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Research reveals that consciousness is the brain's Wi-Fi

October 2, 2009 -- Your fingers start to burn after picking up a hot plate. Should you drop the plate or save your meal? New research by Assistant Professor of Psychology Ezequiel Morsella suggests that it is your consciousness that resolves these dilemmas by serving as the brain's Wi-Fi network, mediating competing requests from different parts of the body.

A graphic showing an example of a psychological test called the Stroop Task. The graphic shows the word "red" written in blue type and the word "blue" written in red type.During the Stroop Task (pictured), which involves having to say the name of the color that the word is written in (blue for the top word) rather than reading the word (red), we feel conflicting urges as we fight the urge to read the word. Morsella's research suggests it is our consciousness that resolves this kind of dilemma.

"If the brain is like a set of computers that control different tasks, consciousness is the Wi-Fi network that allows different parts of the brain to talk to each other and decide which action 'wins' and is carried out," said Morsella whose study was published in the October issue of the journal Emotion.

The study also explains why we are consciously aware of some conflicting urges but not others. Morsella found that we are only aware of competing actions that involve skeletal muscles that can voluntarily move parts of the body, the bicep for example, rather than the muscles in the digestive tract or the iris of the eye.

In lab experiments, participants were trained to identify and report changes in their awareness, or the feeling of being about to make a mistake, while in a state of readiness to perform simple exercises. The results demonstrated that merely preparing to perform an incompatible action, for example, preparing to move simultaneously left and right, triggered stronger changes in awareness than preparing to perform a compatible action or experiencing a conflict that does not engage the muscles that move our bodies.

The findings support Morsella's new theory, which predicts that the primary role of consciousness is to bring together competing demands on skeletal muscle and also to allow individuals to adapt their actions in the future, for example wearing an oven mitt to hold a hot dish.

In a related, but separate study, Morsella and colleagues used fMRI scans to identify the regions of the brain that produce the changes in awareness associated with conflicting urges. "What's interesting is that the changes in awareness that participants felt when preparing to perform conflicting actions was uniquely associated with increased activation of areas of the brain associated with action and perception, as we would expect, and also with working memory," Morsella said. "This is consistent with our theory because these brain regions are responsible for consciousness and selecting the right action at the right time."

Morsella believes his findings will shed light on how individuals manage difficult and debilitating conflicting urges such as addiction and failures of self control.

-- Elaine Bible


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