A Project of the University of Pennsylvania and the John Templeton Foundation

Moving through time

Published: February, 2010

Investigator(s): Other Investigator(s)

Researcher(s): Miles, L. K., Nind, L. K., & Macrae, C. N.


Five empirically based critiques have undermined the standard assumption that conscious thought is primarily for input (obtaining information from the natural environment) or output (the direct control of action). Instead, we propose that conscious thought is for internal processing, to facilitate downstream interaction with the social and cultural environment. Human consciousness enables the construction of meaningful, sequential thought, as in sentences and narratives, logical reasoning, counting and quantification, causal understanding, narratives, and the simulation of events (including nonpresent ones). Conscious thought sequences resemble short films that the brain makes for itself, thereby enabling different parts of brain and mind to share information. The production of conscious thoughts is closely linked to the production of speech because the human mind evolved to facilitate social communication and information sharing, as culture became humankind's biological strategy. The influence of conscious thought on behavior can be vitally helpful but is mostly indirect. Conscious simulation processes are useful for understanding the perspectives of social interaction partners, for exploring options in complex decisions, for replaying past events (both literally and counterfactually) so as to learn, and for facilitating participation in culture in other ways.

JTF grant funded: No