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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 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.”

Morsella, E., Godwin, C., Jantz, T., Krieger, S., & Gazzaley, A. (2015). Homing in on Consciousness in the Nervous System: An Action-Based Synthesis Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-106 DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X15000643

11 responses

  1. Matt

    If consciousness isn’t making the decisions, than what is?


    June 23, 2015 at 6:02 pm

    • Well if the theory holds true, then the answer would be the rest of the brain. Consciousness would just be a tool, not the thing actually doing the work.

      They use the internet example, where consciousness would be the internet and while the internet allows you to do all sorts of things, such as comment here, it is the person (IE- you) that uses the internet that makes it so powerful, not the net itself.


      June 23, 2015 at 6:29 pm

  2. ano

    As I understand it, a goal of Buddhist mindfulness meditation is distancing the idea of thoughts from self — seeing the words popping through your head as reflections of the outer world, (much like your senses,) rather than evidence of some thinker piloting within.

    Aside from that, I think a good way to get an intuitive understanding of this research is like catching a baseball — Once a ball is hit, the fielder immediately begins to run towards where the ball will land. To do this, the player needs to have (nearly instantly) solved a parabolic equation, possibly a set of parametric equations if adjusting for wind.

    If you’ve ever played catch, chances are your head was not consciously full of math and equations. Still, your brain calculates and you react in time to hopefully catch the ball. Most everyone can play catch, even uneducated people with no language or training that could possibly consciously express the calculations involved.

    If you start looking at it from this perspective, you realize a lot of the conclusions or ideas you come to, could not be just the product of your conscious thoughts. Instead, you can come to see the conscious mind as primarily in the business of explaining, perhaps internally between areas of the brain and helping frame ideas externally for speech.

    Anyway, all this can be a comfort to those plagued by unwanted or “wrong” thoughts. There’s no need to choose between struggling with some internal wrong-thinking entity or giving up and identifying yourself with the undesirable ideas. Instead, you can try to understand and explore the roots of your problem(s) and plan for the future.


    June 24, 2015 at 7:38 am

  3. Amber

    I’m still a tad confused about this. From what I understood prior to reading this is that your consciousness is literally all of your thoughts and basically what goes on in your mind that you acknowledge. So what is consciousness, then, if it does not control your thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc.? Does this mean that there are parts of our minds that controls all of that without our own control over it?


    June 29, 2015 at 5:54 am

    • That was sort of the jist of it, yes. The stream of voice in our head that we think we control ends up being a sort of recording after the fact. In other words when you decide “consciously” not to eat that cookie or to drag yourself to your workout you are just playing back a decision that your brain already made for you. Making consciousness a sort of an artifact of our type of intelligence and not the hallmark of our intelligence that we think it is.

      This is not to say that there is some part of the brain we are not using, it just means that like breathing or the beating of our hearts, we don’t actually consciously control our actions. So when our brain decides something for us our conscious gives us the illusion that it was somehow “our” idea, whatever that would mean since your brain is still essentially “you.”


      June 30, 2015 at 9:09 am

    • Morsella was one of my mentors. As I understand this newer rendition of what he’s been working at for years, the “conscious field” is comprised of those cognitive processes which are available for global consideration around the brain (rather than being limited to isolated brain regions); it is not that final decisions are necessarily being made up in this field, it is that normally disparate areas can work on problems (for skeletal-musculature execution) together when they co-exist in conscious thought. Typical examples of what makes for good candidates in the conscious field are when two or more contradicting behavioral commands are vying for execution at the same time (e.g., you have to carry a plate across the room but the plate is very hot and you want to drop it, or you are driving and listening to the radio when suddenly a car swerves in front of your car and you don’t want to crash into it–in this second case we see that the conscious filed is a limited “space” and cannot account for much at one time and you would likely no longer be conscious of what is on the radio as you maneuver your car as safely as you can). The conscious field, or space, or whatever we call it, is likely not the deciding “place;” decisions are made at non-conscious levels of mind which are computing far more information than what the conscious system evolved for (which is, again, as a place to make certain information available to many brain regions simultaneously). Tricky to talk about without a background in the pertinent literature, and even cognitive scientists in the field are often not familiar with the eloquence of what Morsella has been working on for many years now.


      June 30, 2015 at 6:39 pm

      • Wow, thank you for sharing your firsthand knowledge that is amazing and I’m glad you took the time to comment. I think your way of explaining it was much more eloquent, but that probably adds more credence to the last bit of your comment.

        Any more insights you may have will always be appreciated. I assume you are in the same field of research than?


        July 1, 2015 at 11:06 am

      • You’re welcome Dr. Jekyll; glad I was able to contribute. Just found your site and I enjoy it.

        I do have formal education in cognitive science but I am not affiliated with a University any longer…my area is specifically in what is sometimes called “Dream Studies.” But, like yourself, my interests in science are broad.


        July 1, 2015 at 4:18 pm

      • Very Impressive, I’m glad you like my little corner of the net. When we start launching things mainstream, if you stick around, you’ll see a lot more very original content.


        July 2, 2015 at 9:10 am

  4. Alan

    Theres something else besides consciousness inside our heads. Research has shown that we make a deceision a nanosecond BEFORE we realise weve made the deceision. Ask drug addicts, and alcoholics. Of the clients Ive interviewed, a relapse wasnt a conscious event it happened, then it was realised.
    We are just beyond pond scum my fellow philosophers, stay tuned, and never stop wondering!!!


    July 9, 2015 at 4:51 pm

  5. Pingback: Technology and human biology: The singularity may not be so singular | Lunatic Laboratories

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