- Mind, Theaters, and the Anatomy of Consciousness
"All unified theories of cognition today involve theater metaphors."—Bernard J. Baars
Among the most perplexing challenges for cognitive philoso-phers are those pertaining to representationalism, Gilbert Ryle's denial of the "ghost in the machine," the languages of cognition, and the "self" as the one-time audience and author of consciousness.1 Each of these topics can be discussed metaphorically in terms of the theater. The mind is a kind of acting space in which thoughts and images are in some fashion prepared and represented in rapid sequence. Consciousness is a theatrical machine behind which there is a director who helps to determine how the narrative of the mind will play itself out. The discrete "I" is not only the prompter of consciousness, but its audience, receiving all that is played in the mind's theater. Or, in the words of C. S. Sherrington, "each waking day is a stage dominated for good or ill, in comedy, farce or tragedy by a dramatis persona, the 'self,' and so it will be until the curtain drops."2 The problem, however, is that in matters so difficult to comprehend as the workings of the human brain and the mind operations attached to it, metaphors develop vectors of their own that shade and nuance understanding in ways that obstruct the plasticity of analysis. For this reason, theater analogies in relation to consciousness have been widely endorsed in characterizing its distinctive operations, yet widely criticized for epitomizing the philosophical thinking in the past (and the present) that detaches consciousness from the emotions, the body, and the material world. For the latter reason, the metaphor of [End Page 1] the theater will generally be found wanting, as it is in Dennett's assault on what he labels "the Cartesian theater." And yet there are compelling reasons why this metaphor may persist for a time to come as the image of choice for illustrating the operations of consciousness.
Arguably, the earliest intimations of mind as resembling a theater emerged at the beginning of the sixteenth century. It was not only an age that fostered a renewed interest in dramatized spectacle, but one that confronted, through theater metaphors, the illusory nature of human experience. The rise of the modern theater, and speculations upon reality in relation to happenings in the mind, are quite separate phenomena, but, arguably, a sense of the theater as a place of memory, of illusions projected as realities, and of experience provided the best "thought experiment" for dealing with the paradoxes of mentation. In fact, the emerging sense of reality as an illusion was tantamount to a major paradigm shift, one that has remained at the center of western philosophy from the time of Descartes to the present day. That there could be a disparity between the phenomena of mind and the world of extension was a watershed in epistemological thinking, and it followed, as a matter of course, that the illusions associated with perception would find expression in the illusions associated with theatrical representation. The result was that the medieval metaphor of the speculum, emphasizing the mind as the faithful reflection of reality, was replaced by the theater, in which the necessary conventions permitting belief came to bear on the understanding of the data which the mind represented to itself. In short, conventions are to the theater what adequate representation is to the mind—the necessary slippages whereby perceptions function as reality.
Parallel insights into the mind as a theater came about through sixteenth-century inquiries into mnemonics techniques for the improvement of memory. This metaphor of mind came about by analogy with memory theaters of the kind epitomized in the Idea del Theatro (1550) of Giulio Camillo. He chose the theater simply as the most apt edifice in which to house his elaborate set of memory prompts. His goal was to devise an actual working machine for enhancing recall. He chose the theater because of its architectural complexity and multi-sectionality which he could in turn invest with information. Yet insofar as the theater functioned in relation to memory through the art of mnemonics, it became an extension of mind, and...