Consciousness, Part 2

Now the inter­est­ing part. If you have not yet read my def­i­n­i­tion of con­scious­ness, then you might want to do so.

In the last two days I’ve dis­cussed déjà vu and “slow motion..” Those two top­ics had a cou­ple of sim­i­lar­i­ties: in both instances the dif­fer­ence between the pro­cess­ing speed of the sub­con­scious and the con­scious is impor­tant; and con­scious­ness plays the role of a pas­sive observer.

In my opin­ion this is the usu­al role of con­scious­ness: pas­sive observer.

If you closed your eyes and count­ed to ten when read­ing my def­i­n­i­tion, do you believe your con­scious­ness had any­thing to do with the count­ing? Clear­ly not. Con­scious­ness could not get to two if the sub­con­scious was not there “hand­ing” the appro­pri­ate info to con­scious­ness at the appro­pri­ate time.

Sim­ple math? I ask what’s two plus two. You already know it is four. But how? Even if you added the dig­its “in your head”, it was the sub­con­scious car­ry­ing the load and feed­ing the info to the conciousness.

ABC’s? Same thing.

This is clear because most of the time, the num­ber sequence from one to ten (or fifty to sev­en­ty-five) and the alpha­bet are not present in con­scious­ness. If all of such details were present, the clut­ter would be overwhelming.

High­er math? Same thing. The cal­cu­lat­ing is going on in the sub­con­scious with the info fed to the conscious.

Plen­ty of learn­ing obvi­ous­ly takes place with­out con­scious­ness. Peo­ple “pick up” man­ner­isms from oth­ers all the time with no aware­ness that they have done so. Pavlov­ian con­di­tion­ing takes place with no con­scious aware­ness. Lots of learn­ing seems to rely on con­scious­ness to at least get start­ed, but con­scious­ness quick­ly inter­feres with learn­ing more than helps it.

One’s body feels and reacts to pain with­out con­scious­ness being involved. Sure, if the pain gets severe, one can­not help but be con­scious of it. This does not mean that con­scious­ness was nec­es­sary for the body to feel the pain and react to it. It only means that the con­scious­ness was aware of it.

I did say just above that “lots of learn­ing seems to rely on con­scious­ness to at least get start­ed,” but I did say “seems”. I think it is doubt­ful that con­scious­ness plays any role in most such sit­u­a­tions. Deci­sions are made sub­con­scious­ly and fed to the con­scious often with the atten­dent illu­sion that the deci­sion was con­scious­ly made.

I first encoun­tered this idea of the pas­siv­i­ty of con­scious­ness in the late sev­en­ties when I read The Ori­gin of Con­scious­ness in the Break­down of the Bicam­er­al Mind by Julian Jaynes. A book that begins with the com­pelling case of this pas­siv­i­ty. As the book goes on the oth­er case(s) being made are less (and less) com­pelling. Over the next thir­ty years I have spent a lot of time con­tem­plat­ing what my con­scious­ness was nec­es­sary for.

That last sen­tence per­haps gives a clue about the pos­si­ble pur­pose of con­scious­ness. I spent time con­tem­plat­ing. There seems to be con­scious inten­tion and thought. Was con­scious­ness doing the think­ing? Prob­a­bly not. Con­scious­ness was just hang­ing on to the idea wait­ing for the sub­con­scious to pro­vide info.

But did the inten­tion orig­i­nate with con­scious­ness? Maybe. But not nec­es­sar­i­ly. I sus­pect most (all?) of my “inten­tions” orig­i­nate subconsciously.

So what is con­scious­ness for? It is an amaz­ing phe­nom­e­na. It is a “space” where no space exists. It seems so com­plete­ly cen­tral to one’s iden­ti­ty, yet it seems to have no function.

My best guess at present is that con­scious­ness has the func­tion of allow­ing an indi­vid­ual to behave in a way that dif­fers from how one’s genet­ic and expe­ri­en­tial back­ground would dic­tate. I do not have any evi­dence of this. But it does seems clear that, at least occa­sion­al­ly, indi­vid­u­als do some­thing that is con­trary to the dic­tates of their genet­ic and expe­ri­en­tial back­ground. How is that possible?

Only with a con­scious effort. Even if the motive is based in the sub con­scious, it is only with the con­scious effort that an indi­vid­ual over­comes the genet­ic and expe­ri­en­tial dictates.

8 thoughts on “Consciousness, Part 2”

  1. Would this be an accu­rate analogy?

    In a com­put­er, there are essen­tial­ly three pri­ma­ry pieces: mem­o­ry, hard dri­ve, and processor.

    The hard dri­ve stores all infor­ma­tion known to the com­put­er; the proces­sor (wait for it…) process­es infor­ma­tion cur­rent­ly being worked with; and the mem­o­ry is the “active” information.

    Con­scious­ness seems like the mem­o­ry of a com­put­er, act­ing as a sort of buffer for infor­ma­tion stored by the brain itself and processed by the subconscious.

    (Also, I now have elec­tron­ic record of 2+2 equal­ing 4. Game, set, match.)

  2. I thought about a com­put­er anal­o­gy, but I haven’t fig­ured out one that I think works. In your par­tic­u­lar anal­o­gy, you are equat­ing the mem­o­ry, which holds the infor­ma­tion cur­rent­ly being processed with consciousness.

    But the norm is prob­a­bly that the sub­con­scious is pro­cess­ing info that the con­scious is com­plete­ly unaware of. Even if the sub­con­scious is work­ing on a prob­lem that is present in the con­scious at the same time, the sub­con­scious is almost cer­tain­ly con­sid­er­ing info that the con­scious may not have ever been aware of.

    Real­ly, the best anal­o­gy I got is that the con­scious is the mon­i­tor. Info just pops in, some­times it is info relat­ing to info that is there and some­times it is com­plete­ly out of the blue. I think most of the time, that anal­o­gy works. But at the occa­sion­al moments when con­scious­ness acts to over­rule genetic/​experiential based behav­ior the mon­i­tor anal­o­gy breaks down.

  3. Also, I now have elec­tron­ic record of 2+2 equal­ing 4. Game, set, match.”

    It took me a minute to fig­ure out what you are talk­ing about here. Review the tran­script. I said “You already know it is four.” I did­n’t say you were right.

  4. The con­scious is the speak­er, read­ing from the telepromptor.

    The sub­con­cious is the hud­dled group in the back room, col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion con­stant­ly, pro­cess­ing that infor­ma­tion, and feed­ing the telepromptor.



    Wait­a­min­nit, are you say­ing that that point two feet in front of me, is actu­al­ly my sub­con­scious, mas­querad­ing as my conscious ?

  5. Wait­a­min­nit, are you say­ing that that point two feet in front of me, is actu­al­ly my sub­con­scious, mas­querad­ing as my conscious ?”

    No. I have no idea what I said that might make you think that.

  6. The ques­tion was postulative.

    No, I did­n’t think you were say­ing that. 

    I was mak­ing a pos­tu­la­tion in the form of a question.

    That’s one of the things I like about you, Rich, you tend to be even more lit­er­al in how you take things, than I do. LOL

    Let me try again…

    Do you think it’s pos­si­ble that what was point­ed out as the ‘cen­ter of my con­scious­ness’, is actu­al­ly the main focus of my subconscious ?

    Accept­ing that our sub­con­scious prob­a­bly has many focii, vary­ing from just a few, to vast amounts, depend­ing on envi­ron­ment, stress lev­els, etc… Maybe our SC does have one ‘main’ focus.

    That main focus being where our con­scious­ness forms, and is used as an inter­face with the slow­er, ‘con­scious’, world.

    In oth­er words, this “cen­ter of our con­scious­ness” would­n’t be there, if the sub­con­scious weren’t cre­at­ing and main­tain­ing it.

  7. To begin with, no, I was­n’t say­ing that.

    It is an inter­est­ing con­cept. I can’t say I’ve run across it before (and I remem­ber every­thing I read).

    Where was I?

    Oh, right.

    I would be sur­prised if con­scious­ness exists due to the focus of the sub­con­scious. It seems to me that the sub­con­scious lets the con­scious down too often: “It’s on the tip of my tongue.” “Where did I put my keys?” “I know I’ve met this per­son, but I can’t think of his name.” “What did that note I just read say?” And that lit­tle voice in the back of my head would be loud­er and hard­er to ignore.

    I’m not sure what the rela­tion­ship is between con­scious­ness and the sub­con­scious, but it does­n’t seem to be with­out friction.

    As well as the above, there is the issue of how often con­scious thought inter­feres with uncon­scious thought. These two parts of the brain often func­tion togeth­er bril­liant­ly togeth­er, but there are plen­ty of times they do not cooperate.

    I have entire days that are defined by the fail­ure of my con­scious and sub­con­scious to play well together.

    And, yes, I am way too lit­er­al. There are peo­ple that find it irri­tat­ing. Some­times I am one of them.

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