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.