A new study has indicated that our consciousness resolves many of ours dilemmas by serving as the brain's Wi-Fi network, mediating competing requests from different parts of the body.
Published in the journal Emotion, the study also explains why we are consciously aware of some conflicting urges but not others.
"If the brain is like a set of computers that control different tasks, consciousness is the Wi-Fi network that allows different parts of the brain to talk to each other and decide which action 'wins' and is carried out," said San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Psychology Ezequiel Morsella, lead author of the study.
The study finds that we are only aware of competing actions that involve skeletal muscles that voluntarily move parts of the body, the bicep for example, rather than the muscles in the digestive tract or the iris of the eye.
In lab experiments, participants were trained to identify and report changes in their awareness, or the feeling of being about to make a mistake, while in a state of readiness to perform simple exercises.
The results demonstrated that merely preparing to perform an incompatible action, for example preparing to move simultaneously left and right, triggered stronger changes in awareness than preparing to perform a compatible action or experiencing a conflict that does not engage the muscles that move our bodies. Participants rated changes in their awareness on an eight-point scale and reported an average rating of 4.5 when mentally preparing to perform an incompatible action and an average rating of two for compatible actions.
The findings support a new theory developed by Morsella which predicts that the primary role of consciousness is to bring together competing demands on skeletal muscle.
"Our findings add to the growing body of evidence that when you prepare to perform two competing actions you prime the same areas of the brain associated with carrying out that same action," Morsella said.