Is Consciousness an Illusion?

The notion of consciousness reopens that age-old contest between philosophy, psychology, and biology. Does consciousness arise from mere physical processes from the brain (Koch and Greenfield seem to think so) or is it more of a spiritual entity, closely related to views of the soul (advocated by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes – I talk more about these views here).

In the debate about consciousness, what goes hand in hand with it is the unconscious. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious argues that it harbours repressed and traumatic feelings and memories from our early childhoods, as well as socially unacceptable desires. However, the general view about the unconscious mind is that it is responsible for implicit knowledge (automatic skills and habits). It is believed that the unconscious presents itself in our dreams. Rosalind Cartwright argues that there is a degree of continuity between conscious life and the unconscious representations which we find in dreams. It is believed that they serve the purpose of compartmentalizing and regulating the emotions we experience from conflicts in real life. Dreams offer the chance to work out our problems and make better sense of the world. Perhaps this is why we feel better about something after we’ve gone to sleep.

Our dreams express many unconscious perceptions about our waking life.

Some of the most famous work on consciousness comes from the Libet experiments in the 1980s. Benjamin Libet produced some of the most fascinating findings, and has since been heavily cited in discussions about free will as well. He measured the time it took between participants becoming aware of the urge to act and the actual act (the pressing of a button). The difference between this conscious will and the action was around 200 milliseconds. However, it was also found that brain activity in the motor cortex (what Benjamin described as ‘readiness potential’) lit up around 500 milliseconds before subjects reported their awareness of the conscious will to act. Libet therefore had thrown open the door and suggested that it could be our unconscious that makes our decisions rather than conscious will, as originally thought.  This, of course, threatens the idea that we have free will – as it is our brains which actually decide for us!

Libet's clock
Libet’s participants were asked to note the position of a dot circulating on a screen like the hand of a clock.

Note the distinct link between brain and mind here. Of the brain as manifested by biological, automatic processes and the mind (or cognition) as conceptualized by our will, choices, thoughts, perceptions etc.). This reverts us back to the different views of consciousness found in psychology and philosophy.

The Libet experiments have shaken up the idea of consciousness as the thing that we possess and utilise to make decisions. But surely consciousness must be something more than just neural processes that somehow give rise to our awareness and perception of the world?

Are consciousness and free will merely illusions? Are they just some things that were created by the brain for important purposes? Could it be that these illusions are necessary for our survival? After all, it makes sense that it is necessary for us to believe that we have some capability of choice (whether we actually do or don’t) in order to live and function as we do!

If consciousness is an illusion we must then go on to question our identity and sense of self which could lead us down a road of existentiality where we ask ourselves if we exist, and if we do exist, do we exist only as biological machines? This does not seem plausible to me, and I’m sure Descartes would agree. Machines cannot deny their own consciousness.

And so, consciousness could be an integration of both mind and matter, or even software developed by the brain to aid living. I personally like this idea as it invites us to think about the purposes of both the conscious and unconsciousness which psychologists are ever keen to explore.

Yet, where consciousness comes from and how it comes about are still ongoing debates that will maybe never be settled. Still, the explanations offered by philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience so far have been tremendous and I can’t wait for more.

Thanks for reading,

Alice Allen

Today in the History of Psychology (Dec 07, 1910) 

Eleanor Jack Gibson was born. Her contributions to the development of perceptual learning are well-known as the ‘visual cliff’ experiments, which studied depth perception in children. It is thanks to these studies that a greater understanding of perceptual development emerged.

Psychology Pun of the Week

A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother.


6 thoughts on “Is Consciousness an Illusion?

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