The human consciousness has much less control over thoughts and actions than most people believe, according to a new theory proposed by researchers.
Instead of displaying active control, the consciousness acts like a passive conduit, similar to how the Internet enables someone at a computer to order books, reserve a hotel room or do many other tasks from a distance. In this case, the Internet appears powerful, but it is not controlling those activities.
“We have long thought consciousness solved problems and had many moving parts, but it’s much more basic and static,” study author Ezequiel Morsella, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, said in a press release. “This theory is very counterintuitive. It goes against our everyday way of thinking.”
This “Passive Frame Theory” suggests that the role of the consciousness is much like that of an interpreter, helping different areas of the mind communicate. As an interpreter, though, the consciousness doesn’t act on or make decisions about the information gathered from the senses or other parts of the brain.
This theory, which was published online June 22 in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, goes against many common ideas about the consciousness as an active navigator.
Key among these is our concept of “free will,” which Morsella says does not exist. The main purpose of the consciousness is not as a “decider,” but to pass on information that affects the goal-oriented movements of the skeletal muscle system. These are the kinds of actions that were important for the survival of early humans, when human consciousness first evolved.
“For the vast majority of human history, we were hunting and gathering and had more pressing concerns that required rapidly executed voluntary actions,” said Morsella. “Consciousness seems to have evolved for these types of actions rather than to understand itself.“
The Passive Frame Theory, which took the researchers 10 years to develop, also suggests that our thoughts are not as connected as we might believe. Even if one thought appears to follow from another, it is more likely that they are simply accessing the same underlying information, which gives the appearance of a close relationship.
Right now this is only a theory of how consciousness works, but it provides a new way for researchers to study consciousness in real world situations, such as mental illness. This approach also shifts the focus from our internal thoughts to the actions that drive our behavior.
“The number one reason it’s taken so long to reach this conclusion is because people confuse what consciousness is for with what they think they use it for,” said Morsella. “Also, most approaches to consciousness focus on perception rather than action.”