Faculty | 12/5/2022

Consciousness as Memory: Are We in Control of our Actions?


A theory co-authored by an MCPHS professor offers a new explanation for the purpose of consciousness.

Have you ever left home for the day and questioned if you brushed your teeth or locked the door? As you’re falling asleep, do you wonder if you turned off the stove or shut off the light before going to bed? A new theory suggests we often can’t remember doing these things because we do them unconsciously. Contrary to how it appears, it seems that consciousness is not necessary for much of our everyday activities.

“It started with the idea that perhaps humans developed consciousness as a way to get information into our memory,” said Kenneth Richman, PhD, Professor of Philosophy and Healthcare Ethics at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS).

He recently published this theory—developed in collaboration with the lead author, Boston University Professor of Neurology Andrew Budson, MD,—in the journal Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology. Boston College Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Kensinger, PhD, also contributed to the theory and helped put it to the test.

“We hypothesize that the purpose of consciousness is not to guide us through everyday decisions as we make them, but rather, it allows us to store information that we can use to guide us in the future,” Dr. Richman said. “Many, if not most, of these everyday decisions are made unconsciously.”

This new theory considers data showing that it takes approximately .5 seconds for a stimulus in the brain to turn into a conscious experience. Therefore, they argue, consciousness is simply too slow to be actively involved in many activities.

For example, imagine a baseball player at-bat. The batter must decide whether to swing or not to swing, faster than the brain can become conscious of the ball approaching. Driving is another example. If the car in front of yours stopped quickly, you would crash before you consciously braked. About .5 seconds after the swing or the narrowly-avoided crash, the brain becomes conscious of the action, making us believe we were in full control of the decision. The authors argue that’s not the case.

“We could not make these decisions consciously because we can’t process them fast enough,” Dr. Richman said. “We are conscious while these decisions are made, but they are made in an unconscious way.”

The theory also explains why certain habits are difficult to break. In the paper, the authors provide the example of promising to only eat one scoop of ice cream, but suddenly noticing that the entire pint is gone, even though there was never a decision to eat the entire thing. But Dr. Richman says our habits and routines are not permanent just because they are carried out unconsciously.

“It’s possible to slow down and make changes to our routines, either by acting mindfully or changing the physical environment to set limits to our unconscious decisions,” Dr. Richman explained. “After a few repetitions, that new routine can become unconscious” like the old ones were.

The authors hope that the scientific community will apply and test the new theory in experimental, theoretical, and ethical work. They are on a journey with colleagues to understand the fundamental and anatomical nature of consciousness.

“This collaboration illustrates the important role of philosophy in interdisciplinary work and highlights connections between the humanities and life sciences,” he said. “Our theory might ultimately be wrong, but it’s a very interesting one to consider.”