On Time, Causation and the Sense of Agency


The experience of controlling events in the external world through voluntary action—the sense of agency (SoA)—is a subtle but pervasive feature of human mental life and a constituent part of the sense of self (Gallagher, 2000). However, instead of reflecting an actual connection between conscious thoughts and subsequent outcomes, SoA may be an illusion (Wegner, 2002). Whether this experience is an illusion, indicating no actual causal connection between conscious intention and physical outcome in the world, has been the focus of intense philosophical and scientific debate since the beginnings of these fields of inquiry (e.g. Kane, 2011). More recently, the fields of experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience have begun to identify specific antecedents of the experience of agency—whether veridical or not (Haggard, 2008). Similar to the perception of causality, which depends on the temporal structure of the events (Michotte, 1963), humans’ experience of their agency is very sensitive to the temporal interval separating bodily actions from the external effects of those actions (Metcalfe, Eich, & Castel, 2010). Accordingly, just as studies on perception of causality in the outside world have paid much attention to the temporal configuration of events (Michotte, 1963; Scholl & Tremoulet, 2000), many contemporary studies have also focused on the contribution of the temporal organization of events giving rise to SoA, and in turn how experienced agency might influence subjective time (Haggard, Clark, & Kalogeras, 2002; Moore & Obhi, 2012). Here, I review existing evidence suggesting that subjective time both influences and is influenced by perceived causality in general, and experienced agency in particular. Finally, I briefly speculate that these findings may support predictive coding theories of cognition and perception (e.g. Hohwy, 2013).

Journal of Consciousness Studies