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Infer yourself: Interoception and internal “action” in conscious selfhood

Behavioral and Brain Sciences; New York Vol. 39,  (2016). DOI:10.1017/S0140525X15002265

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Morsella et al. argue that consciousness serves as a frame that constrains and directs skeletal muscle output, by making encapsulated conscious contents available for adaptive voluntary control. Their argument builds in interesting ways on previous positions suggesting a role for consciousness in action selection (Merker 2005). However, they in some ways go too far, and in other ways not far enough.

The authors go too far in overstating the association between volition and consciousness, asserting that “the conscious field wholly and exclusively determines what in everyday life is called voluntary behaviour. Conversely, for every voluntary action, the organism can report a conscious content responsible for that action” (sect. 2.5, para. 1). This excludes the possibility that volitional responses can be affected by subliminal (non-reportable) stimuli, which we now know is not the case; for instance, voluntary decisions to withhold prepotent actions can be influenced by subliminal primes (Parkinson & Haggard 2014). Also questionable are assertions that conscious perceptual content can be encapsulated from other factors like motivation (Balcetis & Dunning 2010) and even action itself (Vishton et al. 2007).

More interesting, however, is where Morsella et al. do not go far enough. Despite their emphasis on the body, they do not consider interoception or autonomic regulation (internal “action”), which may be highly relevant to basic instantiations of conscious selfhood and subjectivity. This idea makes most sense from the perspective of the “Bayesian brain” or “predictive processing” (Clark 2013; Hohwy 2013; Seth 2013).

The basic idea of predictive processing is that perceptual content is determined by the brain's “best guess” of the (hidden) causes of its noisy and ambiguous sensory signals, computed according to Bayesian principles. Thus, visual perceptual content is determined by probabilistic inference of the causes of visual sensory signals, and so on for other modalities. Importantly, minimization of prediction...