Is Consciousness Necessary for Action Initiation?
TWCF Number
Project Duration
September 1 / 2022
- August 31 / 2025
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
North America
Amount Awarded

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Uri Maoz
Institution Chapman University

Our everyday experience as humans is that we are the authors of our actions and we know why we act the way we do. For example, as you drive down an empty street, a child chases a ball into the road in front of you. You apply the brakes and swerve to the sidewalk to avoid hitting the child. You are conscious of the stimulus (the child running into the road) and of your reaction (braking and swerving). But what if you were not? How would it feel to find yourself on the sidewalk, not knowing how you got there and why? And, more importantly, can a situation like that ever happen? Can humans react to a stimulus in their environment while remaining unconscious of the stimulus or of their action? This question is crucial for our understanding of consciousness and to who we are as humans. It is also important for appreciating human uniqueness and appreciating the purpose of consciousness as our subjective reality.

One view of consciousness is that it is simply a subjective observation of brain processes that would have had the same outcome regardless. Another view is that consciousness plays a crucial role in agency and free will. This study from a team led by Uri Maoz at Chapman University has the potential to provide new information around this topic.

The aim of this project is to answer a two-faceted research question. 

  1. When a person acts in response to a stimulus, does awareness of that action necessarily accompany or follow their action? 
  2. Must awareness of the relevant stimulus either accompany the stimulus or follow it for the subject to initiate a reaction to that stimulus?

The team’s working hypothesis, based on pilot data, is that the answer is “yes” to both questions. If correct, it will support the idea that consciousness is essential for our actions and agency. The project strives to invoke stimulus-driven action, in a strictly controlled lab setting, where the stimulus and/or the action remains unconscious. The goal is to test this hypothesis using a combination of established methods.

The findings of this project will provide new information on the function and purpose of consciousness. It may therefore help guide the ongoing debate among competing theories of consciousness. Views on this topic are polarized. If the findings of this study are aligned with the project’s hypothesis, it may be surprising to those who take a more reductionist approach. The team hopes the data will provide evidence to foster constructive discussion in the field.

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