We have only limited awareness of the system by which we control our actions and this limited awareness does not seem to be concerned with the control of action. Awareness of choosing one action rather than another comes after the choice has been made, while awareness of initiating an action occurs before the movement has begun. These temporal differences bind together in consciousness the intention to act and the consequences of the action. This creates our sense of agency. Activity in (...) the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex is associated with awareness of our own actions and also occurs when we think about the actions of others. I propose that the mechanism underlying awareness of how our own intentions lead to actions can also be used to represent the intentions that underlie the actions of others. This common system enables us to communicate mental states and thereby share our experiences. (shrink)
Cognitive neuroscience aspires to explain how the brain produces conscious states. Many people think this aspiration is threatened by the subjective nature of introspective reports, as well as by certain philosophical arguments. We propose that good neuroscientific explanations of conscious states can consolidate an interpretation of introspective reports, in spite of their subjective nature. This is because the relative quality of explanations can be evaluated on independent, methodological grounds. To illustrate, we review studies that suggest that aspects of the feeling (...) of being in control of one's bodily movement can be explained in terms of the complex and surprising way the brain predicts movement. This is a modest type of functional, contrastive explanation. Though we do not refute the threatening philosophical arguments, we show that they do not apply to this type of explanation. (shrink)
Christopher Frith is a research professor at the Functional Imaging Laboratory of the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience at University College, London. He explores, experimentally, using the techniques of functional brain imaging, the relationship between human consciousness and the brain. His research focuses on questions pertaining to perception, attention, control of action, free will, and awareness of our own mental states and those of others. As the following discussion makes clear, Frith investigates brain systems involved in the choice of one (...) action over another and in the understanding of other people. Such investigations are aimed at understanding brain basis of autism and schizophrenia. In his widely cited study of schizophrenia, The Cognitive Neuropsychology of Schizophrenia , Frith argues that many of the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, such as delusions of control, auditory hallucinations, and thought insertion, involve problems of self-monitoring. Patients, in effect, lose track of their own intentions and mistakenly attribute agency for their own actions to someone else. Frith employs models of motor control, involving comparator mechanisms and efference copy, not only to explain delusions that involve movement, but also to develop a neurocognitive explanation of delusional cognition. (shrink)
Antti Revonsuo has given us an engaging and deliberately provocative paper discussing the value of brain imaging in the search for the neural basis of consciousness. In some places, however, his enthusiasm for the controversial nature of the topic has led him to overstate or misdirect his case.
In the first talk I discuss recent experiments designed to elucidate the neural correlates of consciousness. Implicit in this discussion are operational definitions of what I mean by consciousness. In the second talk I explore the extent to which we are conscious of being in control of our actions, our sense of agency. I raise the question of why we need to be aware of actions at all since we can achieve so much without such awareness. In the final talk (...) I propose that consciousness has a critical role in social interactions. Consciousness of action allows us to assign responsibility and develop culturally acceptable justifications for action. Furthermore, consciousness enables us to share our experiences in a manner that is optimal for group decisions. (shrink)