Current research has shown that we have more control over our actions than over our thoughts. Once a thought or an urge enters our consciousness (the state of being aware of one’s surroundings), it is involuntary, going against one’s intentions.
Based on this research, the Reflexive Imagery Task (RIT) reveals that, following the activation of action sets, conscious contents can arise involuntarily and systematically in response to external stimuli. In the most basic version of this paradigm, participants are presented with visual objects and instructed not to think of the names of the objects, which is challenging. Here, we addressed one criticism of RIT – that the effect arises only for automatic processes (e.g. forms of cued memory retrieval) and not for more complex processes (e.g. symbol manipulation).
Morsella and his team taught a group of 32 students from the University to play a word manipulation game based on Pig Latin. The first letter of each word was moved to the end of the word followed by an “ay.” For example, COW became OW-CAY. This task involved complex symbol manipulations associated with processes in the frontal cortex. Next, a series of words appeared on the screen and the students (after training) were told not to arrange them in Pig Latin. They tried not to rearrange the words. If they unintentionally rearranged the words, they were to press a button. They involuntarily created Pig Latin words in 43% of the trials. The researchers even tried the test on themselves and found how even they unintentionally disregarded the instructions not to rearrange the words. The RIT effect still came up with the conditions of the test.
Our study reveals that unintentional, unconscious processes can be more sophisticated than what has been thought before.
The study supports the passive frame theory that Morsella and his colleagues proposed last year, that suggests that consciousness is more of a conduit for information in the brain rather than an active creator of information.
(The Pig Latin results are further proof) that consciousness is passive, and that its contents are often generated unconsciously. But (consciousness) is necessary. By itself, consciousness. Like a window, doesn’t actually do that much, but what it provides for other, more active (and unconscious) systems is essential.
These findings may prove helpful for clinicians seeking ways to treat patients with unhealthy, obsessive thoughts or compulsions.
What my lab is showing is that, in some cases, you’re better off, through some form of retraining, not letting that urge enter consciousness in the first place, because once that urge enters consciousness, it’s in a late stage of processing, and it’s already very strong.