Because I can mirror-write, I had to read the article in The Psychologist (citation below) by McIntosh and Della Sala on the skill. They look at much of the evidence for two theories: mirror-writing has a motor source, and it has a perception source. Of course, I could not help but compare their picture with my own experience. I am left-handed and dyslexic so I have always thought that my mirror-writing skill stems from one or both or these conditions.


This article puts forward the idea that some mirroring is natural for all children learning to write. They have not been required to differentiate mirror images until faced with writing. They learn the shape of letters separately from learning their direction and so there is a shortish time period where mirror-writing is somewhat common.

There is little truth in the idea that mirror-writing is more common in left-handers. Mirror-writing in childhood does of course correlate with age, but the true underlying factor here is the stage of acquisition of writing, with occasional mirror-writing as an intermediate stage between no writing and correct writing …. Specifically, it implies that the general shape of a letter is learned more rapidly than the direction for writing it. The key to understanding this may be to regard mirror-writing not as intrinsically errorful, but as a feat of action generalisation. It is a neat trick for a child to produce a perfect mirrored-form, which they have never been taught, as readily as the correct form that they have been shown repeatedly. For most actions, this mirror-generalisation would be useful, because anything that we do one way may need to be done in reverse at another time. … Writing, however, belongs to an unusual, evolutionarily recent, class of actions that have a culturally set directionality, and for which this generalisation is unhelpful. Acquiring the correct direction for writing in one’s culture may be a matter of stamping out the unwanted alternative after having learned the general shape of the action.


It seems that mirror-writing has a motor cause. Most mirror-writers cannot read their mirror script, me included. Reading mirror-writing is a separate skill. Much of the discussion in this article has to do with people changing hands from their dominate one or using both hands simultaneously. I had never done any mirror-writing with my (non-dominate) right hand so, of course, I stopped reading and tried. It does not seem to work for me. Of course, I have to take into consideration that I have never done anything with my right voluntarily – why start in my 70s. It may be that the ability to mirror-write may actually be quite common but most people have simply never tried to do it.


But I do think that my dyslexia may be involved. I associate my type of dyslexia with a life long problem with identifying whether two images are the same or mirror images from memory (as opposed to have both images in my visual field at the same time or one immediately after the other). Another problem that I have always had is telling whether a turn is clockwise or counter-clockwise without picturing the numbers on a clock and match that image with the motion. Am I going up the numbers or down? Nothing in this article seems to definitely confirm or reject the idea that some types of dyslexia have an affect on mirror perception or motor patterns.



RD McIntosh, & S Della Sala (2012). Mirror-writing The Psychologist, 25 (10), 742-746

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Logical sleight of hand

Joachim Krueger has a posting in the PsychologyToday blog (here). Where he attempts to use a logical construction to disprove the conclusions of DM Wegner (2002) The illusion of conscious will.

He summarizes Wegner’s conclusion as follows:

“According to this (Wegner’s) view, the brain prepares and executes both action and the conscious intention of acting at the same time. Conscious will is thereby correlated action without having any causal power. The correlation is due to the common cause of brain activity. If conscious will does not (ever) cause action, it is a dead end in the stream of causation. Conscious will is, as it were, an organism without offspring in the great genealogical tree of nature. Just as future generations are begotten by other organisms that mate, future actions are caused by other brain activities that are not causally dependent on conscious will.”

Krueger attempts to prove that this is illogical. The language is a bit messy here but the argument can be made clear. If a particular brain activity, and only that brain activity, causes both the ‘conscious will’ and the ‘action’, than if either the ‘action’ or the ‘conscious will’ do not happen, it follows that the brain activity did not happen. So either ‘action and ‘conscious will’ both happen or neither happens. Therefore either ‘conscious will’ is part of the casual chain or is epiphenomenal.

What do we make of this? First, the experimental evidence is that the action and conscious will do not always happen together, they can be separately under unusual circumstances. This little logical argument does not take this into consideration and therefore does not accurately describe the situation. It can be experimentally arranged to have ‘conscious will’ without ‘action’ and to have ‘action’ without ‘conscious will’.

Second, just because ‘conscious will’ is not in this particular casual chain does not mean that it is not in some other causal chain. (I would agree that it is fairly certain that consciousness has functions because it is too biologically costly to be a frill. In other words, it is extremely improbable that consciousness is epiphenomenal.) There are other brain activities: for example, the ‘conscious will’ feeling in consciousness may mark memories as being memories of intended actions as opposed to unintended actions. Such a marking would be causal in learning outcomes of actions etc. To learn from our actions we need to remember whether there was either or both a feeling of agency and a feeling of intent. Just because consciousness is not essential in causing intended actions does not make it useless or epiphenomenal, if it records the nature of the action.

One of the problems of logical arguments such as this one is that once ‘brain activity’ becomes B, ‘conscious will’ becomes C and ‘action’ becomes A, it is difficult to notice when the meaning of these terms subtly change. When a particular brain activity becomes any/all brain activity the logic evaporates. It is suddenly not the same B. One has to be careful at every step of the logic that there is not a sleight-of-hand with the meaning of the elements.

Priming a hemisphere

ScienceDaily has an item on a paper by Beckman, Gropel and Ehrlenspiel, Preventing Motor Skill Failure through Hemisphere-Specific Priming – Cases from Choking under Pressure. (here)


Groups of right-handed athletes (soccer players, judo competitors, badminton players) performed with and without pressure. Half of each group squeezed a ball with their left hand before the pressure session and the other half squeezed a ball with their right hand. All the players were right handed. The squeezing was done in order to prime one of the cerebral hemispheres – left hand for right hemisphere and right hand for left. In general, performance under pressure was not as good as pressure-free. There is an element of ‘choking’ under pressure. The results were that squeezing with the left hand gave better pressure performance than with the right hand.


For skilled athletes, many movements, such as kicking a soccer ball or completing a judo kick, become automatic with little conscious thought. When athletes under pressure don’t perform well, they may be focusing too much on their own movements rather than relying on their motor skills developed through years of practice … “Rumination can interfere with concentration and performance of motor tasks. Athletes usually perform better when they trust their bodies rather than thinking too much about their own actions or what their coaches told them during practice,” Beckmann said. “While it may seem counterintuitive, consciously trying to keep one’s balance is likely to produce imbalance, as was seen in some sub-par performances by gymnasts during the Olympics in London.”


Previous research has shown that rumination is associated with the brain’s left hemisphere, while the right hemisphere is associated with superior performance in automated behaviors, such as those used by some athletes, the study notes. The right hemisphere controls movements of the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere controls the right side. The researchers theorized that squeezing a ball or clenching the left hand would activate the right hemisphere of the brain and reduce the likelihood of the athlete’s choking under pressure. The study focused exclusively on right-handed athletes because some relationships between different parts of the brain aren’t as well understood for left-handed people, according to the authors.


Conscious thinking is slow and limited compared to automatic action. Here is the abstract:

When well-learned motor skills fail, such as when elderly persons fall or when athletes “choke under pressure,” it is assumed that attention is directed toward the execution of the action. Research findings suggest that this controlled execution and subsequent inferior performance depend on a dominant left-hemispheric activation. In a series of 3 experiments, we tested whether increasing right-hemispheric activation by the use of hemisphere-specific priming extenuates motor skill failure. We compared the performances of a sample of experienced athletes in different sports (soccer, tae kwon do, and badminton) in a pressure-free situation with that performed under pressure. As expected, the hemisphere-specific priming extenuated a performance decrease after pressure induction when compared with a control condition. The results suggest that hemisphere-specific priming may prevent motor skill failure. It is argued that this hemispheric priming should be task dependent and can be understood as a functional regulation of the activation in the hemispheres.


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How can self-awareness be measured?

I have often thought that there was a problem with the measurement of self-awareness in animals. For some time self-awareness has been identified with self-recognition and self-recognition with the mirror test.


So far the mirror recognition test has been passed by humans, bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, dolphins, oras, elephants and magpies. It has sort of, maybe, been passed by some other birds and monkeys. We cannot believe that only those animals are self-aware. Where are the dogs, big cats and similar? Watch a pair of sheep dogs work sheep; watch a group of lions take their roles in an ambush; can that behavior happen without self-awareness? How do octopuses know when their camouflage is a perfect match for their environment? And why do Kenyan children fail the mirror test and American children pass it at the same age? The problem is that the mirror test needs more that self-recognition.


First the animal needs to understand the concept of reflection and that the mirror is giving a reflection and it is of themselves; second they have to behave in a way that shows that they know they have seen themselves (find and try to remove a mark on their bodies). It will not do if the animal has some other interpretation of the mirror’s image or some other reaction to it. What if they reject the image because it doesn’t smell right? What if the whole procedure frightens them? What if they refuse to look at the image? What if they do not see the mark as unusual? What if they don’t care if they have a mark on their body?


Why is self-recognition needed for self-awareness? Couchman (see citation below) looked at self-awareness in rhesus monkeys using a sense of self-agency instead of self-recognition.

Of the many species that fail the mirror self-recognition task, rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) are particularly interesting because their failures are probably not owing to cognitive factors, but rather social tendencies to make threat gestures towards any monkey image. … In all of these tasks (testing metacognition), rhesus monkeys know what they know and what they do not know, suggesting that they have some awareness of their own mental states. … one potential way to resolve the conflicting results in mirror self-recognition and uncertainty-monitoring is to create a task in which subjects are asked to identify their own self-generated actions. Such a task would tap the cognitive and sensorimotor cues involved in self-monitoring, self-agency and self-awareness, while eliminating distracting self-images. The current task asks humans and monkeys, for the first time, to distinguish between self-controlled and partially directionally reversed (distractor) cursors that are equally perceptually salient. If monkeys have any sense of self-agency, they ought to be able to distinguish self-generated from partially altered actions.


By these other tests rather than the mirror test, rhesus monkeys show themselves to be self-aware. So the mirror test should not be the gold standard of self-awareness – it is not the one and only test.


Here is the abstract:

Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) have shown the ability to monitor their own mental states, but fail the mirror self-recognition test. In humans, the sense of self-agency is closely related to self-awareness, and results from monitoring the relationship between intentional, sensorimotor and perceptual information. Humans and rhesus monkeys were trained to move a computer icon with a joystick while a distractor icon partially matched their movements. Both humans and monkeys were able to monitor and identify the icon they were controlling, suggesting they have some understanding of self-agency.




Justin J. Couchman (2012). Self-agency in rhesus monkeys Biol. Lett. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0535

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I notice your frustration

A occasional commenter, Quen_tin, has a very different way of seeing things to myself. His comments are appreciated, always serious and never rude. But I can feel his frustration in the beginning of his last comment. “Sorry but… What exactly are you talking about ??? Mental entities that are not conscious ? Thoughts we are not aware of ? I think your concepts are ill-defined.”


So I feel that it is time to give an overview of my guesses as to how consciousness works. I have avoided taking my guesses too seriously because the science is so fluid. And this blog was started to follow the science rather than put forward a complete theory of my own. But on the other hand, there seems no piecemeal way to explain my problems with Quen_tin’s comments.


The philosophical ideas that I find most comfortable are Thomas Metzinger’s (pdf).

The present theory develops a detailed story about precisely what properties representations in a given information-processing system must possess in order to become phenomenal representations, ones the content of which is at the same time a content of consciousness. Let us start with what I call the “minimal concept of consciousness” and then proceed to enrich it. Phenomenologically, minimal consciousness is described as the presence of a world. This minimal notion involves what is called (1) the globality-constraint (a world-model that is available as a world model), (2) the presentationality-constraint (experience of presence in that world, now), and (3) the transparency-constraint (unavailability of earlier processing stages). … The presence of a world. The phenomenal presence of a world is the activation of a coherent, global model of reality (Constraint 1) within a virtual window of presence (Constraint 2), a model that cannot be recognized as a model by the system generating it within itself (Constraint 3). Please note how all that such a system would experience would be the presence of one unified world, homogeneous and frozen into an internal Now as it were.

Then the self is introduced. …one could say that you are the content of your PSM (phenomenal self-model ). A perhaps better way of making the central point intuitively accessible could be by saying that we are systems that constantly confuse themselves with the content of their PSM (phenomenal self-model ). And Mezinger carries on to elaborate a picture of consciousness that seems very reasonable to me.


It is not that I have accepted this theory as the only possibility. However it is a possibility – and therefore, the phenomenal should not be beyond scientific explanation.


So the way I look at it is that there is a brain and that brain does stuff like action, perception, cognition, memory and whatever else we associate with mind or thought or mental processing. Mind is a function of brain, mind is what brain does. A small but very important function of the brain, or a small part of the mind-function, is consciousness. It is a model of the world including a model of the self that is available to much of the brain. It is connected with attention, working memory and short-term prediction. It is important to the working of the brain but does not do action, perception, or cognition. It does not do thought; it does awareness. It has no direct (as opposed to modeled) knowledge of the world or the self. Therefore introspection has no direct privileged knowledge.


Because it is the route to working memory, any thought process that requires the storage facility of working memory will have its interim steps appear in consciousness (not the thought processes but the sub-conclusions on the way to a final conclusion). It will have some of the appearance of the thought being consciously done because the interim steps appear in order in the stream of consciousness. But we still have only one unified brain/mind doing the thinking. We are never aware through consciousness of the thinking process, the ‘cogs moving’.


It is true that one of the reasons that I find this a comfortable way of looking at consciousness is a metaphysical choice, taken so long ago that it is lost in the fog of childhood. I believe in a ‘reality’ that is physical and material in nature, with a very concrete sort of belief. I find it impossible to believe in non-physical/non-material things. The disembodied, spiritual and such like are not entertained. I shy away from words that sit on the fence like ’emergent’; they seem to want to be both physical and spiritual at the same time. So my only way of understanding consciousness is scientific.


At this point, I hear in my ear that some readers are saying to themselves, “but why is red the way it is?”. Where do the qualia come from? I don’t know how the brain does qualia. But I see it as a scientific question all the same. I do not buy that it is so mysterious that it cannot be understood. Why is red the way it is? Why not. How is red the way it is? Who knows. But I trust we will know someday.



Sleeping in a dish

Neuroskeptic has an interesting posting (here) on a paper, Key electrophysiological, molecular, and metabolic signatures of sleep and wakefulness revealed in primary cortical cultures, by Hinard and others.

We and other animals regularly lose our normal awake consciousness and go to sleep. Why this happens has been a question for a long time. There are many proposed reasons and many could be correct even at the same time. So we have evolutionary, psychological, and physiological scenerios. Now there is a surprising development.

The ability to mimic sleep in a random network of cultured neurons in a petri dish is surprising. The neuron cultures go to sleep on a sort of circadian timetable. When these neurons go to sleep they can be wakened with a mixture of neurotransmitters and therefore the scientists can produce sleep-deprived neurons. They can look at the difference in the chemistry of well-rested and sleep-deprived neurons.

One change is that lysolipids build up in the neuron cell membranes during the ‘awake’ time and are reduced during the ‘asleep’ time. Lysolipids are harmful to the cells.

So neurons seem to have had a problem for all of their existence. When they communicate they accumulate lysolipid and they need a period of non-communication to rid themselves of this type of chemical.

You will be relieved to know that there is no sign of dreaming in cultured neurons, just slow wave deep type sleep. Here is the abstract:

Although sleep is defined as a behavioral state, at the cortical level sleep has local and use-dependent features suggesting that it is a property of neuronal assemblies requiring sleep in function of the activation experienced during prior wakefulness. Here we show that mature cortical cultured neurons display a default state characterized by synchronized burst-pause firing activity reminiscent of sleep. This default sleep-like state can be changed to transient tonic firing reminiscent of wakefulness when cultures are stimulated with a mixture of waking neurotransmitters and spontaneously returns to sleep-like state. In addition to electrophysiological similarities, the transcriptome of stimulated cultures strikingly resembles the cortical transcriptome of sleep-deprived mice, and plastic changes as reflected by AMPA receptors phosphorylation are also similar. We used our in vitro model and sleep-deprived animals to map the metabolic pathways activated by waking. Only a few metabolic pathways were identified, including glycolysis, aminoacid, and lipids. Unexpectedly large increases in lysolipids were found both in vivo after sleep deprivation and in vitro after stimulation, strongly suggesting that sleep might play a major role in reestablishing the neuronal membrane homeostasis. With our in vitro model, the cellular and molecular consequences of sleep and wakefulness can now be investigated in a dish.

Just because Chomsky said it does not make it true

A recent blog by Dorothy Bishop (here) discusses the ideas of Noam Chomsky. It is easy to agree with her. I have thought for some time that the language that Chomsky talks about is not the language I utter or listen to. It is something strange and alien.


My first problem is that Chomsky does not seem interested in communication. How well some particular example of language is at communicating something seems somewhat irrelevant to him. To me communication is the core of language. We can communicate things like information, requests, commands, but also we can communicate emotion, attitude, bonding and such like. Of course we can communicate without language but it is communication that gives value to language. It is the reason we value it. And better communication was almost without doubt the evolutionary pressure that molded language.


Chomsky seems to think of language as a form of logic. This is an old idea and we can see that from the etymology of our words for grammatical entities, like ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’. But Venn diagrams are easier to comprehend than syllogisms – we can ‘do’ logic outside language. He starts out dealing with sentences as the basic unit of language. However, if you have ever read accurate transcripts of actual unprepared utterances, you will know how rare the well formed sentence is. Most communication is phrases, with some sentences and some carry-on sentences that are more like paragraphs. The absolute rather than relative importance of the sentence comes when bits of language are taken out of the context of a conversation so that they have to stand alone and when language is written. And, the sentence is important very specially when language is treated as a form of logic. There is something dry and unnatural about single written sentences being parsed with diagrams. Gone is the voice, the rhythm, the volume, the face and hands. We communicate with our whole bodies and it loses a lot when it is reduced to 10 or so words in a diagram.


Chomsky seems to think that language is essential for thought. In my experience, thought is multi-dimensional and language is a two-dimensional string. Grammar is only the way to translate multi-dimensional thoughts in and out of strings of words. Chomsky seems to think that I could not have the thought if I didn’t have the language. If that were the case than why is it so difficult to put many clear thoughts into words? I agree that many thoughts start out as words – thinking in words as opposed to pictures or numbers or metaphoric concepts or music for example. But I cannot think of a type of thinking (other than purely semantic games) that could not be done without language. But communicating thoughts without language is much more difficult. Language can have the form that a has an attribute b. This is an extension of a normal perception process, the perceptual binding of b to a. We do it all the time without words. It does not take language to think ‘the sky is blue’ or ‘my mother is happy’ – it takes language to communicate the thought not to think it. We also have as a normal way to understanding the world the agent-action-outcome framing of events. This way of thinking is built right into the brain. We do not need language to think is subject – verb – object. We naturally think in terms of a continuum of time centered on a ‘now’. The brain thinks about different types of things in separate regions – people separate from small objects separate from places and so on. Verb tenses, noun cases, number are there with or without language. Language is not essential for thought.


Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language can tell you how much more important words are than grammar in communicating with minimum knowledge of a language. Chomsky seems to think that semantics are much less (something – interesting, important, critical – I am not sure) than grammar. This is not true when the criteria is communication success. People do communicate in pidgins with the most rudimentary grammar. The Bishop posting (link above) has much on the learning of language by children and how Chomsky has misjudged that.


Finally, Chomsky has a somewhat unusual idea of the origin of language. He gives lip service to evolution but he never actually uses the idea. He prefers, a one mighty leap approach. There was no language and then all of a sudden there was ‘merge’ and that allowed language. We can see why he finds this easier to deal with than a long slow evolution. He wants a distinct clear separation of man from other animals, a difference of kind rather than degree. If man is unique because of language than language must not be found in other animals. I think that Chomsky finds this idea very, very important. Other animals communicate and some of them can use devices similar to words. The more we look at animals (especially primates, dogs, elephants, whales, crows, parrots) the more we find roots of language, until all that is left that has not been demonstrated in some animal or other is ‘merge’. Those that are interested in the evolution of language look for those traces of continuity between how various animals communicate and how we do. Chomsky seems to be trying to identify a discontinuity as the main prize.


Correlates of volition

Let’s go through this again. A Patrick Haggard paper gives us the bare list. The Libet paper from 1983 was the first evidence that decisions are not made consciously.

In this experiment, participants are asked to make a simple voluntary action, such as a key press, whenever they feel like it. Brain activity is measured throughout, originally using EEG (Lau repeated using fMRI). At the same time, they observe a rotating clock hand and are asked to note the position of the clock when they first experience the conscious intention, or ‘‘feel the urge,’’ to press the key. This hotly debated marker of volition is referred to as W (judgment of will, following Libet’s terminology). EEG activity over frontal motor areas began 1 s or more before movement (the so-called ‘‘readiness potential’’), while W occurred much later, a few hundred ms before movement itself. Although the Libet experiment was published almost 30 years ago, it is still serves as a nexus in the neuroscience of volition.


EEG blurs space and fMRI blurs time at some extent. Recording from single neurons is very precise in both time and space. This technique has been used on primates and on humans with implanted electrodes in preparation for epilepsy surgery. Fried in 2011 repeated the Libet experiment while recording from electrodes implanted in the medial frontal lobes of 12 epileptic patients.

These areas generate the scalp readiness potentials recorded prior to voluntary movement. Moreover, stimulation of these areas has been reported to generate a feeling of urge to move a particular body part, without necessarily causing actual movement . Therefore, direct recordings from medial frontal neurons are an important part of the puzzle of the neuroscience of will. .. A relatively small subset of medial frontal neurons showed a gradual ramp-like increase in firing rate before movement that recalls both EEG readiness potentials … The time of conscious intention could be predicted from small subpopulations of these neurons, using an integrate-and-fire model, well before the time that participants reported the experience of volition. …these data give the impression that conscious intention is just a subjective corollary of an action being about to occur. Such models agree with previous accounts that voluntary actions begin unconsciously and enter into our conscious experience only when medial frontal activity has reached a given threshold level of activity… the current work is in broad agreement with a general trend in neuroscience of volition: although we may experience that our conscious decisions and thoughts cause our actions, these experiences are in fact based on readouts of brain activity in a network of brain areas that control voluntary action.


Recording from the supplementary and the pre-supplementary motor area has added to the picture in a surprising way.

SMA proper contained relatively more neurons active before W than did the pre-SMA. In contrast, rather few SMA proper neurons were active in the brief interval between W and movement onset relative to the pre-SMA… This finding suggests a revision of how we interpret the W judgment. It is clearly wrong to think of W as a prior intention, located at the very earliest moment of decision in an extended action chain. Rather, W seems to mark an intention-in-action, quite closely linked to action execution. The experience of conscious intention may correspond to the point at which the brain transforms a prior plan into a motor act through changes in activity of SMA proper.


Another surprise was that some medial frontal neurons decrease firing leading up to W. They seem to be holding back action until the right action is prepared and the moment is right. This weakens any proposal of a conscious ‘free-wont’.

…there are interesting differences between the areas recorded, with decreasing neurons being more common than increasing neurons in the rostral anterior cingulate and also in the pre-SMA. The function of decreasing neurons remains unclear. …it is tempting to take decreasing neurons as evidence for an intrinsically inhibitory component of volition. Several classes of evidence suggest that suppression of action and voluntary initiation are profoundly linked in the medial frontal cortex…Decreasing neurons might withhold actions until they become appropriate through tonic inhibition and then help to trigger voluntary actions by gradually removing this tonic inhibition. Competitive inhibitory interaction between decreasing and increasing neurons could then provide a circuit for resolving whether to act or withhold action. …A similar model has already been proposed for decisions between alternative stimulus-driven actions in lateral premotor cortex (Cisek 2007).


This is far from a complete picture of how we act. It will take many more experiments to work out a proper model. But there is clear evidence in favour of the idea that decisions are not taken consciously but rather enter our awareness already taken. But this does not mean that we do not make decisions, we do, but just not make them consciously. If I say that I make decisions, how is this to be interpreted? Who is the ‘I’? It would be simpler if there was agreement on this. If ‘I’ is connected only to consciousness, then ‘I’ do not make decisions or much of anything for that matter. If ‘I’ is a whole unified brain then ‘I’ do make decisions. And this I, me, your truly, this I makes decisions with a unified brain.



Patrick Haggard (2011). Decision Time for Free Will Neuron DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2011.01.028

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The famous hard question

Elusiveself in a critical look at Raymond Tallis’ ideas (here) gives this quote of Tallis’ straw man: “Consciousness is, at the basic level, appearances or appearings-to, but neither nerve impulses nor the material world have appearances.”


There have been many other similar statements about the hard problem and how it is that by definition consciousness cannot have a scientific explanation.


By this logic nothing can have a scientific explanation. Suppose we try something else, say a bicycle. I can give a drawing of a bicycle and accompany it with a wordy explanation of how and why it works the way it does. It can include the physics with some equations, even the history of how it came to be. This is, I could say, an explanation, an understanding and a model of a bicycle, therefore there is no mystery left about what a bicycle is. Would you say, “but this is not an explanation of a bicycle because I cannot get on it and ride down the street.”


But some would say that my bicycle story missed the point. Consciousness is not like riding. Consciousness is not physical and therefore cannot have a physical explanation. But this is a semantic thing, an arbitrary definition, a word play. Why is consciousness not physical? Because someone says so. What is the proof? None that I can think of. I could say that riding is not physical. What is my proof? It is about as non-physical as consciousness so if consciousness is non-physical so is riding.


Anyone that wants to talk about magic non-physical mind stuff, has nothing useful or valid to tell science. Mind is not a place, not an object, not a container – it is an activity, it is what brains do. And someday science will explain the brain’s activity. The hard question is a lot harder for dualist philosophers than it will be for scientists.

Intentional binding

Intentional binding is an interesting effect. The perceived interval between an voluntary action and its effect is shorter if there is a sense of agency involved. Berberian, Sarrazin, Blaye and Haggard (see citation) have investigated this effect.


They used an aircraft mockup with stages: conflict detection, command decision (how much to change heading), command implementation (set the heading), command engagement (go button – action), command result (confirmation of success/failure – effect), followed by interval estimation (between action and effect)and rating of feeling of agency. The decision, implementation and engagement can be automated or not, giving four situations: from all three under control to all three automated. The interval between action and effect was fixed at three different times. What was measured was how the interval estimation was affected by the level of automation, the length of the interval and the feeling of agency.

First, we observed a strong relation between measures of IB (intentional binding) and different levels of system automation. Second, our data revealed a gradual increase in temporal estimation with the increasing level of automation. The more the system was automated, the longer the action-effect interval was perceived. Third, the effect of automation level on intentional binding was dependent on the actual action-effect delays…Our findings confirm the interest of the intentional binding as implicit measure of agency. First, we provide evidence that quantitative changes in binding are strongly associated with progressive changes in actual level of control, and also with quantitative changes in explicit ratings of agency. Second, we replicate the basic binding effect in a situation with high face-validity, in which action-event sequences paralleled those that participants might meet in their everyday lives….Our results reveal a gradual increase of interval estimates with the increasing level of automation. In contrast, many previous studies of agency have relied on binary agency-attribution judgments…. our result suggests action selection, planning and intention realisation may all contribute to sense of agency. In this way, our results are consistent with recent arguments that sense of agency is based on cue integration….We propose that temporal contiguity is task dependent and that intentional binding occurs in a specific ‘‘window of opportunity’’ which may vary across tasks, and may also depend on the range of action-effect delays experienced in a given setting. Operant learning is similarly sensitive to the natural time delays of the system linking actions to effects, even for systems as familiar as one’s own body.


Measures of intentional binding are a useful addition to reports of a feeling of agency for future experimentation.


But what does this study say about the consciousness of agency? Agency is not an all or nothing feeling – it can be graduated. One way to look at this would be that knowledge of agency is important to learning. We have to be able to accurately assess cause and effect in order to learn to get the outcomes we want. Therefore our understanding and memory must connect those things that are causally connected and avoid connecting those that are not. One way to do this is to store the memories of the cause and the effect (temporarily at least) in the same ‘time slot’. This in itself may shorten the interval between action and effect in memory when we recall it to estimate the interval. If there is a need to bias memory with probability of agency, that is a very good reason for the need for a conscious feeling of agency when this is appropriate. Some unconscious process must calculate how appropriate it is, because this calculation is not part of the conscious feeling of agency.



Berberian B, Sarrazin J-C, Le Blaye P, & Haggard P (2012). Automation Technology and Sense of Control: A window on Human Agency PLoS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034075

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