Consciousness and the social mind

Here is the intro to Phil’s piece.

Emotion is a hot topic, getting hotter all the time. The reasons for this enthusiasm are various, but the growth of neuroscientific interest in the area surely ranks high among them. The same goes for another hot topic: social cognition. Within the last two decades, two subfields of neuroscience have emerged: affective neuroscience, the study of the neural mechanisms underlying emotion and emotional feeling; and social neuroscience, the study of the neural mechanisms underlying social cognition. The parallel development of these new brain sciences is no accident. As Damasio (1994) makes clear, emotional and social functioning are deeply intertwined, since practical rationality is scaffolded by the ability to feel one’s way through the world, the social world included. This is now a familiar theme in cognitive science. Less familiar is the idea that the link between emotional and social functioning identified by Damasio forms part of a constellation of connections between consciousness (in the phenomenal, ‘what it’s like’ sense; see Nagel, 1974) and social cognition. In this paper, I try to identify some of these other connections, and to explore their implications for how we think about the conscious mind in general.

The plan of the paper goes like this. In the first part, I argue that a wide swath of consciousness is a product of the social mind, as it arises from cognitive operations dedicated to processing information about the domain of persons. I begin by describing two phenomena that have attracted considerable attention in the empirical literature. The first is social pain: the affect associated with the perception of actual or potential damage to one’s interpersonal relations. The second phenomenon of interest is affective contagion: the tendency for emotions, moods, and other affective states to spread from person to person as a consequence of social perception. Neuroscientific investigation of these phenomena suggests that affective consciousness depends on perception of the social world in much the same way that it depends on perception of the body. It appears, in short, that consciousness is a ‘socially embodied’ capacity, in two senses of the term (articulated below). In the second part of the paper I look at the flip side of this thematic coin. Here I argue that the distinctive sociality of our species, especially its moral dimension, rests heavily on our ability to represent the conscious states of others. In closing, I try to connect the two main claims of the paper – the claim that consciousness is essentially social, and the claim that thinking about consciousness is socially essential – by showing how they jointly point to a kind of circular causal-mechanistic nexus between consciousness and social mindedness.