Alright, as a fair warning this post will be a bit of an essay. I have a history of making threads that I think concern intensely interesting topics that no one else happens to be interested in, so let's hope that this thread doesn't meet a similarly unfortunate end. At the very least, it's an interesting topic that I think people will be interested to know about.
Ultimately I intend to propose a theory of consciousness and its actual role in human decision making, but some important exposition needs to be made before I get to that point. There are two major sources of evidence that I'm going to draw from here, one concerning the act of confabulation in neurophysiologically impaired individuals and the other concerning the apparent lag time between decisions and our conscious awareness of them. Luckily these happen to be rather interesting topics on their own so if you're not familiar you'll probably enjoy learning about them.
For certain intractable forms of epilepsy the only way to help prevent potentially fatal seizures is through surgical extraction of portions of the brain. Essentially, a seizure is when miss-firing of neurons cause a cascade of undesirable and uncontrolled activity across the brain, the only way to stop this for sure is by disconnecting affected portions to prevent them from spreading (though even this is not completely effective). For very serious cases, the corpus callosum (which is a large bridge of axons stretching across between the two hemispheres of the brain) is severed entirely. Now, there are other points of connection between the two hemispheres, but the corpus callosum is by far the largest and most active pathway, in addition to being the most evolutionarily recent. Patients who undergo this procedure actually tend to lead completely normal lives. There is very little wrong with their behavior that is immediately apparent. In fact, for a time it seemed that the corpus callosum wasn't crucial to any sort of cognitive function and people theorized that it was just a structural feature in the brain. However, we end up seeing an incredibly different picture when we put these individuals in the laboratory.
Some background on our brain: the two hemispheres of our brain are actually symmetrical to a significant degree with a very large amount of redundancy. All the major structures are reflected on each side of the brain. There is, however, a few important differences. For instance, speech generation and grammar is usually almost entirely handled by the left side of the brain. Don't quote me on this, but I believe that the right side of the brain is more acute at visual-spatial tasks. Additionally, each half of space is mapped to a different side of the brain. Control of the right side of your body, feeling on the right side of your body, and the right side of your visual field (not to be confused with your right eye, as each eye is actually split into right and left visual fields at the optic chiasm) are all mapped to the left hemisphere of your brain, and likewise with the left side of space and the right side of your brain. Normally these two hemispheres communicate with each other and fire back and forth through the corpus callosum.
Now, the experiments worked like this: the patient would sit facing a screen and be told to stare at a point in the middle of it. Images or sentences would flash on either side of the screen so that they were entirely in only the left or right side of the patient's visual field. The experimenter would ask the patient questions or ask them to draw pictures based on what they saw. Here is where it starts to get wacky. Say that a picture of a pipe was flashed to the right the side of the visual field and then the patient would be asked to tell the experimenter what they saw, they would say they saw a pipe. Now, say that a picture of a pipe was flashed to the left
side of the visual field, if asked to tell the experimenter what they saw they would say that they saw nothing. However
, if asked to draw
what they saw the patient would use their left
hand to draw a pipe. There was a fundamental disconnect between what each side of the brain knew, and since only the left side of the brain can speak the person couldn't say what they saw, yet they were still able to draw it because the right side knew! It is as if there are two different minds inhabiting the same body. This never became a problem during normal life because it's very easy with a quick eye movement to deliver the same information to both sides of the brain, but in this laboratory setting the two sides of the brain were receiving different information. You could display two different objects on the right and left sides of the visual field, and then ask the patient to say what they saw and draw it with their left hand and they would say and draw two entirely different things!
This, in and of itself, is incredibly interesting and has a lot of psychological and philosophical implications, but this is not what is important to me. Rather, there's another thing that happens in this situation that I want to focus on. Namely, confabulation.
An even more interesting thing would happen if you showed an image to the left side of space, had the patient draw it with their left hand, and then asked them why
they drew it. The left side of the brain had no idea, but the person wouldn't say that! The person would instead confabulate a reason! They would spontaneously generate a false reasoning behind why they drew the object. What's more, they would spontaneously generate this false reasoning and, as far as it is possible for us to measure this, they would actually fully believe it. One example is that they were testing a girl and they flashed an image of a nude man to the left side of her visual field, causing her to giggle. When asked why she giggled, she told the experimenters "Oh, it's just this silly machine." What's important here is that the subject's not lying, they are confabulating, it is actually a false memory of why they acted in such a way that the patient truly believes.
This phenomenon doesn't happen only with split-brain patients, there's other sorts of physiological damage that leads to this kind of confabulation. In anosognosia, a patient who suffered a stroke may be fully paralyzed on one side of their body but apparently completely oblivious to this fact. They are, due to brain damage, unable to reconcile the fact that they are paralyzed with their mental conception of their physical state. A patient may be completely physically unable to move their arm, for instance, but with certainty that their body is perfectly fine they will confabulate reasoning as to why they will not move it when asked.
"Oh, doctor, I didn't want to move my arm because I have arthritis in my shoulder and it hurts." Or this is from another patient: "Oh, the medical students have been prodding me all day and I don't really feel like moving my arm just now." When asked to raise both hands, one man raised his right hand high into the air and said, when he detected my gaze locked onto his motionless left hand, "Um, as you can see, I'm steadying myself with my left hand in order to raise my right."
V.S. Ramachandran believes that this confabulation is what happens when information that should be supplied to the conscious self-narrative process is not. In such a special case, he believes our consciousness will then confabulate in order to preserve and reconcile our actions. The difference between what I'm suggesting, however, and his account, is that I don't think that confabulation here is a special case. Clearly, in these cases the confabulation becomes obvious because there are limits to the amount of information that is available to the conscious process, but I don't think confabulation is some sort of failure of the system. In fact, I think confabulation is its specific purpose
. However before getting into the meat of my argument I have one more bit of evidence to go over.
Unconscious Decision Making
I'm going to go ahead and post the article in full, since it is a better explanation than I could make, but the important point is this: decision making begins before we are conscious of it. What's more, it doesn't only begin but may actually completely make the decision before consciousness even enters into the equation, as evidenced by the fact that with data that comes before the conscious awareness it is possible to predict (with incomplete accuracy) the decision that will be made!
In the study, participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their left or right hand. They were free to make this decision whenever they wanted, but had to remember at which time they felt they had made up their mind. The aim of the experiment was to find out what happens in the brain in the period just before the person felt the decision was made. The researchers found that it was possible to predict from brain signals which option participants would take already seven seconds before they consciously made their decision. Normally researchers look at what happens when the decision is made, but not atwhat happens several seconds before. The fact that decisions can be predicted so long before they are made is a astonishing finding.
This unprecedented prediction of a free decision was made possible by sophisticated computer programs that were trained to recognize typical brain activity patterns preceding each of the two choices. Micropatterns of activity in the frontopolar cortex were predictive of the choices even before participants knew which option they were going to choose. The decision could not be predicted perfectly, but prediction was clearly above chance. This suggests that the decision is unconsciously prepared ahead of time but the final decision might still be reversible.
"Most researchers investigate what happens when people have to decide immediately, typically as a rapid response to an event in our environment. Here we were focusing on the more interesting decisions that are made in a more natural, self-paced manner", Haynes explains.
More than 20 years ago the American brain scientist Benjamin Libet found a brain signal, the so-called "readiness-potential" that occurred a fraction of a second before a conscious decision. Libet’s experiments were highly controversial and sparked a huge debate. Many scientists argued that if our decisions are prepared unconsciously by the brain, then our feeling of "free will" must be an illusion. In this view, it is the brain that makes the decision, not a person’s conscious mind. Libet’s experiments were particularly controversial because he found only a brief time delay between brain activity and the conscious decision.
In contrast, Haynes and colleagues now show that brain activity predicts even up to 7 seconds ahead of time how a person is going to decide. But they also warn that the study does not finally rule out free will: "Our study shows that decisions are unconsciously prepared much longer ahead than previously thought. But we do not know yet where the final decision is made. We need to investigate whether a decision prepared by these brain areas can still be reversed."
Now, I will acknowledge that there are alternate conclusions to be drawn from this. It certainly does not necessarily mean that consciousness is divorced from the decision making process entirely. And, in fact, the account of consciousness I would give allows it to have an effect on decision making even in the middle of the decision making process. However, depending on interpretation it can lead credence to that conclusion.
So, to finally get to the actual point:
I believe consciousness is a narrative process, by which we construct an explanation of what we are doing and the reasons we are doing it. However, and this is important, consciousness does not actually have privileged access to our decision making process
. That is to say, the reasoning that we consciously come up with for our actions has no necessary relationship with the reasoning our decision making process actually uses
. I think that the mechanism of our decision making processes are actually untranslatable, or so difficult to translate into a symbolic system that our brains have developed a system for looking at our perceptions, feelings, and actions in order to work backwards
to the causes of these things. Essentially your conscious process is given access only to what we perceive, what we feel, and what course of action we have decided upon and then is forced to "confabulate" a reasoning behind it. You do not make conscious decisions, rather your consciousness is a sort of PR guy for your brain, attempting to come up with a communicable explanation for what it is doing. Your consciousness is only making its best guess of what is actually going on in your brain.
This isn't to say that consciousness is completely uninvolved in your decision making process, however. You clearly remember conscious thoughts, so whatever explanations your consciousness comes up with for your actions is available to your decision making process. In a more indirect way, it has a significant influence, but the differentiation is still crucial. What I'm saying is that you never just know
why you are doing something, you can only infer
. It opens up a lot of room for explaining how people can be so unaware of their own mind and drives. It clearly explains the difference between our conscious and our unconscious.
In the examples of confabulation I explained previously there is a disconnect in perception, the conscious process is not getting the whole story and so the reasoning it confabulates is wildly off base. However, like I said, the split-brain patients act absolutely normally under normal conditions. I think that this confabulation is actually the normal mechanism of consciousness
What do you guys think?
also your thread doesnt deal with the number 1 lame "but that doesn't explain consciousness" complaint which is
WAT ABOUT KWALIA?!
put kwalia r dum at the bottom of your post it will head them off at the pass
kwalia r dum
(Qualia is fairly irrelevant, I think, and my honest belief is that the conscious process has nothing to do with them any way you slice it, save for the fact that it is given access to our perceptions and feelings, hence why you would be conscious of such things)
Actually, a couple more seconds thought give me a more complicated answer to the problem of qualia but, like I said, the existence of qualia is not a threat to my account.