consciousness

What if Consciousness is Not What Drives the Human Mind?

Summary: Researchers provide new insight into human consciousness, reporting we don’t consciously choose our feelings or thoughts; we simply become aware of them.

Source: The Conversation.

Everyone knows what it feels like to have consciousness: it’s that self-evident sense of personal awareness, which gives us a feeling of ownership and control over the thoughts, emotions and experiences that we have every day.

Most experts think that consciousness can be divided into two parts: the experience of consciousness (or personal awareness), and the contents of consciousness, which include things such as thoughts, beliefs, sensations, perceptions, intentions, memories and emotions.

It’s easy to assume that these contents of consciousness are somehow chosen, caused or controlled by our personal awareness – after all, thoughts don’t exist until until we think them. But in a new research paper in Frontiers of Psychology, we argue that this is a mistake.

We suggest that our personal awareness does not create, cause or choose our beliefs, feelings or perceptions. Instead, the contents of consciousness are generated “behind the scenes” by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains. All this happens without any interference from our personal awareness, which sits passively in the passenger seat while these processes occur.

Put simply, we don’t consciously choose our thoughts or our feelings – we become aware of them.

Not just a suggestion

If this sounds strange, consider how effortlessly we regain consciousness each morning after losing it the night before; how thoughts and emotions – welcome or otherwise – arrive already formed in our minds; how the colours and shapes we see are constructed into meaningful objects or memorable faces without any effort or input from our conscious mind.

Consider that all the neuropsychological processes responsible for moving your body or using words to form sentences take place without involving your personal awareness. We believe that the processes responsible for generating the contents of consciousness do the same.

Our thinking has been influenced by research into neuropsychological and neuropsychiatric disorders, as well as more recent cognitive neuroscience studies using hypnosis. The studies using hypnosis show that a person’s mood, thoughts and perceptions can be profoundly altered by suggestion.

In such studies, participants go through a hypnosis induction procedure, to help them to enter a mentally focused and absorbed state. Then, suggestions are made to change their perceptions and experiences.

For example, in one study, researchers recorded the brain activity of participants when they raised their arm intentionally, when it was lifted by a pulley, and when it moved in response to a hypnotic suggestion that it was being lifted by a pulley.

Similar areas of the brain were active during the involuntary and the suggested “alien” movement, while brain activity for the intentional action was different. So, hypnotic suggestion can be seen as a means of communicating an idea or belief that, when accepted, has the power to alter a person’s perceptions or behaviour.

The personal narrative

All this may leave one wondering where our thoughts, emotions and perceptions actually come from. We argue that the contents of consciousness are a subset of the experiences, emotions, thoughts and beliefs that are generated by non-conscious processes within our brains.

painting of people talking

Our conclusions also raise questions about the notions of free will and personal responsibility. If our personal awareness does not control the contents of the personal narrative which reflects our thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions and decisions, then perhaps we should not be held responsible for them. NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from The Conversation news release.

This subset takes the form of a personal narrative, which is constantly being updated. The personal narrative exists in parallel with our personal awareness, but the latter has no influence over the former.

The personal narrative is important because it provides information to be stored in your autobiographical memory (the story you tell yourself, about yourself), and gives human beings a way of communicating the things we have perceived and experienced to others.

This, in turn, allows us to generate survival strategies; for example, by learning to predict other people’s behaviour. Interpersonal skills like this underpin the development of social and cultural structures, which have promoted the survival of human kind for millennia.

So, we argue that it is the ability to communicate the contents of one’s personal narrative –– and not personal awareness – that gives humans their unique evolutionary advantage.

What’s the point?

If the experience of consciousness does not confer any particular advantage, it’s not clear what it’s purpose is. But as a passive accompaniment to non-conscious processes, we don’t think that the phenomena of personal awareness has a purpose, in much the same way that rainbows do not. Rainbows simply result from the reflection, refraction and dispersion of sunlight through water droplets – none of which serves any particular purpose.

Our conclusions also raise questions about the notions of free will and personal responsibility. If our personal awareness does not control the contents of the personal narrative which reflects our thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions and decisions, then perhaps we should not be held responsible for them.

In response to this, we argue that free will and personal responsibility are notions that have been constructed by society. As such, they are built into the way we see and understand ourselves as individuals, and as a species. Because of this, they are represented within the non-conscious processes that create our personal narratives, and in the way we communicate those narratives to others.

Just because consciousness has been placed in the passenger seat, does not mean we need to dispense with important everyday notions such as free will and personal responsibility. In fact, they are embedded in the workings of our non-conscious brain systems. They have a powerful purpose in society and have a deep impact on the way we understand ourselves.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: David A Oakley and Peter Halligan – The Conversation
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from The Conversation news release.

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]The Conversation “What if Consciousness is Not What Drives the Human Mind?.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 22 November 2017.
<https://neurosciencenews.com/neuroscience-consciousness-8009/>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]The Conversation (2017, November 22). What if Consciousness is Not What Drives the Human Mind?. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved November 22, 2017 from https://neurosciencenews.com/neuroscience-consciousness-8009/[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]The Conversation “What if Consciousness is Not What Drives the Human Mind?.” https://neurosciencenews.com/neuroscience-consciousness-8009/ (accessed November 22, 2017).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]

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  1. I agree that our subcounsios rules our world. It even shows in the blood. As soon the blood changes the thoughts and behavior changes and also reacts on the body.
    Our survival strategy rules

  2. I agree many of our decisions and opinions are formed before we are consciously aware of them, but through both introspection and sharing our personal narrative with other people, we provide conscious feedback to our subconscious to influence our decisions and opinions moving forward. Likewise being selectively receptive to the influences around you does the same. So no, we don’t get to abdicate responsibility for our choices, though we should (and do) mitgate for people in some circumstances. Best path forward is to continue improving how we teach self awareness, and emotional and social skills to children to form those intospective habits that help shape our thoughts, feelings and decisions to make us the person we want to be.

    1. “we provide conscious feedback to our subconscious to influence our decisions and opinions”.

      To say that we ‘provide conscious feedback’ is to imply that we would be feeding back conscious material that was not originally unconscious, because if it was originally unconscious then the unconscious would not need to have it fed back (any such feedback would be redundant). That material would have to originally form as thoughts, which the research confirms cannot have been authored consciously. Consciousness is awareness only; it originates nothing. Introspection is all you need in order to see that thoughts occur to us (i.e. to consciousness), we don’t make them occur to us (i.e. author them consciously), since that would imply that they had already occurred to us so that we knew what we were about to author.

  3. Yes, this is also stated in few spiritual paths linked to hinduism. They even go further with more radical implications of this. Ramana Maharshi who lived in the first half of 20th century made this point quite often. Modern spiritual teachings like neo-advaita use this conclusion in quite suspicious manner. In a nutshell, there is a link between us who are living this life and the processes happening around us, therefore removing our responsibility is nothing more than crazy and delusional. But nevertheless there is us who absolutely don’t have nothing to do with all of this(called personal consciousness in this text). It is very important to make a difference between relative and absolute reality, even though from the absolute standpoint the relative reality does not exist at all.

  4. It seems a good proportion, maybe even most, of the “intelligentsia” are utterly barmy.

    First of all you cannot abstract consciousness from thoughts, emotions, perceptions and so on. To think is to implicitly be conscious. To perceive is to be implicitly conscious etc.

    Secondly, consciousness is *necessarily* causally efficacious. Otherwise the direction that my thoughts take when I think something through and reach certain conclusions, is not guided by my developing understanding as a chain of thought unfolds. Indeed it will have nothing whatsoever to do with my understanding. Rather the direction a chain of thought takes is wholly dictated by impersonal physical laws. The direction of our thoughts is wholly imposed from without, in other words by physical laws, just as the Moons orbit is wholly determined by impersonal physical laws (gravitation in the latter case).

    But then we will have no more reason to reach correct conclusions than incorrect conclusions in all our thoughts. It’s simply untenable.

  5. Sorry guys, but you seems to me you have missed the important role of the PFC. Maybe watch the Movie InsideOut? As Viktor Frankl has said a long time ago ; Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. This is also called emotional agility or executive control. This communication between our limbic system and PFC is where our `soul` and our consciousness reside. We all have a choice!

  6. It is more important to focus upon what we experience in life – what we put in (input) to our bodies AND brains. This is what the article is implying but that is not stated. We are on the cusp of an evolution – an emergence of neuro. We are beginning to realize – what we called conscious – un-conscious – non-conscious – is truly just the most wonderful instrument ever encountered functioning within and sometimes beyond its limits… THE BRAIN AND OUR NERVOUS SYSTEM. Embrace it – make great decisions as to what CONTENT you store – what Processes you DO. These – my friends – are the guides to this wonderful RIDE WE CALL LIFE!

  7. “Just because consciousness has been placed in the passenger seat, does not mean we need to dispense with important everyday notions such as free will and personal responsibility. In fact, they are embedded in the workings of our non-conscious brain systems. They have a powerful purpose in society and have a deep impact on the way we understand ourselves.”. This last point in the article appears to imply that believing in free will has an important overall positive effect on human mental functioning and behavior. As someone who saw some easily arguable flaws in the idea of free will many years ago and had operated since then without any notion of free will accepted as true or valid for any purpose, I must take issue with this conclusion. I’m sure may others who have arrived at the belief in determinism would do likewise. It’s a great first step, though, to acknowledge the very strong evidence for our lack of free will. I would like to see much more on what should be a controversy over how good or bad it is to operate without a belief in free will. I, for one, don’t feel, for example, that my moral values have changed at all since I began to believe that free will is not real. But I do have strong belief in the wrongness of punishment (deliberately making persons suffer) since that belief began. But confinement of offenders in order to protect society, and even the death penalty for the same purpose, are still things that I accept as positive moral actions, the latter conditioned on very thorough evidence against the person to be executed and the application of it only to violent offenders.

  8. Sorry guys, but you have it backwards. Experience is not possible without consciousness. Consciousness experiences itself as well as objects. Without consciousness, ‘objects’ do not exist.

  9. Hmmm… Have you read Freud? Unfashionable, I know, but he gave a good explanation of observed behaviours, conscious and unconscious processes. Any reasonably competent psychotherapist will respond “of course!” to this report. We are all governed by our unconsciouses –
    I would argue that the conscious (rational?) part of mind is a recent evolutionary addition that assists in social interaction and management of our environment. It is an extension to a much bigger structure that remains firmly in control. We are much in need of ‘synergists’ in science – an old sci-fi concept of people who specialise in pulling together data and concepts from multiple disciplines. I am increasingly frustrated at the limitations that researchers impose on themselves by limiting the scope of their ideas to the immediate data, then leaping to conclusions that have already been made, or which are far too limited in scope to represent reality. Reductionism is essential, but is only part of the scientific process of understanding which must include comprehension of the broad context. Look up beyond your data and see what is already there, and stop generalising from insufficient data. Oh, but of course, your ego and unconscious needs will stop you doing that, won’t they?….

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