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Efferent brain processes and the enactive approach to consciousness

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[opening paragraph]: Nicholas Humphrey (1992; 2000) argues persuasively that consciousness results from active and efferent rather than passive and afferent functions. These arguments contribute to the mounting recent evidence that consciousness is inseparable from the motivated action planning of creatures that in some sense are organismic and agent-like rather than passively mechanical and reactive in the way that digital computers are. Newton (1996) calls this new approach the ‘action theory of understanding'; Varela et al. (1993) dubbed it the ‘enactive’ view of consciousness. It was endorsed in passing by the early Dennett (1969), although he never followed up on it in his later work. According to Dennett, ‘No afferent can be said to have a significance ‘A’ until it is ‘taken’ to have the significance ‘A’ by the efferent side of the brain’ (Dennett, 1969, p. 74). Luria also stressed the neurophysiology of efferent processes as correlated with consciousness (Luria, 1973, pp. 82-8). Further elaborations of the enactive approach are defended by Ellis (1986; 1990; 1995; 1999a,b; forthcoming), Newton (1982; 1993; 1996), Ellis and Newton (1998), Watt (1998), Thelen and Smith (1994), Jarvilehto (1999) and Gendlin (forthcoming). According to this view, conscious information processing can arise only as the self-regulated action of a self-organizing process that confronts the world as a system of action affordances. While information can be passively absorbed in the form of afferent input, only efferent nervous activity in the interest of a living organism's homeostatic (yet suitably extropic) balance can create consciousness of any information, whether perceptual, imagistic, emotional or intellectual.

Keywords: Efference; agency; consciousness; mind-body problem; self-organization

Document Type: Review Article

Affiliations: PO Box 81, Clarke Atlanta University, James P. Brawley Drive at Fair Street SW, Atlanta, GA 30314, USA.

Publication date: 2000-04-01

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