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Consciousness Is Like a Rainbow

A set of conditions must be met for a rainbow to come into existence; they do not simply manifest everywhere.

Consciousness resembles a rainbow in the sense that it emerges from specific circumstances. It should be noted that rainbows do not possess an inherent property linked to matter or the universe; instead, they arise from these circumstances, rather than spontaneously materializing.

The same principle applies to lasers, audio recording, digestion, memory retrieval, and air conditioning. These phenomena do not materialize out of thin air but are instead products of physical structures configured to perform these specific functions. Just as the human eye evolved for vision and the ear for hearing, their distinct configurations prevent eyes from hearing and ears from seeing. Likewise, within the realm of vision research, certain neural circuits are dedicated to particular forms of perceptual analysis, such as “edge enhancement” for detecting object boundaries and motion detection (e.g., the Reichardt detector). Due to their specific arrangements, neurons engaged in motion detection cannot engage in memory retrieval or music appreciation, and vice versa.

Consciousness, in a similar vein, is an accomplishment of the brain, brought into being by the activities of nerve cells and the manner in which they are configured to instantiate this particular cognitive phenomenon. This perspective aligns with the mainstream understanding: Not all brain circuits are linked to consciousness, much like how not all components of a car relate to its navigational system. The circuitry responsible for the car’s navigation differs from that of its transmission.

Consciousness is, in some way, brought about by neural activities configured for its instantiation. Overwhelming evidence supports this perspective, as acknowledged within the field of anesthesiology. The involvement of consciousness does not extend to all brain circuits, as indicated by a review of the available evidence (refer to the evidence review here). For instance, there is substantial evidence indicating that the cerebellum, despite its greater neuron count compared to the cortex, is not responsible for the instantiation of consciousness. The neurons within the cerebellum do not actively contribute to consciousness (refer to the evidence review here); instead, they are intricately wired for other specific functions. It is the specific arrangement of neural circuits associated with consciousness that allows them to bring about this phenomenon, akin to how the components of a toaster enable it to toast bread. Just as a blender cannot perform toasting and a toaster cannot blend, these neural circuits are uniquely configured for their intended purpose.

Similarly, the neurons responsible for the pupillary reflex are not designed for memory retrieval and are not structured for such a process, just as a toaster is not engineered for recording music, and a television is not adapted for toasting bread. Describing toast as “emerging” from the complexity of a toaster offers limited insight into the toaster’s functionality.

Those adhering to the panpsychist viewpoint would hold a contrasting opinion because, according to panpsychism, consciousness is an inherent property of all matter. This stance diverges from the traditional and mainstream understanding of the brain. From the panpsychist perspective, consciousness is not an accomplishment of the brain but rather a gift bestowed (in some manner) by the universe and its constituent matter.

  • Consciousness is derived from neural circuits specially evolved in our brains, configured to bring it into existence.
  • These circuits tend to exhibit specialization, with neural networks in the eyes differing from those in audition.
  • The achievement of consciousness is the result of specific neural processes; not all brain processes are linked to it.


What is the primary function of consciousness in the nervous system? The answer to this question remains enigmatic, not so much because of a lack of relevant data, but because of the lack of a conceptual framework with which to interpret the data. To this end, we have developed Passive Frame Theory, an internally coherent framework that, from an action-based perspective, synthesizes empirically supported hypotheses from diverse fields of investigation. The theory proposes that the primary function of consciousness is well-circumscribed, serving the somatic nervous system. For this system, consciousness serves as a frame that constrains and directs skeletal muscle output, thereby yielding adaptive behavior. The mechanism by which consciousness achieves this is more counterintuitive, passive, and “low level” than the kinds of functions that theorists have previously attributed to consciousness. Passive frame theory begins to illuminate (a) what consciousness contributes to nervous function, (b) how consciousness achieves this function, and (c) the neuroanatomical substrates of conscious processes. Our untraditional, action-based perspective focuses on olfaction instead of on vision and is descriptive (describing the products of nature as they evolved to be) rather than normative (construing processes in terms of how they should function). Passive frame theory begins to isolate the neuroanatomical, cognitive-mechanistic, and representational (e.g., conscious contents) processes associated with consciousness.

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