Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Homing in on Consciousness in the Nervous System: An Action-Based Synthesis

Ezequiel Morsellaa1a2 c1, Christine A. Godwina3, Tiffany K. Jantza4, Stephen C. Kriegera5 and Adam Gazzaleya2a6

a1 Department of Psychology, San Francisco State University

a2 Department of Neurology, University of California, San Francisco

a3 School of Psychology, Georgia Institute of Technology

a4 Department of Psychology, University of Michigan

a5 Department of Neurology, Mount Sinai Medical Center

a6 Departments of Psychiatry and Physiology, University of California, San Francisco


What is the primary function of consciousness in the nervous system? The answer to this question remains enigmatic, not so much because of a lack of relevant data, but because of the lack of a conceptual framework with which to interpret the data. To this end, we developed Passive Frame Theory, a internally-coherent framework that, from an action-based perspective, synthesizes empirically supported hypotheses from diverse fields of investigation. The theory proposes that the primary function of consciousness is well-circumscribed, serving the somatic nervous system. Inside this system, consciousness serves as a frame that constrains and directs skeletal muscle output, thereby yielding adaptive behavior. The mechanism by which consciousness achieves this is more counterintuitive, passive, and ‘low level’ than the kinds of functions that theorists have previously attributed to consciousness. Passive Frame Theory begins to illuminate (a) what consciousness contributes to nervous function, (b) how consciousness achieves this function, and (c) the neuroanatomical substrates of conscious processes. Our untraditional, action-based perspective focuses on olfaction instead of on vision and is descriptive (describing the products of nature as they evolved to be) rather than normative (construing processes in terms of how they should function). Passive Frame Theory begins to isolate the neuroanatomical, cognitive-mechanistic, and representational (e.g., conscious contents) processes associated with consciousness.


  • Consciousness;
  • Neural Correlates of Consciousness;
  • Subjective Experience;
  • Voluntary Action;
  • Unconscious Processing.


c1 *Corresponding author. Address correspondence to: Ezequiel Morsella, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, EP 301, San Francisco, California 94132-41683. Email: