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What is consciousness for? A glimpse into the world of Ezequiel Morsella.

by Henry Fagg (MSTAT)

First published in STATNews, May2013; revised March 2014 by the author

As a response to the contributions of Tim Kjeldsen, Kathleen Ballard and Gerard Foley (STATNews Vol 8 Issue 1), I thought that it might be useful to bring the scientific work of Ezequiel Morsella to a wider audience.

 For those who haven’t encountered his work before, Morsella is a scientist based at San Francisco State University who in 2005, at the age of 31, published an account of human consciousness[1]. Addressing the topic of ‘the function of phenomenal states’, his paper and the theory it outlines (‘Supramodular Interaction Theory’, or SIT) have since become rather influential. Rather than tackling the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness (how on earth physical matter could give rise to conscious experience in the first place), Morsella focuses on the ‘softer problem’ of what consciousness might be for. As Kathleen Ballard rightly points out, it is only relatively recently that such a question has been taken seriously again:  behaviourism in the sciences has had such a powerful legacy that consciousness has for a long time been viewed by many scientists as an ‘epiphenomenon’, that is, a functionless by-product of nervous activity.

Undeterred, Morsella sets about answering his question with intellectual deftness, employing a process of elimination worthy of a great detective. Firstly, he sets out his key interests very carefully. In particular, he does not address the notions of skill and habit discussed by Tim Kjeldsen and Gerard Foley. This is because accounts of consciousness that do address these areas often run the risk of conflating conscious and attentional processes. Instead, Morsella’s concern is to investigate the most primary forms of consciousness, those that involve basic operations such as breathing, drinking or enduring pain. This naturally means that he also puts to one side a multitude of higher level conscious phenomena such as language, cultural awareness, the sense of self, music appreciation, mental time travel, humour and so on. At any rate, he notes, such areas may well be predicated on more elemental conscious processes, in line with William James’ notion that ‘thinking is for doing’, or Sechenov’s provocative idea that conscious thoughts should be regarded as inhibited actions.

Unconscious vs conscious processes

Morsella’s method is contrastive: simply put, he compares processes that are consciously penetrable with those that are consciously impenetrable. Why, for example, is holding one’s breath for any length of time definitely a conscious activity, but the pupillary reflex or the peristaltic movement of the gut wholly unconscious? He presents evidence that the difference cannot be to do with how complex, controllable or ‘action-like’ these processes are. For example, the brain’s motor programs are highly complex yet unconscious, and unconscious reflexive behaviour is often controlled in very sophisticated and dynamic ways through feedback loops. Neither is the difference that consciousness is required to integrate independent neural activities, as many scientists have assumed. Morsella provides countless examples of integration occurring unconsciously in the nervous system, and on many levels. In vision, for example, the ‘binding’ of shape, colour and motion are integrated unconsciously, with binding also occurring unconsciously between the senses (‘intermodal integration’), as demonstrated by ventriloquism and other audiovisual illusions.

Which processes, then, are reliably coupled with phenomenal states? Morsella’s startling conclusion is that, for a process to be conscious, it must have the potential to impact on the skeletal muscular system (hereafter, ‘skeletomotor’ system). His argument aims to show that multiple, high-level (‘supramodular’) response systems have evolved independently within the nervous system which, when in conflict, require something to bring about adaptive action -that something being consciousness. These ‘agentic’ response systems are continually vying for control of the skeletomotor system because they each have their own concerns, such as: food and water intake, tissue damage avoidance, temperature regulation, sleep onset and various elimination behaviours (still higher levels of response system are also predicted, such as for reproductive behaviour or parental care).

The example of carrying a scorching plate to the dinner table is a useful everyday illustration of conflicting human response systems. In this situation, one might say that the inclination to drop the dish arises from the tissue-damage system, and the inclination to continue carrying the dish arises from the food-intake system. These response systems are inflexible and ‘encapsulated’ because, without consciousness, they are incapable of taking into account information generated by other systems. Morsella argues that consciousness evolved in order to bring about the required adaptive behaviour -in this case, suppressing the reflexive pain withdrawal in order to bring the dish to the table.

Consciousness is not only present during such conflicts, however; the outputs from response systems are instead described by Morsella as ‘incessant’ and ‘chronic’ because they continually inform the phenomenal field whether we deem them helpful or not. This leads him to compare consciousness to ‘a senate, in which representatives from different provinces are always in attendance, regardless of whether they should sit quietly or debate’.

Two classes of response systems

Morsella’s theory identifies two classes of response system: the instrumental system and various incentive systems. The instrumental system physically negotiates with the environment to achieve instrumental end states, such as opening a door, traversing a field or pressing a button. It is a ‘cool’ system since it is concerned with how a given action should be carried out, regardless of whether one is thirsty, starved, sated or angry.  It is best understood in terms of the historical notion of ideomotor processing,  with the mental image of an action leading to the execution of that action.

In contrast, the various incentive systems cater for basic needs and drives, and are hence concerned more with whether certain actions should take place rather than how they should take place instrumentally. These response systems will at times enact their agendas automatically via the skeletomotor system: thus, the tissue-damage system will induce automatic forms of blinking, coughing, scratching and pain withdrawal; the air-intake system will automatically contract the diaphragm; and the food-intake system will automatically lick, chew and swallow once the incentive stimulus activates the appropriate receptors.

It is not that consciousness is necessary for issuing skeletomotor actions, since this can happen automatically. Rather, consciousness is necessary to allow ‘cross-talk’ between the response systems in order that they can influence action collectively. An example given by Morsella in his paper -that of extracting food from under heavy ice -sums up well the integrative role that consciousness plays:

[T]he food-intake system induces the phenomenality of hunger and incentivizes the stimulus beneath the ice, the instrumental system has the cool goal of lifting the ice, and the tissue-damage system induces negative affect once the heavy ice is lifted. Again, in this framework, adaptive action requires, not a homunculus, but a mode of interaction and checks and balances across systems. For example, if the food-intake system were absent, one would be indifferent toward the food under the ice; if the instrumental system were absent, one would not know how to remove the ice; and if the tissue-damage system were absent, one would be indifferent to the damage caused by lifting the ice. Hence, without phenomenal states, the three systems would be unable to interact and yield adaptive action.

The acronym PRISM -Parallel Responses into Skeletal Muscle - sums up his idea. Just as a prism can be used to combine colours to create a single hue, phenomenal states ‘cull simultaneously activated response tendencies to yield a single, adaptive skeletomotor action’. So, for the above example, we would have the following PRISM:

Fig.1. An example of Parallel Responses into Skeletal Muscle (PRISM) through which consciousness permits various supramodular response systems to interact and thus collectively influence skeletomotor output adaptively.

Direct Control, Indirect Control and the Alexander Technique

Perhaps of most interest to Alexander Technique teachers is that Morsella’s Supramodular Interaction Theory (SIT) posits that the instrumental response system is under direct cognitive control, whereas the incentive systems can only be controlled indirectly. In line with ideomotor principles, the instrumental system thus allows one to move a finger or arm instantaneously and at will. In contrast, affective/ incentive states are not immediately accessible at will, such that, in the absence of adequate conditions, making oneself happy, sad, frightened or hungry is not a straightforward affair. This is not to say that humans lack the capacity for it; rather, it is a much more indirect process, and something that perhaps only actors are particularly skilled at.

Although Morsella does not include postural tone as one of the representative incentive response systems in SIT, it is interesting to speculate on whether it could be classified as such. Firstly, like other incentive systems, postural tone enacts its own agenda via the skeletal motor system: that of steadily maintaining the relative positions of body segments and preventing the body from collapsing against gravity. Secondly, as a system that impacts on the skeletomotor system, SIT would predict that postural tone must be consciously accessible, and there is emerging evidence that this is the case[2]. Thirdly, also in line with SIT, there is evidence that adaptive changes to motor behaviour occur as a result.[3]

Finally, the operating principles of the Alexander Technique themselves suggest that postural tone more closely resembles a type of incentive system than the ideomotor-inspired instrumental system. This is because, while the instrumental system is accessed directly and is concerned with goals or end states, it is generally understood that the  Alexander Technique works indirectly to influence postural tone in a way that is distinct from ordinary voluntary movement[4]. Furthermore, the intense conscious experiences anecdotally associated with the application of the Alexander Technique are also suggestive of SIT principles. This is because SIT predicts strong subjective effects when two response systems are in conflict (in this case, postural tone and the instrumental system)[5].

A final word perhaps belongs to Ezeqiuel Morsella:

[I]t is interesting to note that both intuition and prevalent historical perspectives have construed cool, instrumental actions as struggling to counteract or inhibit the forces of dominant, primitive impulses arising from phylogenetically older parts of the brain. However, according to SIT, a more informative, albeit less intuitive, view is that primitive impulses (e.g., the response tendencies of incentive systems) are actually trying to rein in the often dominant instrumental system, which can select dangerous goals such as touching noxious objects, traversing hot sand, and not breathing.

The above may cause Alexander Technique teachers (as it did me) to ponder a possible connection with our own conceptual framework: perhaps postural tone could be characterized as ‘reining in’ a potentially end-gaining instrumental system, an agenda nourished and enhanced by the application of Alexander’s principles.

[1] The paper referred to is Morsella, Ezequiel. 2005. The Function of Phenomenal States:  Supramodular Interaction Theory. Psychological Review  Vol. 112, No. 4, 1000–1021. All quotations in this article are from this paper, unless otherwise stated.

[2] Cacciatore, T.,  Gurfinkel, V., Horak, F., Cordo, P. and Ames, K. 2011. Increased dynamic regulation of postural tone through Alexander Technique training. Human movement science 30, 74-89..

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] See Morsella, E. et al. 2009. The Essence of Conscious Conflict: Subjective Effects of Sustaining Incompatible Intentions. Emotion, 9(5),pp. 717-728.

© Henry Fagg 2013 & 2014  

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