Scientists Have Developed a New Explanation for Consciousness

Thoughts Consciousness Brain Fog

A recent study offers a new theory for consciousness.

According to a new theory, choices are formed unconsciously and become conscious around half a second later.

Consciousness is your awareness of yourself and your surroundings. This awareness is unique to you and subjective.

A new theory of consciousness has been developed by a researcher at Boston University’s Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine, describing why it evolved, what it is useful for, which disorders influence it, and why it is so difficult to diet and resist other urges.

“In a nutshell, our theory is that consciousness developed as a memory system that is used by our unconscious brain to help us flexibly and creatively imagine the future and plan accordingly,” explained corresponding author Andrew Budson, MD, professor of neurology. “What is completely new about this theory is that it suggests we don’t perceive the world, make decisions, or perform actions directly. Instead, we do all these things unconsciously and then—about half a second later—consciously remember doing them.”

In order to explain a number of phenomena that could not be readily explained by earlier theories of consciousness, Budson explained that he and his co-authors, psychologist Elizabeth Kensinger, Ph.D., from Boston College, and philosopher Kenneth Richman, Ph.D., at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, developed this theory.

“We knew that conscious processes were simply too slow to be actively involved in music, sports, and other activities where split-second reflexes are required. But if consciousness is not involved in such processes, then a better explanation of what consciousness does was needed,” said Budson, who also is Chief of Cognitive & Behavioral Neurology, Associate Chief of Staff for Education, and Director of the Center for Translational Cognitive Neuroscience at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Boston Healthcare System.

This theory, according to the researchers, is important because it clarifies how all of our choices and actions—which we mistakenly believe were made consciously—are actually made unconsciously. Therefore, since our conscious mind is not in charge of our actions, we may tell ourselves that we are just going to have one scoop of ice cream and then, the next thing we know, the container is empty.

“Even our thoughts are not generally under our conscious control. This lack of control is why we may have difficulty stopping a stream of thoughts running through our head as we’re trying to go to sleep, and also why mindfulness is hard,” adds Budson.

Budson and his coauthors consider a number of neurologic, psychiatric, and developmental disorders to be disorders of consciousness including Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, delirium, migraine, schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, certain types of autism, and more.

Lastly, their paper provides a roadmap as to how clinicians, educators, and individuals can best improve behavior and gain knowledge, by using clinical and teaching methods that can be effective in shaping both the conscious mind and the unconscious brain. With further exploration, this work may allow patients to improve problem behaviors such as overeating, help us understand the ways in which brain structures support memory, and even provide insight into philosophical issues around free will and moral responsibility.

Reference: “Consciousness as a Memory System” by  Andrew E. Budson, MD, Kenneth A. Richman, Ph.D., Elizabeth A. Kensinger, Ph.D., 3 October 2022, Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology.
DOI: 10.1097/WNN.0000000000000319

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. 

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