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Digging in the wrong place with the wrong tools: An exploration into consciousness and free will

kmanning's picture
Digging in the wrong place with the wrong tools:
An exploration into consciousness and free will

Most people are aware that their bodies have both conscious and unconscious processes. Unconscious processes are those like breathing, the beating of your heart, the tapping of your foot you aren’t aware of until the person sitting next to you yells at you to stop. Conscious processes are those that engage us in active thought – physical bodily movements we will to happen (or so we think), memories we purposely conjure up in mind, and decision-making processes we engage in that involve logical and rational deliberation. To our conscious processes we attribute agency and free will, while to our unconscious processes we attribute biological forces beyond our control. Yet what if this differentiation between conscious and unconscious – the bipartite brain – were just an illusion? Recent research shows that the neural firing associated with body movement happens approximately half of a second before we become consciously aware of our desire to make that movement (10). That we think it was our will that caused us to move is in fact only because to our mind half of a second of temporal difference is too small to notice. Free will could be nothing more than a trick of timing played on a mind not developed enough to catch on. Could this be true for our thoughts as well? Though we feel we guide our conscious thoughts, could it be that our unconscious actually “decides” what aspects of our body we become aware of, and what remains unknown? And if this is the case, what constitutes the self, and is there still room for that self to have free will?

One of the greatest mistakes made throughout the history of both psychology and philosophy is the underestimation of the importance, or rather the complete necessity and undeniability, of the role of physiological responses to thoughts and mental images – emotions, as Damasio calls them - in cognitive thought. In his book Descartes’ Error, Antonio Damasio explains how understanding the role of emotions in human reasoning and consciousness is absolutely necessary to understand the link between the unconscious and the conscious (3).

All cognitive thought, Damasio posits, to varying degrees makes use of mental images that are created in the mind through the same mechanisms as are perceptual images. When we think and reason, we are manipulating ideas that the brain represents through imagery. This position is backed up by much current research. (6, 9) An image, however, is not the unified picture or movie-in-the-brain we normally assume it is. Though most people believe that because all the sensory information about a mental image – shape, color, smell, feel – comes together in one image in our mind, it must all be stored together in the brain. Damasio explains however that “there is no single region in the human brain equipped to process, simultaneously, representations from all the sensory modalities active when we experience simultaneously, say, sound, movement, shape and color in perfect temporal and spatial registration.” (3) What causes us to perceive all of these factors as linked to one object is in fact only their simultaneity in time, not their co-localization in the brain.

A mental image then is nothing more than a specific pattern of simultaneously firing sensory neurons that mimics, not entirely identically but very closely, the same pattern of neural firing that initially created that image during perception. Maps of these neural firing patterns are most likely stored in the brain as “dispositional representations,” that when activated command the neurons that make up a pattern to fire. This abstract concept of a dispositional representation is most likely accomplished neurobiologically by the strengthening of synapses that makes certain combinations of neurons more likely to all fire together. It is thought that image perception initially occurs as patterns of activity in the early sensory cortices. When a dispositional representation is activated, it sends a message to the early sensory cortices (or perhaps to other dispositional representations) involved in creating that image, telling them to fire and thus recreate the image. Calling to mind an image then is an inherently reconstructive process. Images are not made as perceptions and then removed from the body to be replayed only in the mind as a movie or picture. Instead, they are saved as firing patterns that recreate an image in the mind by reconstructing the physiological experience of the perception of the image in the early sensory cortices. Body, brain and mind are all necessarily involved in thought and memory equally.

Yet the perception of an image has more effects on the body than just the stimulation of neurons in the sensory cortices. As Damasio explains, certain characteristics of images also have physiological responses in us that are evolutionarily preprogrammed. Largeness in an image, or fast approaching movement, for example, might activate neural networks that produce the physical reactions associated with fear – sweating and the desire to run away - for example. Because these reactions happen concurrently in time with the perceptual or mental image that caused them, they too get stored in the dispositional representation of that image. Though dispositional representations are unconscious processes, the feeling of experiencing the change in a physiological emotional reaction in regards to an image is conscious. Damasio hinges much of his argument on this difference between unconsciously generated emotional responses, and the conscious feeling of those physiological responses. 

Most important in this distinction is the ability for feelings themselves to become intertwined in dispositional representations. Once a dispositional representation is activated and conjures in mind an image and a feeling, and in body an emotional response, all three factors then become stored in a dispositional representation that as a whole can be reactivated. What this means is that the next time a stimulus brings to mind an image, that image might already have associated with it a feeling. You might think that because you feel instantly connected with someone the first time you meet him or her it means you are “destined” to fall in love, but what it might really mean is that something about him or her merely triggers a dispositional representation associated with the feeling of happiness. Dispositional representations and emotions are unconscious, thus as in the example above, sometimes they can be activated by stimuli that the conscious mind is not aware of. In such a case, a feeling can be generated that the conscious mind might associate with whatever it is currently attending to, not with the unconscious stimulus that actually initiated it.

The implications of such an interconnected operating system are huge. If every image, perceptual or mental, brings about an emotional response and a feeling (or range of feelings), in essence every thought that makes its way to our consciousness already has attached to it our own personal bias. Before we have any chance to consciously attend to an image, the range of possible interpretations and feelings we could have had for that image has already been limited by our previously formed dispositional representations. Is this any different from what we know about neural firing for a motor event happening half of a second before it is made consciously available? Is it possible that our consciousness of both our thoughts and our actions occurs only after our unconscious has already created or decided on them? And if this is the case, is there still room for free will? To explore whether or not these neurobiological explanations have indeed disproved free will, it is necessary to explore more in depth the processes by which humans control their thoughts and actions; decision-making and will power.

The idea that conscious will might not correlate with actual action is not a new concept. In 1853, Michael Faraday, the famous chemist and physicist, explored in depth the mysterious spiritual concept of “table turning” present throughout Europe and America in the mid-ninetieth century (17). It was believed that if a group of people sat around a round table with their hands on it, a spirit might intervene and rotate the table – an olden-times Ouija board if you will. Time and time again it was found that the table would indeed rotate, and this mysterious phenomenon caught the attention of Michael Faraday. After analyzing streaks left on the table by the participants’ hands, Faraday was able to conclude that in fact it was impossible that the table had slid by underneath the participants hands: despite the participants not consciously willing themselves to move the table, they had indeed been doing just that. Though with Ouija boards we assume movement actually comes from consciously intervening anxious middle school participants dying to have the board spell the name of their crush, in the case of adults engaging in serious religious practice, we will assume that conscious moving of the table is much less likely.

This case is particularly interesting, for not only does it show that we can carry out actions we do not consciously will (which we know we do anyway in the case of breathing, sensory perception, etc.) but that while consciously willing our bodies to not do something, we can end up unconsciously doing exactly that.

Current studies in cognitive control and thought suppression provide evidence that having an image in your mind of a certain action – whether or not you are willing yourself to do or to not do it, will increase the chance that you will in fact perform that action. (9, 15, 16) Daniel Wegner, a research psychologist who has done extensive work on cognitive control, states, “processes that undermine the intentional control of mental states are inherent in the very exercise of such control.” (15) Additional very recent research by Wegner and others shows that two main control processes are used by the brain to regulate thought suppression, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC) (9).   While the ACC is activated to regain control when a thought or image attempting to be suppressed sneaks by and occurs, the PFC on the other hand is constantly engaged in thought suppression by actively maintaining a representation of the to-be-suppressed thought. This research offers a different explanation from some competing explanations that assert that self-regulatory strength functions in many ways like a muscle (12). I find conclusions drawn to this effect, which come from similar clinical data as that used by Wegner and his associates, to be lacking in depth of neurobiological backing, and thus not particularly useful.

Though the purpose of the representation in the PFC is to maintain sustained control over thought suppression, using Damasio’s concepts of images and dispositional representations, it is easy to see how such a control mechanism easily leads to the occurrence of the to-be-suppressed thought. If suppression of the thought requires that the brain unconsciously maintain an image of the to-be-suppressed thought (in order to allow the brain to recognize when that thought has indeed occurred, signaling a failure of suppression) this would be activating dispositional representations associated with that image (14). This unconscious image used by the PFC will thus induce an emotional response in the body to that image. Based on our knowledge of how emotional states and feelings become associated with images and dispositional representations, we can predict that if the body is reacting to a certain stimulus that consciousness is not immediately aware of, it seems likely that sooner or later emotions and feelings will trigger a dispositional representation that will call the to-be-suppressed image to conscious attention. If an image or representation of a to-be-avoided thought is anywhere in the brain or body, consciously or unconsciously, it is going to be inducing brain and body effects.

In a sense then, we can think of an unconscious representation as priming the body to interpret incoming images as related to itself, whereas under other non-primed circumstance it would be much less likely that those images would be interpreted as related. This priming is similar to the personal bias (discussed above) that all our conscious thoughts have upon arrival in consciousness. The emotional state of our body when we receive an image will determine the way in which that image is unconsciously interpreted. By the time an image reaches our consciousness, whether perceptual or mental, a host of different interpretations and dispositions have already been applied to it.

Some recent studies have shown that will power and cognitive control can be bolstered by conjuring up memories of things people value in life, laughter, and by inducing positive thoughts (11). This can perhaps be explained by the associated emotional responses that these positive mental images would have. If the body is primed with emotional and neural conditions usually associated with happiness and positivity, this perhaps will result in more positive results with cognitive control. Or, conversely, this will prime interpretation of whatever results do happen to be positive, giving even negative results a successful interpretation. Tying in the evidence cited above about our lack of actual conscious control of our present actions, perhaps the feeling of success or failure of will power actually boils down to simply whether or not our conscious images match up with what we unconsciously end up doing. When our will power “fails”, perhaps it is because we don’t yet have a dispositional representation linking a certain motor occurrence with a certain mind state, so we feel as though we in effect failed to will our body to do what we wanted. As soon as such a representation is formed however, we will feel we have gained the will power to control a certain action, because this time that motor action will be paired with the mind state of willing that action.

The effect of the present emotional state of the body on perceptual interpretation and mental image formation (especially in the realm of making predictions, i.e., forming images of future states) is currently being studied in great depth. The general understanding that is emerging is that the “reasoning” one employs when making a decision is inextricably linked with both the present emotional state of the person making the decision, and the entire set of dispositional representations that person has; in other words, all of their memoires of previous events, and their memories of the conscious states – feelings – they associated with those events (6, 7, 8). In other words, every time we consciously associate a feeling with an emotional response to an image, we have laid down a pattern in our dispositional representations that will forever be a part of the unconscious part of our decision making process (which is perhaps all of the process, as shall soon be discussed.) If a certain element of an image has previously resulted in my feeling unhappy, the next time I come across a scenario that contains that element, I may automatically feel negatively about that scenario, which will undoubtedly shape my response to it. While I may assume I had a decision in how to feel about that scenario and how to respond to it, my reaction can be explained by previously laid down dispositional representations that leave very little, if any, room for conscious choice.

Additionally, when we conjure up an image of a possible future scenario, evidence suggests that we are not able to construct a mental image that will accurately represent the intricacies of that future scenario. For one, we cannot predict all of the minute details of the scenario that will have an emotional effect on us (7), and for another, we are not able to predict exactly how those details, even the ones we predict correctly, will emotionally affect us. The reason for this latter problem is two-fold. First, evidence suggests that we are unable to divorce our prediction of what a future emotional state will be like from our present emotional state, and second that we are unable to accurately take into account the effect of the passing of time on emotional responses.

Daniel Gilbert has done extensive research on this later problem, what he calls the “impact bias,” or the overestimation of the intensity and duration of future emotions. He says the participants in his studies found that both bad and good future events proved less intense in actuality than they had predicted. Gilbert attributes this largely to the human inability to predict the effects of the passing of time on their future emotions. He says, “we’re generally unable to recognize that we adapt to new circumstances and therefore fail to incorporate this fact into our decisions.” (7) Additionally, this problem seems to be one that reaches to the far depths of the unconscious. Just because you have read this paper and now understand that we often fail to predict that we will adapt to new situations, this does not mean you will be able to correct for your future temporal predication errors. Humans have an amazing built in coping mechanism; as George Lowenstein, another researcher in the field, says, “we’re designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.” (7, 13)

Though there is not time to truly delve into it, I would like to take a brief aside into the issue of time. The human inability to correctly deal with the construct of time seems at the heart of many of decision-making problems. In fact, I propose that it is perhaps because we assume we do incorporate a correct construct of time into our thoughts and actions that we even have a conception of the conscious mind as existing separately from the unconscious to begin with. If we were able to recognize that our motor actions took place before we were conscious of them, we would not be tricked into believing “we controlled” those actions (of course still up for dispute). If we could correctly apply the construct of time to emotions, we could make predictions that incorporated how those emotions would change over time, and not just how they would feel in the instant of our predicted scenario. It is because of the simultaneity of sensory inputs that we are able to link them together into objects, thus allowing us personal perspective and the ascription of agency to other beings. We cannot predict future events correctly because we do not have a sense of the passing of time; of the effect on present states as time passes. Though we can trick ourselves consciously into believing we understand change - perhaps by juxtaposing in quick succession discrete images of the same scenario slightly altered in each frame – it appears that our body/brain/mind unified construct does not truly internalize change. We can feel change as transitions from one static state to another, but consciousness allows us, by which I mean the unified body/brain/mind construct, only to know things as frozen in time.

And now back to the second reason why we are not able to predict how future events will emotionally affect us. This second reason has to do with how the emotional state of our bodies when we imagine a future event undeniably influences how we imagine that event to be. The present emotional state of our body acts as a priming system, as discussed earlier, that will necessarily apply a certain bias to what thoughts make it into our consciousness, and how we interpret those thoughts. If we feel happy at the time we are making predictions, we will undoubtedly be predisposed to feel more positively about the future events we are imagining, thus making us more likely to decide to act on them. Lowenstein says some emotional states “have the ability to change us so profoundly that we’re more different from ourselves in different states than we are from another person.” (7) More than just a shocking turn of phrase, this is a truly important question: is there even a constant “self” to whom we could attribute a free will if we could prove it existed?

In another of his books, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Damasio explains some of his research findings that suggest neurological evidence for the existence of a constant set of dispositional representations that could represent the self. He writes:

“In a number of sites of both temporal and frontal regions, convergence zones support dispositions that can consistently and iteratively activate, within early sensory cortices, the fundamental data that define our personal and social identities… At any moment of our waking and conscious lives, a consistent set of identity records is being made explicit in such a way that it forms a backdrop for our minds and can be moved to the foreground rapidly if the need arises.” (4)

Just as our gene expression depends upon the environment in which genes are expressed, so too is the expression of Damasio’s dispositional self dependent on the environment, both external and internal, in which it is expressed. Certain emotional states could cause the set of dispositional representations constituting the self to trigger entirely different images from other emotional states. Perhaps the reason we sometimes look back on decisions and feel as though it was a different conscious self that made those decisions is because the “conscious self” we usually think of is much more encompassing than what the actual dispositional self is. If in fact the self is what Damasio describes it as, it contains much less consistency than we usually try to ascribe to the idea of a conscious self. When certain emotional states cause us to react in ways that seem more consistent with our conscious conception of the self, we feel those are good decisions. But when an emotional state causes our unconscious self to be expressed in ways we are not used to, and to thus cause us to make decisions that in another emotional state we might not have made, we deem such actions bad choices or lapses in judgment.

It is to settle this conflict that I propose the following two definitions. “Consciousness” is the consistently firing set of dispositional representations that allow us to feel as though there is someone to whom we can ascribe a free will. The self, on the other hand, is the entire entity that constitutes our being: our body, our brain and our mind. I see these things –body, brain and mind - as not separate but as one collective, interrelated system that contains information and memory through the creation of dispositional representations. Those dispositions that become interconnected with the representations that constitute consciousness indeed enter into our consciousness and become part of what we might describe as our conscious self. Evolution, then, has not brought us consciousness so we can have an immaterial mind separate from body, but because of the usefulness to survival of having this consistent set of neural dispositions. Such consciousness allows us not just to perceive of objects and their relation to each other, but to perceive of ourselves at the same time as those objects, and thus to perceive of our perception of the relation between ourselves and the outside world.

So what of free will? If we are not in charge of our actions or our thoughts as they occur in the moment, and if consciousness is merely the relation of many different levels of dispositional representations, where is there room for willing? As Simon Blackburn writes in response to Daniel Dennett’s book Freedom Evolves:

“As Leibniz remarked three centuries ago, if you could blow the brain up to the size of a mill and walk about inside, you would not find consciousness. Nor would you discover the spark of human agency. You would only observe the countless events that take place in the billions of neurons and the pathways between them, each event obeying inexorable physical laws. This might lead the unwary to deny that either consciousness or free will exists, and it takes a lot of philosophical sophistication to realize that those who have attempted to unearth the roots of consciousness in this way were digging in the wrong place, or in the right place with the wrong tools.” (2)

Perhaps we must expand our version agency, in much the same way as we have now expanded our version of self, in order to regain free will. For just because the actions we are performing in this instant may indeed be beyond our conscious control, we do also know that our current feelings are being added into dispositional representations that we will make use of in the future. The way we interpret events consciously is not epiphenomenal. In no way has this paper intended to imply this at all. Instead, by nature of the fact that our conscious interpretations of events change dispositional representations, so too do they have an effect on the way future unconscious events will occur. If what we want is to feel agency, then we should take comfort in the fact that indeed what we feel will influence in the future what our unconscious will do. As Blackburn says: “A decision is something that you, the whole person, makes, and there is no reason why it should not be smeared out over time just as it is over space.” (2)


1.    Aamodt A, Wang S. Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind. The New York Times, April 2008.,%20strengthen%20you%20mind&st=cse

2.    Blackburn S. Who’s In Charge? The American Scientist.

3.    Damasio, Antonio. Descartes’ Error. New York. Penguin Books, 1994.

4.    Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.

5.    Eisenberg A. What’s Next: A Chip the Mimics Neurons, Firing Up the Memory. The New York Times, June 2002.

6.    Galotti KM. Decision Structuring in Important Real-Life Choices. Psychological Science, 2007. 18;4: 320-325.

7.    Gertner, J. The Futile Pursuit of Happiness. The New York Times, September 2003.

8.    Hsee CK, Hastie R. Decision and experience: why don’t we choose what makes us happy? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2006. Available at SSRN:

9.    Mitchell JP, Heatherton TF, Kelley WM, Wyland CL, Wegner DM, Macrae CN. Separating Sustained from Transient Aspects of Cognitive Control During Thought Suppression. Psychological Science, 2007. 18;4: 292-297.

10.    Overbye D. Free Will: Now You Have it, Now You Don’t. The New York Times, January 2007.

11.    Parker-Pope T. How to Boost your Willpower. The New York Times, December 2007.

12.    Segerstrom SC, New LS. Heart Rate Variability Reflects Self-Regulatory Strength, Effort, and Fatigue. Psychological Science, 2007. 18;3: 275-281.

13.    Strossel, S. The Joy of Delusion. The New York Times, May 2006.

14.    Wegner, DM. You can’t always think what you want: Problems in the suppression of unwanted thoughts. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 1992. Vol 25.

15.    Wegner DM. Ironic Processes of Mental Control. Psychological Review, 1994. 101;1: 34-52.

16.    Wegner DM, Ansfield M, Pilloff D. The Putt and the Pendulum: Ironic Effects of the Mental Control of Action. Psychological Science, 1998. 9;3: 196-199.

17.    Wegner, DM. The Illusion of Conscious Will. MIT Press, 2003. Pages 1-15.


Paul Grobstein's picture

the free will matter ... and mental health

"conscious interpretations of events change dispositional representations, so too do they have an effect on the way future unconscious events will occur"

Which means that the point of consciousness isn't in fact primarily to control current action but rather to alter unconscious processes ("dispositional representations") so as to alter future behavior? I like that, but think there is still an additional ingredient needed for "free will." If the conscious state is fully determined by dispositional representations (the unconscious), then any alteration of dispositional representations is itself fully determined by dispositional representations. And "free will" remains an epiphenomenon, all illusion. If though the conscious is capable of to some degree divorcing itself from dispositional representations, of conceiving dispositional representations other than the existing one, then it would indeed play a causal role in future behavior. As per William James, "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will."

Maybe the business of mental health is to help people acquire the ability to conceive dispositional representations other than the existing one? And so to enhance agency, free will?

jrlewis's picture

thoughts, pictures, and words?

A picture is worth a thousand words, according to a traditional saying.  This summer a professor told me that a word is worth a thousand pictures.  In your essay, it seems that you are saying a picture is worth a thousand emotions.  Perhaps an emotion is worth a thousand picutures and thousands of thousands of words?  Any emotion can not be adaquately described by words because of the complexity or nature of translation.