Control phenomenology

Some have claimed that introspection of control consciousness reveals no distinctively non-sensory component. Others make a contrary claim about the relevant phenomenology. Phenomenological disputes are notoriously difficult to adjudicate leading some researchers to be quite skeptical of the phenomenological enterprise and the reliability of introspection. Nonetheless, claims about consciousness should be made to square with the self-reports of subjects, if not to explain then to explain away. If there’s controversy regarding some point of phenomenology, it can be quite satisfying to discover an explanation of why such a controversy arises.

While I think careful reflection reveals a distinctively non-sensory component to control consciousness, I do think there is something worth taking seriously in various claims against non-sensory control phenomenology. In this post I sketch the case for non-sensory control phenomenology. In the next post, I’ll offer some possible explanations why it may have seemed obvious to some that there would be no such thing.

One point worth stressing is that control plays a relatively direct role in sensory consciousness. When we examine the phenomenology of sensory consciousness we note a role that control plays in this phenomenology. Two main ways in which control is involved in sensory consciousness is (1) vividness or intensity of sensory experience is correlated with what is contrary to control and (2) differential degrees of direct control is one of the main ways in which a person is able to distinguish, from the first-person point of view, between perception and imagery.

As has been noted by other authors (Chalmers, 1996, p. 224) (Rosenthal, 1986, p. 412), the vividness or intensity of a mental state is correlated with or constituted by the strength of its connection to action. As I shall like to put this point, especially as it applies to sensory consciousness, is that vividness is correlated with or constituted by what is contrary to control. The more vivid a pain, the more it compels our attention toward it and our acting to alleviate it. The less vivid, the more control we have over whether we are going to do anything about it.

The point generalizes beyond pain. As pointed out by Weiskrantz et al. (1971), self-administered tactile stimulations are perceived as more intense than when administered by another. The vividness of a visual experience of red needs to be characterized in terms of its inverse relation to control and cannot instead be defined in terms of sensory properties of the stimulus. The point is best drawn out by attending to differences between a sensory experience of a particular shade of red and a mental image of the same shade of red. Another useful comparison might be between an experience and a thought of one and the same shade of red. The sensible properties of the shade represented in experience—the shade’s hue, saturation, and brightness—underdetermine the differential vividness of experience and imagery (as well as experience and thought) since one can have an a thought or image that captures the properties of hue, saturation, and brightness definitive of a given experienced shade, but the experience may still be more vivid than either the corresponding thought or image.

One point that combines both the point about vividness and the point about imagery is that imagined pain is less vivid than experienced (non-imagined) pain. It is worth noting as a general point that, besides the various commonalities between sensory perception and sensory imagery, the main way in which we are able to distinguish an image from a percept with similar content is by the differential degrees of direct control that we have over the image (Kosslyn, 1994, pp. 102-104). For example, in imaging an apple, I can rotate, enlarge, or distort the shape of the apple. But in perceiving an apple, I can do no such thing, especially if I cannot get my hands on the apple.

It is worth noting that, due to similarities between percepts and images, subjects do sometimes confuse the two (Perky, 1910). However, the degree to which subjects confuse a percept and an image can be manipulated experimentally by introducing factors that either vary how difficult the imagery task is (Finke, Johnson, & Shyi, 1988) or whether the images are created intentionally rather than incidentally (Durso & Johnson, 1980) (Intraub & Hoffman, 1992). An intentionally formed and difficult to manipulate image (say, an image of a rotating, relatively complex three-dimensional figure) is less likely to be mistaken in memory for a percept than a comparatively less difficult image.

Previous Posts
1. Control Consciousness
2. The Pure Perceptual Model
3. The Motor Theory
4. The Imagery Theory
5. Introducing AEI
6. Control Consciousness Explained
7. Libet’s Puzzle of Will

9 Responses to “Control phenomenology”

  1. Eric Thomson says:

    I don’t see the control phenomenology yet. The inverse relation between vividness and control is interesting if a bit speculative, but even if we stipulate you are right about that, the vividness is still just sensory vividness, the images (whether real or imagined) are just sensory.

    When you said you are going to give us some phenomenology, I thought you would just point to experience X and say, ‘See that’s not purely sensory.’ Is that not something you can do?

    I point to ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomena to go against purely sensory accounts of consciousness (even though it isn’t a knock-down argument, but it is a pretty strong phenomenon for people). I was expecting something similarly positively experienced, not these fussy and hard to interpret correlations.

    Previous post on Libet very cool, incidentally.

  2. Pete Mandik says:


    I’m not sure what you mean by “sensory” in your claim that the vividness is still sensory. I’m taking sensory to be something like the content of afferent signals along dedicated input channels. So, for color vision, what’s sensory is going to be limited to the transducible properties of colors, like hue, luminance and saturation. A purely sensory account of vividness would say something like that two states representing the same color but differing in vividness must differ in some property of the color that afferent signals can carry information about. For instance, the sensory theory would say something like that the more vivid mental state represents the color as being more saturated than the less vivid state. On the other hand, if vividness is underdetermined by which transducible properties are represented, then the pure sensory account fails.

    By the way, I grant that control phenomenology doesn’t conk you over the head the way sensory phenomenology does. My next post will be dedicated to giving an account for that, largely in information theoretic terms. I look forward to seeing what you think of it.

  3. Eric Thomson says:

    OK I understand better what you are trying to do with the vividness example. I’m not convinced yet, but it is a good strategy.

    Perhaps “vivid” red is just red in a certain spatiotemporal context of the visual field. From Purves’ work we know that the color of X is the color of X in some context. Perhaps vivid reds tend to be against dark landscapes or backgrounds (ruby dealers would know about this).

    You could say that such context effects from Purves aren’t sensory. It’s all still a visual experience regardless of how vivid, or whatever, it looks, or how context-dependent the individual colors are.

    At any rate, this more sensory account of vividness in terms of contrast seems as reasonable as the one you adumbrated. And aren’t there counterexamples to your inverse relation claim? They make vivid fluorescent safety vests for bikers and joggers that are that way precisely because they will evoke certain actions quickly. This vividness thing all seems somewhat handwavy.

    It’s not clear that someone committed to sensory phenomenology has to be committed to the claim that the only contributors to the experience come from sensory transducers (e.g., then they wouldn’t be able to have efference copies influencing experience and that seems a straw man).

  4. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for the continuing objections. These are quite helpful.

    Re: Strawman. For a clear picture of a non-straw target, see the characterization of Prinz’s position here:

    Now, Prinz can allow efference copies have an influence, but it is, as he defines his view, going to be limited to only an indirect influence. The only thing that we are directly aware of in consciousness are sensory elements (It’s very Humean that way). Prinz endorses a view of imagery as the willful reactivation of sensory elements. But the actual presence of the willfulness does not show up in consciousness. And here’s the point of one of my lines of criticism: if (1) the only difference between conscious perception and conscious imagery is that one has exogenous causes and one has endogenous causes and (2) the subject has no direct consciousness of the causes but only the sensory effects, then there should be no phenomenological difference between perception and imagery. But if there is a phenomenological difference, that is, if people can tell, at least sometimes between perception and imagery, then it looks like the will (either as efference signal or efference copy) makes a direct contribution to phenomenology.

    Re Purves stuff. I’m happy to say all the Purves stuff is sensory (and if any of the purves effects depend on learning, I’m happy to count the contributions of memory as sensory too for the present discussion). But I don’t see that the Purves stuff gives a good response to my vividness argument. Take some sample of red and put it on a dark gray background. I claim that it’s possible to have an image of that very red on that very background that is nonetheless less vivid/intense than a perception of that red on that background. If I’m right, then vividness/intensity cannot be defined as some sensible property. Alternately, compare a perception and an image of a fluorescent safety vest. If they can differ in vividness while being the same in sensible properties represented (saturation, brightness) then vividness is something other than a sensible property.

  5. Eric Thomson says:

    I’ll have to think about your response. I just came to see if you have seen this recent paper which might (or might not) be relevant: I just read the title and abstract so don’t know if the paper is any good.

    Moore JW, Lagnado D, Deal DC, Haggard P. 2009
    Feelings of control: contingency determines experience of action.
    Cognition. Feb;110(2):279-83.

    The experience of causation is a pervasive product of the human mind. Moreover, the experience of causing an event alters subjective time: actions are perceived as temporally shifted towards their effects [Haggard, P., Clark, S., & Kalogeras, J. (2002). Voluntary action and conscious awareness. Nature Neuroscience, 5(4), 382-385]. This temporal shift depends partly on advance prediction of the effects of action, and partly on inferential “postdictive” explanations of sensory effects of action. We investigated whether a single factor of statistical contingency could explain both these aspects of causal experience. We studied the time at which people perceived a simple manual action to occur, when statistical contingency indicated a causal relation between action and effect, and when no such relation was indicated. Both predictive and inferential “postdictive” shifts in the time of action depended on strong contingency between action and effect. The experience of agency involves a process of causal learning based on statistical contingency.

  6. Josh Weisberg says:

    Very interesting discussion.


    You say

    >The point generalizes beyond pain. As pointed out by Weiskrantz et al. (1971), self-administered tactile stimulations are perceived as more intense than when administered by another.

    I wonder what your take is on Chris Frith’s work on self-modeling and schizophrenia. In a series of papers he considers the question”Why can’t you tickle yourself.” He proposes a sort of forward model, where you use efference copy to predict what you should sense if the motor command does what it’s intended to do. If the prediction and the sensation match (as they do when you try to tickle yourself), the sensations is attenuated (damped-down) and it is not perceived as ticklish. I take it that the sensation is therefore less vivid. Frith and co. manipulate self-tickling with a cool self-controlled tickling machine. If the sensory stimulation is delayed or made to move in patterns different from those intended, you feel the machine-mediated self-controlled sensation as tickling. (Side note: Schizophrenics apparently CAN tickle themselves.) Is this contrary to the Weiskrantz result? How might you explain it? Or did I miss the point of the Weiskrantz as you’re using it?

    Here’s the paper:

    Another question: Is it your prediction that in the Wegner studies of conscious will, as subjects come to deny that they caused a motion, their conscious experience of the perceived event should change in vividness? Or do not all changes in control consciousness lead to changes in vividness. If not, what might the additional responsible factor be?

    Also, what about Treisman-type pop-out effects? Is that non-sensory vividness, by your definition of sensory consciousness? (I share Eric’s worry that this is a rather constrained notion of sensory quality, for what it’s worth–though Jesse does seem to buy into it.)

    Finally, it is possible to manipulate visual stimuli (photographs, whatever) so that some things become more vivid, or so I would have thought. Playing around with PhotoShop allows you to do this. But those changes are to the external visual stimuli, so they must “come through” the retina as changes in color properties (what else is there?). So vividness (in this case) is somehow a higher level feature of color properties and not something nonsensory. (Is this not the vividness you mean? Are these not the droids you’re looking for? )

    Kinda long–sorry! But, again, interesting stuff!

  7. Pete Mandik says:

    Josh and Eric,

    Thanks for the further thoughts. I’ll perhaps have more to say when Mardi Gras is over, but here are a few quick things.

    @Josh: I totally screwed up. What I should have wrote was “…self-administered tactile stimulations are perceived as LESS intense than when administered by another” Whoops! I am a dope. Regarding the Frith stuff, I like the forward model explanation of the self-tickling data and I see it fitting in quite nicely with AEI (it gives an answer to “what good are loops?” kinds of questions). By the way, Jesse also likes the forward model explanation of the self tickling stuff (he discusses it in his “All Consciousness is Perceptual”). What Jesse and I disagree about is whether the forward model needs to be sensory imagery.

    @Eric: I gave that paper a quick read a few weeks ago when it first came out. I’ll give it another, closer, look sometime soon.

    Happy Mardi Gras, you guys!

  8. [...] Previous Posts 1. Control Consciousness 2. The Pure Perceptual Model 3. The Motor Theory 4. The Imagery Theory 5. Introducing AEI 6. Control Consciousness Explained 7. Libet’s Puzzle of Will 8. Control Phenomenology [...]

  9. Pete Mandik says:

    Hello again! More for Josh:

    Re: My prediction for the Wegner stuff: the more the subject deny agency, the more vivid correlated perceptions will seem.

    Re: Treisman pop-out, If we have the same experiments in mind, then I would have thought that would be sensory. So, we are talking about, e.g. the differential pop of a red T in a crowd of black Ts vs a black T in a crowd of black Fs?

    Re:Photoshop. Maybe some terminological fiat will clarify things here. There definitely is such a thing as sensory intensity. I don’t want to be read as claiming that all intensity is non-sensory. So, let’s try some new vocab to clarify claims. Let’s call sensory intensity “s-intensity”. For any set of stimuli that may be ordered along a dimension, we can identify one end as the more intense end. Thus there’s olfactory s-intensities such as stinkiness, auditory s-intensities such as loudness, visual s-intensities like satuaration and brightness and so on. Let’s reserve “h-intensity” (”h’ for Hume) for something that maybe doesn’t even exist, but if it does, it is the sort of thing Hume was talking about when he said that ideas are less intense than the impressions of which they are copies. With this vocab in hand, I claim that there can be two mental states that represent all and only the same sensible properties, thus properties with the all and only the same s-intensities, that nonetheless differ in a respect detectable by the subject. What’s that respect? I call it h-intensity and postulate further that high degrees of h-intensity reduce to low degrees of controlability.