Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science

Volition and Agency

A fundamental part of human experience is the feeling of oneself as an actor in the world, in control of one’s own decisions and actions, and responsible for them. But how do such subject phenomena arise in the brain?

Volition - the sense that you freely choose what actions to perform – and agency – the sense that you take ownership of the actions you perform – are central aspects of consciousness.  But if all our decisions and actions are produced by the physical system that is the brain, and the brain is as subject to deterministic laws as the rest of the physical universe, in exactly what ways are we “free”?  Moreover, what is this “self” that claims ownerships over the actions it produces?  These have been questions that have long excited – and frustrated – scientists and philosophers for centuries.  At the Sackler Centre for Consciousness, we are keenly investigating the neural and psychological underpinnings of volition and agency.

For example, we often feel like many of our choices and decisions are our own and that they are consciously made.  This is not necessarily so:  At the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science we are investigating how volitional decisions can be affected by information we do not consciously perceive.  For example, unconscious perception of threatening, angry faces seems to activate self-control mechanisms, meaning that you are less likely to make an action, even though you won't be able to consciously understand why.  This research has given us novel insight into some of the non-conscious processes that contribute to subjectively conscious, volitional decision-making.