Consciousness - An Introduction (ch3)

Conscious and unconscious action - Chapter 3

For many centuries there have been variants of the idea that the mind consists of different parts. Already with the ancient Egyptians and in ancient Hindu texts we find the assumption that the mind is subdivided into parts. Plato stated that the soul consists of three parts: reason, the 'spirit' and appetite. Above all, it occupied a central position in psychoanalytic theories of the early twentieth century. However, the more we discover about the functioning of the brain, the more unlikely the idea of ​​the divided mind becomes.

Another subdivision is the occurrence of two types of processing. This is what the 'dual-process' theories are about. Many of these theories state that one process is automatic, effortless and non-flexible, while the other is much slower, more controlled and flexible. You can effortlessly shift this subdivision over the distinction between unconscious and conscious. In daily life we ​​feel that we do many things unconsciously. When we do things consciously, we feel that our consciousness really has control over it. If that is indeed the case, how does the mind do that?

The causal efficacy of consciousness

Imagine someone throws a ball at you. Before the ball arrives you start to grab it. So you seem to be aware of the ball that comes to you, but also of what you have to do to catch the ball. So the sequence seems to be:

  1. you perceive something consciously and

  2. you perform an action on the basis of the conscious experience.

This is actually very strange, since physical information about the outside world (the ball) enters your brain and as a result you get a conscious experience. This conscious experience then ensures that you perform an action in one way or another.

Descartes assumed a dualistic approach, but this is not a solution to the problem. Philosopher Kim argued that unconscious thoughts and actions may arise from a conscious thought, but that does not necessarily mean that this is decisive. The question must be whether consciousness has a causal force. Hodgson stated that feelings, no matter how intense, can never play a causal role in physical processes. According to him, feelings are only extras. This is in line with the idea of ​​Huxley's idea of a conscious automata. We assume that our subjective feelings and conscious choices cause our actions. If you examine the brain, however, there seems to be no room for this. Information comes through the senses and is then further processed by various parts of the brain. This then ensures the actions of the individual.

The role of consciousness in skilled movements

Conscious perception is not necessary for all movements. Visual-motor control and conscious perception are separate from each other. Accurate movements can also be made on stimuli that are not so consciously experienced. Paulignan et al., for example, showed that consciousness may be too late to play a causal role within an action. Castiello et al. showed in their research that neural activity has to process an important amount of time before it can bring about a conscious experience. The problem with the above experiments, however, is that the moment of awareness can not be precisely measured. Milner and Goodale state that there is a difference between two visual systems:

  1. visual perception and

  2. visual-motor control.

These categories are related to the ventral and the dorsal route. The ventral route is also called the "what" route and the dorsal route is also called the "where" route.

Milner and Goodale propose to make a distinction based on fundamentally different tasks performed by the brain. According to them, these categories are:

  1. rapid visual-motor control and

  2. less urgent visual perception.

They call these processes: 'vision-for-action' and 'vision-for-perception'.

According to Milner and Goodale, visual motor control is more dominant than visual perception in tasks performed by the brain. This would allow the action to become aware of this.


Conscious and unconscious actions

There is no doubt about the statement that wecertain actions consciously seem to do, certain actions appear to be unconscious and others sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious. We can generally divide actions into five categories:

  1. actions that are always unconscious,

  2. actions that are normally unconscious but can be controlled consciously,

  3. actions that are initially conscious but with time become less and less conscious

  4.  actions that can be carried out both consciously and unconsciously, and

  5. actions that always have to be carried out consciously.


Always unconscious actions

You can not let your hair grow consciously; your hair grows on its own. You also have no influence on reflexes.

Actions that can be consciously controlled.

Some actions (which are normally performed unconsciously) can be influenced by conscious control. This can be done by giving feedback about the consequences of the actions. This is also called biofeedback. Imagine: you see on a screen how quickly or slowly your heart beats. You can learn how to influence the speed at which your heart beats by consciously dealing with it. For example, you can breathe deeply or exhale to calm down and let your heart beat more slowly. You can exercise conscious control over something that normally happens unconsciously (the beating of your heart).

Initially conscious act afterwards unconscious actioncons ciousness

Learning something new will require conscious thinking in the beginning, but with time it will be more and more automatic. Think for example of driving or cycling.

Actions that can be carried out both consciously and unconsciouslycan be carried out

Once a skill is mastered, it can be done both consciously and unconsciously. For example, making tea can be done in either way.

Actions that can only be carried out consciously

If you try to remember a name or a telephone number, you use your consciousness. If you have to make a difficult moral decision, that does not happen automatically. In that case the use of consciousness is necessary.


Causal and non-causal theories

Some theories attribute a clear causal role to consciousness, according to them, consciousness causes brain events. The most obvious of such theories is dualism. Two centuries after Descartes, Carpenter described another form of interactionism. In one direction, physiological activity produces a sensational consciousness, while in the other direction sensations, emotions and ideas liberate the nerve-force which the appropriate part of the brain is changed.

The only modern, dualist theory is the theory of Popper and Eccles. They call their theory 'dualist interactionism'. In their theory they mainly use the term 'self-conscious mind'. They argued that this is an independent entity and that this is the highest level of brain activity. They mainly focused on the specific areas of the brain ('liaison areas') that occupy themselves with, among other things, language. These brain areas use different types of input. There is a constant two-way traffic between the mind and the brain. The self-conscious mind reads, as it were, the neural events in the brain and integrates them so that there is one experience. In addition, the self-conscious mind itself also causes brain activity in large parts of the brain.

The mental field of consciousness described by Libet also works in two directions. It causes brain cell activity to lead to a subjective experience, and in the other way it causes sensations, emotions and so on to cause neural activity. A critical point is how this interaction takes place. Eccles states that mental events consist of 'psychons' and that each psychon interacts with a dendron in the brain. He thus answers the question of where the interaction between the mind and the brain takes place, but it remains unclear how this happens. For this reason, this theory is rejected by many scientists.

Representational theories

There are two representational theories:

  1. higher-order perception (HOP)

  2. higher-order thought (HOT).

According to HOP, being aware of a mental condition means monitoring the mental state. HOT states that consciousness is about having a thought about the situation. A mental state is therefore conscious if the person has a higher order thought about what it is like to be in that situation. The difference between conscious and unconscious actions is therefore that there are HOTs in conscious acts.


In the philosophical field, functionalism states that mental states are functional states. Functionalism works well in explaining mental states such as desires and beliefs, but not well in explaining consciousness. Functionalism can not answer questions about what consciousness does or what the difference is between conscious and unconscious actions.

Global workspace theory (GWT)

Baars designed the global workspace theory. He argued that the cognitive system was built on a global workplace just like the stage of a theatre. Unconscious processes (such as sensory perceptions, inner speech, ideas) compete to be at the center of attention on that stage. They do this to pass information to the unconscious audience in the room, ie areas of the subconscious brain. When passing on the information use would be made of the consciousness. Conscious actions are therefore those actions that have gained access to the global workplace, the working memory.


Baars states that consciousness is a form of biological adjustment. It is a kind of gateway to bring in and exchange information, but also to coordinate and exercise control. Baars also states that consciousness has nine functions and that these functions are necessary to integrate thoughts and actions. In addition, awareness would be needed to adapt to new circumstances. Baars is an opponent of the idea that consciousness does not play a causal role in the nervous system. He thinks that conscious actions are shaped by constant feedback, while that does not apply to unconscious actions. According to Baars, awareness has arisen to protect us from danger. He states that there is no gap at all between the mind and the body.


Resources: Blackmore; Susan. (2010). Consciousness, Second Edition An Introduction. Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor & Francis.


Summaries & Study Note of Ilona
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