Seminar by Dr. Frank Heile on Dec. 6th, 4:30-6pm in Alway M114.

Stanford Complexity Group will host a talk by Dr. Frank Heile on Dec. 6th, from 4:30-6pm in Alway M114 (Stanford Medical School). Details of the talk follow:

“A Three-Agent Model Explains Multiple Forms of Conscious Awareness, and More”,Frank Heile, Ph.D. (Physics, Stanford)

Abstract: An agent, such as a human being, is an entity that can sense the world and can act on the world, often in the pursuit of goals. Decomposing a complex agent into multiple sub-agents is one strategy for gaining insight into underlying mechanisms. The high-level functional model proposed here,decomposes the brain into three interconnected sub-agents: The Thinker, Doer,and Experiencer. The Thinker and Doer are justified because of their consistency with well-established, experimentally-derived theories of cognition in both psychology (Dual Process Theory [1]) and neuroscience (the Action-Outcome/Stimulus-Response model [2]). A theorem in control theory [3] proposes that an effective agent should contain a model of the world where the agent operates. This theorem suggests the existence of the third agent, the Experiencer; this agent would construct the model of the world that is shared by the Thinker and Doer.

Attention Schema Theory [4] proposes a model of awareness comprised of three objects: the agent’s self-model, the agent’s attention schema (which is a model of the neurological attention mechanism), and the representation of the attended object. This awareness model is applied to each of the three proposed sub-agents to describe the agent’s forms of awareness about external objects, and the types of self-awareness each agent would experience. The result is three different forms of conscious awareness. One of these forms would be the consciousness that non-human animals (and ancient humans) would experience. The second is the default awareness of modern humans. The final form of awareness corresponds to some of the experiences that occur in transient “flow states” or the more persistent “enlightened consciousness states.” In addition, this three-agent model clarifies the distinction, proposed by philosopher Ned Block, between phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness [5].

This three-agent proposal can also explain the rare neurological syndrome of Auto-Activation Deficit [6]—a specific type of apathy where patients can sit for hours, not moving or talking. Surprisingly, this inertia is immediately reversed when the patient is asked to perform some activity or to answer a question. Additionally, many of these patients have blunted affect and report that they do not experience thoughts. This three-agent model interprets all of these symptoms as evidence that these patients are suffering from a disabled Thinker.

Finally, this model explains the reasons for the development of both theistic and non-theistic spiritual traditions, and the efficacy of spiritual practices. Attend this session to explore a novel approach to assessing scientific or philosophical theories of consciousness, and the questions of agency and free will.


[1] Kahneman, D., 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Evans, J. S. B. T. & Frankish, K., 2009. In Two Minds, Dual Processes and Beyond. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press.

[2] Yin, H. H. & Knowlton, B. J., 2006. The role of the basal ganglia in habit formation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Volume 7, pp. 464-476.

[3] Conant, R. C. & Ashby, W. R., 1970. Every Good Regulator of a System Must Be a Model of That System. Int. J. Systems Sci.,, 1(2), pp. 89-97.

[4] Graziano, M. S. A. & Webb, T. W., 2015. The attention schema theory: a mechanistic account of subjective awareness. Front. Psych., 6(500).

[5] Block, N., 1996. How can we find the neural correlate of consciousness?. Trends in Neurosciences, 19(11), pp.456-459.

 [6] Habib, M., 2004. Athymhormia and Disorders of Motivation in Basal Ganglia Disease. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 16(4), pp. 509-524.

      Laplane, D. & Dubois, B., 2001. Auto-Activation Deficit: A Basal Ganglia Related Syndrome. Movement Disorders, 16(5), pp. 810-814.

One Response to “Seminar by Dr. Frank Heile on Dec. 6th, 4:30-6pm in Alway M114.”

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