The effect of consciousness on human behavior is always under debate. Consciousness, motivation and will seem to have a determinate function in people's voluntary actions (Wundt, 1901). While Skinner (1984) argued that human behavior is due to the environmental control on which subjective feeling has no effect at all. In addition, Will was considered as mere a person's impression and feeling of causing an action rather than the actual cause (Hume, 1739).
Generally, people have the feeling of doing something voluntarily or on purpose in daily life. They are very likely to say that they did those actions because they were consciously willing to do. Therefore, the intuition that the feeling of will causes what people do would be normally held. The experience of conscious will is the feeling of voluntariness or the consciousness of willing an action. When a person experiences such feeling during performing an action, this action is usually classified as voluntary.
This essay will argue that the experience of conscious will has no causal effect on voluntary actions. Moreover, the feeling of willing an action is an epiphenomenon which is a byproduct of the brain activity and has no power to alter human behavior. However, the feeling of voluntariness is not entirely useless and it is essential for people to recognize their own behavior and maintain their psychological well-being.
Firstly, if the feeling of will causes an action, regarding the timing the consciousness should be at the very first order occurring before all the consequential actions. The Libet's (1999) experiment challenged this by the finding of a short delay in consciousness: the neural electrical activity in the brain constantly occurred 300-450ms before the subjects consciously felt the intention to act which was shown 200ms before the motor action. In the experiment, subjects experienced the conscious will, but the brain appeared to have already started operating the action before any subjective intention shown.
However, why do people normally feel their intention results in their behavior? One explanation could be that only the intention and the motor response which occurred 200ms after the intention can be consciously perceivable by the subjects, while the brain activity happened unconsciously. This result from Libet's study appears to show no causal effect of consciousness on voluntary action (Wegner, 2003) and suggested that the assumed consciously behaviors have been determined unconsciously beforehand. It also raises the doubt on the existence of free will and how valid our consciousness consistent with the objective reality.
Secondly, most of the time the feeling of voluntariness accompanies people's willed behavior. This fits the human intuitive knowledge that the experience of conscious will and a voluntary action must have some causal or necessary relationship. Thus, an evidence shows these two occurring independently might disprove the intuitive proposal.
If the consciousness is essential to the willed behavior, a constant correspondence between them would be required. The awareness of willing an action should always be followed by an indicated behavior. Any voluntary action should be able to be traced to a source of a conscious will. However, empirical evidences suggest the non-correspondence between consciousness and willed actions .For instance, patients with phantom limbs showed no indicated behavior after an experience of conscious will (Wegner,2002).Those with alien hand syndrome provided the evidence of the occurrence of the willed actions without consciousness (ibid). Furthermore, the experience of healthy people in hypnosis could reveal the susceptibility of the feeling of will to the outside environment.
Patients with phantom limbs always report the sensation of the missing or amputated limbs or organs, although the limbs no longer exist (Ramachandran & Blakeslee, 1998). Interestly, certain patients claimed that they could voluntarily control the movement of their phantom limb right after the amputation, if the removed limb was not paralyzed beforehand. While this sensation of being able to control often disappeared with time. Whereas, if the limb was in a paralyzing condition before the amputation, the patients could only feel the presence of the phantom but not the control, even they intended to move (Ramachandran, 1993). In this case, no matter what the patients felt about the voluntary control or the sensation of the missing limbs, there would be no resulting action due to no limb to act. The conscious sensation was perceived in both conditions (non-paralyzed and paralyzed), but only the subjects in the paralyzed condition reported the feeling of moving the phantom voluntarily ,even though in neither condition showing an corresponding action. This implies that the consciousness may not only unable to correctly reflect the reality, but also be perceived by different people in different wrong ways.
Many scientific studies conduct the research on the interpretation of phantom limbs. Ramachandran (1993) attributes the symptoms of phantom limbs to the remapping of the contralateral somatosensory representation in the brain. For example, after a left hand is missing, somatasensory cortex in the right hemisphere which was corresponding to the left hand will be occupied by the intact body part (face and arm). Since the areas for face and arm are next to the area for hand in the somatosensory brain cortex. This suggests that consciousness of the phantom limbs might be the byproduct of the brain activity in which brain functions operate in an unusual way. Another study (Bestmann & Oliviero, 2006) also implies that the consciousness of moving phantom hand might correlate to the neural activity in the motor-related brain areas. Thus, the consciousness might be an epiphenomenon accompanied with the neural activity, but has no power to cause or intervene how people act.
In the case of alien hand syndrome, patients always feel that they can not voluntarily control one of their hands and the hand seems to have the mind of its own. For instance, a patient had the experience that when he used the right hand to turn the page of a book, the left hand tried to close it; his left hand refused to give fork to his right hand when he was eating ( Banks,et al,1989). These behaviors seem as if another person controlled his left hand deliberately. In another case, a 41-year old white woman reported that her left hand performed some behavior without her consciousness of will, such as "opening a door or holding an umbrella, groping unneeded objects and having difficulty releasing them" ; this left hand even hurt her by scratching her face and body. These actions per se seemed to be so voluntarily controlled by another mind, that the woman even tried to talk and fight to the left hand (Caixeta, et al 2007). The alien hand syndrome provides the possibility of the existence of an apparent voluntary action without a conscious will at all. This is a supportive evidence to disprove that the willful behavior is determined by feeling of will.
For the people with intact brain, the undermined feeling of voluntariness could be experienced in hypnosis (Wegner, 2002). Wegner described as that if people keep listening and following the guiding messages (e.g. your arm is really heavy ; it keeps getting heavier; it feels too heavy to hold; the weight is so heavy that the arm is falling downwards)under the condition of hypnosis, some of people could feel experiencing the action but not the consciousness of willing to act ( feel the arm is falling but do not feel moving the arm willfully).The movement of arm can be seen as voluntary in the hypnosis processing , but the feeling of willing this action seemed can be altered by the guiding commands. This implies the feeling of the will is susceptible to the outside environment. While the action itself is relatively definite. For example, the arm either moved or not. There is no middle stage that the arm seemed to move. This can add to the point of the non-correspondence between consciousness of will and action.
Thirdly, using the feeling of voluntariness to explain why people behave in a particular way is as valid as saying God causes human behavior (Wegner,2002). If a feeling of will cause the action, what causes the feeling? There would be no descriptive explanation in a sensible way. Moreover, if a consciousness of will changes to an unusual direction, how could we sensibly interpret the abnormal shift? For example, a kayakist had been staying in his lift raft alone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for many days after his boat sank. He hunted fish for food so that he did not suffer from hunger. After several days, he felt his taste taking a bizarre turn that he lost the interest in the fish meat and got more and more willing to eat the fish eyes, entrails and roes which were normally impulsive to him. This seems apparent that he changed his taste because he consciously willing to change. However, why his feeling of will could take such a strange shift on the taste of fish entrails-- from the feeling of disgust to the feeling of will to eat even enjoy? The simple consciousness explanation is not convincible. The science provides a possible explanation: the fish meat is rich in protein but lack of vitamins and minerals which are essential to enable human's body work properly. On the only fish meat diet, the kayakist's brain mechanism received the missing nutrition signals and drove him to eat anything to fill the gap. Fortunately, fish does have those vitamins and minerals but contains in the part he usually discards such as the entrails. Thus, the brain mechanisms manipulated him to change the taste (discovery channel, 2009). From this perspective, the physiological brain activity clearly accounts for the kayakist's willed action of changing taste. This implies that human actions may be due to brain process and the consciousness of willing is no more than a feeling accompanied with brain activity, but has no effect on behavior, thereby unable to provide any explanation and prediction for human actions.
Despite the conscious will can not directly affect the human behavior, it is important for people's people to recognize their own behavior and maintain their psychological health.
First of all, people can judge if an action is done by themselves through experiencing the will. If a person has a feeling of willing an action, he would probably admit he did the action himself. Without this feeling the person is more likely to deny the action was performed by him. "Authorship emotion" defined by Wegner (2002) describes this function of conscious will as that people decide whether they are the "author" of an action or not through the feeling of will. Therefore, the conscious will may be a mark to help people distinguish what they do from what is done by others.
Secondly, the experience of conscious will can provide a subjective feeling of control. With this feeling people could sense that they have the power to determine their action and manipulate their life as they will. This was defined as "control motivation" (Weary,Gleicher, & Marsh, 1993) and " perceived control"(Glass&Singer,1972).This feeling of control can affect people's psychological state, such as enhancing patients' ability to adjust health problems (Gatchel & Baum 1983) .Whereas, losing the feeling of control might help people to stop the pursuit of control and then gain the peace of mind (Albert Einstein, as cited in Wegner, 2002). Thus, people should build positive beliefs and scientific view on the feeling of will and control in order to maintain a good psychological condition.
In conclusion, many empirical evidences support the argument that the experience of conscious will is an epiphenomenon which can not cause or alter the voluntary behavior. Libet's experiment suggests the timing of action occurrence is before the conscious intention. The non-correspondence between the voluntary action and the feeling of will was shown in phantom limb, alien hand syndrome and hypnosis. Moreover,the feeling of voluntariness is lack of ability to explain and predict actions, especially the unusual behavior. Whereas, the consciousness of will does contribute to people's psychological health and their awareness of their own behavior.
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