In my last post, I briefly discussed the most pertinent results from Benjamin Libet’s 1982 experiment and some of the implications. In this post, I would like to put on my speculative hat and talk about an alternative to the dichotomy I set up in the previous post I linked.
If you don’t recall, the dichotomy was set up between what appears to happen when we hear a noise behind us and what Libet thought was going on. What seems to be going on is that we consciously hear a sound and then turn around, but Libet proposed that we unconsciously hear it first, turn around, and then our brain performs a “backwards subjective referral” of the event to make it seem like the first scenario is happening. In my last post I said this was a false dichotomy and now I will speculate on what I think is really going on. Bare with me.
Imagine that a human body is sitting in a classroom and attending to the lecturer. All of a sudden this attentive human becomes aware of a door opening behind his back and cocks his head around accordingly in order to see what just interrupted the lecture. All of this activity, including the awareness of the noise of the door opening and the innervation of the appropriate neck and back muscles, all happened within the more-or-less continuous, 3d perceptual space that we all are familiar with.
So, while there are hundreds of potential things to be attentive of in any normal classroom(including the awareness of your own body sitting down), the available cognitive processing power responsible for “shifting the attentional spotlight” allocated almost the entirety of its capacity to the perception of the door opening, probably because of the neural contrast/distinction of such a sudden noise but also because this human body knows from past experience that usually the only things that open doors are other humans and it is this implicit social knowledge imbedded into action-schemas that makes it hard not to notice sudden changes in the social environment.
This contextual social knowledge makes it obvious why more attentional capacity would be allocated to the perception of the door opening rather than say the perception of his body twisting around or the perception of practically anything else in the room, even though the overall body-system never stopped being aware of these things, it is just that the percentage of attentional capacity devoted to the door opening made that particular activity more vivid that anything else upon episodic recollection. With the situation set up in this way, let us try go back to explaining Libet’s half-second delay.
Under my conceptualization, the reason why the neural isomorphic representation of the door opening seems to “echo”(thanks Dennett) around the brain for an “extra” half second past the “necessary” evoked motor potentials is because the brain is essentially “telling a story to itself” about the event. The functionality of this generated “after-the-fact” story comes from the fact that the door-opening-event is now easily fed into a variety of different cognitive systems thanks to the considerably long(in brain terms) half-second of processing necessary to turn such “noisy” sensory data into higher-level “conceptual” representations that implicitly include such linguistic conceptual relativities as self/other, internal/external, etc. important for metaphor-based story telling.
Furthermore, I speculate that evolutionarily speaking, the most advantageous way of putting these high-level representations of low-level sensory-action-data to use would be through an advanced memory/prediction/empathy system. This interrelated triad would be of great advantage in a social atmosphere. Perhaps I will elaborate on this triad a later post, but for now I am done wildly speculating from my armchair.