Beyond the Cartesian Theater: More Better Models and Metaphors

Before we can have a theory about anything, a theory that makes quantitative, falsifiable claims, we need some kind of model. A model is less rigorous than a theory, really just a way of thinking about something. Climbing down the ladder of rigor still another rung we get to metaphors. A metaphor is just a turn of phrase. Like a model, a metaphor is a way of thinking about something, but unlike a model, it doesn't pretend to be complete but merely lacking detail; rather it is completely flimsy, and if you look at it from the wrong angle, or push just a little too hard, the whole thing collapses.

Right now we have no idea how to think about the mind, but we have to think of it in some way. We can't help but think in terms of metaphors, and if we choose the wrong ones, we end up channeling our thinking in certain directions and not in others, making assumptions without justification and overlooking whole classes of possibilities. No matter how well we know that we are speaking loosely, our mental images and metaphors have a creeping influence on our subsequent speculation. As you speak, so you will think. Moreover, the more deeply you want to go with your investigations and speculations, the more this kind of thing matters. You can have a somewhat wrong model in mind and still come up with perfectly accurate empirical predictions. When you are trying to rethink things in a fundamental way, however, when you are trying to make conceptual leaps and nail down what might be true, what must be true, and what could not possibly be true about the really big things like consciousness, the wrong metaphor, or simply the lack of the right one, can really derail you.

What we would like is a large and varied repertoire of metaphors to draw from, with some awareness of each of their limitations. We've already seen the Cartesian Theater, which Daniel Dennett (Dennett 1991) is right to dismiss as a valid metaphor for the mind. He is also right in saying that it is very difficult to exorcise it from our thinking about minds. Here I would like to discuss some models that I find fruitful, with caveats. This all gets a bit speculative, but not necessarily in the hardcore metaphysical sense, more in a meat-and-potatoes, easy-problem sense. The goal here is to come up with images and words we can use when applicable, but with our eyes open, so that eventually we may be able to come up with an actual theory that is cognitively, phenomenologically, and biologically plausible.


These days we can't help but think of the mind in terms of computers. In spite of everything I have written about consciousness, I still do it all the time, and I even think it is often useful to do so, as long as you are aware of the problems with it. The computer is simply the dominant metaphor for minds (and lots of other things as well) just as the clock and the steam engine were dominant metaphors in eras past. (A pretty good discussion of the ascendancy of the computer model of the mind can be found in P. Cisek's article in the Nov/Dec 1999 issue (Reclaiming Cognition) of the Journal of Consciousness Studies.)

In a sense, the more you actually know about how computers work the longer the period of intellectual detox must be. You just can't help phrasing things in terms of live processor vs. dead data, a centralized point of control, search and sort algorithms and the like. I really like Dennett's pandemonium/fame model of mind as an antidote to this (more on this later). Dennett makes the point that the serial von Neumann type machine (a fancy way of talking in an idealized, abstract sense about "the computer" as we understand computers) is highly artificial even in our own minds. That is, our minds, as they evolved, did not start out thinking that way. Serial, von Neumann type thinking was a great trick, but one we probably learned relatively late in the evolutionary game - it is not the natural architecture of minds. As Dennett puts it, our mind is a serial machine simulated on a massively parallel substrate. It is this type of linear, symbolic thought that we get presented to us when we try to introspect "how we think". We went on to build computers to mimic this naive impression we have of our own thought processes, and obviously it has worked out quite well for us in lots of ways. But to imagine that we can capture the essence of thought itself that way is a beguiling mistake.

Let me say up front that I am aware that I am putting up something of a straw man argument against computers here. There are many, many different computer languages, and many, many different computing environments, and I am lumping everything together as if it were the 1950's, and "computer" means straightforward, old-school linear programming, of the type we deal with in languages like C or assembly language. I'm old-school - this is largely how I think of computers. At their core, (or these days, their cores) computers darn well are straightforward, old-school machines. In such a device, there is a linear thread of control, laid down by the human programmer. Control may pass to a subroutine, which may do all kinds of complicated things, including passing control to still other subroutines, but when it is done it issues a "return" statement of some kind, and control pops back up to the calling code. (Yes, it really is called popping. Popping the stack, as a matter of fact).

I assume that I need not go into too much detail as to why the computer is such a compelling metaphor. It certainly seems as though they do a lot of the stuff that minds do; after all, we designed them to. They process information, they remember stuff, they seem to know stuff in some sense or another, and you can program them to do seemingly any cognitive task you can imagine, if you just have enough memory and CPU cycles. I remember, upon first learning to program, feeling the same confidence that the early researchers in the 1950's felt that I should be able to whip up a functioning AI.

There are, however, some problems with computers. A computer is the quintessential functional device, with each module defined in terms of its producing the right outputs given the right inputs in the right state, and all the modules being integrated in a purely causal fashion. I've already spoken about functionalism, and then there is the whole Hard Problem what-is-it-like-to-see-red thing. But there are other reasons why a computer, at least a traditionally programmed one, is not quite the model we are looking for.

How Could A Computer Be More Like A Mind?

So before we dismiss computers altogether (and I emphasize again that dismissing them for good would be nearly impossible as well as counter-productive, since we will always be drawn to the extensive vocabulary of computers when talking about minds) let's think about them for a bit. Ignoring for the moment all of the what-is-it-like-to-see-red arguments, why are computers not like minds? In particular, if we were to design a brand new computer language, or a computer environment (like an SDK - Software Development Kit) that would allow people to tinker with AI, what would it look like?

For starters, the units of processing (threads/routines/processes) would be able to connect with each other with a higher probability of producing something coherent than today's computers would. That is, a computer executing a program walks a knife edge of coherence surrounded by a sea of chaos. Drop one bit, or walk off the end of an array, and you are simply done (General Protection Fault, app quit unexpectedly). Computers are very chaotic systems (neighbors do not map to neighbors) - change one thing about a computation and you get drastically different results. This is not generally how organic things work, including brains. I think that if we were to create a development environment/language for true AI, the fundamental bricks out of which the system created algorithms would be hardier. They could knock around, invoke or connect with each other if not randomly, at least somewhat randomly, with a greater probability of creating something that would run.

Building on this idea, it would be nice if our computer system were more non-destructively, or even constructively, destractable than computers generally are. Mental history is written by the mental winners. Thought only seems logical, rigorous and inevitable in retrospect. As thoughts actually develop, they are marked by constant distractions. Some are dismissed, some are pursued, and some fall in between, nudging or coloring other threads of thought. We are interrupt driven, and interrupts come not only from outside, but from inside as well. When we drill down or call a subroutine, we might take off in a whole new direction, and never return (or never quite return) to the original thread. Somehow, "low-level" routines can derail the "high-level" routines, but not willy-nilly. The system works, after all, and I can drive to work and bake cookies and not forget what I am about. Somehow, in minds, there isn't this distinction between low-level routines and high-level ones, such that high-level routines call the low-level ones, which are bound to do exactly as they are told and return to the caller. High-level and low-level in minds is a bit of a two-way street. This suggests that the mind is more like a fractal - patterns get applied at high and low levels, and there is no such thing as a low-level utility routine, only patterns that can be applied at any level. Or even, perhaps, patterns that apply themselves at any level. It might be a good exercise to try to envision how computation might work freed from the tyranny of the "return" statement.

It also seems to me that for a computer to behave like a mind, it would have to possess more of a memory, not just a memory of the type that computers already possess. Computers store numbers in memory in a very deliberate way, treating memory like a chest of drawers. Put the red socks in this drawer, take them out of that drawer later. In a computer that acted like a mind, however, the machine would actually maintain the vapor trails of past thoughts themselves. This sounds a little like a CPU cache, but whereas the cache is invisible to the software by design, this would not be. Past thoughts, including their flailings and dead ends, would be stored as objects that can later be held up to the light and examined. It is misleading to think of the mind as a tiny spark of active CPU, that accesses opaque memory by address and plucks the datum stored there and loads it into a register. The way a computer uses memory is like a warehouse filled with crates, and a big overhead claw that can grab any crate and carry it to a central platform. That's just not the way memory and mind work at all.

In a mind, as new ways of thought are cobbled together with routines, with threads or submodules invoking each other, the pattern of linkages is abstracted from the particular problem at hand and stored as a whole new invocable algorithm. Somehow, what is stored must not be just the beginning state and the ending state of a particular function or transformation, but the process of the transformation itself, or what it is like to perform it. To mimic this, would would have to blur the distinction between algorithm and data, so that our system works with blobs of algorithmic data stuff. In fact, I think that there is likely no distinct line we can draw in actual minds between data, algorithm, and the execution engine (CPU) itself. In a mind, data gets applied to new situations; data gets applied to other data; algorithms get applied to each other; algorithms are treated as raw material for other algorithms. A mind gets to see an algorithm all at once, to comprehend it, which is a far different thing than merely executing it. We humans, for instance, have a much easier time with the Halting Problem than computers do, usually. The hard and fast distinction between memory, data, and CPU is the most insidious effect of using the computer as a metaphor for the mind.

Dennett's Pandemonium

In "Consciousness Explained", (Dennett 1991) Daniel Dennett proposed a so-called pandemonium model, that partially echoes Marvin Minsky's Society Of Mind idea (Minsky 1985). It is a good one, worth reprinting here:

There is no single, definitive "stream of consciousness" because there is no central headquarters, no Cartesian Theater where "it all comes together" for the perusal of the Central Meaner. Instead of such a single stream (however wide), there are multiple channels in which specialist circuits try, in parallel pandemoniums, to do their various things, creating Multiple Drafts as they go. Most of these fragmentary drafts of "narrative" play short-lived roles in the modulation of current activity but some get promoted to further functional roles, in swift succession, by the activity of a virtual machine in the brain. The seriality of this machine (its "von Neumannesque" character) is not a "hard-wired" design feature, but rather the upshot of a succession of coalitions of these specialists.

The basic specialists are part of our animal heritage. They were not developed to perform peculiarly human actions, such as reading and writing, but ducking, predator-avoiding, face-recognizing, grasping, throwing, berry-picking, and other essential tasks. They are often opportunistically enlisted in new roles, for which their native talents more or less suit them. The result is not bedlam only because the trends that are imposed on all this activity are themselves the product of design. Some of this design is innate, shared with other animals. But it is augmented, and sometimes even overwhelmed in importance, by microhabits of thought that are developed in the individual, partly idiosyncratic results of self-exploration and partly the predesigned gifts of culture. Thousands of memes, mostly borne by language, but also by wordless "images" and other data structures, take up residence in an individual brain, shaping its tendencies and thereby turning it into a mind.

I have already argued against adopting this model as the truth, lock stock and barrel, but I like aspects of it. I tend to agree with Dennett that thought is a lot less linear and single-threaded than we think it is, and that there are a lot of competing/cooperating specialist circuits at work. Dennett evocatively calls these "demons". This actually hearkens back to the idea of computer processes, as certain types of these are called "daemons" in UNIX and Linux.

Voltron I accept that there could be lots of demons in my mind, perhaps that entirely make up my mind. It is certainly a great metaphor. But again, we can't let it limit us, and we must think hard about the ways the things in our minds might not be like individual, you know, demons, or anything subject to the constraints that actual biological beings might live and die under. How many demons are there? What delineates a demon? How do new ones come into existence, and do they ever die? To what extent do they compete, and what happens to the losers? To what extent do they cooperate? Some people use terminology that suggests that the mind is a "Darwinian memosphere". Does natural selection work on demons in the same way that it does on species? Can demons mate and produce offspring? Or can they simply merge together like Voltron? Do individual demons change over time, or adapt?

Dennett uses the term "coalitions" (there's that parliamentary thing again). After allying themselves to accomplish something, does the coalition fall apart into exactly the same set of individual demons that went into it, or does the Voltron/coalition demon get to stick around, added to the menagerie along with its component demons? Perhaps a demon can sort of will itself to have new powers, unlike biological beings. Maybe they reproduce in a way that is more like mitosis than sexual reproduction. To what extent do patterns of relations between demons harden and become new demons themselves?

What do demons want? To the extent that they compete, what resources are they competing for? How, if at all, do they stack, or nest, or apply themselves to one another? What are the channels of interaction between them? Do they all have mutual visibility, as if they are sitting in a huge stadium watching each other? Does any one demon, or coherent coalition, hold the floor at any given time? It may well be the case that the channels of communication are not instantaneous, and not all global, and that the longer a given signal sticks around, the more broadly it gets propagated. Stability and consistency of a signal have a way of focusing the mind. Are the signals themselves between the demons just more demons? If not, how should we think about them? Or is it really more like a jungle, in which demons happen across one another from time to time, interacting sporadically?

Phenomenological Plausibility of Demons

Why does this whole demon/memosphere idea seem even vaguely plausible in the first place from a first-person point of view? As we go about through our lives, we have a sense that our mind is not monolithic, that there are parts of it working away offline. Not only do results of these offline computations pop into our main stream of consciousness, but there is a definite sense, in me anyway, of a whole train of thought, in all of its what-its-like-to-see-red glory, being plugged into whatever else I was thinking about or experiencing. Such trains of thought come complete with a sense that they didn't just come into existence at the moment "I" became aware of them, but that they had been developing on their own for some time.

Have you ever been listening to an oldies station, and heard a song that you have not heard in years or decades, but had the distinct sense that the very same song was going through your head sometime in the past week? Of course you have. I have had this sense suspiciously often. Often enough, in fact, that I have a hard time believing that I actually just happened to be replaying all those songs consciously in my memory in the few days before I heard them on the radio.

Now of course this sense could be an illusion. As with deja vu, I could be misremembering, mis(re)constructing my own mental history. But let's go with this for a moment. This palpable sense of past mental history that gets retroactively grafted onto your "main" consciousness makes a lot of sense if your consciousness is made of semiautonomous demons. I think that all of my song memories are playing all the time, but "I" am not aware of them. And if song memories work this way, what other memories are on hot standby? Is there a "Dancing In The Moonlight" demon, who just sings that song all the time, forever until you die? I can't rule it out. It may be that all of our old moments of consciousness are still in there, as some kind of standing waves.


How do you ever get a thought in edgewise, with all these demons singing? Not to mention the ones thinking, remembering, and sensing your shoes through the soles of your feet. I suspect that you (or perhaps I should go with the scare quotes, "you") tune them out. Like the jackhammer outside your window, it's not as if the demons go away or stop, but after a short while they just don't impinge upon "you" anymore, unless it would be a good idea for them to do so. But what are the forces that determine how good or bad an idea it is for them to seize the stage (there's that Cartesian theater again)?

I think it is entirely likely that all of the demons are conscious to some extent or another, whether or not "I" am conscious of what they are conscious of. I am legion and I contain multitudes. I know that some consciousness happens, but I don't necessarily know how much more consciousness happens that "I" don't (need to) know about. At one time it took a lot of concentration for me to tie my shoes, but now I could almost do it in my sleep. I constructed a tying-shoes demon, and when I tie my shoes, somewhere in my mind, it is hard at work, concentrating like mad (although I can willfully focus my attention on the act of shoe tying and make it conscious).

Active percepts, not just past memories, are demons. You tune out the actual shapes of the trees on the side of the road as you drive to work each day, the colors of the houses on your street, etc. Your eyes pick up all these details (that is, the corresponding photons do actually strike your retinas), and somewhere there is a perceptual demon who, according to this way of thinking, is exquisitely conscious of all that stuff, but "you" aren't aware of it, unless there is a conscious effort at attention to such details.

I have a strong suspicion that a great deal of the mind's activity is inhibitory. We spend an awful lot of effort shutting down streams of information, and channeling activity, blocking and constraining. If you sense another metaphor coming on, you are right. It strikes me that, to borrow an image from the memeticists, the mind is like an organism under constant assault by viral memes (demons). We tune out the singing demons by quickly developing antibodies to them. If the "Dancing In The Moonlight" demon sings the same song in the same way for too long, we jam the signal by installing a counter-signal, a counter demon. We handicap; we compensate. It doesn't stop, but we accommodate it by adjusting for its constant presence. And of course, even though I speak of singing demons, this goes for the remembering-my-childhood-cat-Fluffy demon as well, and the demons that notice the trees along the highway. The demon and its meme-jamming anti-demon are locked in a self-canceling embrace forever, leaving the mind as an intricate balance of tensions, like a bicycle wheel.

Each of the demons wants to dominate, to grab center stage. In order to maintain a thought or percept at all, you must be good at developing and maintaining antimemes, of countering all of the different assaults and distractions from the different demons. Imagine the little Dutch boy of the fable, with a million fingers in a million holes in the dyke. Or, you wait until the whole system reaches some kind of equilibrium for some amount of time. If some demon really wants to apply itself, maybe you just let it.

This idea of demons/antidemons (or memes and antimemes) respects a couple of ideas. Most importantly, it respects a sense of holism in the mind. The mind, according to this conception of it, really is one unified thing, with a balance of tensions keeping much of it more or less inert at any given time. This image helps make sense of what Ned Block calls perceptual overflow, those conscious-but-not-conscious scenarios people have devised over the years: the ticking clock you are not aware of until it stops, the pattern of the design on the carpet, the sensation of your socks against your ankles. Your "peripheral" awareness of such things is in there, and part of your overall conscious field, but neutralized by an antimeme.

Carried further, it may well be the case that our whole mind, every sensation and even every memory, is just like that: always right there, as part of your all-at-once now, but tuned out. The cacophonous demons are not off somewhere, each in its own soundproof room. They are all there, all the time, fully patched in. We actively exert ourselves to cancel them out, and this exertion is a collective exertion, performed by other demons: the mind as a self-policing pandemonium.

Darwinian Memosphere of Demons

I like the idea of active demons, even if most of them live in the shadows most of the time, rather than the mind as presiding over a mountain of static data. The mind is clearly great at parallel processing, but even that understates the situation, I think. When we are given a fact, say, that contradicts something we know, even somewhat indirectly, it is remarkable how quickly we notice. If we learn something new and surprising about cars, it is hardly plausible that we serially run through all the thoughts and memories involving cars (individual cars as well as general car knowledge) in our minds and adjust them accordingly. Facts, memories, are recalled as needed, as if by magic. It certainly seems as if the old fact jumps up, as if offended, to take on the newcomer. Old thoughts are less like dead data waiting to be accessed, searched, sorted, or applied, than like little sparks of mind themselves, capable of asserting themselves.

I suspect that there is no single burly stagehand guarding the stage, screening demons who want their moment in the spotlight. Demons can jump on and apply themselves to any detail of a new or developing stimulus (thought or percept) that catches their fancy. In this way, they get to flesh out the "focused-upon" detail more fully. However, over-eager demons get smacked down. Demons can jump on the stage, applying themselves whenever they want, but there is a cost. If they are just spamming, grabbing the spotlight when they have nothing to contribute, they either strengthen the counter-demon response and get tuned out extra in the future, or they get corrupted somehow. In order to survive intact over the long term, demons must tiptoe through the minefield of existing demons on the way to the stage without stepping on anyone else's tail or hoof.

You know how sometimes you remember an event from the distant past, and you are not sure if you are actually remembering the event or remembering your subsequent remembering of it on other occasions? Your memorable recalling of it in the past has effectively jammed the original memory. Any toehold or reference tag that would have triggered the original memory will also now trigger the memory of the memory. The original has been masked. Was Fluffy yellow? I always thought of him as yellow. But Mom has a photo and he's black. Oops. If you have to bribe too many stagehands to get onstage, you may find that you have nothing left once you get there. Demons who cry wolf get ignored later (or countered more vigilantly).

I speculate that different demons have different niches in the memosphere. Some are swaggering alphas, that apply themselves broadly and promiscuously to whatever processing that needs doing, while some are rarely seen, and just stay in their tiny niche, with very specific criteria for activation. According to this notion, a swaggering alpha's identity may be so smeared out and indeterminate that it hardly has an identity left, just the barest shape of one, a tone or coloring it can impart. (The notions of causation or object permanence might be such demons.)

While at the other end of the spectrum, the den-dwelling, seldom-seen demons get to keep their specificity in sharp detail (like specific episodic memories, or particular skills). Perhaps the alphas are more appropriately seen as eager beavers, willing to trade quality and specificity for sheer quantity and frequency, whereas the den-dwellers make the opposite call. As in nature, different demons employ different strategies and make different evolutionary compromises, until just about every conceivable niche is filled.

Just as it may weaken or corrupt a demon to apply itself overly broadly, demons may be similarly insulted by allowing other, incompatible demons to pass onto the stage. There may be, for instance, a demon that enforces or embodies what we think of as a valid chain of logical inference, and it will not tolerate another demon that violates its criteria for a valid chain of inference to ascend. To allow such a thing would be to make it less likely that the valid-inference demon would be allowed to ascend in the future. In this way, demons collectively constitute rules or constraints on each other. A truth I am certain of, or perhaps even a symbol I know how to interpret may be a rock-solid demon that will simply always win competitions with other demons.

What about the mind's current state makes it enticing for the next demon or coalition of demons to make a play for the stage? What sorts of current thoughts create a hospitable niche for subsequent thoughts? I suspect that the answer is far from deterministic, or rather, that it is chaotic: you never know what details or seemingly unimportant aspects of a thought or percept will grab hold of a demon's fancy and take you in a whole new direction. In particular, it is not necessarily the overall big idea or perceived direction a current thought is going in that subsequent thoughts hook into but those aforementioned distractions, even if most of the distractions do not go anywhere interesting and wind up being dead ends. Moreover, I think that demons do not necessarily have a preference for high-level deployment as opposed to low-level filling out the detail of some thought or percept - they just like a good fit.

So: the demons that are maximally compatible with all the existing demons are allowed to take the stage. Each new moment of consciousness is new and unique, however. So it is not the case that old demons simply get to relive their glory days in the spotlight; more likely they get to inform the creation of a new demon - they get to be the primary parent, or chief architect. Each incumbent demon is like a craftsman, or a specialized muscle that shapes a new demon. Although some are more like specific memories, some are more like general facts or general strategies. Some are more algorithmic/prescriptive, and others more data/descriptive, on a sliding scale. Each has a bit of "what is it like?" and each has a bit of "what does it do?". Indeed, it is hard to separate the two aspects. When I drive down my street and see an object in my field of vision that ultimately resolves to "house", it is probably not the case that my "house" demon simply grabs the spotlight; more likely it helps spawn a new moment of consciousness, a new, yet distinctly housey demon.

We often speak of our minds containing models: models of reality, models of self, models of my cat, etc. What sense can we make of such talk if our minds are constituted by demons? Are there models at all, if each new moment of consciousness is whipped up on the fly dynamically? I feel comfortable saying yes. Any model is a black box with an interface. You ask certain questions in the right way, and the model gives you consistent answers. A model may be implemented by a static table of bits or a database, with a relatively mechanical query engine, or it may be implemented by a raucous parliament. Our "models" may not be as model-like as we suppose.

This pandemonium image blurs the distinction between immediate sensations and memory, which to my way of thinking is one of its virtues. Memory is smarter and more active than is generally supposed. Memories are not in cold storage, off in a file cabinet, but right in your mind now, pressing on your consciousness.

Finally, this image bolsters an intuition that the ability to get bored is essential for intelligence. As you are assaulted by the same thoughts, you tune them out. You cease to be conscious of what isn't novel. Could autism be somehow related to meme immune deficiency disorder, a failure to get bored?

So what are the selection criteria for letting demons on the stage? Which demons do get promoted to the inner circle? Whoa - what inner circle? Alright, yes, there is no Cartesian theater, not exactly, but even Dennett acknowledges that there is something like a consensus that forms (pretty quickly at that) about what the narrative center of gravity is (or was) at any moment in my mind. This may be an artifact of the narrative-spinner demon, the chatterbox, and may not mean as much as it seems with regard to what "I" am thinking, but there is something to the notion that I thought about Fluffy today, but had not in the week before today. There is something like a spotlight of attention on certain trains of thought, even though (as I suspect) there are lots and lots of other trains of thought going on at the same time. So with my invocation of the Cartesian theater, here is an example of my using a discredited metaphor because, dammit, it helps me say what I want to say.

The Spotlight of Attention

While I am here, I should just say that the proverbial spotlight of attention is a bad metaphor, even though I just used it. Attention is actively created, not passively observed. The spotlight metaphor wrongly implies that the thing attended to in the mind already exists, in all its detail, in the dark before the spotlight is shone upon it. In a way, the image of a spotlight of attention is a continuation of the Cartesian Theater. Where was the last time you saw a spotlight, drawing your attention? Probably the theater. Rather than imagining that all of our thoughts, percepts, memories, etc. are all there, fully realized, but in the dark until their moment in the spotlight, it is more likely the case that we function as a sort of just-in-time mental reality generator, creating things on the fly as we "turn our attention to" them. That said, it is hard to stop using this image, just as with the Cartesian Theater itself, for the same reason. There is some sense in which "I was thinking this" or "I was not aware of that, but I am now, for purely internal reasons."

The idea of demons having to pay a cost for inappropriate activation may help improve the "spotlight of attention" metaphor. As a demon, you get to create the spotlight any time you want, making other demons conform to you, just as any loser can pull a fire alarm. Seizing attention is really a way of corralling or bullying other demons into trying to apply themselves to you, even at a cost to themselves of less-than-appropriate activation. Depending on the situation, seizing attention is like issuing an "all hands on deck" with more or less urgency. Attention, then, isn't some spotlight being shone on a particular demon, but is the collective combinations of lots of demons, perhaps with one at the center as a ringleader or catalyst. Things like pain or a threat tend to focus the attention. This may be a way of having one imperative light a fire under all of the demons, in effect shouting at them, "I don't care if this doesn't fit your criteria of applicability! Find a way to apply yourselves to this situation, however suboptimally to yourselves!"

Synthesis/Analysis Feedback Loop

There is one more wrinkle that I want to add to the pandemonium model now. One one hand, there is this idea that parts of my mental processing are performed by somewhat autonomous demons. On the other hand, there is a strong sense that there is some kind of "me" that has some kind of continuity, and that it is intimately connected to my thoughts and percepts, that there is some kind of deep holism at work. Thoughts and percepts have a sort of e pluribus unum, one-yet-many quality, to the point where it seems that in some sense, I am my thoughts and percepts. Even if it is (merely) a narrative center of gravity, there is a sense in which I am conscious of seeing a veterans' monument in the center of town, or I'm not. What does it take for some percepts or constructions of the mind to claim center stage, to command the spotlight? Or should I say, manifest the spotlight?

As I am taking in a complex percept, I have to synthesize perceptual fragments into some kind of whole. Different sense modalities get bound; I discriminate edges, light and shadow, colors, then shapes, tables, chairs, pine-scented air fresheners get recognized as such individually as well as belonging in the larger context. There is no naive perception, so along the way, I (or my demons) do all kinds of scrubbing, smoothing, guessing, extrapolating, etc. I am convinced that even pretty simple perception is more creative than it is generally given credit for.

We get a lot of messy, noisy, patchy data from our senses, and various demons (or committees of demons) take a stab at cobbling different parts of it together into larger coherent (to them) chunks, discarding outliers, making inspired guesses. Eventually, they synthesize a whole bunch of data into a single, unified percept, complete with tendrils of association and valence, framing and background knowledge: ah, a veterans' memorial. On the way to that unambiguous, stable, solid interpretation, however, there was a lot of thrashing around.

Whatever they come up with as a single interpretation, that final, unified percept, is only a first pass. This recalls Dennett's Multiple Drafts idea, although he is a bit vague about how rough drafts get edited. I imagine that as soon as anything like a draft emerges, it gets attacked, more or less. Demons try to break it back down again, along fault lines that they choose, not necessarily into the original components it was synthesized from. This becomes an iterative loop, with the same percept being built up and broken down, with possible subloops happening along the way. Stability (the "final" draft) happens when the result of the synthesis phase of the process no longer differs in successive loops - a consensus has been reached.

For unambiguous input, there are few iterations, little demonic controversy, and the processing is more or less automatic and unconscious. It is the more ambiguous, complex cases that take longer to stabilize, that end up engaging more and more demons. This is a slightly different take than Dennett's fame in the brain, in that it's the battles that get famous.

OK, so I exceeded my mandate as laid out earlier. I said that my goal here was only to expand our vocabulary a bit and give us some colorful metaphors and figures of speech, and I ended up advancing an actual speculative hypothesis. Dennett's pandemonium is a good model, and something like it is quite likely the truth, but it needs fleshing out. I am trying to make it as plausible as I can while stepping carefully around its mysterious bits. As always, the danger with any model is that it ends up sneaking assumptions in that bind us and blind us.