Special Issue:
How Could Conscious Experiences Affect Brains?

Target Article

Max Velmans
How Could Conscious Experiences Affect Brains?   abstract

Peer Commentary

John F. Kihlstrom
The Seductions of Materialism and the Pleasures of Dualism
Todd E. Feinberg
Mental Causation: Facing Up to Ontological Subjectivity
Steve Torrance
The Diffident Physicalist Speaks Out
Robert Van Gulick
Non-reduction, Consciousness and Physical Causation
Jeffrey Gray
It’s Time to Move On from Philosophy to Science
Sam S. Rakover
Scientific Rules of the Game and the Mind/Body: A Critique Based On the Theory of Measurement
Ron Chrisley and Aaron Sloman
How Velmans’ Conscious Experiences Affected Our Brains
K. Ramakrishna Rao
Bridging Eastern and Western Perspectives On Consciousness

Response to Commentaries

Max Velmans
Making Sense of Causal Interactions Between Consciousness and Brain   abstract


Max Velmans

How Could Conscious Experiences Affect Brains?

In everyday life we take it for granted that we have conscious control of some of our actions and that the part of us that exercises control is the conscious mind. Psychosomatic medicine also assumes that the conscious mind can affect body states, and this is supported by evidence that the use of imagery, hypnosis, biofeedback and other ‘mental interventions’ can be therapeutic in a variety of medical conditions. However, there is no accepted theory of mind/body interaction and this has had a detrimental effect on the acceptance of mental causation in science, philosophy and in many areas of clinical practice. Biomedical accounts typically translate the effects of mind into the effects of brain functioning, for example, explaining mind/body interactions in terms of the interconnections and reciprocal control of cortical, neuroendocrine, autonomic and immune systems. While such accounts are instructive, they are implicitly reductionist, and beg the question of how conscious experiences could have bodily effects. On the other hand, non-reductionist accounts have to cope with three problems: (1) The physical world appears causally closed, which would seem to leave no room for conscious intervention. (2) One is not conscious of one’s own brain/body processing, so how could there be conscious control of such processing? (3) Conscious experiences appear to come too late to causally affect the processes to which they most obviously relate. This paper suggests a way of understanding mental causation that resolves these problems. It also suggests that ‘conscious mental control’ needs to be partly understood in terms of the voluntary operations of the preconscious mind, and that this allows an account of biological determinism that is compatible with experienced free will.

Max Velmans

Making Sense of Causal Interactions Between Consciousness and Brain

Abstract: My target article (henceforth referred to as TA) presents evidence for causal interactions between consciousness and brain and some standard ways of accounting for this evidence in clinical practice and neuropsychological theory. I also point out some of the problems of understanding such causal interactions that are not addressed by standard explanations. Most of the residual problems have to do with how to cross the ‘explanatory gap’ from consciousness to brain. I then list some of the reasons why the route across this gap suggested by physicalism won’t work, in spite of its current popularity in consciousness studies. My own suggested route across the explanatory gap is more subterranean, where consciousness and brain can be seen to be dual aspects of a unifying, psychophysical mind. Some of the steps on this deeper route still have to be filled in by empirical research. But (as far as I can judge) there are no gaps that cannot be filled — just a different way of understanding consciousness, mind, brain and their causal interaction, with some interesting consequences for our understanding of free will. The commentaries on TA examined many aspects of my thesis viewed from both Western and Eastern perspectives. This reply focuses on how dual-aspect monism compares with currently popular alternatives such as ‘nonreductive physicalism’, clarifies my own approach, and reconsiders how well this addresses the ‘hard’ problems of consciousness. We re-examine how conscious experiences relate to their physical/functional correlates and whether useful analogies can be drawn with other, physical relationships that appear to have dual-aspects. We also examine some fundamental differences between Western and Eastern thought about whether the existence of the physical world or the existence of consciousness can be taken for granted (with consequential differences about which of these is ‘hard’ to understand). I then suggest a form of dual-aspect Reflexive Monism that might provide a path between these ancient intellectual traditions that is consistent with science and with common sense.


  • Max Velmans, Department of Psychology, Goldsmith’s College,  New Cross, London SE14 6NW, UK
  • Ron Chrisley, School of Computer Science, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK
  • Todd E. Feinberg, Beth Israel Medical Center, Fierman Hall, 9th Floor, 317 East 17th Street, New York, NY 10003, USA
  • Robert Van Gulick, Department of Philosophy, 541 HL, Syracuse University,  Syracuse, NY 13244-1170, USA
  • Jeffrey Gray, Institute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, Denmark Hill, London SE5 8AF, UK
  • John F. Kihlstrom, Department of Psychology, MC 1650, University of California, Berkeley, Tolman Hall 3210, Berkeley, CA 94720-1650, USA
  • Sam S. Rakover, Department of Psychology, Haifa University, Haifa 31905, Israel
  • K. Ramakrishna Rao, Department of Physiology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Ansarinagar, New Delhi 110 029, India
    Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina, CB #3270, Davie Hall, Chapel Hill, NC 27510, USA
  • Aaron Sloman, School of Computer Science, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK
  • Steve Torrance, School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH, UK

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