Finding Common Ground in Theories on Consciousness

Finding the similarities among theories advances the science of consciousness.

Posted Apr 17, 2020

When trying to solve the mind-boggling puzzle of how consciousness emerges from brain activity, it is useful to review the many theories on the topic and find the commonalities amongst the theories. What is the common denominator of the many theoretical approaches? I believe that this can sometimes be more productive than what is usually done, which is to simply, as Prof. Michael Graziano (Princeton University) states so eloquently, "erect defenses for the home theory and counterarguments for the competing theories" (Graziano & Morsella, 2020, p. 100).

With this in mind, Prof. Michael Graziano and I attempted to identify what is common between two different, action-based approaches to consciousness: the attention schema theory (developed by Prof. Graziano) and passive frame theory (developed in my lab). (I should mention that one of the theories, passive frame theory, is already a synthesis of diverse hypotheses and approaches, including "ideomotor theory.")  

 Wikipedia/Public Domain
Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949)
Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain

The process of looking for commonalities between the theories revealed that the two approaches have more in common than what was anticipated. For example, the process elucidated still further how consciousness is essential for the adaptive control of behavior. This stands in contrast to the many approaches in which the function of consciousness has little or nothing to do with the control overt behavior (see discussion of this here, page 45). 

Our project led to a short article in a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies (click here for a link to the special issue "Acting ahead of Actuality: On the Temporally Extended Mind"). The view that consciousness is for adaptive behavior has recurred frequently in the history of psychology (e.g., in the school of psychology known as Functionalism). In line with this view, Thorndike (1905) concludes, "The function of thoughts and feelings is to influence actions… Thought aims at knowledge, but with the final aim of using the knowledge to guide action" (p. 111).


Graziano, M. S. A., & Morsella, E. (2020).  A new motor approach to consciousness:  Implications for the simulation of future behaviorJournal of Consciousness Studies, 27, 88-103.

Thorndike, E. L. (1905). The functions of mental states, in Thorndike, E. L. (Ed.), The Elements of Psychology (pp. 111–119). New York: A.G. Seiler.