whistleAn interesting paper in Behavioural and Brain Sciences from Morsella, Godwin, Jantz, Krieger, and Gazzaley, reported here: an accessible pdf draft version is here.

It’s quite a complex, thoughtful paper, but the gist is clearly that consciousness doesn’t really do that much. The authors take the view that many functions generally regarded as conscious are in fact automatic and pre- or un-conscious: what consciousness hosts is not the process but the results. It looks to consciousness as though it’s doing the work, but really it isn’t.

In itself this is not a new view, of course. We’ve heard of other theories that base their interpretation on the idea that consciousness only deals with small nuggets of information fed to it by unconscious processes. Indeed, as the authors acknowledge, some take the view that consciousness does nothing at all: that it is an epiphenomenon, a causal dead end, adding no more to human behaviour than the whistle adds to the locomotive.

Morsella et al don’t go that far. In their view we’re lacking a clear idea of the prime function of consciousness; their Passive Frame Theory holds that the function is to constrain and direct skeletal muscle output, thereby yielding adaptive behaviour. I’d have thought quite a lot of unconscious processes, even simple reflexes, could be said to do that too; philosophically I think we’d look for a bit more clarity about the characteristic ways in which consciousness as opposed to instinct or other unconscious urges influence behaviour; but perhaps I’m nit-picking.

The authors certainly offer explanation as to what consciousness does. In their view, well-developed packages are delivered to consciousness from various unconscious functions. In consciousness these form a kind of combinatorial jigsaw, very regularly refreshed in a conscious/unconscious cycle; the key thing is that these packages are encapsulated and cannot influence each other. This is what distinguishes the theory from the widely popular idea of a Global Workspace, originated by Bernard Baars; no work is done on the conscious contents while they’re there. they just sit until refreshed or replaced.

The idea of encapsulation is made plausible by various examples. When we recognise an illusion, we don’t stop experiencing it; when we choose not to eat, we don’t stop feeling hungry, and so on. It’s clearly the case that sometimes this happens, but can we say that there are really no cases where one input alters our conscious perception of another? I suspect that any examples we might come up with would be deemed by Morsella et al to occur in pre-conscious processing and only seem to happen in consciousness: the danger with that is that the authors might end up simply disqualifying all counter-examples and thereby rendering their thesis unfalsifiable. It would help if we could have a sharper criterion of what is, and isn’t, within consciousness.

As I say, the authors do hold that consciousness influences behaviour, though not by its own functioning; instead it does so by, in effect, feeding other unconscious functions. An analogy with the internet is offered: the net facilitates all kind of functions; auctions, research, social interaction, filling the world with cat pictures, and so on; but it would be quite right to say that in itself it does any of these things.

That’s OK, but it seems to delegate an awful lot of things that we might have regarded as conscious cognitive activity to these later unconscious functions, and it would help to have more of an account of how they do their thing and how consciousness contrives to facilitate. It seems it merely brings things together, but how does that help? If they’re side by side but otherwise unprocessed, I’m not sure what the value of merely juxtaposing them (in some sense which is itself a little unclear) amounts to.

So I think there’s more to do if Passive Frame Theory is going to be a success; but it’s an interesting start.


  1. 1. Tom Clark says:

    Thanks Peter, this BBS target article has been getting play in some other fora.

    In considering the possible function of consciousness, it’s of the first importance to distinguish between neural processes associated with consciousness (conscious processes, the NCC) and consciousness itself: conscious, phenomenal *experience*. Since there’s no agreed-upon identity theory as yet, any proposal about the function of consciousness per se has to show that it’s conscious experience, not conscious processes, that’s performing the function. But of course most proposals, including this one, are usually about what sorts of things the conscious processes (NCC) are accomplishing, such as information integration and supporting voluntary action. But then the usual slight of hand is to assign conscious experience (what they call the “conscious field” – the contents of the global work space) the causal role, not the processes. Or, also in this paper, there’s equivocation throughout on this distinction.

    So when they suggest that “Conscious contents can directly activate action processes in the skeletal muscle output system” one wonders if they are referring to phenomenal content (experience) or neurally represented content (information-carrying neural processes). If the later, we can understand the causal path to muscle output as a straightforward physical process, but if it’s the former we’re stuck with the old problem of dualist interactionism: how does experience make a muscle move?

    The same question can be posed about their claim that “the conscious field wholly and exclusively determines what in everyday life is called voluntary behavior.” How does phenomenal, qualitative content add to what neurally-instantiated content is already doing in behavior control? (Note that if these are the same thing, then consciousness plays no special behavior controlling role at all; it’s just that certain neural processes end up instantiating consciousness.)

    Put another way: the project of identifying the functions of brain regions responsible for consciousness isn’t equivalent to demonstrating the function of consciousness itself. Even if on their hypothesis the role of consciousness is passive, low-level, etc., they have to show that it’s actually experience that plays this minimal role, which I don’t think they’ve done.

  2. 2. Eric Thomson says:

    Thanks for the helpful summary.

    It seems they will have trouble dealing with things like blindsight. Not to mention reflexes, as you rightly point out. I was talking to my doctor the other day and it was only after the fact that I realized he had been checking various reflexes without me even being aware of it.

  3. 3. james says:

    If they omitted the references the paper would only be 4 pages long.

  4. 4. Arnold Trehub says:

    Peter: “It would help if we could have a sharper criterion of what is, and isn’t, within consciousness.”

    It sure would help! As far as I can see, the only thing that is within consciousness is our occurrent phenomenal world. Who would be willing to argue that this is not of prime importance for us?

  5. 5. Callan S. says:

    I think there needs to be a little less faith (if only humoured) in the concrete existance of ‘conciousness’ and such. For example take an image and apply photoshop so it lowers the resolution of the image into fat pixels (that are approximations of all the pixels that were in that area). Unless you really lower the resolution, the original object, to various extents, can be made out. But at the same time that’s an illusion – it’s a bunch of blobs. So, real or illusion? Then turn that onto how you can’t see what’s behind the eye that is seeing. That you can’t see behind ‘seeing’, the concept, itself. That what you might be working with is a rough approximation. That ‘you’ is a rough approximation – a fat pixelated version of something else. But weve gripped on to the fat pixels (for lack of anything else until cognitive science) like it was the very foundation of what there is – thus we think we need to explain conciousness like it’s a concrete thing. As if the fat pixel picture was the only picture possible.

  6. 6. Paul C. Anagnostopoulos says:

    I thought the paper was interesting and Morsella was kind enough to talk with me about it.

    Note that the authors do not think they have addressed phenomenal experience. They are only trying to understand the purpose of consciousness. The proposal is that consciousness is the mechanism by which we sort out simultaneous conflicting skeletomuscular orders.

  7. 7. ihtio says:

    @Tom Clark,

    In considering the possible function of consciousness, it’s of the first importance to distinguish between neural processes associated with consciousness (conscious processes, the NCC) and consciousness itself: conscious, phenomenal *experience*.
    Why do you think that this distinction has any merit or significance? Are “conscious processes” not the same as consciousness(es) itself (themselves)?

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