• Consciousness has less control than believed, according to new theory

    This is a fascinating press release from San Francisco State University:

    Consciousness has less control than believed, according to new theory


    Consciousness — the internal dialogue that seems to govern one’s thoughts and actions — is far less powerful than people believe, serving as a passive conduit rather than an active force that exerts control, according to a new theory proposed by an SF State researcher.

    Associate Professor of Psychology Ezequiel Morsella’s “Passive Frame Theory” suggests that the conscious mind is like an interpreter helping speakers of different languages communicate.

    “The interpreter presents the information but is not the one making any arguments or acting upon the knowledge that is shared,” Morsella said. “Similarly, the information we perceive in our consciousness is not created by conscious processes, nor is it reacted to by conscious processes. Consciousness is the middle-man, and it doesn’t do as much work as you think.”

    Morsella and his coauthors’ groundbreaking theory, published online on June 22 by the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, contradicts intuitive beliefs about human consciousness and the notion of self.

    Consciousness, per Morsella’s theory, is more reflexive and less purposeful than conventional wisdom would dictate. Because the human mind experiences its own consciousness as sifting through urges, thoughts, feelings and physical actions, people understand their consciousness to be in control of these myriad impulses. But in reality, Morsella argues, consciousness does the same simple task over and over, giving the impression that it is doing more than it actually is.

    “We have long thought consciousness solved problems and had many moving parts, but it’s much more basic and static,” Morsella said. “This theory is very counterintuitive. It goes against our everyday way of thinking.”

    According to Morsella’s framework, the “free will” that people typically attribute to their conscious mind — the idea that our consciousness, as a “decider,” guides us to a course of action — does not exist. Instead, consciousness only relays information to control “voluntary” action, or goal-oriented movement involving the skeletal muscle system.

    Compare consciousness to the Internet, Morsella suggested. The Internet can be used to buy books, reserve a hotel room and complete thousands of other tasks. Taken at face value, it would seem incredibly powerful. But, in actuality, a person in front of a laptop or clicking away on a smartphone is running the show — the Internet is just being made to perform the same basic process, without any free will of its own.

    The Passive Frame Theory also defies the intuitive belief that one conscious thought leads to another. “One thought doesn’t know about the other, they just often have access to and are acting upon the same, unconscious information,” Morsella said. “You have one thought and then another, and you think that one thought leads to the next, but this doesn’t seem to be the way the process actually works.”

    The theory, which took Morsella and his team more than 10 years to develop, can be difficult to accept at first, he said.

    “The number one reason it’s taken so long to reach this conclusion is because people confuse what consciousness is for with what they think they use it for,” Morsella said. “Also, most approaches to consciousness focus on perception rather than action.”

    The theory has major implications for the study of mental disorders, Morsella said. “Why do you have an urge or thought that you shouldn’t be having? Because, in a sense, the consciousness system doesn’t know that you shouldn’t be thinking about something,” Morsella said. “An urge generator doesn’t know that an urge is irrelevant to other thoughts or ongoing action.”

    The study of consciousness is complicated, Morsella added, because of the inherent difficulty of applying the conscious mind to study itself.

    “For the vast majority of human history, we were hunting and gathering and had more pressing concerns that required rapidly executed voluntary actions,” Morsella said. “Consciousness seems to have evolved for these types of actions rather than to understand itself.”


    “Homing in on consciousness in the nervous system: an action-based synthesis” by Ezequiel Morsella, Christine A. Godwin (Georgia Institute of Technology), Tiffany K. Jantz (University of Michigan), Stephen C. Krieger (Mount Sinai Medical Center), Adam Gazzaley (University of California, San Francisco) was published online in Behavioral and Brain Sciences on June 22. Godwin and Jantz are former members of Morsella’s lab at SF State.

    Category: ConsciousnessFeaturedFree Will and DeterminismPsychology


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    • John Grove

      Some people mistakenly assume that we don’t have any explanation(s) for consciousness and that unfortunately is mistaken. We know first of all how to extinguish consciousness and the whole field of anesthesia depends on knowledge. I was talking with who seemingly had a pyrrhonian skepticism that we have absolutely no explanation for consciousness therefore immaterialism should be put on the same par. I explained to him that this is what Stephen Law calls “Going Nuclear”.

      He was trying to unleash an argument that lays waste to every position, bringing them all down to the same level of reasonableness. The thing is materialism has robust strength and empiricism while immaterialism has “nothing” (excuse the pun) going for it. So it is not a case of equal postulates. One is robust and is based on science, the other is based on hokus pokus.It is true to say our knowledge of consciousness is incomplete, it is false to say we haven’t a clue.

      Aditionally, in ‘Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain’ which is a university textbook, the author says: “There is no need to separate mind from brain; once we fully understand the individual and concerted actions of brain cells, we will understand the origins of creative thought”. I suggest that this will be the next god of the gap removed by science. Life may be another. The origins of the universe may forever be withheld to us but who knows what we may unravel.

      • It’s not as if we have no explanation, either. There are many interesting approaches and theories which do good job.

        • John Grove

          BTW, to name a few.
          There is Integrated Information Theory which is a promising theory. That’s one. Self-Representational Theory is another. Higher-Order Representationalism is yet another. And there are a few others worthy of consideration.

    • There’s this paper I came across about consciousness called “Integrated information theory” (IIT). It’s a little woo-wooey as it lends support to panpsychism, but it’s interesting.


      • Thanks

      • John Grove

        Has anyone here ever read, “Integrated Theory of Consciousness” by Dr. Roger D Blomquist M.D?