In a recent study, Naci et al. investigated how the brain responds to an 8 minute Alfred Hitchcock movie. In healthy subjects they found that frontal and parietal areas indicative of executive functioning were active during the most suspenseful parts of the movie. Then they showed the same movie to two patients diagnosed as being in a vegetative state, one of which who had been in VS for 16 years. In one of the patients they found that “activity in a network of frontal and parietal regions that are known to support executive processing significantly synchronized to that of healthy participants”. In other words, the vegetative man’s brain “tracked” the suspense-points of the movie in the same way that healthy controls did. They reasoned that the patient was therefore consciously aware of the video, despite being behaviorally unresponsive:
The patient’s brain activity in frontal and parietal regions was tightly synchronized with the healthy participants’ over time, and, crucially, it reflected the executive demands of specific events in the movie, as measured both qualitatively and quantitatively in healthy individuals. This suggested that the patient had a conscious cognitive experience highly similar to that of each and every healthy participant, while watching the same movie.
But what’s the connection between executive functioning and conscious experience? The authors write:
The “executive” function of the brain refers to those processes that coordinate and schedule a host of other more basic cognitive operations, such as monitoring and analyzing information from the environment and integrating it with internally generated goals, as well as planning and adapting new behavioral schemas to take account of this information. As such, executive function is integral to our conscious experience of the world as prior knowledge is integrated into the current “state of play” to make predictions about likely future events.
Does this mean that executive functioning is always conscious? Is the unconscious brain incapable of “monitoring and analyzing information from the environment” and “integrating” that information with goals? Color me skeptical but I believe in the power of the unconscious mind to perform these functions without the input of conscious awareness.
Several examples come to mind. In the “long-distance truck driver” phenomenon people can drive automobiles for minutes if not hours without the input of conscious awareness. Surely driving requires “monitoring and analyzing information from the environment” in addition to integrating with goals and adapting new behaviors to deal with novel road conditions.
Another example is automatic writing, where people can write whole intelligent paragraphs without the input of conscious attention and the “voice” of the writing is distinct from that of the person’s normal personality, channeling the personalities of deceased persons or famous literary people. People would hold conversations with their automatic writing indicating that the unconscious writer was responding to the environment and surely “monitoring and analyzing information”. Im not aware of any brain imaging studies of automatic writing but I would not be surprised if frontal and parietal regions were active given the complexity of handwriting as a cognitive task. Same with long-distance truck driving.
My point is simply to raise the question: Can executive function happen unconsciously? Naci et al. say that executive function is “integral” to conscious experience. That might be true. But is conscious experience integral to executive functioning? Maybe not. There is a litany of complex behaviors that can be performed unconsciously, all of which likely recruit frontal and parietal networks of the brain. We can’t simply assume that just because information integration occurred that conscious awareness was involved. To make that inference would require us to think that the unconscious mind is “dumb” and incapable of integrating information. But there is plenty of reason to think that what Timothy Wilson calls the “adaptive unconscious” is highly intelligent and capable of many “higher-order” cognitive functions including monitoring, integrating, planning, reasoning, etc.