The Mind’s Self-Portrait: An Illusion of Conscious Will

I look on my brain as a mass of hydraulically compacted thoughts,
a bale of ideas, and my head as a smooth, shiny Aladdin’s lamp.

-Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude

An artist’s or writer’s self-portrait can run the gamut from realistic likeness to abstract beyond recognition. When you ask someone what a self-portrait of the mind might look like, most people would probably assume it would be a picture of the brain. But when the mind tries to construct a self-portrait, the closest it gets is a caricature. This inability to achieve a complete understanding of itself underlies the mind’s inferences about the relationship between thought and action. These were some of the points raised in this year’s Bring the Family address, “The Mind’s Self-Portrait,” presented at the APS Annual Convention by Daniel Wegner of Harvard University.

“The mind can’t know itself in all the richness that we psychologists hope to,” Wegner said, citing several limitations of the mind’s capacity to portray itself. These limitations include the fact that, as Julian Jaynes put it, “we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of,” meaning that the mind’s self-portrait inherently doesn’t include the unconscious mind.

Wegner, an APS Fellow, has developed a multi-dimensional framework, which he calls the “theory of apparent mental causation,” to explore ways in which people infer that their thought is related to a particular action. This framework includes the straightforward dimensions of normal voluntary action – the feeling that we’re doing something and in fact we are actually doing it; and normal voluntary inaction – where we don’t feel we’re doing something and we’re in fact not doing it.

According to Wegner, there are other dimensions in which our interpretation of the causal connections between thought and action (or inaction) are configured differently. One such dimension is the illusion of control, where we feel that we’re doing or causing something but we’re actually not doing or causing it.

To illustrate this illusion, Wegner told the story of an American couple living in Paris who were entertaining one evening in their apartment overlooking the Eiffel Tower. Knowing that the tower’s lights went on exactly at 6 p.m., they opened the drapes shortly before illumination. With a clandestine countdown, the husband went over to the wall and flipped the lightswitch at just the right time, making it appear that he was lighting the tower. “Needless to say, the visitors were very impressed,” Wegner said. “Of course, this was an illusion of control, a feeling of doing, not accompanied by actually doing.”

The opposite dimension, which Wegner calls automatism, involves instances where there is no feeling of doing something, but yet we are doing something. Popular examples of this include some old-fashioned parlor games, Ouija boards, and dowsing, where things that seem to move by themselves are believed to be disconnected from our actions. Hypnosis is another example of an automatism, Wegner said.

“The person who is hypnotized feels like everything they’re doing is happening to them, that it’s not something they’re doing themselves.” There is a syndrome called “alien hand,” experienced by people with brain damage, in which the individual’s hand begins to act – for example, unbuttoning clothing – without their feeling of consciously willing the hand movement. The actions are apparently voluntary, they look like normal human actions, but the person doesn’t have the experience of willing the action.

Wegner also talked about Wilder Penfield’s famous experiments in the 1950s in which electrical stimulation of the cortical motor area during brain surgery produced smooth, coordinated movements, not simple reflexes, which appeared voluntary and purposeful.

“Asked what happened when the stimulation caused the patient’s hand to move, the patient [who had been under local anesthesia only] said ‘I didn’t do that, you did that.’ There was no feeling of action. So without a prior consistent thought of the action, even a seemingly voluntary action can feel unwilled.”

Wegner said that causal inferences linking thought to action draw from the same principles underlying perceived causation for events in the world, and that these principles – priority, consistency, and exclusivity – apply to the experience of will.

Under the priority principle, the apparent cause has to occur at the right time before the effect, or you will not perceive causation. In the case of will, the thought must precede action at an appropriate interval in order for us to infer a causal relationship.

To test the priority principle for thought and action, Wegner and his colleagues developed an experiment, called “I Spy” after the children’s game, in which a participant and a confederate sit at a computer with a little table on top of the computer mouse. Both put their fingers on the top of the table, and together move the mouse pointer around the screen to various objects. Every 30 seconds, music comes on, during which they are asked to stop on some object on the screen. When they stop on the object, both participant and confederate then complete a rating of who stopped on the object: did I consciously will this stop or did the other person do it to me?

In a first set of trials, the unforced trials, the confederate does nothing to influence the movement of the mouse pointer. Under these conditions, naming the object to stop on five to 10 seconds before the music comes on was found to have no influence on the participant’s movement. In a second set of trials, the forced trials, the confederate is instructed to force the participant to stop on the named object. In these trials, Wegner found that it matters very much when the object is named. If it is named 30 seconds before the stop is forced, the participant doesn’t feel that they intended to stop, while if the object is named one or five seconds before, they have more of a feeling that they intended to stop.

“If there’s some delay, if things don’t happen in terms of proper priority, the experience of will goes away for the action,” Wegner said. “Keep in mind – in all of the forced trials, the person didn’t actually do it. They developed a sense of consciously willing something simply by having the appropriate thought just before the action was forced.”

To illustrate the principle of consistency, in which the thought has to be relevant to and compatible with the action, Wegner and his colleagues conducted experiments involving beliefs about voodoo. In this instance, the theory of apparent mental causation would suggest that if people have evil thoughts prior to doing something that is apparently evil, they’d come to believe that they willed a negative effect.

First, a research subject is given some background reading indicating that people who believe in the effectiveness of voodoo experience negative effects on their health if someone has put a curse on them. Then, a situation is staged where the participant is assigned the role of a witchdoctor who casts a curse on a seemingly unknowing victim, played by a research confederate. The participant is instructed to generate evil thoughts about the victim for one minute prior to sticking pins in a voodoo doll. The “victim” subsequently reports experiencing health effects, such as a headache. Then the experimenters asked the participant if they believed they caused the victim’s symptoms. Wegner found that the participants in the evil thoughts condition feel they were more likely to have caused this headache compared to the no-evil-thoughts participants.

“I think all of us have had the case where the thoughts were there, the event occurs, we somehow now feel the author of that event as a result of having had thoughts consistent with it,” whether negative or positive, Wegner said. Similarly, “there could be a lot of times when we feel that we control things around us simply because we had thoughts that end up being consistent with the way things turn out.”

Wegner described the “helping hands” experiment, drawing from the party game by that name, which involved another set of studies also aimed at testing the consistency principle. Standing, facing a mirror, the participant wears a smock covering his or her own arms, and watches as the experimenter’s arms, which are substituted for their own, engage in a series of rapid gestures and movements. In some versions, the participant hears the instructions for movement being given to the experimenter, while in others they don’t hear the instructions.

“After this is all over, we ask the participant ‘how much control do you feel you had over the arms’ motions?'” While people don’t completely feel that they’re controlling the arms, Wegner and his colleagues found that participants who hear the instructions end up feeling more control, “a kind of vicarious control over these arms,” compared to people who don’t hear the instructions. “It’s as though knowing, having thoughts consistent with the actions that appear to be occurring at the ends of your arms, makes you own those actions somehow,” Wegner said.

A related “helping hands” experiment measures skin conductance levels. With the same basic scenario describe above, when the experimenter ended by using one hand to snap a rubber band on the other wrist, participants who previously heard consistent instructions about the hand movements showed an empathetic emotional response to the rubber band snap. “It’s almost as though in feeling this control over the arms, there’s a feeling of the arms becoming one’s own, such that there’s a responsiveness to things that are happening to them,” said Wegner.

Wegner also has conducted experiments that provide evidence for the exclusivity principle. “In light of the experiments we’ve seen,” Wegner said, “it could be that conscious will is based on interpreting one’s thought as causing one’s action through principles of consistency, exclusivity, and priority.”

“This would suggest,” he continued, “that the experience of will comes and goes in accord with principles governing an interpretive mechanism, not in accord with any actual causal link between the thought and action. So the mind’s self-portrait could be a rough sketch of how the mind works, a sketch that produces an illusion of conscious will.”

“A lot of us have the feeling that conscious will is a uniquely human characteristic; it’s something about our minds that makes us special. Some commentators have suggested it’s like having a god inside one’s self, an agent that does things, that allows you to create actions from whole thought. The perspective I’m suggesting tonight is that humans are, in fact, mechanisms of some kind,” said Wegner.

“Every one of us feels that we consciously will our actions many times every day. Every time you think of moving a finger or moving whatever body part, and then it happens, you feel that you do it. So the experience of will is a very dramatic and constant part of the mind’s self-portrait. But what’s it there for? I’d suggest that this is the mind’s compass. The mind may not understand exactly how it steers the boat, but it tells us where we’re going. The experience of will allows us the kind of authorship emotion, a feeling that accompanies everything we do that allows us to realize what it is we’ve done on a moment-to-moment basic.

Artists usually use a mirror when creating their self-portrait. But for the mind, “objects in the mirror are more complicated that they appear,” concluded Wegner.

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