February 1, 2004

Is there an observing self?

SCR Feature,self-awareness — thomasr @ 8:37 pm Print This Post  AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Response to Baars et al., “Brain, conscious experience, and the observing self,” Trends in Neurosciences, 26 (12), December, 2003.

Is there an observing self?

by Thomas W. Clark

In response to the question of whether “normal conscious experience involve(s) an observing self,” Baars et al. answer in the affirmative (Baars et al. 2003). The question I wish to the concept of observing-a person-level capacity-is misapplied to sub-personal processesraise here is whether the notion of an observing self, in the sense described in their paper, is conceptually warranted or useful in explaining consciousness. I suggest that it is not: the concept of observing – a person-level capacity – is misapplied to sub-personal processes of representation and information processing. The authors mischaracterize hierarchies of neural processing, in which information is fed from one level to another, as literal episodes of observation by a neurally instantiated self.

The main distinction the authors make is between processes that are responsible for features of consciousness that constitute objects, e.g., “light, color, contrast, motion, retinal size, location, and object identity” and processes that provide higher-level contextual components of consciousness, e.g., functions that integrate objects into a coherent perceptual gestalt, that create the phenomenal sense of one’s body, and that underlie ascriptions of intentions and actions as one’s own, as opposed to someone else’s.

The authors state that “…conscious experience in general can be viewed as information presented to prefrontal executive regions for interpretation, decision-making, and voluntary control.” This suggests that experience is somehow generated by or consists in the internal observation of information by prefrontal regions, but this is to ascribe a person-level ability to the sub-personal level. When Crick and Koch (2003) (quoted in the paper, p. 673) said that “it is useful to think of the front or higher/executive part of the cortex as looking at and interacting with the back or sensory part” they should have put “looking at” in scare quotes to emphasize that they were speaking metaphorically. What literally observes or experiences the world is the person as a whole conscious system, a system that incorporates sensory information into a constantly updated overarching self-world representation (Metzinger, 2003). What makes this a phenomenal, conscious representation, as proposed by Metzinger, is that it possesses a certain minimum set of representational, informational, and functional properties, e.g., global availability of information for action control and the integration of representations into a coherent, untranscendable reality model (Metzinger, pp. 107-211).

What the authors call the “common intuition of an observing self that has access to conscious sensations, inner speech, images and thoughts” (p. 671) is the modeling of the self within experience, that is, within the larger phenomenal self-world model. The higher level frontoparietal systems that are described in their paper, along with lower level homeostatic systems described by Antonio Damasio (1999), supply subjectivity – the phenomenal self-model – to the larger phenomenal self-world model. So the observing self isn’t needed to “sustain the conscious waking state” (p. 673), rather the waking state normally includes the experience of subjectivity. It’s important to note that in certain types of mystical experiences and pathological conditions the feeling of being a subject is absent (Metzinger, p. 459). This shows that there may be no essential connection between waking consciousness per se and the sense of self, much less an observing self.

Although Baars has elsewhere defended the observing self (Baars, 1996), I think he mistakes the experience of subjectivity for the literal existence of a separate, delimited witnessing subject. Baars et al. take this witnessing subject to be neurally instantiated by a subset of integrative processes, while many people folk-theoretically Experience, like the brain (under normal conditions), is unwitnessed and unobservedsuppose this witness-self to be some sort of non-physical mental agent or soul. But there is no observing self of either type to whom information is presented or that has access to consciousness; nor is it likely that any sub-personal components of the processes that constitute consciousness observe other components in any sense that merits the term. Experience, like the brain (under normal conditions), is unwitnessed and unobserved, even though it may include the experience and intuition of observerhood, an intuition that veridically models the relationship between the observing person and the world.

© 2004 Thomas W. Clark
Center for Naturalism

Response by Bernard Baars to this article: The evidence is overwhelming for an observing self in the brain


  • Baars, B., Ramsoy, T., Laureys, S. (2003), “Brain, conscious experience and the observing self,” Trends in Neurosciences, 26 (12) , pp. 671-675.
  • Baars, B. (1996), “Understanding subjectivity: global workspace theory and the resurrection of the observing self,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 3 (3), pp. 211-16.
  • Crick, F., Koch, C. (2003) “A framework for consciousness,” Nature Neuroscience 6 (2), pp. 119-126.
  • Damasio, A. R. (1999), The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (New York: Harcourt Brace).
  • Metzinger, T. (2003), Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)


  1. [...] Response to Thomas Clark, “Is there an observing Self?” SCR, 2004 [...]

    Pingback by Science & Consciousness Review: The evidence is overwhelming for an observing self in the brain — October 6, 2006 @ 11:49 am

  2. With all due respect to those who are exerting efforts to deny the existence of the SELF, I would like to confirm its existence and that the brain, mind ( conscious & subconsious,imagination powers) work coherently when the human is sound and healthy to serve the observing SELF, the outcome of SOUL & BODY merger.

    Comment by Abdu "The One" — March 10, 2007 @ 9:48 am

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