Unconscious Intentionality in a Neural Context

The neuroscientist Benjamin Libet (1999) has demonstrated experimentally that our willing something to happen, our conscious intent, is preceded by an unconscious neural event. This neural event may be described as the correlate of unconscious intentionality. Libet discovered that brain activity, what he called a "readiness potential," preceded a subject's conscious intention by approximately 0.5 seconds. The experimental subjects were asked to flex their wrists. They were also provided with a timing device that enabled them to record within a fraction of a second when they were aware of their conscious intention to move their wrists. When asked to spontaneously flex their wrists, unconscious brain activation occurred approximately one-half second before they were conscious of their intent. I believe that it was significant that the subjects knew something of the nature of the task beforehand, that expectancy was part of the experimental setup, which may have then "primed" their unconscious.

This experimental demonstration of cortical activation occurring before conscious intent raises the problem of free will. Are we our brain's master? Are our conscious intents truly voluntary? To what extent did an unconscious readiness potential influence the subjects intent to act? Is our belief in conscious intentionality, that the self initiates action, that we are independent actors, an illusion? Libet (1999) maintains that his experiments did not decide the question of free will. Although in this experiment the time interval between the readiness potential of the subject's conscious intent was of short duration and invariant, his research has obvious implications for the broader issue of unconscious intentionality outside of an experimental setup, where the relation between unconscious intent and conscious awareness of that intent is more unpredictable. In addition to speaking to the problem of free will, Libet's work is important also in that he has scientifically demonstrated that unconscious intentionality occurs in the waking state.

Unconscious intentionality may activate an unconscious metaphoric process such as occurs in dreaming and creative thinking, as described in chapter 2. Llinas (2001) sees an analogy between consciousness and dreaming in that both are self-generated, bootstrapping processes that provide a ready-made context for sensory inputs. Therefore, the analogy of consciousness to the dream state is apt, for dreaming illustrates the brain's intrinsic activity when it is relatively cut off from incoming stimulation.

Some dreams may be generated by a problem or task that directs one's thoughts and creates a sense of expectancy. As Merleau-Ponty observed, "During the dream we do not leave the world behind; the world obsesses us even during sleep" (1962, p. 293). The unconscious requires priming; there must be a desire to find a solution. It is evident that while we are awake, the unconscious is attuned and activated to the expectations and immediate demands of life as it is lived.

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