How Hookmark Extends Its Users’ Consciousness: Based on Merlin Donald’s Multiple Component Convergence Theory of Consciousness

Luc P. Beaudoin
15 min readNov 17, 2023
Some concepts in Merlin Donald’s Multiple-Component Convergence theory of consciousness

CogSci Apps Corp. is not an ordinary software development firm. CogSci Apps products are based on cognitive science, including ideas in my Cognitive Productivity books and other ideas in the literature.

As I argued in

Beaudoin, L.P. (2023). How contextual information-retrieval software can support knowledge-building by extending intermediate and long-term consciousness. Paper presented at the Knowledge Building Summer Institute At: Montreal, Quebec,

Hookmark is a CogSci Apps® invention that extends its users’ consciousness.

But what is consciousness?

This question cannot be answered in the naive way that one would expect. More generally, “What is — — “ questions can only be answered scientifically through reference to one or more scientific theories. What is Energy? Look to the theory of relativity. What is “force”? Look to Newton’s three laws of motion. What is “natural selection”? Consider a Darwinian theory. In psychology, however, there are few canonical theories.

> What is “intelligence”?
> What are “emotions”?
> What are “moods”?
> What is “consciousness?”?

These answers are important, and every truly educated adult needs to be able to answer them. However, the answer will always depend on the theory. This is not merely a fact about psychology. The same holds in all disciplines, including physics, chemistry and biology. Often, there are multiple answers to the single “What is — — ?” question. And one needs to know multiple theories to answer the single question. What is light? It can be a particle or a wave: you need to know physical theories to correctly understand light. A scientist needs to be able to answer “what is — — ?” questions relative to multiple theories.

So, if you want to be able to answer questions about psychological concepts, you will need to master several theories. Fortunately, there are several cogent theories of consciousness, each providing a conception of consciousness. Here are some helpful papers by Anil Seth that define consciousness:

> Seth, A. (2013). Models of consciousness. Scholarpedia, 2(1), 1328–1320.
> Seth, A. K., & Bayne, T. (2022). Theories of consciousness. _Nature Reviews Neuroscience_ 23(7), 439–452.](

Unfortunately, Anil Seth’s literature reviews of consciousness fail to mention, let alone discuss in detail, the most compelling theory of consciousness, which provides a sophisticated evolutionary framework, by Merlin Donald.

Who is Merlin Wilfred Donald?

Wikipedia provides an answer to the question:

Merlin Wilfred Donald (born November 17, 1939) is a Canadian psychologist, neuroanthropologist, and cognitive neuroscientist,[1] at Case Western Reserve University. He is noted for the position that evolutionary processes need to be considered in determining how the mind deals with symbolic information and language. In particular, he suggests that explicit, algorithmic processes (the computational theory of mind) may be inadequate to understanding how the mind works.[2]

He is also known as the proponent of the mimetic theory of speech origins.[3]

What do you need to know about consciousness?

Here follow some questions you need to be able to answer to claim to have some level of understanding of consciousness.

  1. What is the name of Merlin Donald’s theory of consciousness, and why is it so named?
  2. What are the three phenomena-making phenomena of consciousness to explain?

Below, I answer the above questions.

What is the name of Merlin Donald’s evolutionary theory of consciousness, and why does it have that name?

I don’t like naming theories after people. People don’t own theories. And they don’t even fully create them; typically, they utilize others’ ideas. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart understood this when he said:

Thoughts crowd into my mind as easily as you wish. Whence and how do they come? I do not know, and I have nothing to do with it. Those which please me I keep in my head and hum them; at least others have told me that I do so.

I have had the pleasure and honour of communicating with Merlin Donald over the years. In December 2022, I asked him how I should refer to his theory, as it was anonymous at the time, save for “ Merlin Donald’s theory of consciousness”. Here is his answer:

I think my theory of consciousness is functional — I dismissed the “hard problem” as currently unsolvable and focused on the “easy” part (!) — namely, the identifiable evolutionary origins of our capacity for conscious integration. The brain mechanisms are not yet clear but are at least open to investigation.

It is also best described as a multi-component theory. I proposed that our capacity for the conscious integration of multiple sources of knowledge came into being as vertebrate species evolved different capacities — often in different species — for perceptual binding, short-term memory, attention control, and meta-cognition, among other things, each with its own evolutionary trajectory, which happened to converge, for its own adaptive reasons, at a certain level only in Homo sapiens.

So, much of our conscious capacity has a very ancient and deep origin in brain evolution. The uniquely human part of our capacity also relies heavily on a capacity for “slow” processing, or wide temporal integration, which is uniquely evolved in humanity, and enables us to compress a very temporally wide event — a story, for example, or a hockey game, or a long hunt — into a chunk or memory unit, instead of a series of complex events. We have no idea how this is done by the nervous system, but it obviously happens, and does not depend entirely upon language.

Most importantly, it is also a “scaffolding” theory: that is, our basic brain-based systems have been extended by the use of cognitive tools of various kinds, as scaffolding devices, which magnifies the evolutionary distance we have gained on fellow primates, by orders of magnitude. This includes our pragmatic social use (in idea-laundering systems) of other peoples’ memory systems, the tremendous gains in our retrieval options afforded by the invention of languages, and various crucial cognitive technologies including writing and various electronic devices.

So, what to call anything so complex? A good question! The key to our cognitive success is the convergence of so many independent evolutionary trajectories in our species, so perhaps it is best identified as a “convergence” theory of consciousness, or a “multiple component convergence” theory.

The MCC theory is too long and intricate for me adequately to explain here. I am merely adumbrating, introducing some mnemonics along the way. The mnemonics won’t make sense until you read A Mind So Rare, which I highly encourage you to do.

Merlin Donald’s Multiple Component Convergence (MCC) theory of Consciousness in a nutshell

To summarize, the MCC theory

1. is functional,
2. proposes that consciousness comprises multiple components,
3. claims consciousness has ancient origins,
4. emphasizes slow processing / wide temporal integration,
5. emphasizes scaffolding devices (such as paper and Hookmark) and
6. claims evolution has given humans multiple retrieval options.

Hookmark leverages, most directly, the sixth postulate, while also working in accordance with the rest of the MCC theory. For instance, Hookmark facilitates slow processing and wide temporal integration.

What are the 3 phenomena-making phenomena of consciousness to explain?

Consciousness is not merely a phenomenon, but the maker and the making of phenomena. Consciousness is The Great Integrator and The Great Integration.

Donald lays out 3 meanings of consciousness to be defined and explained.

  1. STates of consciousness
  2. The Architecture of consciousness
  3. Representations being conscious or unconscious.

Being an enthusiast of cognitive productivity & productive practice, I invented the mnemonic “STAR” to remember the foreground major distinctions. I also use 3 images in my mnemonic: USA flag : for “states”; a building: for “architecture”; and a thought bubble: for representations. The following figure depicts my STAR mnemonic.

Of course, it is not enough to name these things, one has to know how to communicate about them, and solve problems of understanding with them.

Name four major psychological concepts related to awareness distinguished by Merlin Donald:

- Consciousness,
- attention (selection process),
- working memory (short-term dynamic memory processes),
- awareness (of which there are 3 basic levels).

There are many other distinctions.

What is wrong with the hard stance against consciousness, according to which it is an epiphenomenon or equated with working memory?

The following answer is a paraphrase or quote of Merlin Donald (I can’t tell from my notes).

  1. They have the time frame wrong. Consciousness is not merely about short-term awareness. it’s also about intermediate and long-term awareness. (pp. 25–28 on “the paradox of paradoxes”).
  2. confusion over automaticity: they believe that consciousness has no causal role. They fail to realize the implications of the fact that for skills to be automatized, consciousness needs to be involved. “[We] install our own demons consciously (page 57). (The concept of demons is essential to MCC, and to Baars’ theory of consciousness for that matter.)

What are the major evolutionary transitions of consciousness according to MCC theory?

According to Merlin Donald, the three major evolutionary transitions are:

  1. Mimetic transition
  2. Mythic transition
  3. Theoretic progression

What are the components of memesis?

In the memetic transition, according to MCC theory, humans acquired the ability to do “GISM”:

  1. create and understand gesture
  2. do whole-body imitation
  3. rapidly compile new skills
  4. engage in mime

A trick for memorizing this is that “gism” is a homophone of “jism”, which is slang for semen. Shocking speech and imagery are good for memory! “GISM” then becomes what I call an “RDQ” , meaning a reconstructable, discriminative cue mnemonic. My first book, Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective) describes RDQ’s and the principles of memory they exploit.

Is pretend play fully symbolic according to MCC?

No, pretend play, of which children are also capable, is not fully symbolic (that requires the third transition). However, pretend play has implicit reference in that it refers to something other than itself. GISM thus sets the stage for the theoretic transition.

Give examples of whole-body imitation, including a significant one that you and other employed adults engage in (unless they never have a job) ?

Merlin Donald writes in A Mind So Rare

theatre, film, imaginative role-playing […] What is a career or vocation except a role-playing game extended over an adult lifetime/ even though adult life is dominated by heavy overlay of speech and literacy, our basic drives and ambitions are shaped by these kinds of mimetic scenarios.

What are the levels of basic awareness in MCC?

  1. Level-1 awareness: selective binding.
  2. Level-2 awareness: short-term control
  3. level-3 awareness: intermediate and long-term governance.

Merlin Donald wrote in The definition of human nature (Chapter 2) — The New Brain Sciences Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 August 2009:

A final point about the mediating role of consciousness. In our traditional theories, we have often defined consciousness as a rather narrow band of short-term memory storage, a window only a few seconds wide, within which we pass through the stream of experience that constitutes a lifetime. Long-term memory may contain everything we know, but it is unconscious, and thus useless to us asconscious beings, unless we can retrieve it into awareness. But between these two systems, there is a level of conscious processing that I have labelled ‘intermediate-term’ governance. This is a much wider, slower-moving form of working memory, which contains all simultaneously ongoing mental activity, including activity that is not as vividly conscious as, say, visual sensation, but is nevertheless a very active and causal element in behaviour. An example of this would be the complex of forces that govern a conversation between several people.

Hookmark helps with #2 and #3 above , thereby extending basic awareness in ways that no other software can; compare the coda of this here article.

What features of cognition are uniquely human?

When I was a first-year undergraduate, I took a full-year course in the foundations of Western philosophy. I read many books, including the recommended (but not required) book, which addresses a question to which, I believe, every educated adult should have a cogent answer (though there is not a univocal correct answer) , The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes by Mortimer J. Adler. Before reading on, write down your answer to the question, what makes humans unique with respect to their capabilities.

Adler’s book addresses an important question. For decades, I thought Adler’s answer was wrong. Following Aristotle and Aquinas, Adler claimed that human beings have an immaterial intellect. But then I realized it was closer to the truth than I (and others) had realized. Humans do in fact have immateriality to them: virtual machines. The human mind is a collection of virtual machines. However, humans are not distinct from other animals based on a sharp discontinuity (other animals have virtual machines), nor is the difference between us and them merely a matter of degree. There are many sharp discontinuities. (I won’t digress here. Please see my Notes About Continuity and Discontinuities — CogZest.)

Here are distinctive features of humans according to MCC. Notice they entail discontinuities in the space of possible minds. Humans are capable of the following which MCC refers to as the “executive suite” (related to executive functions).

  1. Self-monitoring
  2. Divided attention (Hold a t-bone steak in front of a dog and it won’t be able to concentrate on anything else;)
  3. Self-reminding. “In Donald’s framework, self-reminding would be associated with a more advanced, deliberate form of cognitive processing. It involves actively recalling past events or information, a process that requires a certain level of self-awareness and reflective thinking. This is part of what Donald terms as “theoretic culture,” where the mind engages in complex symbolic thought, including the formation of abstract concepts and the ability to reflect on one’s own thought processes.” ( ChatGPT, 2023–11–16 7–53 PM)
  4. Autocuing (p.163) (the ability of establishing prospective memories.) “more aligned with earlier stages of cognitive evolution, where memory and recall are more automatic and less dependent on complex language or symbolic thought. It’s more about the spontaneous retrieval of memories, often triggered by environmental cues or internal states. This form of memory is less reflective and more instinctual, relating to what Donald describes in earlier stages of human cognitive evolution, such as the “mimetic culture” stage, where communication and memory were more reliant on non-verbal signs and gestures.” (“In summary, within Merlin Donald’s theory of consciousness, self-reminding represents a more advanced, reflective form of memory recall associated with complex language and symbolic thought, while autocuing refers to a more automatic, instinctual form of memory retrieval that is less dependent on complex symbolic systems. This distinction highlights the evolutionary progression in human cognitive capabilities from more automatic, environmentally-driven forms of memory to more deliberate, self-reflective processes.” (ChatGPT, 2023–11–16 7–53 PM)
  5. Self-recognition
  6. Rehearsal and review. The basis for productive practice. A+ students normally know that they need to practice. If they are so bright that they don’t learn to practice, then as their brains age, they will be at a disadvantage. (Per The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older by Elkhonon Goldberg).
  7. Whole-body imitation. The “M” in “GISM”.
  8. Mindreading. Handy.
  9. Pedagogy.
  10. Gesture. The “G” in “GISM”. One can create kinesthetic mnemonics that tap into this ancient capability of ours. Also, this is common in dreams.
  11. Symbolic invention. Building new knowledge. Humans are capable of creating new symbol systems (e.g., the periodic table, shorthand, music notation) and using them in progressive problem-solving. This is something I discuss at length in my Cognitive Productivity e-books. Search for “knowledge-building” in them. Anyone reading this is a knowledge worker and thus needs to know what knowledge building is about.
  12. Build complex skill hierarchies (The “S” in GISM). Human abilities to ‘compile’ new routines is mind-blowing

Table 4.1 on page 139 summarizes the above:

Note that these capabilities are all evolutionarily advanced, normally distributed, and there are thus individual differences in them. Also, as we age some of our executive capabilities deteriorate, such as our

  • autobiographical memory (our ability to form personal narratives),
  • working memory (the funnel of consciousness, short-term awareness), and
  • our prospective memory (including self-reminding) .

This deterioration is known as “brain aging” and “cognitive aging”.

On creating symbol systems: When I was a child, I started inventing my shorthand, allowing me to take notes rapidly in class. After switching to computers, I started programming my own expansions in Pop-11 (Ved). Then I started using TextExpander, inventing my own grammars. Symbol creation is amongst some of the highest evolutionary accomplishments seen in humans and it is key to science and technology (yet many other theories of consciousness ignore symbol creation).

Nicaraguan deaf school children placed in classes together spontaneously develop sign language that is more advanced than what their adult teachers can keep up with!

Some encultured apes have some of the above, but none has all of them, and none has them in nearly as great a capacity as human children, let alone adults.

What is the great computational divide according to Merlin Donald?

It is the distinction between sub symbolic and symbolic processing, which ChatGPT also bridges . (See page 153 of A Mind So Rare).

On this subject see also: Layering in the Mind-brain and Why It Matters: An Exchange Between Paul Smolensky and Myself — CogZest (a very short video where I challenge naïve forms of connectionism).

Forthcoming on MCC

I will publish more about the Multiple Component Convergence theory of consciousness in the future. In fact, I am writing two articles on my somnolent information processing theory, which also leverages MCC theory. One is an invited chapter contribution to a Cambridge University Press book that Daniel Kay is editing. Another is for a paper on wearables to appear in IJERPH’s’ Special Issue / Sleep Monitoring and Mental Health.

Coherence and sense making

A highly salient feature of human consciousness is its propensity to detect incoherence, and its propensity to seek to construct coherent narratives and theories. See my article, We(e) Sense-makers — on

I exploited this feature of consciousness in developing the somnolent information processing theory and inventing the cognitive shuffle technique to fall asleep, which is used by another CogSci Apps® invention of ours, mySleepButton. In a nutshell, I postulated that at sleep onset, the greatest regular transition in global states of consciousness, the propensity for coherence monitoring wanes temporarily, and incoherent mentation disposes the mind-brain towards sleep (a positive feedback loop).

The architecture of mind

Not all researchers who develop theories of human consciousness realize they need to propose a computational architecture. Merlin Donald and Bernard Baars do understand this.

Merlin Donald’s theory of consciousness contains a computational architecture. This is particularly evident in the last chapter. I’ve been developing the CogXAff information processing framework, based on Aaron Sloman H-CogAff. CogXAff stands for ‘cognition, affect, and all kinds of motivational and ancillary mechanisms’. It uses much more based on empirical psychology than Sloman’s H-CogAff. (His H-CogAff in turn was partly based on my Ph.D. thesis.) More papers of ours are in preparation that explain CogXAff in more detail.

Culture and consciousness

Merlin Donald’s theory of consciousness attributes a humungous role to culture. I can’t begin to explain it in this already prolix document. We’ll return to it in the future.

Learn more about how Hookmark leverages the Multiple Component Convergence theory of consciousness

Having written so much about the MCC, and yet having merely scratched the surface of Merlin Donald’s complex and compelling theory, I can’t indulge here in saying much more about How Hookmark extends consciousness. I can merely speak in outline form. Later I will write in more detail, or you can check out:

Beaudoin, 2023. How contextual information-retrieval software can support knowledge-building by extending intermediate and long-term consciousness. Paper presented at the KBSI 2023 -Knowledge Building Summer Institute At: Montreal

The paper is available for free on myResearchGate page.

As noted, a key feature of consciousness is intermediate and long-term governance, which requires the ability of loading previously processed information into working memory. Hookmark is an information retrieval that enables this to happen very quickly. It decreases your reliance on search. Searching (through Google, Spotlight, navigating folders or other technical means) may seem instantaneous. But in fact it involves many steps, such as:

  1. forming a vague goal to search
  2. accessing the search tool
  3. mentally conceiving a specific search specification
  4. translating that into mental text
  5. typing the text out
  6. hitting enter
  7. waiting for the search results to be presented
  8. reading the search results, studying and assessing them
  9. deciding which search result if any to enter
  10. repeating

With Hookmark in contrast you can simply:

  • invoke Hookmark
  • see what is hooked
  • choose the appropriate hook

This augments your intermediate and long-term consciousness, freeing up your short-term consciousness so you can do deep work.

A Mind So Rare contains multiple references to information retrieval as being critical to consciousness. In the last chapter of that book, ways in which technology (even paper displays) can help with information retrieval are discussed. Donald had not specifically conceived of any software like Hookmark (it did not exist when he was developing his theories). However, he did discuss more primitive software than Hookmark as supporting what he calls the “external memory field”.

Clearly Hookmark supports the pinnacle of human consciousness evident in deep knowledge work.



Luc P. Beaudoin

I R&D software, theories & books to understand & self-regulate deep knowledge-work, mental perturbance & somnolence.🇨🇦