The Situationist

The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 20, 2007

Representation of consciousness from the 17th century.This is the second in a series of posts summarizing the research on the hidden situation of our consciousness. This post, like Part I, draws from a 2003 article by Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and David Yosifon The Situational Character.” Part I began with Hanson and Yosifon’s summary of some of the fascinating research revealing the ubiquity of “automaticity.” This post picks up there with the question: “If most of what we perceive, feel, and do is driven by automatic processes, then why is it that most of us perceive most of our behavior to be the consequence of our conscious will?”

* * *

There are several reasons. First, we are rarely conscious of the automatic – indeed, that’s the point: automaticity frees up for other purposes our extremely limited capacity for conscious thinking or acting. It is as if automaticity occurs silently in the dark, whereas conscious thinking happens noisily beneath a spotlight. For the same reason that homicides seem a far more common cause of death than stomach cancer (even though the reverse is true), the conscious eclipses the automatic before our introspective eye.

Perhaps more important, when we do experience ourselves consciously willing our actions, we are often mistaken. Daniel Wegner, in his superb book, The Illusion of Conscious Will, brings together an intriguing array of direct evidence to make his case that we humans are subject to an illusion of will (which . . . we think has been circumstantially implied in evidence of the more general illusion of disposition).

Consider the case of “phantom limbs.” People who have had an arm or a leg amputated usually report that they continue to “feel” the presence of the limb long after it is gone. One pair of researchers who studied a group of three hundred World War II amputees found that ninety-eight percent experienced the phantom limb phenomenon. But there is more: Many amputees report that they can voluntarily move their phantom limbs, especially their fingers and toes. They report having the experience of consciously willing the movement of the limb despite the absence of either. This is one intriguing piece of evidence that “the intention to move can create the experience of conscious will without any action at all.”

Another study provides another clue to the puzzle of conscious will. Researchers used highly sensitive electromyographical devices to study the patterns of electrical impulses generated during the performance of a “willed action.” Hooked to electrodes, subjects were asked to move their fingers “at will.” The researchers established a baseline electrical impulse that was witnessed in the brain shortly before the subjects moved their finger, which preceded a second impulse that was seen when the finger actually moved. This first impulse register was dubbed “readiness potential.” In a recent version of the study, subjects were placed before an especially sensitive clock, and were asked to report for each finger movement the position of the clock hand at the moment that they experienced a “conscious awareness of ‘wanting’ to perform the finger movement.” The researchers found that they were able to identify three distinct blips (to use the scientific term) in the electrical impulses of the brain throughout the course of action. The first was the “readiness potential” registered in the baseline. Sometime after the “readiness potential,” however, came the experience of willing the finger. Finally, in a third distinct moment, there was an impulse associated with the actual movement of the finger. The researchers discovered that the subject’s “readiness potential” occurred distinctly before the subjects themselves perceived consciously wanting to move the finger. The experience of conscious will, it appears, arises at some point after the brain has already begun the action. As the chief researcher of this study concluded:

[T]he initiation of the voluntary act appears to be an unconscious cerebral process. Clearly, free will or free choice of whether to act now could not be the initiating agent, contrary to one widely held view. This is of course also contrary to each individual’s own introspective feeling that he/she consciously initiates such voluntary acts; this provides an important empirical example of the possibility that the subjective experience of a mental causality need not necessarily reflect the actual causative relationship between mental and brain events.

In another fascinating study, researchers put a series of subjects into a “transcranial magnetic stimulation” device, which has been found to cause—through a directed magnetic impulse—the involuntary movement of different parts of the human body. Without explaining the operation of the device to subjects, the experimenters asked subjects to move either their right or their left finger, whichever they chose, whenever they heard a click. The click was actually the sound of the device turning on, and forcing the movement of a particular digit. Although the magnetic impulses led the subjects to move the finger they moved, the subjects nevertheless perceived that they were choosing which finger to move, and then moving it. “When asked whether they had voluntarily chosen which finger to move, participants showed no inkling that something other than their will was creating their choice.” Findings such as these suggest that the experience of conscious will may stem from an internal system that is distinct from action itself and the action’s true source. Put differently, willing may be different then acting, and although the experience of both may often be coterminous, they are not necessarily causally related. Furthermore, even when some unappreciated situational force—including the business end of a transcranial magnetic stimulation device—is leading us to act in a particular way, we tend to experience our actions as volitional, willed choices. Again, we miss situation and see disposition.

Based on his review of many such studies, not to mention his own research, Wegner concludes that ourTranscranial Magnetic Stimulation minds produce the experience of conscious will through a process that is independent of the actual cause of our behavior. “[W]e must be careful to distinguish,” Wegner argues, “between . . . empirical will—the causality of the person’s conscious thoughts as established by . . . their covariation with the person’s behavior—and the phenomenal will—the person’s reported experience of will.”

There are, to be sure, times when we experience that we have willed something when, in fact, we have. Foregoing a just-out-of-the-oven chocolate-chip cookie can be, when we succeed, evidence of the empirical will. But the experience of will is not reliable evidence of the empirical will. The experience of will is generated by our minds to accompany behaviors whose source may be unwilled situation. “The experience of will,” as Wegner puts it, “is the way our minds portray their operations to us, not their actual operation.” Wegner’s diagnosis reveals the limited viability of the experience of will as a last bastion of dispositionism.

Though we perceive will, and behave and experience ourselves “as if” our will were controlling our behavior, and though we project will onto the behavior of others, these intuitive conceptions of the will are fundamentally unreliable indicators of both the reality of our will and the source of our behavior. Here again, there is more to the situation:

[T]he brain structure that provides the experience of will is separate from the brain source of action. It appears possible to produce voluntary action through brain stimulation with or without an experience of conscious will. This, in turn, suggests the interesting possibility that conscious will is an add-on, an experience that has its own origins and consequences. The experience of will may not be very firmly connected to the processes that produce action, in that whatever creates the experience of will may function in a way that is only loosely coupled with the mechanisms that yield action itself.

A final experiment suggests the extent to which our experience of will can be subject to situational influence, again without our conscious awareness. Subjects viewed a computer screen that flashed strings of letters and were asked to judge whether they saw words in what flashed. The screen would go entirely blank once each trial, either after the subject pressed the response button, or automatically after a very short time (400-650 milliseconds) if the subject failed to respond. The intervals were so quick that it was difficult for subjects to tell whether their response triggered the blank screen, or whether it had automatically gone blank. One group of subjects, however, was subliminally primed with a flash of the word “I” or “me” (subjects reported not recognizing it) just prior to the flash of letters that they could consciously see and were to evaluate. The researchers found that subjects primed with the dispositionist terms “I” or “me” were more likely to conclude that they had caused the screen to go blank than were subjects who had not been so primed. The subjects, it seems, “were influenced by the unconscious priming of self to attribute an ambiguous action to their own quotation-111807.jpgwill.” Our experience of will, then, is not only an internal illusion; it is an internal illusion that is susceptible to external situational manipulation.

The will, it turns out, rather than being the trump card in the dispositionist’s deck, may be the joker in our dispositional delusion. As Wegner summarizes:

The unique human convenience of conscious thoughts that preview our actions gives us the privilege of feeling we willfully cause what we do. In fact, however, unconscious and inscrutable mechanisms create both conscious thought about action and the action, and also produce the sense of will we experience by perceiving the thought as the cause of the action. So, while our thoughts may have deep, important, and unconscious causal connections to our actions, the experience of conscious will arises from a process that interprets these connections, not from the connections themselves.

We want to emphasize again what we are not claiming, lest our actual claims be wrongly caricatured and dismissed. We have not argued here, or elsewhere in this Article, that there is “no such thing” as will, or that everything we seem to will is, to the contrary, determined for us. We do not doubt the existence of the individual human will, and we do not doubt that there is human genius rightly to be attributed to it. Our point, rather, is that our experience of will—our familiar experience that our will is responsible for our conduct—is often not a reliable indicator of the actual cause of our behavior. The felt experience of will therefore contributes greatly to our dispositionism. Where we are moved situationally, the phenomenon of will fills out our stories and helps to eclipse our vision of the situational influences that move us. When it seems that our “will” is doing the moving, it follows that we must have “chosen” our actions. And if we chose our actions, we must have had reasons or preferences for doing so. Thus, the illusion of will is a central feature of the illusion of dispositionism . How, after all, can situation be moving us, when we can “feel” the disposition?

Our point, then, is both subtle and disquieting: The experienced “will,” rather than a mirror and measure of our true selves, may be a mask in the disguise that keeps us from seeing what really moves us.

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To read Hanson and Yosifon’s law review article from which this excerpt is drawn, go to “The Situational Character.” For a sample of previous posts discussing the role of unconscious and automatic causes of behavior, see “The Situation of Reason,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” and “The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players.”

3 Responses to “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part II”

  1. Brady Bellis said

    I recently discovered this website. Great stuff.

    I wanted to comment on the time delay, “readiness potential” research you reference above. Much of the credit for that research belongs to my wife’s grandfather, Dr. Benjamin Libet.

    Ben passed away this year, but he’d be thrilled to know that his work had reached you.


  2. EightyThree said

    Wow! Conscious will is basically rationalisation or confabulation to explain our actions (all of which turn out to be involuntary).

  3. […] The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV […]

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