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Virtual Agency

More from Chapter 1, ‘Who is the Controller of Controlled Processes?’ in ‘The New Unconscious’, written by Daniel Wegner.


“The creation of our sense of agency is critically important for a variety of personal and social processes, even if this perceived agent is not a cause of action. The experience of conscious will is fundamentally important because it provides a marker of our authorship – what might be called an authorship emotion. In the words of T.H. Huxley, “Volition … is an emotion indicative of physical changes, not a cause of such changes.” Each surge of will we sense in the operation of controlled processes provides a bodily reminder of what we think we have done. In this sense, the function of will is to identify our actions with a feeling, allowing us to sense in a very basic way what we are likely to have done, and to distinguish such things from those caused by events in the world or by other people or agents. Like the somatic marker function of emotion, the experience of conscious will anchors our actions to us in a way that transcends rational thought.”


It seems that we may need a theory-of-mind, not just to understand what others are thinking, but to actually understand what we ourselves are thinking. The cognitive processes of our brain may be perceived in the same way as we perceive the world around us and our bodies. Our model of the world may contain a model of what we are thinking.   


We need to have a lighter blog for a change, so I will talk about dogs.


I have had smart dogs and dumb dogs. There are smart dogs – I know this in the same way that I know that there are cold winters. Not all winters everywhere are cold but I have personally experienced cold winters and I have experienced smart dogs. People who have known parrots, dolphins, bonobos and the like seem to feel the same about those animals. Of course, there are cold winters and then there are Cold Winters – smart like cold is relative.


My current dog is the sort that looks at your hand when you point at something. My last dog was the sort that looked at what you pointed to and not your finger. This smart dog was a cross between a Border Colley and a Huskie. An example of the sort of behaviour that convinced me that there was a real mind in that head was her showing off the house. We were building a house and the whole ground floor was open with just the studs showing where the walls would be. The dog watched me show someone the house on a few occasions. I would stand in one place and say that this was going to be the bathroom. The visitor would have to imagine walls where the studs were, then on to other rooms. One time I was showing someone the kitchen and I said to the dog to show them the bathroom. She went to the ‘bathroom door’ studs and looked over her shoulder which was her sign for ‘follow me’. I told the person to follow her when she did that posture and she led them into the bathroom. I said to show them the living room, the dog went to the edge of the living room space and looked over her shoulder and then entered the space. And so on.


What she had done was to pick up, in my conversations with others, the words (probably ones I had emphasized and that were accompanied by a gesture) for the rooms. And she picked up the idea of going from room to room. She had a large vocabulary of words she understood – I figure she had well over a hundred. I talked to her in an ordinary conversational way rather then barking commands as I must with my present dog. She had already taught me how to follow her. It took her longer to teach me that, than it took her to learn a few of the things I taught her. She understood from my reference to her and to the next room on the tour that I wanted her to take over the task. The usual ‘dogs only follow commands, they do not communicate’ does not seem to me to cover this sort of situation. Shepherds communicate with their dogs. So do blind people. There really is communication between people and some animals. The communication is not through a language, however, it is through things like words, gestures, postures, and symbols. The communication does include quite complex concepts.


I have the same sort of evidence that my dog had a mind as I had that the next person I might be introduced to had a mind. It is easier for me to understand and predict their behaviour if I use a theory-of-mind then it is otherwise. It is also easier for me to believe that the other person has conscious experience like mine than it is to believe they don’t. The same applied to my dog. She will be more conscious of some things than me and less of others because her senses are slightly different, but on the whole it will be a similar sort of experience.

A certain feeling

Let’s tentatively make a distinction between operational thoughts and modeled thoughts – or more starkly put, between real thoughts and tokens standing for those real thoughts. Consciousness seems to have many of these modeled thoughts or tokens.


In the Mind Matters of the Scientific American there is an interview of Robert Burton by Jonah Lehrer. Parts are below. 

LEHRER: In your book, you compare the “feeling of certainty” that accompanies things such as religious fundamentalism to the feeling that occurs when we have a word on the-tip-of-our-tongue. Could you explain?

BURTON: There are two separate aspects of a thought, namely the actual thought, and an independent involuntary assessment of the accuracy of that thought.

To get a feeling for this separation, look at the Muller-Lyer optical illusion.

Even when we consciously know and can accurately determine that these two horizontal lines are the same length, we experience the simultaneous disquieting sensation that this thought—the lines are of equal length—is not correct. This isn’t a feeling that we can easily overcome through logic and reason; it simply happens to us.

This sensation is a manifestation of a separate category of mental activity—-unconscious calculations as to the accuracy of any given thought. On the positive side, such feelings can vary from a modest sense of being right, such as understanding that Christmas falls on December 25, to a profound a-ha, “Eureka” or sense of a spiritual epiphany. William James referred to the latter—the mystical experience—as “felt knowledge,” a mental sensation that isn’t a thought, but feels like a thought.

Once we realize that the brain has very powerful inbuilt involuntary mechanisms for assessing unconscious cognitive activity, it is easy to see how it can send into consciousness a message that we know something that we can’t presently recall—the modest tip-of-the-tongue feeling. At the other end of the spectrum would be the profound “feeling of knowing” that accompanies unconsciously held beliefs—a major component of the unshakeable attachment to fundamentalist beliefs—both religious and otherwise—such as belief in UFOs or false memories. 


This level-of-certainty feeling is probably one of a number of those fuzzies that model our thought in consciousness. Others might be level-of-significance and level-of-recognition.

The homunculus problem

When I was a very little girl I imagined that there were tiny people in the radio. I was very glad to get a different explanation from my parents. Tiny people inside things bothered me then and they bother me now.


Chapter 1, Who is the Controller of Controlled Processes?’ in ‘The New Unconscious’ is written by Daniel Wegner. Here is his introduction to ‘The Homunculus Problem’

“In the sciences of the mind..(the term, homunculus) pejorative…It stands for an absurd explanation – an inner executive agent who ‘does’ the person’s actions. Freud’s theory of id, ego and superego, for instance, has often been criticized as a homunculus-based explanatory system in which the person’s behaviour is explained by reference to an inner agent (in this case, a committee of them) that is responsible for the person’s actions. Whenever we explain a behaviour by saying that some person like agent inside the person simply caused it, we have imagined a homunculus and have thereby committed a classic error of psychological explanation”

“The issue here, of course, is that a homunculus must itself be explained. The path of explanation implied by the homunculus idea is to reapply the same trick and suggest that another smaller homunculus might be lurking inside the first. This path leads to the specter of an infinite regress of homunculi, nested like Russian dolls. That quickly descends into absurdity. Another way to explain a homunculus is simply to say that it has free will and can determine its own behaviour. This means the homunculus causes things merely by deciding, without any prior causes leading to these decisions, and thus renders it an explanatory entity of the first order. Such an explanatory entity may explain lots of things, but nothing explains it. This is the same kind of explanation as saying that God has caused an event. A first-order explanation is a stopper that trumps any other explanation, but that still may not explain anything at all in a predictive sense. Just as we cannot tell what God is going to do, we cannot predict what a free-willing homunculus is likely to do either. There cannot be a science of this.”

“Most psychologists and philosophers are well aware of the homunculus problem and it has been generally avoided in contemporary theorizing, with one noteworthy exception. The notions of controlled and automatic (brain) processes carry with them the implicit assumption of a kind of homunculus. Now it is true, of course, that most current cognitive and social cognitive research focuses specifically on the automatic side of this dichotomy, so much so that there seems to be progressively less room for the ‘little person in the head’. But why should there be any room at all?”

Why make problems?

One of the problems that people have with unconscious thought is that they do not completely identify with it. This seems a bit odd to me.


I hear people say things like, “I didn’t decide to do that, it was just my brain that was responsible”, or, “How can I have free will if I don’t make decision with a conscious mind?”, or, “Don’t blame me, I didn’t do it consciously.”  It is as if people have divided themselves into two beings.


There is their ‘real self’ and it controls, or in some cases does not control, their ‘other part’. They have some level of non-identification with this second, other self. I find it difficult to put myself in this frame of mind. I find it awkward to disown anything within my skin or any of my actions. I have never been a sleep-walker but if I were, I am sure I would feel that it was me that was sleep-walking. I would be told that I had been sleep-walking and if I believed that account then I would believe that I was sleep-walking. Who else?


I know the boundaries of ‘self’ are not that simple and can shift depending on circumstances. I can loss and gain bits - small bits. But really, to shift to such an extent as to lose a brain is hardly credible.


I also find it unbelievable that people can live their lives assuming that there are two people sharing their bodies. How awkward would that be! It would be easier to suffer from split-personality – where at least you are only one person at a time.


Now, I know that we can be convinced to believe a difficult or awkward concept. It is not easy to think in terms of curved space-time and all those details of post Newtonian physics. It would have been difficult to accept, when it was originally proposed, that the earth goes around the sun rather than vice versa. But this is different, here science and good sense is nudging us to accept a view that is easy and uncomplicated yet there are a great many that resist the idea and cling to an idea of selves that appears to be silly. They tie themselves, their philosophies and their psychologies in knots just to protect a self-image that is ridiculous – that they are two rather than one being. This has always, and continues, to amaze me.

A feeling of will

I am  studying Chapter 1, ‘Who is the Controller of Controlled Processes?’ in ‘The New Unconscious’, written by Daniel Wegner.


What needs to happen for us to feel that we have willed an action? We have to believe that thoughts which reach our consciousness have caused our actions. Three things are needed for us to make a causal connection between the thoughts and the actions.


1.      priority

The thought has to reach consciousness before the action if it is going to appear a cause. Actually it must occur quite closely, within about 30 sec., before the action. Wegner and Wheatley investigated the principle with fake thoughts fed through earphones and fake actions gently forced by equipment, to give people the feeling that their thought caused their action.

2.      consistency

The thought has to be about the action in order for it to appear to be the cause. Wegner, Sparrow and Winerman used a mirror so that a subject saw the hands of another person standing behind them instead of their own. If the thoughts fed to the subject through earphones matched the hand movements then the subject experienced willing the movements. If the earphones gave no ‘thoughts’ or contradictory ones, there was no feeling of will.

3.      exclusivity

The thought must be the only apparent source of a cause for the action. The feeling of will can disappear when the subject is in a trace and feels controlled by another agent such as a spirit.


And what is this feeling of will that occurs if the right sort of thought reaches consciousness just before a matching action when that is no other obvious cause for the action? I believe it is a stand-in for our thought processes so that those thought processes can appear in our model of the world. We have to model our mind  as well as our limbs and the tree over there if we are going to have a useful model for memory and prediction.


How much thought went into a plan and decision to act is unknown to us – it is the iceberg. We just feel that we have willed it with the little bit of thought that reaches consciousness – the tip of the iceberg. And even this tip is not visible in consciousness unless we need it to be, unless we need a strong sense that we own that action.

Metaphor to Embodiment

I started thinking about metaphor in the context of effective public speaking – how to say things so that people understood them, had the intended emotional response to them and remembered them. Then I got to thinking about how important metaphor was to language in general – how words were coined or given new meanings. Now I am finding that I see metaphor in concepts themselves.


We only have a certain number of in-built concepts and we have to learn the rest from other people or create them ourselves. There are classic examples of this in the literature on metaphor, such as Lakoff’s papers. Goal directed movement is a sort of primitive and we use that to create the concept of a journey with a mapping of the goal to the end and the movement to travel on a path. We can then add other items like alternate paths, obstacles, and different kinds of journey: by foot, by horse, by boat, by train, by imagination. Then we can view our lives as journeys; we journey through our education, our careers, our marriages, or anything else we choose. This is just one growth from one primitive in-built concept and its huge exploration could fill a book.


Recently it turns out that social rejection and loneliness is actually accompanied by a feeling of cold, the source of many metaphors. Physical washing can make people feel less guilty. Here is part of an interview of Chen-Bo Zhong by Lehrer from the Scientific American website.

“LEHRER: You recently demonstrated that being socially excluded from a group can make people feel colder, so that they believe a room is colder and prefer warm drinks and snacks, such as hot coffee and soup. What made you interested in this line of research?

ZHONG: I came across this popular 1970s song on YouTube called Lonely This Christmas written by Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. It goes, “It’ll be lonely this Christmas, lonely and cold, it’ll be cold so cold, without you to hold.” It just occurred to me that maybe what the song describes is more than a metaphor but a real psychological connection between loneliness and coldness. Indeed, my collaborator Geoffrey Leonardelli … and I found that people not only use coldness-related terms to describe social rejection (for example, “cold shoulder”), but also experience rejection as physical coldness: feeling cold becomes an integral part of our experience of being socially isolated. This research is consistent with recent theories on embodied cognition as well as general research on the connection between mind and body.

LEHRER: What are some other examples of how seemingly abstract thoughts, such as feeling excluded, can have physical manifestations?

ZHONG: Another example would be the relation between morality and physical cleanliness. In my early work “Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing” in collaboration with Katie Liljenquist…, we discussed how metaphors such as “dirty hands” or “clean records” may have a psychological basis such that people make sense of morality through physical cleanliness.

When people’s moral self image is threatened, as when they think about their own unethical past behaviors, people literally experience the need to engage in physical cleansing, as if the moral stain is literally physical dirt. We tested this idea in multiple studies and showed that when reminded of their past moral transgressions, people were more likely to think about cleansing-related words such as “wash” and “soap”, expressed stronger preference for cleansing products (for instance, a soap bar), and were also more likely to accept an antiseptic wipe as a free gift (rather than a pencil with equal value).

Further, physical cleansing may actually be effective in mentally getting rid of moral sins. In another study, in which participants who recalled unethical behaviors were either given a chance to cleanse their hands or not, we found that washing hands not only assuaged moral emotions such as guilt and regret but also reduced participants’ willingness to engage in prosocial behaviors such as volunteering Thus physical washing can actually wash away sins. Perhaps this effect is why most world religions practice some form of washing rituals to purify souls. We should be cautious, however, knowing that if our sins are so easily “washed away” we might not be as motivated to engage in actual compensatory behaviors to make up for our mistakes.”


This (metaphor from sensory and motor primitives) is one aspect of the idea of embodied cognition. Embodiment is the very particular way that an organism’s body and capacities are the basis of it’s interaction with its environmental niche. Cognition is embodied to the extent that it is built on the structure of the body, its capabilities and its interaction with the environment. I assume the extent of embodiment of cognition is enormous.

One way to look at consciousness

Here is a very simply way to look at the value and nature of consciousness.

1.      In order to be successful an organism’s actions need to be appropriate for the situation they find themselves in. Therefore there will be an evolutionary pressure towards appropriate behaviour.

2.      Fixed and stereotyped behaviour can only be appropriate in an extremely stable environment. Exploitation of a less stable environmental niche will create an evolutionary pressure towards flexible behaviour that changes as situations change.

3.      Learning from experience (as opposed to habituation, conditioning and genetic changes to reflexes and instincts) is a method that many animals use to maintain appropriate behaviour in a complex environment. In those animals there will be an evolutionary pressure towards more effective learning-from-experience.

4.      Learning-from-experience seems to require:

a.       a form of experience, some sort of outline model of reality.

b.      a memory of past experience, snapshots of the model of reality categorized so that they can be retrieved as required.

c.       a method for establishing cause and effect relationships between elements of experience, a cognitive process that establishes reliable causal theories.

d.      a method for establishing the desirability of effects or outcomes, a process that gives goodness criteria or emotional colours to outcomes.

e.       a way of simulating future experience and comparing it with outcomes, a predicting process using causal theories and a way to register the error between plans and outcomes so as to maximize desirability.

All these aspects of learning would be under evolutionary pressure to become more effective. In particular a powerful model of reality to be used to experience the present, remember the past and simulate the future is advantageous to this type of learning.

5.      Consciousness is experience (or very close to it). It is the globally accessible surface of the model. It is not the thought processes involved in the formation of the model or in its use. The model is necessary for this type of learning, but it is just the model and not any sort of thought. However, when our own thoughts needed to be modeled, elements of the model will be ‘standing in’ for actual thought processes.

6.      The quality of the model (or consciousness) is going to be under environmental pressure to improve up to the point where its costs are as great as its benefits.


The picture lacks sophistication but until it fails me, it is the picture that I am tentatively trying to elaborate.

Bad press for unconscious

The purpose of this site is to prepare for the revolution that is happening in neuroscience. We will have to think of ourselves in a different way. With time to adjust, the change can be less frightening. So it is disappointing to me when someone makes the recent discoveries about the brain more rather than less frightening.


I have liked the things I have read that were written by Carl Zimmer, a very knowledgeable science writer. Imagine my surprise at his attitude to his unconscious mind. His article, ‘Could an Inner Zombie be Controlling your Brain’ in Discovery, is filled with what appears to be fear of his own mind. Of course, I shall continue to read him because he is a very good and interesting writer, someone not to be missed. Even what he writes in this article is interesting. It is only the way he presents the ideas that is disturbing.


First is a picture of a not too clean hand reaching out of what looks like compost and blindly trying to grasp something – not a very positive image. Next is the use of the word ‘zombie’ with all its negative connotations for all of our brain’s processes except consciousness. These could just be ways of grabbing attention. They are grabbing but definitely negative. He could also be alluding to a philosophical argument about zombies, but he does not mention the philosophical idea.


But then there is the language:

1.      Their research raised the disturbing possibility that much of what we think and do is thought and done by an unconscious part of the brain—an inner zombie.” Why should this be disturbing to us? Why is it presented as still just a possibility?

2.      Mounting evidence of our inner zombie at work has led some scientists to downplay the importance of our aware selves.” There does not seem to be any downplay of the importance of consciousness just a growing clarification of its role. It is very important but just not in the way people once thought.

3.      But don’t give up on consciousness just yet. A small but growing number of re­searchers are challenging some of the more ex­treme arguments supporting the primacy of the inner zombie.” This could imply that there is some sort of opposition between consciousness and rest of the mind. It sounds like the remains of some long dead Freudian model of mind.

4.      Brain scans also provide ammunition to beat back the zombies.”  Now, we have the very negative vision of engaging in a war with our own minds.

5.      So we may have a mind that is capable of free will and awareness after all—it just needs a little help from its friendly neighborhood zombie.” I assume that we have a brain (one brain) and one of the functions of that brain is a mind (one mind) and that mind makes decisions. That mind is aware of some things (in many cases in is even aware of decisions). Whether our will is free of not is a different question. There is no reason to think that decisions that do not reach consciousness are any more or less free than those that do. Why the connection between consciousness and free will?


Let me say again (although I was disappointed in this article) Carl Zimmer is usually very worth reading.

Consciousness in Zen meditation

In an article, Thinking about Not-Thinking, the authors compare brain scans of Zen practitioners and people untrained in meditation. To explain their experiment, they first  describe the nature of the meditation:

“Zen meditation, in particular, is traditionally associated with a mental state of full awareness but reduced conceptual content, to be attained via a disciplined regulation of attention and bodily posture… Buddhist meditative exercise has its roots in the metaphysical tenet of ‘emptiness’…In cognitive terms, the attempt at mental regulation through meditation involves developing a progressive familiarity with the interplay of voluntary attention (often directed to the breath or posture) and the spontaneous conceptual processing that appears in its fractures, a process facilitated by the adoption of a stable seated posture and a quiet environment. It should also be noted that while …(some)…practices attempts to promote absorption and sensory withdrawal … Zen meditation … prescribes a vigilant attitude … by a certain degree of active tension and by keeping the eyes open; mental withdrawal from the environment is considered as promoting a state of dreaminess and lack of clarity counterproductive to the meditative pursuit..”


So we are looking at attempts to get rid of thoughts but remain in contact with the world and alert. This appears to be a special sort of consciousness that uses the default network. The default network is a group of brain regions that are active when the brain is not engaged in any mental or physical goal. It is the ‘free wheeling’ activity of the idle brain. The network is often associated with daydreaming or free stream of consciousness. It appears that the Zen practitioners control the activity of this network so that the mind does not wander. Without goals, random thoughts or memories, there is not much left for the mind to do except just be alert. This is reported to result in a particular state:

“According to this view, reality is originally devoid of ontological properties and it is only via an incessant and largely unconscious habit of emotional self-reference and categorization that a conceptual structure is created and ultimately reified; a process necessary for daily life, but that also tends to condition the individual into predefined patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Meditation is believed to counteract this tendency in favor of a condition of equanimity where the provisional nature of one’s own conceptual structure is realized, bringing about a greater freedom of thought and action as well as a decreased sense of self-attachment.”


I envision this is a consciousness that is all warmed up and ready to go but is idling and just not engaged with normal life. It seems a somewhat different consciousness compared to the normal awake states (with varying levels of awareness) or dreams.