On absent-mindedness, instinctive and willful actions

In our daily life, we perform many actions without complete cognitive control.  You may drive the car while lost deep in thought and later exclaim that you can’t recall the route you traveled.  Or you have the nagging feeling that you have forgotten to lock the door but after checking you discover that you had indeed locked it.  The German mathematician David Hilbert(1862-1943) was so absent-minded that once he went to the bedroom to change clothes for an evening dinner, but instead ended up going directly to sleep.  This article examines the basis of such phenomena from the standpoint of cognitive psychology, neuroscience and integral psychology.

The absent-minded professor

Cognitive psychology

The ability to perform skilled tasks without the need for executive control is referred to as “automaticity” in cognitive psychology.  It is a subject whose investigation has picked up pace in the past few decades.

In the 1960s, Fitts and Posner articulated three stages of skill learning (a) Cognitive stage during which thought process is involved in sense coordination (b) Associative stage during which there is a gradual decrease in errors due to the development of correct sensory intuition (c) Autonomous stage during which the learned skill is performed with little or no conscious thought or attention (1). Atkinson and Shiffrin were among the first to incorporate control processes in their memory model.  Posner and Snyder drew the distinction between automatic activation processes which occur without intention, conscious awareness or other mental activity and the conscious control processes which occurs during goal-directed behavior.  Shiffrin and Schneider, through their experiments on visual search and attention, concluded that there appear to be indeed two different proceses involved in attention; one which can be quickly adapted by the subject’s conscious intentions and the other which runs off automatically beyond conscious control. Norman and Shallice proposed an extended schema-based model consisting of two distinct processes: willed control and automatic control(2).   More complex architectures have been proposed such as the CogAff Architecture Schema by Sloman, and the 6-layers architecture by Minsky.

Neumann summarized the three primary criteria of automaticity on which most two-process theories agree:

  1. Automatic processes operate without capacity and neither suffer do not cause interference.  This is generally but not always true.
  2. Automatic processes are under the control of the stimulus rather than the control of the intentions of the person.  In other words, you are unable to resist the stimulus and respond instinctively.
  3. Automatic processes operate below the level of normal consciousness. There are three identifiable variations here, the most extreme being the situation where the entire “automatic” action can be executed without any awareness. These are known as “slips of action” or absent-mindedness, examples of which were given in the opening paragraph.

Bargh outlined the four horsemen of automaticity : awareness, intention, efficiency and control, and pointed out that mental processes are not exclusively automatic or exclusively controlled, but occupy a spectrum combining the features of both(5).  Suffice it to say that the two-process theory of willed and automatic control has been accepted as a core construct in modern-day cognitive psychology (2, 3, 4, 5).

More generally, psychologists have developed various models of attention : bottleneck theory, attenuation theory, early selection theory, late-selection theory and feature-integration theory.   These models will not be discussed here.


Neuroscientists have been seeking to establish the neural basis of automaticity through brain imaging experiments.  While the results they have obtained may vary depending on the nature of the task (sequential, random, dual-task, etc), some general conclusions can be drawn from their experiments.

Neuroscientists have discovered that as we become adept at a task, the brain engages new regions to perform the task.  The acquisition of a new skill is mediated principally through structures in the front of the brain (prefrontal cortex), but as the task becomes “automatic”, it is the motor structures in the middle and rear of the brain that assume a dominant role. This shift is specific to recall of an established motor skill and suggests that with the passage of time, there is a change in the neural representation of the task and that this change may underlie its increased functional stability (6, 7).

On a related note, in a famous lecture given in 1884 on the “evolution and dissolution of the nervous system”, neurologist John Hughlings Jackson had proposed a layered view of the nervous system, in which the brain is seen as implementing multiple levels of sensorimotor competence.  He divided the nervous system into lower, middle and higher layers, and proposed that this sequence represented a progression from the “most organized” (most reflexive or instinctual) to the “least organized” (most modifiable).  The Jacksonian view predicts a dissociation between the higher and lower level components, such that lower level competence is left intact by damage at a higher level.  Discoveries of such dissociations were amongst the earliest findings of neuroscience and are now understood to abound in the vertebrate nervous system.  For instance, it has been demonstrated that removing the cerebral cortex from a cat or a rat—thereby eliminating many major sensory, motor and cognitive centers—leaves intact the ability to generate motivated behavior. The animal still searches for food, eats to maintain body weight, shivers when cold, fights or escapes when attacked, and so on. These behaviors appear awkward and clumsy when compared to controls and are often poorly adjusted to circumstances. However, the ability to generate appropriate, motivated action sequences is retained. When most of the forebrain is removed, complete behaviors can no longer be produced, but the capacity for individual actions such as standing, walking, grooming, and eating is spared. With all but the hindbrain and spinal cord removed, the animal cannot coordinate the movements required for these actions—for instance, it cannot stand or walk unaided—however, most of the component movements that make up the actions are still possible. Similar results have been observed in several classes of vertebrates  leading to the widely accepted conclusion that the anatomically lower levels of the vertebrate nervous system organize simpler movements, while higher levels impose more complex forms of behavioral control (8).

Integral Psychology of Sri Aurobindo

Is there any “consciousness analogue” to these elaborate  investigations undertaken in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology? Although Sri Aurobindo did not specifically use appellations such as “automaticity”, there are glimmerings of a theory in his works.  In his premier philosophical work, The Life Divine, he wrote:

What happens when the conscious becomes subconscious in the body or the subconscious becomes conscious? The real difference lies in the absorption of the conscious energy in part of its work, its more or less exclusive concentration. In certain forms of concentration, what we call the mentality, that is to say, the Prajnana or apprehensive consciousness almost or quite ceases to act consciously, yet the work of the body and the nerves and the sense-mind goes on unnoticed but constant and perfect; it has all become subconscious and only in one activity or chain of activities is the mind luminously active. While I write, the physical act of writing is largely or sometimes entirely done by the subconscious mind; the body makes, unconsciously as we say, certain nervous movements; the mind is awake only to the thought with which it is occupied.   The whole man indeed may sink into the subconscious, yet habitual movements implying the action of mind may continue, as in many phenomena of sleep; or he may rise into the superconscient and yet be active with the subliminal mind in the body, as in certain phenomena of samadhi or Yoga trance (9).

Sri Aurobindo seems to tie “automaticity” to the withdrawal of Prajnana.  In order to absorb the implications of the passage above, some background into his model of consciousness needs to be developed.  Sri Aurobindo’s cognitive model is an extension of the model expounded in Vedanta, basic information of which can be obtained in the two-volume set on Indian Psychology by Jadunath Sinha(10).

In the Aurobindonian model, the basis of cognition is said to be the apprehending power of consciousness which works in two successive stages – Samjnana and Prajnana:

  1. Samjnana is the incoming movement of apprehension where the sense-mind apprehends a stimulus and conveys the information towards the higher cognitive mind.
  2. Prajnana denotes the outgoing movement of apprehension where the object is imaged within and acted upon by the higher mind.

Samjnana and Prajnana have been discussed in detail in an earlier article Epistemology of perception.  Sri Aurobindo also spoke of the greater power of Samjnana which enables one to act automatically in certain situations:

Similarly we know that a large part of our physical action is instinctive and directed not by the surface but by the subconscious mind. And we know now that it is a mind that acts and not merely an ignorant nervous reaction from the brute physical brain. The subconscious mind in the catering insect knows the anatomy of the victim it intends to immobilise and make food for its young and it directs the sting accordingly, as unerringly as the most skillful surgeon, provided the more limited surface mind with its groping and faltering nervous action does not get in the way and falsify the inner knowledge or the inner will-force….To return to the Vedantic words we have been using, there is a vaster action of the Samjnana which is not limited by the action of the physical sense-organs; it was this which sensed perfectly and made its own through the ear the words of the unknown language, through the touch the movements of the unfelt surgeon’s knife, through the sense-mind or sixth sense the exact location of the centres of locomotion in the victim insect (11).

How does SamjnanaPrajnana relate to the two-process models of cognitive psychology?  It seems  that when we are engaged in conscious Willed control, the action of Prajnana and the action of Samjnana are coordinated with each other; the sense-mind intuits the stimulus and conveys the percept to the higher mind which then acts on it.  By contrast, during automaticity, the power of Prajnana ceases (as Sri Aurobindo pointed out above) while the action of Samjnana remains active.


On the basis of the preceding discussion, it is possible to arrive at the modest conclusion that there is some similarity between the two-process models proposed in the mainstream Psychology and the PrajnanaSamjnana model  adumbrated by Sri Aurobindo.

  1. The Automaticity phase defined in cognitive psychology is similar to the case where Samjnana becomes disconnected from and acts independently of Prajnana.
  2. Willed control in cognitive psychology is similar to the case where Samjnana and Prajnana act in concert.


  1. Paul Fitts & Michael Posner.  Learning and skilled performance in human performance.  (Belmont CA: Brock-Cole, 1967)
  2. Elizabeth Styles.  The Psychology of Attention.  (Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 1997)
  3. Jonathan D. Cohen, Gary Aston-Jones, and Mark S. Gilzenrat. “A Systems-Level Perspective on Attention and Cognitive Control” in M.Posner (ed.) Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=
  4. John Kihlstrom.  “The automaticity juggernaut”  in J. Baer, J.C. Kaufman, & R.F. Baumeister (Eds.), Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will (pp. 155-180).  New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.  http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~kihlstrm/Juggernaut.htm
  5. John A. Bargh. “The Four Horsemen of automaticity: Awareness, efficiency, intention, and control in social cognition” in R. S. Wyer, Jr., & T. K. Srull (Eds.), Handbook of social cognition (2nd ed., pp. 1-40). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1994.
  6. Reza Shadmehr and Henry H. Holcomb.  “Neural correlates of motor memory consolidation.” Science (August 8, 1997) Vol. 277 no. 5327 pp. 821-825.
  7. R.A Poldrack, et al. The Neural Correlates of Motor Skill Automaticity.   Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 25, pp 5356-5364.
  8. Tony J. Prescott, Peter Redgrave, and Kevin Gurney, “Layered Control Architectures in Robots and Vertebrates”, Adaptive Behavior 7:99-127
  9. Sri Aurobindo. CWSA vol 21, The Life Divine, (Pondicherry, India: SABDA, 1997) p 195.
  10. Jadunath Sinha. Indian psychology : perception (London: Kegan Paul Trench Trubner & Co. Ltd, 1934).  One volume available at http://www.archive.org/details/indianpsychology014878mbp
  11. Sri Aurobindo. CWSA vol 18, Kena and Other Upanishads, (Pondicherry, India: SABDA, 1997) p 55.

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11 thoughts on “On absent-mindedness, instinctive and willful actions

  1. tony butcher

    This interests me. As I am a dovotee of Durga, often Sanskrit hymns come to me spontaneously. I have little idea of what is coming out of my mouth. Obviously, I recognise some of the phrases. Whilst this is happening I still have my own awareness. I know what is going on but I just give my voice over as an strument for the goddess to use.

    Also, it seems that much the same thing happens when I do the puja. In actual fact do I actually do the puja? It is not a mechanical thing that is the same every day. Whilst the main part remains the same there are always inclusions and exclusians, which just happen without any foreknowledge on my part. Also the choice of fruit and its arrangement is not dictated by me and neither is the choice of flowers.

    In 2002 I visited the Mausoleum of “the mother of bliss”. Whilst looking at her through the glass screen a Vedic chant came to my lips. With it an internal message-maybe from the “mother of bliss” herself. It said: “the chant is for you to enjoy but you must never try to change it in any way when it comes”

    1. Sandeep Post author


      Sri Aurobindo used to distinguish between the subconscious (lower instinctual being) and the subliminal (inner being of light). I am more inclined to suggest that the Vedic chants that spring to your lips emerge from the latter – the subliminal. They could also have their source in the deeper psychic being.

      The Mother had said, “Nobody can give you the true mantra. It’s not something that is given; it’s something that wells up from within. It must spring from within all of a sudden, spontaneously, like a profound, intense need of your being – then it has power, because it’s not something that comes from outside, it’s your very own cry.” see here: https://auromere.wordpress.com/techniques/mantra/

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  7. arya

    Having mental conversations … did SA or Mother say anything about this specifically? Any being in other worlds making this happen … I’ll be doing something and suddenly I am having a conversation inwardly. Not talking about distraction where the mind jumps from one thing to another, but this specific problem,

      1. arya

        Sometimes I can’t even remember simple things, even things that I SHOULD remember, very easy things that we’d normally have no trouble recalling. I am not that old and it’s not a medical problem either.

        Is there some other deeper reason?

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