While consciousness is more often than not described as being an active “authority” that exerts a certain level of control on one’s deeds, a researcher from San Francisco State University has come up with a theory that dictates the opposite. According to him, consciousness neither creates information nor influences one’s actions, but it only acts as “interpreter”. The findings have been published online in the journal Behavioural and Brain Sciences.
Associate Professor of Psychology Ezequiel Morsella has formulated the “Passive Frame Theory” that states that the conscious mind is but an interpreter, similar to one assisting speakers of different languages to interact with each other.
“The interpreter presents the information but is not the one making any arguments or acting upon the knowledge that is shared,” Morsella said.
“Similarly, the information we perceive in our consciousness is not created by conscious processes, nor is it reacted to by conscious processes. Consciousness is the middle-man, and it doesn’t do as much work as you think.”
He believes that it is only repeating a simple task over and over such that people have the impression that it is actually actively participating in thought processes. The conscious mind, as says the theory, does not manage thoughts, feelings and physical actions.
“We have long thought consciousness solved problems and had many moving parts, but it’s much more basic and static,” Morsella said. “This theory is very counterintuitive. It goes against our everyday way of thinking.”
The Passive Frame Theory was built up for a period of time extending over more than 10 years.
“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,” Morsella said. “Also, most approaches to consciousness focus on perception rather than action.”
Moreover, Morsella argues that consciousness is not driven by purpose.
“For the vast majority of human history, we were hunting and gathering and had more pressing concerns that required rapidly executed voluntary actions,” Morsella said. “Consciousness seems to have evolved for these types of actions rather than to understand itself.”
Morsella goes further arguing that the concept of free will associated with the conscious mind is non-existent. Rather, the role of consciousness is to pass on information to control “voluntary” action.
The theory of Morsella also challenges the belief that a conscious thought paves the way for another.
“One thought doesn’t know about the other, they just often have access to and are acting upon the same, unconscious information,” Morsella said. “You have one thought and then another, and you think that one thought leads to the next, but this doesn’t seem to be the way the process actually works.”
Morsella believes that his theory is pertinent to the study of mental disorders.
“Why do you have an urge or thought that you shouldn’t be having? Because, in a sense, the consciousness system doesn’t know that you shouldn’t be thinking about something,” Morsella said. “An urge generator doesn’t know that an urge is irrelevant to other thoughts or ongoing action.”