Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Cognition, Emotion, Motivation


The cognitive revolution of the 20th century emphasized thinking and related cognitive processes at the expense of emotion and motivation.  However it is important to understand that thinking cannot be fully comprehended if emotions and motivation are ignored. (Ledoux, Synaptic Self, 174)


Much of the functionality of cognition, emotion, motivation is implemented via movement control and reentry and recursion in the Perception-Action Cycle.



Cognition functionality comprises a part of the activity of working memory, an intimately related part of the ongoing neural activity of the thalamocortical system related to attention, the dynamic core, and consciousness.

It is widely assumed that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is a critical site of working memory storage. A research study reported in Neural Substrates of Visual Working Memory used event-related fMRI to trace the retention of working memory representation of target faces. The results suggest that no part of frontal cortex, including PFC, stores mnemonic representation of faces reliably across distracted delay periods. Rather, working memory storage of faces is mediated by a domain specific network in posterior cortex.

Standard economic models of human decision making (such as utility theory) have typically minimized or ignored the influence of emotions on people's decision-making behavior, idealizing the decision-maker as a perfectly rational cognitive machine. However, in recent years this assumption has been challenged by behavioral economists, who have identified additional psychological and emotional factors that influence decision-making, and recently researchers have begun using neuroimaging to examine behavior in economic games. A research study applies functional neuroimaging techniques to investigate the relative contributions of cognitive and emotional processes to human social decision-making. Neural Basis of Economic Decision-Making



Neural processing of emotions begins with the limbic system, a number of interconnected subcortical regions around the hypothalamus. The word emotion usually brings to mind one of the six so-called primary or universal emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust.

Pain and Pleasure Systems

The ventral striatum is closely linked with the limbic system, which involves emotion and motivation. Ventral striatum receives input from the limbic system and sends output to it, mainly inhibitory.  Scientists believe that the ventral striatum helps to suppress certain mechanisms in the limbic system, thereby selecting the appropriate ones and silencing others.

The orbitofrontal cortex, is one part of the brain circuit used by conditioned reinforcers, cues that reliably trigger the thoughts and emotions normally evoked by those rewards. Areas such as the amygdala and the ventral striatum have also been implicated in responding for conditioned reinforcers.


Research study — Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Social Behavior — Oxytocin lineage of peptides influences female sociosexual behaviors including sexual intercourse, parturition, lactation, maternal attachment, and pair bonding. Vasopressin typically influences male reproduction and behaviors including aggression, territoriality, and pair bonding.

Research study — Dorsolateral Prefrontal and Anterior Cingulate Cortex in Cognitive Control — Solving difficult, novel, or complex tasks, overcoming habitual responses, and correcting errors all require a high degree of cognitive control.

Research study — Anterior Cingulate Cortex Mediates Behavioral Adaptation — The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), which lies on the medial surface of the frontal lobes, is important in regulating cognitive control.



The motivational circuitry of the brain connects the prefrontal cortex decision process to the premotor and motor cortex, which then use FAPs stored in the brain stem and spinal cord to produce movement. Basal ganglia and cerebellum are also involved in the movement. Interactions between the motivational circuitry and the thalamocortical system can at fleeting times become part of the dynamic core of consciousness.

Willed Actions

A central question in the study of human behavior concerns the Neural Origin of Willed Actions. Where in the brain are intentions formed? How do we become aware of these intentions?

Social Decisions in the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex

Decisions are guided by information learned from the environment. This information may come via personal experiences of reward but may also come from the behavior of social partners. A research study demonstrates that information for Social Decisions in the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex may be acquired using the same associative processes assumed to underlie reward-based learning.

Decision-Making Requires Self-Control

Every day, individuals make dozens of choices between an alternative with higher overall value and a more tempting but ultimately inferior option. Optimal decision-making requires self-control. A research study investigated which neural processes are responsible for the deployment of self-control in decision-making and how these processes interact with the brain’s valuation and decision-making circuitry.

In making the final decision to perform an act or to undertake a course of action, there is an estimation of the valence of the relevant stimuli and of the costs and benefits of the action to be taken. (Fuster; Prefrontal Cortex, 381)  [Bayesian inference]

Signals of the basic drive and motivations of the organism arrive in prefrontal cortex via the orbitofrontal cortex, the diencephalon, and limbic formations. (Fuster; Prefrontal Cortex, 381)


Unconscious Motivational Processes

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging and measuring a range of other physiological parameters, researchers

found that even when the subjects were not consciously aware of the size of the reward, they nonetheless exerted more force in association with higher stakes. Unconscious Motivational Processes.



Link to — Consciousness Subject Outline

Further discussion -- Covington Theory of Consciousness