The non-conscious nature of being

 Recent paper by that name in Frontiers in Psychology. The abstract follows. Since I’ve long thought the opposite of what the paper claims I’ll have to read and ponder this one for a bit. The introduction follows:

“Despite the compelling subjective experience of executive self-control, we argue that ‘consciousness’ contains no top-down control processes and that ‘consciousness’ involves no executive, causal, or controlling relationship with any of the familiar psychological processes conventionally attributed to it. In our view, psychological processing and psychological products are not under the control of consciousness. In particular, we argue that all ‘contents of consciousness’ are generated by and within non-conscious brain systems in the form of a continuous self-referential personal narrative that is not directed or influenced in any way by the ‘experience of consciousness.’ This continuously updated personal narrative arises from selective ‘internal broadcasting’ of outputs from non-conscious executive systems that have access to all forms of cognitive processing, sensory information, and motor control. The personal narrative provides information for storage in autobiographical memory and is underpinned by constructs of self and agency, also created in non-conscious systems. The experience of consciousness is a passive accompaniment to the non-conscious processes of internal broadcasting and the creation of the personal narrative. In this sense, personal awareness is analogous to the rainbow which accompanies physical processes in the atmosphere but exerts no influence over them. Though it is an end-product created by non-conscious executive systems, the personal narrative serves the powerful evolutionary function of enabling individuals to communicate (externally broadcast) the contents of internal broadcasting. This in turn allows recipients to generate potentially adaptive strategies, such as predicting the behavior of others and underlies the development of social and cultural structures, that promote species survival. Consequently, it is the capacity to communicate to others the contents of the personal narrative that confers an evolutionary advantage—not the experience of consciousness (personal awareness) itself.”

8 thoughts on “The non-conscious nature of being

  1. I’ve read about half of it so far and was amazed that it’s still using Libet’s work on the readiness potential to prove our responses are unconscious. Much research has been done since then refuting the veracity and meaning of Libet’s work. For just a few examples:

    1. The point of no return in vetoing self initiated movements:
    2. An accumulator model for spontaneous neural activity prior to self-initiated movement:
    3. This analysis of Peter Tse’s work on downward causation from his book The Neural Basis of Free Will:

  2. The article states: “It is only the personal narrative, we argue, that is accompanied by personal awareness.” This flies in the face of a lot of neuroscientific work by for example Antonio Damasio, which posits a proto-self, a core self and an autobiographical self (akin to the ‘personal narrative’ above). And all of which have personal awareness.

  3. “Free will and neuroscience: From explaining freedom away to new ways of operationalizing and measuring it.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2016. Abstract:

    “The concept of free will is hard to define, but crucial to both individual and social life. For centuries people have wondered how freedom is possible in a world ruled by physical determinism; however, reflections on free will have been confined to philosophy until half a century ago, when the topic was also addressed by neuroscience. The first relevant, and now well-known, strand of research on the brain correlates of free will was that pioneered by Libet et al. (1983), which focused on the allegedly unconscious intentions taking place in decisions regarded as free and voluntary. Libet’s interpretation of the so-called readiness potential (RP) seems to favor a sort of deflation of freedom (Soon et al., 2008). However, recent studies seem to point to a different interpretation of the RP, namely that the apparent build-up of the brain activity preceding subjectively spontaneous voluntary movements (SVM) may reflect the ebb and flow of the background neuronal noise, which is triggered by many factors (Schurger et al., 2016). This interpretation seems to bridge the gap between the neuroscientific perspective on free will and the intuitive, commonsensical view of it (Roskies, 2010b), but many problems remain to be solved and other theoretical paths can be hypothesized. The article therefore, proposes to start from an operationalizable concept of free will (Lavazza and Inglese, 2015) to find a connection between higher order descriptions (useful for practical life) and neural bases. This new way to conceptualize free will should be linked to the idea of “capacity”: that is, the availability of a repertoire of general skills that can be manifested and used without moment by moment conscious control. The capacity index, which is also able to take into account the differences of time scales in decisions, includes reasons-responsiveness and is related to internal control, understood as the agent’s ownership of the mechanisms that trigger the relevant behavior. Cognitive abilities, needed for one to have capacity, might be firstly operationalized as a set of neuropsychological tests, which can be used to operationalize and measure specific executive functions, as they are strongly linked to the concept of control. Subsequently, a free will index would allow for the search of the underlying neural correlates of the capacity exhibited by people and the limits in capacity exhibited by each individual.”

  4. “Neural antecedents of spontaneous voluntary movement: A new perspective.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2016.

    “Now a series of new developments has begun to unravel what we thought we knew about the brain activity preceding SVMs. The main new revelation is that the apparent build-up of this activity, up until about 200 ms pre-movement, may reflect the ebb and flow of background neuronal noise, rather than the outcome of a specific neural event corresponding to a ‘decision’ to initiate movement. In particular, two independent studies, one using electroencephalography (EEG) recordings in humans [5] and the other using single-unit recordings in rats [6], have converged in showing that bounded-integration processes, which involve the accumulation of noisy evidence until a decision threshold is reached, offer a coherent and plausible explanation for the apparent pre-movement build-up of neuronal activity. Bounded integration or ‘evidence accumulation’ models have been in use for decades in the study of perceptual decision-making and reaction time tasks and have proven very powerful in accounting for both neural and behavioral phenomena. Only recently, however, has it come to light that if the ‘evidence’ is absent, or very weak relative to the noise, such models can also be applied to the spontaneous voluntary initiation of movement [5,6].”

  5. You can read some excerpts of Tse’s The Neural Basis of Free Will at the following Project Muse link. From the section on readiness potentials:

    “Here I argue that conscious feelings of willing or agency are not central to understanding the neural basis of free will. Simple actions, such as repeatedly lifting a finger, or even complex actions, such as driving a car while daydreaming, may not generate conscious feelings of willing at all. Consciousness of willing appears to primarily arise in cases that require endogenous selection and inhibition of options held and assessed in working memory. As such, Libet’s paradigm may not particularly evoke conscious feelings of willing. And even if it did, neither the readiness potential nor the lateralized readiness potential appears to be a signature of a neural process involved in conscious willing.”

  6. One can find Evan Thompson’s 6-part video series on the topic at the link below.

    From part 1, quoting William James: “Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of will” (7:10). From the conclusion of part 6: “Free will then is not exempt from causes and conditions but is rather the flexible coordination of attention” (4:05). In part 2 he starts to talk about the self related to meditation (around 7:00). Around 7:45 he notes it has 2 aspects, the present-centered “I” and the narrative self which adds past and future. He relates it to Damasio’s ideas.

    The end of part 2 was on Damasio’s core self, the beginning of part 3 on his autobiographical self. The rest of the latter part discusses how we might differentiate them via meditative practice. Part 4 goes into some experiments with those who meditate and those who don’t, measuring the brain activity correlated with these 2 selves. Those who meditate have much more flexibility to distinguish and go between the core and narrator, whereas those who do not conflate them. Moreover at 4:55 the meditators have some command of voluntary (aka conscious) regulation of attention and emotion.

    Part 5 continues the discussion at the end of the previous section on large-scale brain dynamics, where conscious activity synchronizes the brain regions and produces high frequency gamma waves. He goes into a study of long-term practitioners doing compassion meditation, which displayed a lot of high amplitude gamma synchrony. And voluntarily produced. At 4:45 he goes into volition and emergence. At 6:00 he calls this volition interventionist causation.

    The beginning of part 6 concludes from a study that meditation is a strong top-down causative effect of self-generated attention on brain dynamics. This global activity emerges from the local brain activity and shapes and constrains it. This is no way denies that local brain activity can also cause effects, i.e, our zombies. But the zombies do not exhibit the kind of global synchrony as does volitional control, so we’re talking about the very real differences between conscious and nonconscious acts. Hence the conclusion already provided in the beginning.

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