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Neuropsychoanalysis: An Interdisciplinary Journal
for Psychoanalysis and the Neurosciences
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Conscious and Unconscious Mental Activity:
Commentary by Benjamin Libet (San Francisco)
Benjamin Libet



Department of Physiology, University of California, San Francisco, 513 Parnassus
Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94143-0444
Published online: 09 Jan 2014.

To cite this article: Benjamin Libet (2000) Conscious and Unconscious Mental Activity: Commentary by Benjamin Libet
(San Francisco), Neuropsychoanalysis: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Psychoanalysis and the Neurosciences, 2:1, 21-24,
DOI: 10.1080/15294145.2000.10773277
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in either of the two lighted periods in each trial. selfconsciousness. 1979) stimulus pulses here had to be repeated for about 500 msec (at 72 pps. Pearl. The various "forms" or aspects of consciousness are accountable in the different contents added to the single phenomenon of awareness (e. Detection can occur unconsciously without any conscious detection. the content of the mental event (correct detection) was the same. et al. et aI. pain. In trials in which the subjects felt nothing and were simply guessing. they correctly detected the presence of the stimulus. Department of Physiology.b). The shorter trains generally produced no conscious sensation at all.. regardless of whether or not they felt any sensation. Feinstein. Libet. and other special qualities of conscious sensations that cannot be described simply by the correlative neuronal activities. colors. As had been Benjamin Libet is Professor Emeritus. trials in which there was (correct detection but no awareness) were compared with trials in which there was (correct detection and even an uncertain awareness of a sensation). 1964.g." But they do not follow through on this important point. and so on) employ a basic common mechanism or perhaps a few such mechanisms. But some of their treatment of the issues may be reconsidered.. In series of trials the train duration of the stimulus was varied randomly. refers to the designation by Chalmers [1995] for the question of how it is that conscious subjective experience can emerge from the activities of neurons. But to add awareness to this content required an additional 400 msec of stimulus train duration! This demonstrated that awareness is a unique phenomenon with neuronal requirements quite distinguished from those for the content of a mental event. Evidence for detection comes from a behavioral or functional response to a signal. For example. Awareness There is often a failure to distinguish between the detection and the awareness of a sensory signal.21 Commentary on the Unconscious Homunculus Conscious and Unconscious Mental Activity: Commentary by Benjamin Libet (San Francisco) Crick and Koch are to be commended for their valiant attempts to develop an understanding of the neuronal correlates of consciousness. of awareness of anything. Crick and Koch "emphasize that it is qualia that are at the root of the problem. that is. visual awareness.. 1966. between 0 and 55 pulses (i. even if the neuronal correlates of consciousness were to be fully discovered. Evidence for conscious awareness of a signal requires an introspective report from a human subject. San Francisco. But it seems . There is little doubt that non-human animals may have some kind of conscious experiences. Wright. 0 to 750 msec train duration).. But the hard problem must include all phenomena of subjective experience. Subjects indicated the presence of the stimulus." (The hard problem. 1991. Neuronal correlates of the specific content of an awareness may differ from those for awareness itself. and even self-consciousness as specific contents of awareness. University of California. unless a consistent correlation is first established with the introspective reports of awareness (see Libet. 1991). of course. The subjects were patients with permanently implanted stimulating electrodes in the ventrobasal (somatosensory) thalamus. Libet has proposed that subjective awareness should be regarded as the fundamental feature of consciousness. visual awareness. at well above the 50% chance level. Downloaded by [Adelphi University] at 23:53 19 August 2014 Awareness On the question of the fundamental nature of conscious experience Crick and Koch (1998) make the good "assumption that all the different aspects of consciousness (for example. Detection vs. found earlier (Libet.) Qualia are usually taken to mean the experiences of pain. Libet. The fundamental hard problem is how to explain the appearance of subjective awareness per se. 1993a). 1993a. Pearl. CA. for the self-treatment of intractable pain. it is accessible only to the individual who is experiencing it.e. Libet. In both cases. Awareness is a subjective phenomenon. and Pearl. Most interestingly. while longer trains produced either an uncertain or a certain awareness of a sensation. and it is not reducible to or describable by observations of neuronal activities or behavioral responses. There is some direct experimental evidence for this view (Libet. Alberts. et al. It also meant that one must be careful to distinguish between behavioral detection of a signal and the conscious awareness of that signal. in this work) in order to elicit a report of a weak sensation. It is simpler to think of pain.

Freud presented purely psychological theories of mind. in the case of a primate. 1977) this must be followed by a properly designed experimental test. etc. But there is very little if any direct experimental evidence to support these views. A similar period of cerebral activities was found for the appearance of the conscious wish or urge to perform a voluntary act. Specific electrical activity in the brain (the "readiness potential") was shown to begin the voluntary process unconsciously. plans. 1985). Crick and Koch resort to evidence on the visual system of the macaque monkey to bolster or support theoretical proposals to explain the neuronal nature of consciousness and unconscious mental processes. But as Karl Popper has pointed out (see Popper and Eccles. Marr. baseball. who has been taught to communicate by sign language). before conscious awareness of the signal could appear. Unconscious and Conscious Mental Processes Crick and Koch develop arguments for the view that thoughts are unconscious in origin and they "adopt the idea of the 'unconscious homunculus' as a tentative working hypothesis. Crick and Koch note that they have excluded the primary visual cortex. provide valid evidence on the issue of conscious awareness. an unconscious mental process (detection) could acquire conscious awareness . Freud. about 400 msec before the conscious decision to act appeared (Libet. and executes voluntary actions.. and it cannot give an introspective report (except. Stevens. and others (for the unconscious nature of thoughts). the primary area VI does not project directly to the frontal cortex. in which it is possible for the hypothesis to be falsified. if urges to act are unconsciously initiated urges (Libet. unless this is validated by introspective subjective reports. In discussing locations of the brain that may mediate a conscious visual experience. Indeed human individuals can unconsciously perform purposeful and successful behaviors even with highly complex mental operations (more on this below).. This was based on a postulate that only those visual areas that project to frontal brain regions can participate in producing visual awareness. in general. and by Atteneave (for the homunculus). conscious awareness of a sensory signal (Libet. even as little as 50 to 100 msec. in duration of cerebral activity." These views stem from proposals by Jackendoff. The "possible experimental approaches" listed by Crick and Koch deal with studies of neurons in the macaque monkey. But many activities and responses normally appear with much shorter delays. perhaps. 1999). Lashley. VI. " Deriving this view from studies of disturbed patients certainly Benjamin Libet provided a proper basis for a working hypothesis. But experimental studies on monkeys do not." "The unconscious homunculus receives information about the world through the senses and thinks. This has important implications for the issue of guilt. one can propose anything without fear of ever being contradicted.Downloaded by [Adelphi University] at 23:53 19 August 2014 22 virtually impossible to study this. Freud. Some direct experimental evidence for unconscious mental function is provided by the studies of Libet and colleagues. An introspective report of an actual experience of conscious awareness is necessary evidence for such events. He is quoted as writing "In psychoanalysis there is no choice but for us to assert that mental processes are in themselves unconscious . A distinguishing difference. since there is no assurance that the animal understands our question. Within such a framewor k Pollen proposes that VI could play a role in conscious vision. These activities include responses to signals while driving a car. 1991). They produced strong evidence for a requirement of cerebral responses lasting for up to about 500 msec for sensory awareness to appear (see reviews by Libet [1993a. This led to a "time-on" theory for the transition between unconscious detection and conscious awareness of a sensory signal. responses in sports like tennis. Evidence from such studies may be simply forms of detection which may be unconscious. like the gorilla Koko. as an area able to produce conscious events. The purposefulness or complexity of a response cannot be used as valid evidence for conscious awareness. not conscious awareness. But Pollen (1999) has further analyzed this postulate and proposes that the requirement of a direct projection to frontal executive space may be obviated by the existence of networks of recursive loops. et al. These proposals include those by Jackendoff.bD. But no amount of information about neuronal activities in the brain will tell us whether they represent unconscious or subjectively conscious mental processes. Simply by sufficiently increasing the duration ("timeon") of cortical activations. These theoretical proposals are interesting and imaginative. was demonstrated for unconscious detection vs. and by Crick and Koch themselves. for which Freud merited commendation. Pearl. This implies that such activities are initiated and executed unconsciously. Otherwise.

" But Crick and Koch themselves state that "radically new ideas may be necessary. However. and that wellformulated suggestions (even way-out ones) should be carefully considered. Awareness cannot be described by or reduced to the observable physical world. D. there appears to be no current evidence that contradicts the possibility that such a eMF can be demonstrated in the proposed experiment. It is accessible only to the individual having the subjective experience. that the content of what a person experiences consciously may be considerably distorted from the actual content of the initiating sensory image or of an endogenous thought initiated unconsciously. see Dennett [1993. A final conscious expression of the result of such thinking would appear only when a sufficiently long time-on of appropriate neuronal activities is engaged. Nevertheless. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory." The crucial feature in Libel's proposal (1994) is its experimental testability. This would apply not only to Freudian repression. including the brain. from psychoanalytical and psychological studies. subjective experience is clearly dependent on and tied to an appropriately functioning brain. 140] in discussion of Libet [1993a]). This idea is certainly "far out. Freud introduced the concept of repression to explain why an individual does not report awareness of an emotionally disturbing image. but to any unconscious modulatory influence on the content of a conscious experience. How Get Subjective Experience from Neuronal Activities? Crick and Koch conclude that the answer to this question is still a complete mystery. Wright. there have been solutions proposed. Modulation of the Content of a Conscious Experience It is well known. presumably conducive to creative thinking. one may need to regard conscious subjective awareness as a phenomenon in a category separate from all known physically observable phenomena. . (1995). First. there is a conclusive piece of evidence against that requirement. Perhaps this may be analogous to the emergence of a magnetic field when electric current flows through a wire. Libet (1994) has gone a step further and proposed that the subjective phenomenon appears as a "conscious mental field" (CMF). However.23 Downloaded by [Adelphi University] at 23:53 19 August 2014 Commentary on the Unconscious Homunculus of the signal. One may thus propose that subjective conscious experience "emerges" from appropriate brain activities. Retroactive (backward) masking and retroactive enhancement of a sensory experience provide an ex- perimental example of such modulatory changes (see Libet. New York: Oxford University Press. Any such modulation of content of an experience clearly requires some time after the arrival of the sensory signal at the brain. The time-on requirement of up to 500 msec for the appearance of awareness provides a physiological opportunity for the modulatory processes to develop an altered conscious experience. A fully designed experimental test accompanies the hypothesis. The experiment is a difficult but feasible one. Brief time-on requirements for unconscious thoughts would facilitate rapid interactions and progressions of thought. It is my hope that a suitable neurosurgery experimental group will take on this experimental project. The eMF would also be able to affect neuronal activities in a way that could account for a subjectively willed action. et al. and even of their own inability to remember what just happened! The memory processes for retention of an unconscious detection clearly do not lead to awareness. References Chalmers. Yet these patients appear to be fully aware of their immediate environment. during which the brain can (unconsciously) recognize the emotional nature of the signal and then reorganize the experiential response before awareness appears. 1992). Patients with bilateral lesions in the temporal lobes can lose all ability to form short-term memories. The eMF would have the attribute of unifying the subjective experience that emerges from the multifarious and distributed appropriate neuronal activities. instead he may report seeing nothing of the image or a distorted version of that image. as the potential result would be absolutely fundamental to our views about subjective experience in relation to the brain. The time-on theory does not exclude other additional factors that may distinguish unconscious and conscious functions. Further. It has been suggested that the longer time-on to produce reportable awarenesses may be due to requirements for developing a suitable short-term memory of the conscious event (for example. p.

R. They also follow their own advice. K. 114:1731-1757. Cortex. Gleason.(1993a). 9:4-19... & Pearl. Wright. B. C. by some paradoxical quirk of tradition. Solms and Nersessian. K.Downloaded by [Adelphi University] at 23:53 19 August 2014 24 Crick. Subjective referral of the timing for a conscious sensory experience: A functional role for the somatosensory specific projection system in man.. Control of the transition from sensory detection to sensory awareness in man by duration of a thalamic stimulus. . B. Feinstein. pp.. Cereb. Benjamin Libet Department of Physiology University of California. D. A testable field theory of mind-brain interaction. since Freud's (1923. (1998)..(1993b). .. .. Experimental and Theoretical Studies of Consciousness. Consciousness Studies.. Consciousness & Cognit. Flanagan. neurally instantiated homunculus provides an essential substrate for the emergence of consciousness within higher brain activities. emotions have been ignored in consciousness studies as if they were some type of vestigial unconscious flotsam as opposed to one of the foundational issues of mind and its conscious manifestations. In other words. Do we have free will? 1. 1. San Francisco 513 Pamassus Avenue San Francisco.. F. On the neural correlates of perception.. Retroactive enhancement of a skin sensation by a delayed cortical stimulus in man: Evidence for a delay of a conscious sensory experience. . Eccles. There is much to commend this idea. I am in deep sympathy with such an approach (Panksepp. Hosobuchi. & Barbaro. Neurophysiol. G. 102:191-222. Bowling Green State University.. 1999a. D. CA 94143-0444 The Cradle of Consciousness: A Periconscious Emotional Homunculus?: Commentary by Jaak Panksepp (Bowling Green) On the Affective Evolution of Consciousness Crick and Koch provide a frank and refreshing view of the current status of consciousness studies: after a great deal of philosophical debate (Block. & Eccles. and toy with the idea that some type of unconscious. (1964). Libet. Heidelberg: Springer. and Koch acknowledged but intentionally avoid: the possibility that some type of emotional "feelings" may lie at the core of human and animal consciousness. & Feinstein. 1998a. 1.(1985). Ohio. . As Crick and Koch put it: "radically new ideas may be necessary" and I write this essay with that perspective in mind. many others have passingly entertained the idea. N. W.. Selected Papers and New Essays by Benjamin Libet. B. C. . K. 1997) the mystery of consciousness abides.b). but it is radical (at least for the present Zeitgeist). Ciba Foundation Symposium. & Brain Sci. As Crick and Koch note. Boston: Birkhauser.. The Self and Its Brain. Morledge. Department of Psychology. Levin. 27:546-578. not to mention psychoanalytically. E. & Koch. A. E. L.. J. Cortex. (1979). and would like to push it further in a direction that Crick Jaak Panksepp is Distinguished Research Professor of Psychobiology. 1940) penetrating discussions of the topic ended. and Guzeldere. Y. W.Alberts. .. Jaak Panksepp --Pearl.. In: Brain and Conscious Experience. Brain. B. and not accompanied by any established standards of scientific or philosophic discourse. The neural time-factor in conscious and unconscious events. M...Wright. (1991). (1977). It is only gradually captivating our attention (panksepp.. 8:97-107. D. Pollen. .(1994). C. 174:123-146. D. C. K. and the only way to lift the veil is through novel theoretically oriented neuropsychological inquiries.. Delattre. Popper. Behav. Consciousness Studies. 6:47-57.. affect remains a most difficult topic to discussldissect in neuroscientifically.. M. (1999). (1966).. 1(1):119-126.. ed. Brain stimulation and the threshold of conscious experience. 89:567-615. Thus. meaningful ways (Panksepp..Feinstein. Cereb..(1999). 1:367-375. 1999a). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. New York: Springer. Jr. Consciousness and neuroscience. Emeritus. Production of threshold levels of conscious sensation by electrical stimulation of human somatosensory cortex. but it has not yet emerged as a frontrunner in brain and consciousness studies.. D. Neurophysiology of Consciousness. . deeply evolutionary. Brain. & Pearl. J. (1992). 165-181.