What is it that psychologists and philosophers call The Hard Problem?
Consciousness — or rather, self-consciousness — is a much-debated term throughout the history of both psychology and philosophy. In his 1996 book The Conscious Mind, Australian philosopher David Chalmers (1966) describes what he calls the easy problems of consciousness — like being able to explain how the brain physically works — versus the hard problem of explaining why we feel anything at all at any given time. What is the use of feeling?
These days, many psychologists define consciousness in a very practical sense, as the experience of one’s own mental events in such a manner that one can report on them to others. The practicality lies in the idea that you can ask a person to relate their thoughts, and therefore check their consciousness or awareness.
Another way to approach consciousness is by looking at attention. Attention influences how information flows from sensory memory to the short-term store or working memory. Once information is inside the working memory, we consciously work with it.
Alan Baddeley (1934) developed the most influential model of working memory, dividing it into three interacting components — the phonological loop, the visuospatial sketchpad, and the central executive. Later on, Baddeley introduced a fourth component, the episodic buffer.
The phonological loop is what we consciously use to keep information in our working memory. If someone tells you their telephone number, you probably keep repeating the number in your mind until you’ve typed it into your mobile as a new entry — that’s the phonological loop at work. The interesting thing is that the faster you can speak to yourself, the more information you can retain in your working memory. Generally, people can subvocally keep in working memory about as much verbal material as they can state aloud in two seconds (Baddeley). People who speak fast out loud, tend to be able to speak fast in their conscious mind and are therefore able to keep more information in their short-term memory. Also, language matters. If your language uses long words or elaborate sentences to describe things, your working memory will be more limited than for someone who uses a very succinct language. For instance, in Chinese, the numbers one to ten are all single-syllable words, which makes it easier for Chinese-speaking people to remember larger amounts of numbers.
What’s even more interesting, is that what is called the working-memory span — the ability to perform some “work” with a number of items in working memory — gives a good indication of cognitive abilities. In other words, the more items you are able to work with, in your consciousness, the more proficient you most probably are in higher-level abilities like reading, writing, mathematics, et cetera.
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