Further to the question of conscious vs non-conscious action, here’s a recent RSA video presenting some evidence.

Nicholas Shea presents with Barry Smith riding shotgun. There’s a mention for one piece of research also mentioned by Di Nucci; preventing expert golfers from concentrating consciously on their shot actually improves their performance (it does the opposite for non-experts). There are two pieces of audience participation; one shows that subliminal prompts can (slightly) affect behaviour; the other shows that time to think and discuss can help where explicit reasoning is involved (though it doesn’t seem to help the RSA audience much).

Perhaps in the end consciousness is not essentially private after all, but social and co-operative?

Sign of the times to see two philosophers unashamedly dabbling in experiments. I think the RSA also has to win some kind of prize in the hotly-contested ‘unconvincing brain picture’ category for using purple and yellow cauliflower.


  1. 1. Jochen says:

    Seems like epiphenomenalists could take a hint from Edwin Starr and answer the question ‘Mind, huh? What is it good for?’ with ‘absolutely nothing’.

  2. 2. micha says:

    Is now a good time to ask why we assume that self-awareness and qualia have no causal consequences? I always took it for granted that zombies were impossible.

    If you’re tired of my elephant hair example, just move on to the next person’s comment. This is probably my third repost. (Also, I am flattered someone actually remembers my earlier comments!)

    For example, there are two ways to think through the question “Does an elephant have hair?”

    If we look at the favorite of authors, that verbal train of thought in the form of words, a solution might run something like this: Elephants are mammals, all mammals have hair, and so unless elephants are the exception to the rule, they must have hair. Elephants are well known and discussed animals. Could they be an exception to the rule and I don’t know it? Nah, they must have hair.

    Solving the elephant problem through Imagination and qualia, you can remember elephants you saw, or saw pictures of. The detail may be blurry, so you may have to manipulate the picture a bit. Finally, a version of the picture which has a tuft of hair at the tail, maybe (if your memory is good) some downy hair around the eyes and ears, strikes you as the most familiar, the most real. And again you could reach the conclusion that elephants have hair.

    But there is no guarantee that for every deduction made using the second mode, someone can reach the same conclusion using the first one. (Start with the person who doesn’t know that every mammal has hair.) Or if they do, would it be with the same confidence level?

    I just think a zombie and the quale-experiencing original would diverge behaviorally. But if not, isn’t that something that needs proving?

  3. 3. Jayarava says:

    The first comment on YouTube nails one of my major bugbears about discussions of “consciousness”. It says:

    > This entire discussion is bizarre, because of the use of the word “consciousness” to actually mean “conscious deliberation” which happens in the “mind”.

    Without fully eliminating Cartesian dualism (in the form of materialism) we are now reifying the supposed distinction between a mental state that we are fully aware of as it happens, and one a mental state in which we have no awareness at all, without allowing that these are extremes on a spectrum.

    This discussion just looks like another example of the cognitive bias towards seeing problems in terms of binaries: yes/no, real/unreal, conscious/unconscious, blah blah.

  4. 4. john davey says:

    Is any of this new ? Don’t all of us know that mastery of a skill is when you can “do it without thinking about it?”

    It’s a pity they don’t discuss the role of consciousness in learning a skill.

    When you learn a skill, like driving a car or riding bike, consciousness is vital. The point at which you have mastered the skill is when consciousness is no longer necessary. Start thinking about typing on a keyboard, or changing gear and you’re sure to make a hash of it.. but without conscious interaction you couldn’t learn anything in the first place.

    Sport is a classic example of the less thought, the better. The best sportsmen are a bit dull, and can focus on the goal rather than the means. They let their body utilise the hours of conscious repetition ( ie “practice”) to avoid stress under pressure.


  5. 5. SelfAwarePatterns says:

    The evidence seems pretty overwhelming that consciousness does not control our actions. Indeed, it’s hard for me to understand how this remains a question since Roger Perry’s split-brain patient experiments several decades ago.

    On the other hand, I think it’s accurate to say that consciousness has causal influence over our actions. It is not the executive of the mind, but it is used by the executive as a guide for action in novel situations that can’t be handled by habit, and when there’s time for it to work.

  6. 6. Tom Clark says:

    Too bad they don’t define consciousness up front (or did I miss that?). Left undefined, the whole discussion about what consciousness is good for is ambiguous between the neurally-instantiated cognitive processes associated with having phenomenal experience and phenomenal experience itself. Clearly the former are necessary for many sorts of learning, memory formation, reasoning, and for guiding non-automatic, complex and adaptive behavior that takes into account moment-to-moment sensory input from the environment, but the role of the latter hasn’t been established. That conscious experience usually accompanies the higher level behavior its neural correlates make possible isn’t evidence that it does anything more than those correlates already accomplish, and if it’s the same thing as what the neurons are doing it doesn’t add anything.

  7. 7. Richard J.R.Miles says:

    I agree with comment 3. There are so many variations of the unconscious/conscious spectrum. Difficult for the scientists to understand who require a yes or no, an on or off answer and asleep or awake.What Nicholas Shea ignores, as so many do, is that you need to be awake and conscious to initiate conscious somatic activity, no matter how slight. Unless there is something wrong with you, and your memory is not working or you were drunk/drugged and cannot remember what you were doing, or what you did,or so repetitious and boring that there was nothing particular to remember about it.
    The variation of changing from unconsciousness to consciousness, awake to sleep, is essential for conservation of energy and repair. See my website http://www.perhapspeace.co.uk
    Anyone who cannot understand any evolutionary advantage for consciousness, should study something else. We are not 100% zombies, at least I am not.

  8. 8. Jayarava says:

    I’ve since discovered that this bias towards binaries was critiqued by Gilles Deleuze in 1980. He called it “arborescence” (tree-like). By contrast the process that links seemingly distinct branches to create a network is anastomosis.

    I also discovered that Aborescence is the name of an album by prog-rock back Ozric Tentacles, which I found quite enjoyable.

    I appreciate the comments of Tom Clark #6. Let’s not pretend that just saying “consciousness” (unqualified) actually means anything in philosophical circles any more.

  9. 9. Arnold Trehub says:

    According to the definition of consciousness as brain representation of the space we live in from a fixed locus of perspectival origin, it is clear that consciousness is essential for giving us our experiece of our world.

  10. 10. Peter Martin says:

    The benefit of consciousness is that it enables us to reflect mentally on future or past situations and come up with solutions that would be missed by real-time processing. Further, if you implement this in software, you find that by holding current context in a form that is predictive, it is only necessary to actively process significant changes in sensory data, freeing up cognitive cycles for reflective (conscious) thinking. See http://pjm678.wixsite.com/consciousness

  11. 11. Lloyd Rice says:

    I would dethrone consciousness even further than Mr. Shea does. I agree with several of the respondents, I don’t think it’s GOOD for ANYTHING. It just happens when the brain reaches a certain stage of development.The various of his experiments involve different brain pathways, all with various amounts of training. I think it’s wrong to say that one pathway is due to, or related to, or caused by consciousness, and another is not. On the other hand, I do think Consciousness has to do with memory. I would describe memory as bringing certain events “back into consciousness”. Now, I also agree that that is just one kind of memory. The so-called “muscle memory” for example, has very little to do with consciousness.

  12. 12. lornezo sleakes says:

    It appears to me that consciousness must have an effect on neural activity through a kind of quantum downward causation. Why does the brain bother generating experiences and thoughts except for the benefit of an observer that can make decisions.

    In general we can say that another mind exists where there is a persistent source of individual activity that is purposeful and directed towards consistent goals. The purposeful behavior acts with reference to what appears to be perception of a local environment and operates in a teleological manner enabling flexible behaviors that can achieve or approach the same end goals from different starting points. Said William James: “pursuance of future ends and the choice of means for their attainment, are thus the mark and criterion of the presence of mentality.”

    dualism in some form must be valid..see https://philpapers.org/rec/SLETLO-2

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