”, since we have no clue what they do.

It’s also interesting since you can basically trace evolutionary development from structures in the brain. People with blind sight are using parts of their brain that developed many many millions of years ago.


It’s a fact worth sharing, but I don’t agree with the headline, it does not deepen the mystery of consciousness, on the contrary it sets limits on what we should call consciousness. It just happens that in some medical condition one is able to avoid a lamppost without being able to name what he just avoided, describe its shape or read a sign pinned to it. Like with many other brain injuries we realize that stuff in our body is sometimes more connected, and sometimes less connected, than we expected. In contrast, we never have to actively think about our digestion process, but nonetheless, it’s part of us.

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