Have you ever had that weird feeling of letting your mind wander on a car trip, then not remembering anything about your drive when you arrive at your destination? Or perhaps you’ve struggled to fall asleep as your brain cycles endlessly through intrusive thoughts? Do you ever get “in the zone” while deeply engaged in an activity, like playing music or sports?
These are some of the common experiences that have inspired a team of scientists to dramatically reimagine the evolution of consciousness, which is a state of awareness that humans (and perhaps some other animals) possess about their minds and the world. Led by Andrew Budson, a professor of neurology at Boston University and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, the researches propose that “consciousness is, at its core, a memory system,” and that other functions that we associate with consciousness like problem-solving “developed later in evolutionary history,” according to a study published this month in the journal Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology.
One important consequence of this hypothesis is that our decisions and actions are first performed unconsciously, and then remembered consciously about a half-second later. In this way, our brains fool us into thinking we are making conscious actions in the present, when we are only experiencing delayed memories of events. For example, the authors note, previous studies found that it took about 500 milliseconds for subjects to consciously register stimulation.
”We would argue, in fact, that we do not consciously perceive events directly in real time,” the authors state. “We perceive the world as a memory. In other words, technically, we are not consciously perceiving anything directly; we are actually experiencing a memory of a perception.”
Key to this theory is the idea that we call consciousness initially developed to facilitate episodic memory—the brain combining sensory inputs to form a recollection of events to infer the future. Memory and consciousness are inextricable because they evolved as part of the same system.
“Our theory of consciousness rejects the idea that consciousness initially evolved in order to allow us to make sense of the world and act accordingly, and then, at some later point, episodic memory developed to store such conscious representations,” Budson and his colleagues said in the study. “Our theory is that consciousness developed with the evolution of episodic memory simply—and powerfully—to enable the phenomena of remembering.”
According to the researchers, the origins of consciousness in memory and its continued existence as the most advanced part of the brain’s memory system explains all sorts of observed phenomena. For example, they note that athletes take split-second actions unconsciously first, with the conscious awareness (or memory) of those actions only arriving later.
“We posit further that consciousness was subsequently co-opted to produce other functions that are not directly relevant to memory per se, such as problem-solving, abstract thinking, and language,” the team noted. “We suggest that this theory is compatible with many phenomena, such as the slow speed and the after-the-fact order of consciousness, that cannot be explained well by other theories. We believe that our theory may have profound implications for understanding intentional action and consciousness in general.”
Scholars have debated the origin and function of consciousness for thousands of years, and the subject now touches a variety of fields that include neuroscience, evolutionary biology, philosophy, and ethics. Some researchers have suggested that consciousness evolved as a mechanism to mediate and control our attention, and others have proposed that it is related to language and culture.
Budson and his colleagues note that many previous studies have hinted at the key role of episodic memory in consciousness, but they take this hypothesis to the next level by suggesting that the process of remembering episodes in our life is the foundation of our conscious minds. This would explain, they say, our frequent inability to control our thoughts and our capacity to unconsciously complete complex tasks, such as driving or making music.
“Our central claim is that consciousness is essentially and originally part of explicit memory. We experience the world progressing serially because our conscious memory system creates a linear, coherent stream of experiences from our unconscious, parallel brain processes,” the team concluded. “We believe that our memory theory of consciousness is useful (and perhaps correct) because it helps explain phenomena that have been recognized as long-standing puzzles for previous theories” and also “helps us understand clinical syndromes, experimental studies, and everyday experiences.”
Of course, this is all just a theory—it may well be disproven, or another theory may prevail. The authors note that past experiments that may indicate unconscious memory at work complicate their idea, but they add that there may be alternative explanations for the observed results. Regardless, it’s a fascinating hypothesis.
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