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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