"Long before it's in the papers"
June 23, 2015

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Consciousness no “decider,” just “interpreter,” theory claims

June 23, 2015
Courtesy of San Fran­cis­co State Uni­vers­ity
and World Science staff

Con­scious­ness—the in­ter­nal di­a­logue that seems to gov­ern one’s thoughts and ac­tions—is far less pow­er­ful than peo­ple think, and acts as a pas­sive con­duit rath­er than an ac­tive, con­trol­ling force, a new the­o­ry claims.

San Fran­cis­co State Uni­vers­ity re­search­er Eze­quiel Morsel­la’s “Pas­sive Frame The­o­ry” sug­gests 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.”

Con­scious­ness is like the In­ter­net in a way, Morsella sug­gested. The In­ter­net can be used to buy books, re­serve a ho­tel room and com­plete thou­sands of tasks, but does­n’t make de­ci­sions of its own.

The the­o­ry has prece­dents in pre­vi­ous re­search show­ing that the brain of­ten pre­pares an ac­tion be­fore the own­er of that brain is aware of wanting to do it. A study pub­lished in 2010 ar­gued that our subcon­scious thoughts can ma­ni­pu­late our goals and mo­tiva­t­ions much more than sci­en­tists have ev­er im­ag­ined. The whole sub­ject has roots in a centuries-old de­bate over wheth­er “free will” really ex­ists.

Morsella and coau­thors lay out their own the­o­ry in the June 22 is­sue of the jour­nal Be­hav­ior­al and Brain Sci­ences.

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, Morsella said. But in real­ity, he 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—does­n’t ex­ist. In­stead, con­sciousness only re­lays in­forma­t­ion to con­trol “vol­un­tary” ac­tion, or goal-oriented, mus­cu­lar move­ments.

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.”


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Consciousness—the internal dialogue that seems to govern one’s thoughts and actions—is far less powerful than people think, and acts as a passive conduit rather than an active, controlling force, a new theory claims. San Francisco State University researcher Ezequiel Morsella’s “Passive Frame Theory” suggests 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.” Consciousness is like the Internet in a way, Morsella suggested. The Internet can be used to buy books, reserve a hotel room and complete thousands of tasks, but doesn’t make decisions of its own. The theory has precedents in previous research showing that the brain often prepares an action before the owner of that brain is aware of wanting to do it. A study published in 2010 argued that our subconscious thoughts can manipulate our goals and motivations much more than scientists have ever imagined. The whole subject has roots in a centuries-old debate over whether “free will” really exists. Morsella and coauthors lay out their own theory in the June 22 issue of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 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, Morsella said. But in reality, he 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—doesn’t exist. Instead, consciousness only relays information to control “voluntary” action, or goal-oriented, muscular movements. 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.”