The Unconscious in the Three Structure Model: Integration in Neuroscience: A Core Problem – Part 7


This is a continuation of an investigation into the problem of integration in neuroscience (see Appendix for earlier posts in the series).


A Three Structure Model of Neural Activity in Relation to Consciousness and Language

Here I will consider the first two structures within the model – neural activity and consciousness. The model states that neural activity leads to conscious experience. However we do not need to reinvent the wheel. Freud had developed an eloquent model which incorporates conscious and unconscious activity and from an experiential perspective this has construct validity. As I write this I am breathing and my heart is beating. I am not aware of this until I attend to these phenomenon. I know that the Medulla Cardiovascular Centre regulates heart rate through sympathetic and parasympathetic outflow. As soon as the need arises the cardiovascular centre will modify the heart rate but I will not need to be aware of it. Indeed if I start to run quickly this will happen automatically. I do not have time to think about it.

For the Medullary Respiratory Centre the situation is the same. Activity in the neurons here will causes me to breathe more quickly. I do not focus my activity on the respiratory rate when I run quickly. I just breathe more quickly due to a number of factors including activity in the neurons in the Medullary Respiratory Centre. Again neuronal activity is happening which I am not consciously aware of. In this model, unconscious activity means one of two things.

1. Unconscious activity results from neuronal activity. This unconscious activity can become conscious experience if it is attended to.

2. Unconscious activity is neuronal activity. This activity can never become conscious experience as there is no mechanism for it to do so.

Thus two types of unconscious activity are described here and in practice both types are likely. I will refer to unconscious activity which can never become conscious experience as Absolute Unconscious Experience Activity. I would refer to activity in the Optic Nerve as being Absolute Unconscious Experience Activity.  Although activity here is essential for visual perception, the activity here occurs at an early stage of visual processing and would be referred to as sensation rather than perception. Activity in the Optic Nerve can impact on our conscious experience.

The second type of unconscious activity I will refer to as Transient Unconscious Activity Experience. In this case neuronal activity does not reach conscious experience when it is unconscious activity. However it is capable of reaching conscious awareness. An example of breathing will again help to illustrate the point. As I think about this sentence I am concentrating on the concepts but am unaware of my breathing. If instead I focus on my breathing I become aware of the air moving through my nose and the sensation of my lungs expanding as well as the rhythm of inspiration and expiration. Unconscious Activity experience has become conscious experience. The neuronal correlates are much more complex however and would likely include range from components of the Peripheral Nervous System through to the Medulla, the Thalamus, Insular Cortex, Primary and Secondary Somatosensory Cortex, Somatosensory Association Cortices, Primary Motor Cortex and Premotor Cortex. The neuronal activity needs to occur in these areas. In one state of mind however I am unaware of this. In the other state I am aware of some of this background neuronal activity.

The three structure model must expand to incorporate these two types of unconscious activity.

Related Resources on the TAWOP Site

In Support of Method

A Review of the Structure of Scientific Revolutions

An Interpretation of Scientific Revolutions

Integration in Neuroscience: A Core Problem – Part 1

Integration in Neuroscience: A Core Problem – Part 2

Integration in Neuroscience:A Core Problem – Part 3

Integration in Neuroscience: A Core Problem – Part 4: A Language for Mind and Brain?

Integration in Neuroscience: A Core Problem – Part 5: A Three Structure Model

Integration in Neuroscience: A Core Problem – Part 6: Reflection on the Three Structure Model

Index: There are indices for the TAWOP site here and here Twitter: You can follow ‘The Amazing World of Psychiatry’ Twitter by clicking on this link. Podcast: You can listen to this post on Odiogo by clicking on this link (there may be a small delay between publishing of the blog article and the availability of the podcast). It is available for a limited period. TAWOP Channel: You can follow the TAWOP Channel on YouTube by clicking on this link. Responses: If you have any comments, you can leave them below or alternatively e-mail Disclaimer: The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


  1. Naw, we disagree completely. It’s just old fashioned ideology and locally normed social self-talk. Predicts nothing. Kuhn’s model has been debunked as meaningless and again, ideology: aka local normed story telling, metaphors analogy.

    Again, if any of this chit chat had any value 1) other species would have it and 2) engineers, doctors and pilots would be consulting philosophy. People would die, if they did.

    There is no “meaning” in empirical reality — just another pathetic fallacy.


  2. Meaning is an empirical reality. You have written the above sentences. They have meaning. They result from a physiological process. They provide an immense adaptive value. Meaning forms the basis for civilisation.
    Other species have language. We symbolise some aspects of our language which we probably share with other species. There is work on this area in the greater apes. Just because we use words it does not negate the meaning behind these words which can be languageless.
    The irony is that in understanding physiology you must share a language of meaning with other scientists. This is the medium of physiology. A truth can exist in the universe but it only comes alive through the medium of the mind.
    When you say there is no meaning in empirical reality – I would argue there is E=mc2 is just one example.
    Engineers, doctors and pilots need to access different types of information – information that is adapted for their specialised needs. There is a place for philosophy. Indeed you will find it at the very foundation of the sciences – you need only go back to the Greek Philosophers to find these foundations.
    If you argue that their work was irrelevant for the development of science then this becomes an argument about the history of science and again I would refer you to Thomas Kuhn.


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