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Dynamics of Brain Processing
Global Workspace
A Theory of Consciousness

Bernard J. Baars and Katherine McGovern 

(revised November 5, 1997)

Global Workspace theory is a simple cognitive architecture that has been developed to account qualitatively for a large set of matched pairs of conscious and unconscious processes (Baars, 1983, 1988, 1993, 1997). Such matched contrastive pairs of phenomena can be either psychological or neural.  Psychological phenomena include subliminal priming, automaticity with practice,  selective attention, and many others. Neural examples include coma and blindsight.   Like other cognitive architectures (Newell, 1990), GW theory may be seen in terms of a theater metaphor of mental functioning.  Consciousness resembles a bright spot on the theater stage of Working Memory (WM), directed there by a spotlight of attention,  under executive guidance (Baddeley, 1992). The rest of the theater is dark and unconscious. "Behind the scenes" are contextual systems, which shape conscious contents without ever becoming conscious, such as the dorsal cortical stream of the visual system.

This architectural approach leads to specific neural hypotheses.  For sensory consciousness the bright spot on stage is likely to require the corresponding sensory projection areas of the cortex. Sensory consciousness in different modalities may be mutually inhibitory, within approximately 100-ms time steps.

Sensory cortex can be activated internally as well as externally, resulting in conscious inner speech and imagery.  Once a conscious sensory content is established, it is broadcast widely to a distributed "audience" of expert networks sitting in the darkened theater, using corticocortical and corticothalamic fibers. Among the experts behind the scenes are "self-systems," viewed as contextual data structures that both shape and receive information from the bright spot; they include parts of prefrontal cortex, but may range posteriorly as far as parietal cortex for visual orientation.

The primary functional role of consciousness is to allow a "blackboard" architecture to operate in the brain, in order to integrate, provide access, and coordinate the functioning of very large numbers of special- ized networks that otherwise operate autonomously (Mountcastle, 1978). All the elements of GW theory have reasonable brain interpretations, allowing us to generate a set of specific, testable brain hypotheses about consciousness and its many roles in the brain.  This approach is compatible with a number of other proposals (Crick, 1984; Crick & Koch, 1990; Damasio, 1989; LaBerge, 1997; Gazzaniga, 1996; Ramachandran, 1995; Edelman, 1989; Llinas & Ribary, 1992; Newman & Baars, 1993; Shallice, 1976; Posner, 1992).

Bernard J. Baars and Katherine McGovern
The Wright Institute
Berkeley, California

2003 Update

See Baars, Bernard J. (2003). The global brainweb: An update on global workspace theory. Guest editorial, Science and Consciousness Review, October 2003. Full text.

Bibliography (revised 10 August 2004)

Baars, Bernard J. (1983). Conscious contents provide the nervous system with coherent, global information.  In R.J. Davidson, G.E. Schwartz & D. Shapiro (Eds.). Consciousness & Self- regulation. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Baars, Bernard J. (1988). A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press. Preface and first chapter.

Bridgeman, Bruce (1996). What We Really Know About Consciousness. Review of A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness by Bernard Baars. Psyche 2. 30. Full text (external).
Baars, Bernard J. (1996). Understanding Subjectivity: Global Workspace Theory and the Resurrection of the Observing Self. Journal of Consciousness Studies 3. 3: 211-16.

Baars, B. (1997). In the theater of consciousness: The workspace of the mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Baars, Bernard J. (1997). In the Theatre of Consciousness: Global Workspace Theory, A Rigorous Scientific Theory of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 4. 4: 292-309. Full text (external pdf). Full issue with peer commentary (external).

Baars, Bernard, James Newman, and John Taylor (1998) Neuronal mechanisms of consciousness: A Relational Global Workspace framework. In Hameroff, Stuart and Kaszniak, Al and Laukes, James, Eds. Toward a Science of Consciousness II: The second Tucson discussions and debates., chapter 24, pages pp. 269-278. MIT Press. Abstract with link to full text (CogPrints; external).

Baars, B.J. (2002) The conscious access hypothesis: Origins and recent evidence. Trends in Cognitive Science 6. 1: 47-52.

Baars, Bernard J., William P. Banks, and James B. Newman (eds) (2003). Essential Sources in the Scientific Study of Consciousness. MIT Press. Publisher's abstract.

Crick, F., Koch, K. (2003). A Framework for Consciousness. Nature Neuroscience 6. 2.

Damasio, A.R. (1989). Time-locked multiregional retroactivation: A systems-level proposal for the neural substrates of recall and recognition. Cognition 33. 1-2:25-62.

DeHaene, Stanislas & Lionel Naccache (2001). Toward a cognitive neuroscience of consciousness: basic evidence and a workspace framework. Cognition 79: 1-37.

Dennett, Daniel (2001). Are we explaining consciousness yet? Cognition 79: 221-237.

Dretske, F. (1995). Naturalizing the Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Edelman, Gerald M. (1989). Neural Darwinism. New York: Basic Books.

Edelman, Gerald M. & Tononi, G. (2000). A universe of consciousness. How matter become imagination. New York: Basic Books.

Humphrey, N. (2000). How to solve the mind-body problem. Journal of Consciousness Studies 7. 4: 5-20.

John, E.R. (2000). Consciousness & Cognition 10. 2.

Kanwisher, N.  (2001). Neural events and perceptual awareness. Cognition 79: 89-113.

Llinas, R., Ribary, U., Contreras, D., Pedroarena, C. (1998). The neuronal basis for consciousness. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 353. 1377: 1841-9

Metzinger, T. (ed) (2000). Neural Correlates of Consciousness: Empirical and Conceptual Questions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Metzinger, T. (2003). Being No One: The Self-model Theory of Subjectivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Revonsuo, A. (2000). Prospects for a scientific research program on consciousness. In Metzinger (2000), 41-56.

Taylor,J.G. (2003). The missing self, or: 10 ways to be a zombie,” Science and Consciousness Review,

Tye, M. (1995). Ten Problems of Consciousness: A Representational Theory of the Phenomenal Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Varela, F., J.-P. Lachaux, E. Rodriguez, J. Martinerie (2001). The brainweb: Phase synchronization and large-scale integration. Nature Reviews - Neuroscience 2 (April): 237.

Critiques of Global Workspace Theory

Blackmore, Susan (2002). There is no stream of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 9. 5-6. Full text (external).

Blackmore, Susan (2004).
Why Global Workspace Theory cannot explain consciousness. Presentation. Toward a Science of Consciousness 2004. Abstract (external).

See also the peer commentary (external) to the target article Baars (1997). In the Theatre of Consciousness: Global Workspace Theory.

Gamma & Kiper's course on Consciousness at the University of Zurich, 2003-4.

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 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles