Causal Effects of Consciousness

An area ripe for study

By Georgeann Sack

Photo by gjohnstonphoto/iStock/StandardLicense

In “Neuroscience Can Model Consciousness,” Jussi Jylkkä and Henry Railo asserted that consciousness has causal effects. I have been thinking about that a lot since. What are the purported causal effects of consciousness, and how might we measure them?

Many studies of consciousness are focused on the mechanisms that generate it, but that is only part of the story. I am interested in the effects of consciousness. Perhaps a better understanding of the effects will help us answer the question of why we are conscious at all.

What survival advantages does consciousness grant us, if any? I think a strong argument can be made that consciousness gives us more behavioral options, beyond choosing what is best for our survival. We often make bad choices from an individual survival standpoint. For example, we can choose to engage in painful acts or to put our bodies in danger, if we believe it is important to do so.

How much power does consciousness have to influence other parts of the brain and body? Mindfulness is all the rage these days, and with good reason. For example, mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce chronic pain (see systematic review here, and an intriguing article on how the relationship between pain and mindfulness may inform us about consciousness here). Is mindfulness a wielding of consciousness with positive causal effects?

Or consider attention, and our ability to consciously choose to pay attention to certain stimuli. What benefits, if any, are conferred when we consciously attend to something?

I am in the early phases of exploring this side of things so will keep this post short and question-based for now. If you have been thinking along similar lines and have insights to share, please do, either in the comments or by submitting a story to Awake & Alive Mind.

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