image description image description

LATEST DIALOGUES We are Less in Control Than Once Believed


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.”

Related Dialogues

Please select the social network you want to share this page with:

We like you too :)
Shawn Radcliffe is a science writer, yoga instructor and creator of fiction and humor. He has written about science, health, meditation and yoga for, Men's Fitness, Greater Good and more. He also tackles the humorous implications of spirituality and science on his blog, Branáin - Ravenously Curious.

7 Responses to “We are Less in Control Than Once Believed”

  1. July 15, 2015 at 11:09 pm, Mit Jones said:

    We are on a rock flying through space at 67K miles an hour. Who thought we are in control.

    It has been stated the universe is made up of information and information is the foundation of thought. But from a human perspective information is useless unless there is a thinker. I think this is where the idea of human consciousness comes from. The real
    surprise comes when the thinker discovers he to, is just a thought.

    Based on my own observation, consciousness is not a product of the human being, it is a
    boundless arena, in which humans experiences being.

    • August 04, 2015 at 2:24 pm, donsalmon said:

      Yes, a boundless arena, about which the researchers above don’t seem to have the remotest clue.

      As a psychologist for nearly a quarter century, I can say with some confidence, if anybody is going to change scientists’ minds about what consciousness is, it doesn’t look too likely it’s going to be a psychologist.

      I’d put my money on the artists.

      • August 06, 2015 at 4:45 pm, Bpayne is the Illest said:

        Yes because the scientists who have been studying this in great TECHNICAL detail are saying something that works against the field of study in which you make money.. that by studying behavior we can modify it. of course you’re going to SAY they are wrong doesn’t necessarily make it so..

        • August 06, 2015 at 5:07 pm, donsalmon said:

          That’s funny. I don’t make any money trying to “change” people – I don’t do psychotherapy.

          2nd – have you ever read any psychological research? The whole “free will” question is irrelevant to changing people. The research is virtually unanimous that there are practices, techniques and even relationships that bring about change.

          Of course, what I just wrote is irrelevant to what I said in my previous letter, just as what you wrote is. What in the world does psychotherapy have todo with changing scientists’ minds about consciousness?

          in fact, if you want to throw logic out the window and just throw around emotional unrelated opinions, i agree with you – none of the methods devised by psychologists or psychiatrists or neurologists (therapy, medication, etc) is likely to change scientists’ minds about consciousness.


          • August 06, 2015 at 7:22 pm, Bpayne is the Illest said:

            psychology is helping others understand and better deal with mental illness, if it is not to help change this behavior then what is it the client is paying for?

          • August 06, 2015 at 8:38 pm, donsalmon said:

            Ok, I was disrespectful before. The truth is, honestly, I don’t understand your reasoning. Let me honestly try.

            1. The article says we don’t have free will. It it concludes that recognizing this will help us deal with mental illness, by shifting our focus from thoughts to behavior.

            2. Implicit in my original comment – though I understand, if you’re not a psychologist, you might not be aware of this – was certain details in the history of psychology. But that was unfair of me – there’s no reason why I should have expected you to be aware of that – aware either of my implicit knowledge of these historical details or your awareness of the details.

            In 1910, psychologist John Watson came to the exact same conclusion as the writer of this article. he stated it particularly in the context of the almost complete failure of the original “introspectionists” of the late 1800s. They tried a rather crude form of internal observation, based on a simplistic notion of classical physics and failed to get any usable insights or information.

            Watson, and several decades later, Skinner, developed a method of “behavior therapy” which fits perfectly the assumptions and suggestions of this article – no free will, forget about thoughts, look at the effects of behavior on actions.

            I know from having had regular contact with academic psychologists and other cognitive scientists for more than a quarter century ,that there are a substantial minority, maybe 20% or so – particularly among those over 50 – who resent the so-called “cognitive revolution” of the 1960s and 70s and think we should never have left behaviorism behind. [This is much like the libertarians who think that the late 1800s were the ideal period of American history and believe if we only returned to that era everyone would be “free.”]

            Well, the overwhelming majority (probably 80% of the whole, and if you exclude those over 50, probably more than 90%) of psychologists saw that behaviorism only worked in a very limited sphere. It clearly works – which is why the most successful therapy is not “cognitive therapy” but “cognitive behavior therapy.”. (well, actually, in the last 15 years or so it’s been found that mindful cognitive therapy – that combines interpersonal and experiential approaches – is by far the most effective technique for the conditions it is appropriate to use it for – for example, equally as effective as medication for the most severe depression).

            So perhaps I misunderstood your first comment. I thought you were saying that the conclusions of the author meant that psychotherapy was ineffective. in fact, it’s just the opposite – the author is simply stating something that was first presented in psychology in 1910 and in fact, though not as effective as Watson and Skinner thought, it is astoundingly effective in limited spheres (i saw this when working with adults with IQs below 70; many of whom had IQs below 20 – which is equivalent to a child between 1 and 2 years old – where behavior therapy is probably almost the only option – though of course, more effective when combined with loving support and deep compassion and empathy – research shows this as well, by the way).

            But I don’t see what any of this has to do with scientists discovering the nature of consciousness. They remain at an utter impasse and for the most part, 99% of the discussions in mainstream science (and unfortunately, on this site) are about the word “consciousness” in an extremely superficial fashion, having nothing to do with what the Indians call “Chit” or “pure consciousness.”

            So my original comment was aimed at simply conveying the idea that I don’t think that the question of the relationship between the existence or non existence of free will, has anything to do with Chit. Furthermore, as I just illustrated, rather than threatening “my livelihood,’ the conclusions of the author are completely consistent with full bodied support for behavior therapy, which virtually all psychologists agree can be effective in limited applications.

            So I apologize for the bluntness and rudeness of my original comment, but sincerely speaking, I don’t see the logical connection between your original assertion and my point –

            the author says there is no free will.
            Behaviorists agree with this.
            Scientists have little or no understanding of what Chit/Consciousness is.

            I don’t see any inconsistency there, sorry. If you can help me understand, I’d very much appreciate it. perhaps you think Indian philosophy is nonsense, in which case, I’d then understand better what you’re saying and in fact, have really no problem with your logic. We wouldn’t agree, but I’d understand why you’re saying what your’e saying.

  2. July 01, 2016 at 8:34 pm, Hoopgirl said:

    @donsalmon – a cursory read of your treatise seems to indicate introducing terms and inferences at will, such that it becomes difficult to follow any thread. Always question your assumptions. Always define your terms. I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that most “science” is little more than belief and is largely built upon prior unchallenged assumptions and maths that is self-referencing. Your post only goes to prove this further. E-mc2. Yeah, of course it does, if you say so!!

Leave a Reply


Alice in Quantum Land – Part One – The Universal Constant of Action

“Good morning, Alice,” a voice said.  Or at least it seemed like a voice. Alice rubbed her eyes.  She’d fallen asleep in the orchard, and had been dreaming of tea parties with singing cakes and dancing…

image description image description

Thanks To Our Sponsors