Tom Jonard's Latency of Consciousness Page

The term "latency of consciousness" refers to the fact that contrary to what we believe consciousness of voluntary actions follows rather than precedes these actions.

In the 1970's neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet discovered that there was a gap between when a subject's brain waves indicated he was going to move his finger and when the subject reported he was conscious of the decision to move his finger.  In another experiment subjects whose cortex was stimulated during brain surgery reported an associated sensation only after a similar delay.  (Patient's are usually awake during such surgery because verbal feedback from such stimulation helps the surgeon map the individual's cortex.)  The neural events that precede consciousness do so by about 1/3 second.

One of the central issues of the Philosophy of Mind before these neurophysiological observations was how the Mind (which was thought to be immaterial) causes a physical effect (whether the movement of a limb or the firing of a neuron which moves a limb).  The observed Latency of Consciousness turns this question on its head.  The last thing that happens is consciousness of action.  Physical, neural action precedes consciousness.  Consciousness may even be irrelevant to voluntary action.  Perhaps consciousness is merely a side effect.

The problem is that this is not what we think nor what has been thought throughout the history of the Philosophy of Mind about consciousness.  We believe that we can initiate our own actions.  We believe that by thought alone we can move our limbs.  The whole idea of Free Will is predicated on this possibility.  Theories of Psychology (e.g., Behaviorism) and the Mind have fallen because they denied that our minds can move our bodies and that action can begin in thought alone.  Any theory that claims that this ability to freely will action is an illusion is not likely to get far.

Yet there it is:  Consciousness is the last thing that happens.  Just when we think we have made up our minds to act our neurons have already fired and the action that we think we are now choosing is already under way.

Of course it is possible to still have free will.  But perhaps not conscious free will.  Our neurons firing is our mind at work just not our conscious mind.  Our decision can be made by our minds before we become aware of it.  That is all that is required to fit the observations.  It is not what we think happens but it closely fits what does happen.  The illusion is not that we think we have free will but that we think consciousness must precede voluntary action.

This raises an interesting question:  Can we still have voluntary action and free will with no consciousness at all?  What happens if for one reason or another no awareness of our action ever rises to the conscious level?  What happens if the area of the brain where consciousness occurs is damaged but the rest of the brain mechanisms that we use to initiate voluntary action remain intact?  Can we act but never become conscious that we have chosen to act?  Is this unconscious action the same as voluntary action?

In a way something like this happens when we do not pay attention.  Perhaps every driver has experienced what I call an "auto-pilot" episode.  This happens when while driving one suddenly realizes that they have no recollection of how they got to where they are.  Sometimes we set out for one place but suddenly become conscious that we are in fact headed somewhere else.  We have missed a turn or followed a familiar route rather than the one we intended.  The remarkable thing about driving on "auto-pilot" is that drivers don't run off the road while doing it.  They navigate stops and turns and signals without incident   And without conscious awareness.

Of course there is a sense in which this is involuntary action.  Specifically we may not end up where we intended to go.  But if we do and are just not aware of how we got there would that be voluntary action?  How can a driver on "auto-pilot" avoid obstacles if not by voluntary action?  The driver in an "auto-pilot" episode becomes conscious of it after the fact.  If this never happened, if they never became conscious that a part of their life was "missing", if they never possessed conscious awareness of the incident would this make their actions involuntary?  Would individuals with such an impairment possess free will?  The only difference between them and us would be that we are conscious of our actions -- an after the fact mental event.

There is another possibility.  Attention and awareness -- the conscious functions missing in an "auto-pilot" episode -- are higher level brain functions.  They are but pieces of higher level consciousness.  On the other hand Antonio Damasio points out in The Feeling of What Happens (Harcourt, 1999) that the kind of brain damage that disrupts all consciousness occurs not in the areas identified with higher brain functions but in the mid brain stem.  This area is adjacent to the nexus through which all body information is received and all motor function control passes.  The juxtaposition is suggestive that body feedback and control is closely linked to consciousness.  There may be no voluntary action or free will in the absence of consciousness because there is no action whatsoever.  Neurologically both action and consciousness may be fundamentally and inseparably linked

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Created September 4, 2002, 
© 2002, Thomas A. Jonard