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Conscious Cogn. 2002 Jun;11(2):241-64; discussion 308-13.

Physical, neural, and mental timing.

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Helmholtz Research School and Department of Functional Neurobiology, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands.


The conclusions drawn by Benjamin Libet from his work with colleagues on the timing of somatosensorial conscious experiences has met with a lot of praise and criticism. In this issue we find three examples of the latter. Here I attempt to place the divide between the two opponent camps in a broader perspective by analyzing the question of the relation between physical timing, neural timing, and experiential (mental) timing. The nervous system does a sophisticated job of recombining and recoding messages from the sensorial surfaces and if these processes are slighted in a theory, it might become necessary to postulate weird operations, including subjective back-referral. Neuroscientifically inspired theories are of necessity still based on guesses, extrapolations, and philosophically dubious manners of speech. They often assume some neural correlate of consciousness (NCC) as a part of the nervous system that transforms neural activity in reportable experiences. The majority of neuroscientists appear to assume that the NCC can compare and bind activity patterns only if they arrive simultaneously at the NCC. This leads to a search for synchrony or to theories in terms of the compensation of differences in neural delays (latencies). This is the main dimension of the Libet discussion. Examples from vision research, such as "temporal-binding-by-synchrony" and the "flash-lag" effect, are then used to illustrate these reasoning patterns in more detail. Alternatively one could assume symbolic representations of time and space (symbolic "tags") that are not coded in their own dimension (not time in time and space in space). Unless such tags are multiplexed with the quality message (tickle, color, or motion), one gets a binding problem for tags. One of the hidden aspects of the discussion between Libet and opponents appears to be the following. Is the NCC smarter than the rest of the nervous system, so that it can solve the problems of local sign (e.g., "where is the event"?) and timing (e.g., "when did it occur?" and "how long did it last?") on its own, or are these pieces of information coded symbolically early on in the system? A supersmart NCC appears to be the assumption of Libet's camp (which includes Descartes, but also mystics). The wish to distribute the smartness evenly across all stages of processing in the nervous system (smart recodings) appears to motivate the opponents. I argue that there are reasons to side with the latter group.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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