Findings Challenge Previous Theories About the Relationship Between Two Elements of Consciousness

Summary: When the perception of bodily self-consciousness is distorted, the recovery of body ownership can be predicted by different kinds of memories.

Source: University of Tsukuba

Scientists and philosophers have pondered the nature of consciousness for centuries. But now, researchers from Japan have uncovered new information that challenges previous theories about the relationship between two elements of consciousness.

In a study published this month in iScience, researchers from the University of Tsukuba have revealed that when the perception of bodily self-consciousness is distorted, the recovery of body ownership can be predicted by different kinds of memories.

Bodily self-consciousness arises through a developmental process in which sensory information is integrated with mental representations of the body, and it has specifically been linked to the relationship between body ownership and agency (the sense of being able to control one’s actions at will). However, little is known about the development of body ownership and agency, or how these are restored after injury, something the researchers at the University of Tsukuba aimed to address.

“Clarifying how temporal and dynamic aspects of bodily self-consciousness change over time is crucial for understanding how it is developed,” says main author of the study Professor Jun Izawa. “Specifically, the speed of adaptive recovery in task performance can illuminate the relationship between adaptive adjustments to memory and the recovery of various aspects of bodily self-consciousness.”

To examine this, the researchers decreased the perception of body ownership and agency by inducing a visual distortion while participants grasped an object in a virtual reality environment. They then observed how the participants adapted their movements to the distortion over a sequence of trials, to recover their ability to perform the grasping task.

This shows a head made up from clocks
Previous studies have indicated that body ownership and agency are distinct, and that they may by causally related. Image is in the public domain

“We found that the recovery of body ownership was associated with a fast memory process, whereas that of agency was mainly associated with a slow memory process,” explains Professor Izawa.

Thus, while body ownership and agency were restored simultaneously following exposure to the visuomotor distortion, this recovery appears to have been based on two different systems for updating memory, with distinct time courses.

“Our results challenge the conventional framework that proposes that body ownership and agency exist on different hierarchical levels of self-consciousness,” says Professor Izawa. “Instead, the perception of causality and hierarchy between these two elements may be an illusion resulting from the neural processing of parallel streams of information.”

Previous studies have indicated that body ownership and agency are distinct, and that they may by causally related. However, this new information indicates that the relationship between these two senses may not be so simple. Instead, changes in bodily self-consciousness may depend on the interaction between multiple motor memory processes over various timescales. This information could facilitate the development of treatments aimed at recovering self-consciousness after illness or injury.

About this consciousness research news

Author: Press Office
Source: University of Tsukuba
Contact: Press Office – University of Tsukuba
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
The role of motor memory dynamics in structuring bodily self-consciousness” by Ryota Ishikawa et al. iScience


The role of motor memory dynamics in structuring bodily self-consciousness


  • Body ownership and agency recover from their loss over different time courses
  • The body consciousness recovery process involves motor memory formation
  • Fast memory drives body ownership recovery
  • Slow memory drives agency recovery, and fast memory accelerates this process


Bodily self-consciousness has been considered a sensorimotor root of self-consciousness. If this is the case, how does sensorimotor memory, which is important for the prediction of sensory consequences of volitional actions, influence awareness of bodily self-consciousness? This question is essential for understanding the effective acquisition and recovery of self-consciousness following its impairment, but it has remained unexamined.

Here, we investigated how body ownership and agency recovered following body schema distortion in a virtual reality environment along with two kinds of motor memories: memories that were rapidly updated and memories that were gradually updated.

We found that, although agency and body ownership recovered in parallel, the recovery of body ownership was predicted by fast memories and that of agency was predicted by slow memories. Thus, the bodily self was represented in multiple motor memories with different dynamics.

This finding demystifies the controversy about the causal relationship between body ownership and agency.

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  1. As someone with Asperger’s I have always had a problem remembering left and right, I touch the relevant shoulder to work them out. They have never seemed real to me as they only label something as one is facing it ie: going up or down a street they reverse, they do not actually exist.
    However ‘neuro typical people’ do seem to regard left and right as real. I believe I was unself conscious until into my ’50s and less body oriented although I am learning to be more aware and believe that I have more of a ‘helicopter view’, leading to my so called problem with left and right. Left and right do only relate to the position of ones body.
    I am also hyper mobile as is often the case with us Aspies and that is known to mean I am less aware of where my body is, known as prioperception.

  2. Science should remember…
    …consciousness is always a whole-state for in here-now relationships…
    …no matter how short no matter how long…

    It’s a question of more consciousness that is forgotten…

  3. It’s becoming clear that with all the brain and consciousness theories out there, the proof will be in the pudding. By this I mean, can any particular theory be used to create a human adult level conscious machine. My bet is on the late Gerald Edelman’s Extended Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. The lead group in robotics based on this theory is the Neurorobotics Lab at UC at Irvine. Dr. Edelman distinguished between primary consciousness, which came first in evolution, and that humans share with other conscious animals, and higher order consciousness, which came to only humans with the acquisition of language. A machine with primary consciousness will probably have to come first.

    The thing I find special about the TNGS is the Darwin series of automata created at the Neurosciences Institute by Dr. Edelman and his colleagues in the 1990’s and 2000’s. These machines perform in the real world, not in a restricted simulated world, and display convincing physical behavior indicative of higher psychological functions necessary for consciousness, such as perceptual categorization, memory, and learning. They are based on realistic models of the parts of the biological brain that the theory claims subserve these functions. The extended TNGS allows for the emergence of consciousness based only on further evolutionary development of the brain areas responsible for these functions, in a parsimonious way. No other research I’ve encountered is anywhere near as convincing.

    I post because on almost every video and article about the brain and consciousness that I encounter, the attitude seems to be that we still know next to nothing about how the brain and consciousness work; that there’s lots of data but no unifying theory. I believe the extended TNGS is that theory. My motivation is to keep that theory in front of the public. And obviously, I consider it the route to a truly conscious machine, primary and higher-order.

    My advice to people who want to create a conscious machine is to seriously ground themselves in the extended TNGS and the Darwin automata first, and proceed from there, by applying to Jeff Krichmar’s lab at UC Irvine, possibly. Dr. Edelman’s roadmap to a conscious machine is at

  4. Before we bandy about ‘elements of consciousness’ we need a definition of consciousness which is non-tautological. We are presently a long way from that.

  5. Why two different memories help to gain bodily ownership and agency?
    Need an elaboration of fundanentals of bodily ownership and agency

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