Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Steps to dethronement III – The unconscious agent

Normally, we humans think of ourselves as rational beings. A decision is made by me – the Agent – and I know perfectly what I want and how to get there. Enter cognitive neuroscience. From a multitude of studies, there is a consensus today that many decisions are not made through overt, conscious processing. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes and shapes the motivation and choices even in complex decision making.

Just think of the studies by Tanya Chartrand and her colleagues, as I wrote about in this article in the early days of Science & Consciousness Review. By presenting motivation relevant words (‘‘success’, ‘failure’ etc.) to subjects subliminally (without their conscious detection) the researchers were able to manipulate how they reacted when being given an easy or hard/impossible task. Without the subjects’ knowledge, Chartrand was able to produce emotional states in her subjects, e.g. being in a bad or good mood, by manipulating the motivational tone of the presented words. Best of all, her subject were not able to determine why they felt as they did.

Another well-supported idea about unconscious processes stem from research into subliminal perception and priming. From Phil Merikle’s article:

“Subliminal perception occurs whenever stimuli presented below the threshold or limen for awareness are found to influence thoughts, feelings, or actions. The term subliminal perception was originally used to describe situations in which weak stimuli were perceived without awareness. In recent years, the term has been applied more generally to describe any situation in which unnoticed stimuli are perceived.”

There are tons of empirical evidence for subliminal perception, and they all point to the fact that our behaviour is influenced strongly by unconscious processes. We are not the conscious, autonomous agents we think we are. At least not in the sense we usually think.

But if not all our choices are made on a conscious and “rational” level, why do we have the experience of being conscious agents of our actions? In a forthcoming interview I’m doing with Professor Shaun Gallagher at the Department of Philosophy, University of Central Florida, the terms agency and ownership are explored. This interview will be published in Science & Consciousness Review very soon. Here is an excerpt of the interview:

“Phenomenologically intentions in almost all cases come already clothed in agency – the ‘who’ question hardly ever comes up at the level of experience. The neural systems have already decided the issue – one way or the other – even if I'm wrong about who is acting, I am still attributing agency.

The mistake is to think that there is a necessary isomorphism between the phenomenological level and the neuronal level. But even if the neuronal processes can be defined as involving three steps, this does not mean that those three steps need to show up in consciousness. The wonderful thing about the "Who system" is that it's neurological – and the results of its activation are hardly ever experientially manifested as "making a decision about who did the action." Rather, the results of its activation are experientially manifested as "X's action" where X is either you or me.

Of course experiments and pathologies may generate or reveal ‘who’ problems, but in normal ecological behavior it is generally clear whose intention/action it is, and as a result, the identification question – "Someone is intending to pick up the apple, is it me?" – just doesn't come up.

Stay tuned for the full story.


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