A New Explanation for Consciousness

Summary: A new theory of consciousness suggests decisions are made unconsciously, then about half a second later, they become conscious.

Source: Boston University

Consciousness is your awareness of yourself and the world around you. This awareness is subjective and unique to you.

A Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine researcher has developed a new theory of consciousness, explaining why it developed, what it is good for, which disorders affect it, and why dieting (and resisting other urges) is so difficult.

“In a nutshell, our theory is that consciousness developed as a memory system that is used by our unconscious brain to help us flexibly and creatively imagine the future and plan accordingly,” explained corresponding author Andrew Budson, MD, professor of neurology.

“What is completely new about this theory is that it suggests we don’t perceive the world, make decisions, or perform actions directly. Instead, we do all these things unconsciously and then—about half a second later—consciously remember doing them.”

Budson explained that he developed this theory along with his co-authors, philosopher Kenneth Richman PhD, at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and psychologist Elizabeth Kensinger, PhD from Boston College, to explain a series of phenomena that could not be easily understood with prior theories of consciousness.

“We knew that conscious processes were simply too slow to be actively involved in music, sports, and other activities where split-second reflexes are required. But if consciousness is not involved in such processes, then a better explanation of what consciousness does was needed,” said Budson, who also is Chief of Cognitive & Behavioral Neurology, Associate Chief of Staff for Education, and Director of the Center for Translational Cognitive Neuroscience at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Boston Healthcare System.

According to the researchers, this theory is important because it explains that all our decisions and actions are actually made unconsciously, although we fool ourselves into believing that we consciously made them.

This shows a brain and a finger shooting lightening out of it
According to the researchers, this theory is important because it explains that all our decisions and actions are actually made unconsciously, although we fool ourselves into believing that we consciously made them. Image is in the public domain

So, we can say to ourselves, we’re just going to have one spoonful of ice cream and, the next thing we know, the container is empty—because our conscious mind is not controlling our actions.

“Even our thoughts are not generally under our conscious control. This lack of control is why we may have difficulty stopping a stream of thoughts running through our head as we’re trying to go to sleep, and also why mindfulness is hard,” adds Budson.

Budson and his coauthors consider a number of neurologic, psychiatric, and developmental disorders to be disorders of consciousness including Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, delirium, migraine, schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, certain types of autism and more.

Lastly, their paper provides a roadmap as to how clinicians, educators and individuals can best improve behavior and gain knowledge, by using clinical and teaching methods that can be effective in shaping both the conscious mind and the unconscious brain.

With further exploration, this work may allow patients to improve problem behaviors such as overeating, help us understand the ways in which brain structures support memory, and even provide insight into philosophical issues around free will and moral responsibility. 

These findings appear online in the journal of Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology.

Funding: This work was supported by NSF grant BCS-1823795 to EAK and NIH grant P30-AG072978 to AEB.

About this consciousness research news

Author: Gina DiGravio
Source: Boston University
Contact: Gina DiGravio – Boston University
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Consciousness as a Memory System” by Andrew Budson et al. Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology


Consciousness as a Memory System

We suggest that there is confusion between why consciousness developed and what additional functions, through continued evolution, it has co-opted. Consider episodic memory. If we believe that episodic memory evolved solely to accurately represent past events, it seems like a terrible system—prone to forgetting and false memories.

However, if we believe that episodic memory developed to flexibly and creatively combine and rearrange memories of prior events in order to plan for the future, then it is quite a good system.

We argue that consciousness originally developed as part of the episodic memory system—quite likely the part needed to accomplish that flexible recombining of information.

We posit further that consciousness was subsequently co-opted to produce other functions that are not directly relevant to memory per se, such as problem-solving, abstract thinking, and language.

We suggest that this theory is compatible with many phenomena, such as the slow speed and the after-the-fact order of consciousness, that cannot be explained well by other theories.

We believe that our theory may have profound implications for understanding intentional action and consciousness in general.

Moreover, we suggest that episodic memory and its associated memory systems of sensory, working, and semantic memory as a whole ought to be considered together as the conscious memory system in that they, together, give rise to the phenomenon of consciousness.

Lastly, we suggest that the cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that makes consciousness possible, and that every cortical region contributes to this conscious memory system.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.
  1. Why should that be a new theory? Look into the past and see what you will find, e.g Freud, especially Gerhard Rott, who wrote many books about this topic many years before, which lead to discussions if a free will does exist at all.

  2. Well from scientist perspective it is quite hard to discover or define consciousness, and that is because they think with specific set of values, which ebery scientist does. Otherwise it won’t be where there he is. However if we would have three different set of values, thinking together, like pet medic, athlete and a scientist, they will actually have right deffinition for what consciousness is. The right definition is found on http://www.psi-book.com

  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.

    What 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 https://arxiv.org/abs/2105.10461

  4. What a load of crap. A cornerstone argument for throwing both Mankind’s divinity and personal responsibility in the toilet. The sort of thing that makes for that ever-so-ripe smell at the landfill. Made me nauseous.

  5. You must not have any self control and allowed yourself to fall into habits that caused u weight gain😂.no excuses ur just lazy and trying to find a an excuse.

  6. So many articles, which I have encountered, relate directly to my personal thoughts on certain issues, or to worries that I have about my children.
    I am very grateful to have found this publication,and look forward to following articles, now that I have signed on.

  7. About the new theory for consciousness… maybe consciousness was born slowly as the body grew tired of being robotic? Slowly…glitches on the natural brain from barbaric periods… started to learn in very small spurts of what we now call simpathy, love, hate, etc, and over long evolution we started building a counter personality called consciousness??

  8. If I am not mistaken isn’t this new theory really a variation on Freud’s Id-ego written in 1923?

  9. What I personally feel is that the topic of neuroscience is just like the Mendelevs periodic table. It is said that one who understands the periodic table,understands the whole of chemistry.
    Once we know for certain the exact meaning and origin of consciousness,we will be decoding the past present and future of human civilisation on the whole.I really love to go through the annals of near death experiences which narrate that consciousness continues even after the death of the physical body. And also to add that I believe in the Supreme Power who controls everything!!

  10. Replace memory with orientation and you have a spatial and temporal, evolutionary dimension in your concept at the same time. The ego, as a conglomerate of metastructures, orients itself sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously by means of an adaptive random walk. It has little to do with memory. Already Libet was wrong when he said that decisions are made unconsciously.

  11. Whenever an article about consciousness includes the term, “subjective”, I cringe. How does one get beyond their subjective access to the world to an objective theory of the world and other minds? Is this theory of consciousness subjective if the source is subjective?

    Say I consciously plan to raise my arm in the air in 5 seconds. When five seconds are up and I raise my arm how did my unconscious mind know when 5 seconds are up and how does the brain make the plan a decision that I then become aware of after the fact? It seems like a lot of unnecessary processing just to raise my arm in 5 seconds, as well as learning new tasks, and seems to imply that consciousness only contains future and past events, when it is often brutally clear that consciousness contains the present as well. Stub your toe lately?

    While I agree on several points, especially when it comes to the conscious mind having evolved for planning, I would also suggest that consciousness is a way of creating behavioral adaptations on the fly. Instead of waiting generations for instinctive behaviors to adapt to environmental changes by luck of the mutational draw, consciousness allows us to make changes to our behavioral responses almost immediately, even overriding some instinctual/unconscious decisions and urges.

    Finally, any good theory of consciousness will attempt to tackle the hard problem. We use visual terms to describe the world. Picturing an idea in our minds allows us to better understand the idea. All of our theories originate in the way we experience the world, so consciousness cannot be an illusion or a trick of the brain, or that would pull the rug out from under all theories of the world, including theories of other minds.

  12. Are these guys seriously suggesting that reflexes and muscle memory is proof that consciousness is ultimately involuntary?

  13. Could they strain any harder to make this clunky theory fit the observed phenomena. So many holes in this. Just stop trying to shoehorn consciousness into a reductionistc positivist framework. Your assumptions about the universe are polluting your theory making.

  14. As per the automation of physical mechanism of human,on the basis of present discovery in medical science,safely presence of consciousness is detected from an integral view.This is life,evolved in the planet earth.

  15. This is not an unreasonable theory. It lends further therapeutic significance to the notion set forth by F. Matthias Alexander, being that the only power of the conscious mind is the ability to say, “No.”

  16. This Neuroscience News article misidentifies what’s “new” in this theory. The observation that “decisions are made unconsciously, then about half a second later, they become conscious.” has been known experimentally for several years. What’s new is an explanation of what consciousness is good for. Many psychologists, on hearing that consciousness of one’s decision occurs *after* the decision is already made, came to the naive conclusion that consciousness has no role in decision making. They failed to grasp the role that consciousness may have on *future* decisions. For example, one’s *unconscious* decision to disrespect or discount another person’s feelings might lead to their *conscious* realization that this adversely affected the relationship. The memory of one’s own inconsiderate behavior and its negative consequences can alter one’s future *unconscious* decision making and behavior.

  17. The idea that decisions are made before we are consciously aware of having made them is not new at all. See Benjamin Libet.

  18. How do people take credit for a theory they did not offer…. I mean if it’s all unconscious processing. And I think it’s important to remember they did not address the hard problems of consciousness.

    1. I don’t think that they took credit for the theory itself- what’s new is the description of what consciousness is good for.

  19. What makes…prior to unconsciousness or consciousness…what allows it to become either…Is it smaller than sub automic particles? What makes intelligence intelligent to allow us to be aware that we are even consciousness or unconscious? What makes intelligence for that matter. Your theory, in my opinion is naive and extremely limited in definition of the subject of conciousness. The theory allows for arguments that would allow an out people not being accountable for their decisions, their actions, their intentions in regard to their decisions, allowing for excusesses to be made for actions taken, behavior to be dismissed i.e. ‘I wasn’t aware of my choice to_____.’ This is an excuse not to be accountable. ‘I wasn’t aware of what I did prior to doing it.’ You first have to be conscious to realize the concept of unconciousness.

Comments are closed.