Post No.: 0321
Consciousness is just the tiny tip of the iceberg. Most of the time, we’re completely unaware of the unconscious decisions made on our conscious self’s behalf. Examples include picking up the diluted pupils of another person and assuming that to mean arousal, our food choices and level of satiety, in the presence of foul smells we make harsher moral judgements, holding a warm drink makes us feel more connected to our mothers than if holding a cold drink, having hand sanitiser around us makes us more likely to lean politically conservatively (perhaps due to the reminder of outside threats?) or the effects of consumer marketing and point of sale design on our purchasing decisions. We’re being unconsciously manipulated at virtually every moment without us being consciously aware of it.
People can perform even highly complicated tasks without their conscious awareness, including driving or committing homicide when sleepwalking (somnambulism)!
So a question is why bother having consciousness at all? Why not just leave everything to unconscious instincts? In the survival of the fittest, many organisms successfully propagate without any conscious awareness. However, what is ‘consciousness’ or counts as a ‘brain’ is debated. Some biologists believe that even plants have a form of consciousness. Plants certainly sense and perceive, and live life but at a pace that’s much slower than animals – speed up footage of plants living and they’re definitely reacting to opportunities and threats. I suppose the question is whether that’s really more like our conscious or unconscious behaviour? And I wonder what ethical vegans think about all that?
Consciousness is possibly called in to deal with novel situations and decision conflicts where there is no heuristic for the unconscious to rely on and to automatically proceed upon, hence consciousness can be an advantage for complex organisms. It also allows us to take a long view rather than a mere view of the present, which has obvious survival advantages too. The conscious is called in to arbitrate if a novel event is a possible threat or opportunity. These conflicts can come from the outside environment (e.g. friend or foe?) or be internal (e.g. one wants cake for elevenses but wants to lose weight too). When trying to plan for the future or take a long view, our consciousness allows our brain to see oneself as a unified whole rather than as a separate bunch of automatic and sometimes competing subsystems – as if holding a mirror up to itself and where one fits, where one has been and where one may be heading towards in space and time – whereas the unconscious is only concerned about the present or here and now.
Conscious processes can be quite effortful and too slow though (e.g. reacting to a thrown ball or even visually picking up a fast moving object). We cannot possibly consciously account for all the electrical signals coursing through our bodies whenever we move. So unconsciousness makes a lot of functions effortless and efficient. We know this is true when there are unfortunate people with relevant disorders or nerve damage – we take so much that happens behinds the scenes inside our brains for granted and we don’t know about their worth unless/until they’re gone or are impaired. (In the biological and psychological sciences generally, we learn a lot about ourselves through individuals with disorders or diseases – when something about us isn’t working properly or is missing and it causes an effect, we learn about its importance to us. And when we’re fine, we can take this state of our own health for granted, as well as lack empathy for those who aren’t fine for not understanding that something not quite right must be happening deep inside of them somewhere.) Our consciousness and unconsciousness broadly correspond with our ‘system one’ and ‘system two’ as mentioned in several previous posts already.
But although, on the whole, unconscious heuristics or instincts make for a far more efficient life and they work superbly or fine most of the time, they are frequently fallible and can be exploited, whether on purpose by others or unintentionally. Most of us in our day-to-day just mindlessly or blindly follow the generalised innate instincts, desires and fears we never consciously chose. (Innate instincts are genetic instincts that we never chose because of the genetics we never chose – no one chooses their genes thus logically no one chooses their genetic instincts.) Our unconscious is beyond our direct conscious access hence we cannot scrutinise how it came, comes or will come to the decisions it did, does or will. It’s arguably metaphorically like being in prison but not even being aware of being in prison, or more analogously being mind-controlled without being aware of being mind-controlled.
Matters of unconsciousness aren’t just about controlling bodily movements – they concern our very thoughts, decisions and beliefs too. We can induce transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to literally physically change other people’s minds! Moreover, the subjects will still be convinced that they decided to change their minds themselves under their own free will rather than think that it was the effect of the TMS that changed their minds!
This means that our conscious minds are very good at upholding the illusion that we have free will, even though we don’t strictly have free will at all according to growing research in the neuroscience of free will. We assume that we have and make free choices ourselves, and so assume that other people have and can make free choices too, but for both, strictly free choice is an illusion. This neurophilosophical conclusion is highly controversial though – most critically, there are many interpretations of what ‘free will’ means. But based on the scientific evidence gathered so far from all fields, not just biology or psychology, I guess, for me, I’m personally a ‘mind-body monist’ i.e. that mind and body are both physical, rather than a ‘mind-body dualist’ i.e. that the mind is generally non-physical and the body is physical and separate to the mind; and I usually take the strictest interpretation of what free will means.
These experiments therefore also demonstrate that external mind control is absolutely possible. Well there was never anything fundamentally against the laws of physics to do so anyway since our brains, and therefore our minds, operate completely in the physical realm and can therefore be manipulated physically. Indeed, that’s what’s happening with every sound wave, photon of light or molecule of aroma we receive at every moment, for instance – we are being moved, motivated or manipulated at every moment of our lives via the constant bombardment of physical stimuli received from our environment. But that’s how life works, and it’s two-way, for everyone’s mind lives in a complex physical ecosystem and no mind is ever really independent or operates in an isolated physical system.
Thoughts are products of physical processes, so physical manipulation can be used to control thoughts. However on the flipside, trying to use our conscious minds to directly control complex external machinery is difficult due to us having so many stray thoughts all of the time – we find it hard to control our own minds for our own thoughts, as in staying perfectly focused without any distracting thoughts (did I remember to wash my doggy bowl?), never mind control complex remote machinery reliably. We can currently only crudely do so (by relying on either alpha, beta, gamma, delta or theta brainwaves, which are relatively coarse states of brain output) to directly control very simple external machines with just our thoughts, and even this requires enormous concentration and practise.
Humans can successfully directly control their own bodily limbs with their own minds but that took millions of years of co-evolution between brains and limbs, and extensive and intimately integrated sets of associative neural networks for inputs, controls and outputs; yet despite this it still takes years of individual development and practise from birth to master these controls (i.e. a human baby isn’t born hopping). But research, technology and techniques are advancing so in the future we might be able to mentally and/or remotely control huge mechs or mobile suits as if they’re seamless extensions of our own bodies (like a Unicorn Gundam in Destroy Mode perhaps?!)
Yet that might still need a lot of training – just like learning to even control the limbs we were naturally born with took years of training to use them efficiently, from the clumsy first steps of an infant to maybe being able to perform somersaults and scale walls.
In short, we are barely in full conscious control of ourselves, our decisions, our actions, our beliefs – most of the time we’re on autopilot, and almost everything that we believe, choose or do is unconsciously driven and beyond our conscious access or awareness, or is hidden from our consciousness. ‘We’ (as in our conscious selves) are barely running the show! The conscious ‘you’ makes up only a small part of all activity in your brain – your conscious self is more the passenger than the driver of you. Consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg.
Woof. But some will argue that as long as we feel like we’re in control then that’s all that should matter to us to take responsibility for our own actions and live freely. Please tell us whether you agree with that statement or think it’s unsupportable for we must be sympathetic to what the science appears to suggest, by using the Twitter comment button below?