Consciousness Blog 19th October 2016

Consciousness Is A Slave

Recent research at US universities has demonstrated that unconscious symbolic processing carried out in response to external stimuli can be reflected in conscious contents, despite a deliberate intention that the processing should not take place.

OK, let's put that into more understandable English: you decide not to respond to a stimulus, but your brain does so anyway, regardless, and pops the result into your conscious mind.

The team of researchers, led by Ezequiel Morsella at San Francisco State University, trained participants to carry out a particular type of word transformation, then re-presented the subjects with relevant words, asking them not to carry out the transformation. 43% of them reported that, nonetheless, the results of the transformation 'popped into their minds'.

The researchers make a crucial distinction between 'reflex' mental activity, which bypasses any type of intentional mental barrier on its way to the conscious (you stepped on a nail), or input occasioning processing in the frontal cortex, which was the case with these verbal transformations, and which some people might think could be inhibited by conscious intention.

We are on our own in trying to interpret this phenomenon, since few people pretend to understand the purpose of consciousness, let alone its mechanisms. But the first and most glaring conclusion we can reach is that the contents of consciousness are not under conscious control. That satisfactorily puts paid to 'dualistic' theories of mind, in which a controlling figure determines the contents of consciousness, and so on ad infinitum.

But we knew that. We also think we know (at least, this writer does) that consciousness is a contrivance to allow humans (and perhaps some other advanced animals) to function effectively in a group social setting. If that is the case, then the contents of consciousness would reflect both the general needs of a social actor and the individual situation of a particular social actor, which latter could vary wildly across any given group of people. As an example of a general (or universal) need (at least as regards humans) we could instance the ability to recognize another individual and be aware of their characteristics. If you can't do that, you are seriously dysfunctional. As an example of a particular need, we could instance the ability to mobilize a wide and appropriate vocabulary, which would apply for instance among university English course students or stage actors, but would not be required, or even appropriate, among construction site workers, if that is not too dismissive of them. That type of thinking can help us to understand why one person might 'reflexively' make and become aware of word transformations, while another might not.

The authors of the San Francisco study do quite rightly conclude that their results support the idea of a non-autonomous consciousness. It does not generate its own contents (back to duality, if it did!). Consciousness is an expression of the unconscious. The authors are also correct in pointing out that introspection (subjects were asked to interpret their own mental state) is a flawed tool; but while it is seemingly very challenging to interrogate one's unconscious, there does not seem to be any such limitation on interrogating one consciousness, which is only too happy to answer, confabulating as necessary.

Read more in Chapter Eight of Agent Human: The Con of Consciousness


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