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Why Do We Make So Much of Consciousness?

From Freud to neuroscience, consciousness has been dethroned. So why do we make so much of it?
Barry Smith 46
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

We like to think of ourselves as being in control of our own thoughts, decisions and actions – what we say and what we do. But how much do our conscious thoughts and intentions guide our actions?  How far does the writ of the conscious mind reach? And just how much of our behaviour comes under its control?

Contemporary neuroscience has been responsible for de-throning consciousness from its central place in the workings of the mind. It is no longer thought of as exercising constant vigilance and guidance over our actions. Instead, many of the things we set out to do happen because of fast and automatic processes in the brain that ensure the fluency of our actions. We anticipate a great deal based on past patterns of perception and action, and this takes the strain off the conscious mind; though the conscious mind still assumes that it is involved in and orchestrating even the simplest actions. We imagine that when we reach for a cup in front of us that we are guiding our hand on the basis of visual experience, correcting the movement, if need be, as we go. However, that would be much too slow. Instead, the brain calculates and predicts the movement needed to achieve the goal. The motor system launches the arm and sends an efferent copy of the predicted sensations. These either match what happens – in which case they are cancelled out – or receive an error signal about mismatch and need to be revised. We are not actually aware of the sensations of the cup in our fingers, or how we made the right movement. We don't need to be.  There is also evidence that too much conscious attention to what we are doing in the skillful execution of a tennis shot, or when playing a tricky musical passage on the piano, would ensure a failure to perform them well or at all.

We are often oblivious to the lack of our conscious control over something that we are sure we are deliberately carrying out. A nice experiment by neuroscientists Chris Frith and Marc Jeannerod had subjects using a cursor to draw circles that appeared on a screen in front of them. They couldn’t see the hand holding the cursor, which was below the desk. When the computer was manipulated to produce larger circles on the screen than they were actually drawing, the subjects’ hands gradually adjusted to bring it into line with the movements required to make the large circles. The subjects were utterly unaware they were doing this; they thought they were simply choosing to draw circles of various diameters under their own control. I suspect there are many other instances when we consciously claim responsibility for things we did not consciously do.

Does this mean that other forces, like a deliberate and willful unconscious, are actually carrying out the actions and decision-making that govern our behaviour? For some people, this is the role played by Freud’s notion of the unconscious. Though, in fact, there are several things Freud meant by the unconscious at different times in his intellectual development, and it is by no means clear that he had in mind an agent with its own plans and intentions, its own beliefs and desires. Before 1915, he certainly thought of the unconscious as a repressed part of the conscious mind: parts of our subjectivity that we had turned away from and repressed because of their unwanted or disturbing nature. By means of therapy – the talking cure – these could be recovered and brought back to mind (i.e. into consciousness). However, after 1915, in the metapsychology, he no longer viewed the unconscious as containing the sorts of things we could, with therapeutic work, bring – or bring back – to mind. Instead, he now viewed the unconscious as a matter of elemental forces or drives: parts of our natures more closely linked to phylogenetically ancient parts of the mammalian brain, that could well up and overcome the conscious and controlling part of our natures. Drives for sex or death were things we struggled to harness or contain. In this sense, the unconscious was not something to be reasoned with, something that could be integrated into the rest of our psychological make-up or beliefs, desires, hopes and fears. It wasn’t something to articulate or interpret. Instead, it was something to be aware of, something not to ignore, though not necessarily something to give in to either. Denying its urgings could sap our energy, and it has be recognised as fuelling our desires – sometimes dangerously so – but it had to be channeled.

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"We flatter ourselves that we are in control. But who is the ‘I’ that separates itself from the neurons, from the full panoply of unconscious cognitive processes?"
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This second notion of the unconscious – no longer thoughts or wishes – is a little better and perhaps closer to what we now know. But there is still too much Jekyll and Hyde about this picture: the cunning monster, living inside us, waiting to wrest power from the knowing self. This is a romantic literary picture involving a struggle with dark and unruly forces. But the truth is more likely to be one of very different neurological systems and processes having to cooperate to ensure the smooth functioning of the organism. The largely unconscious part of our natures has no plan. The phylogenetically ancient part of the brain – namely the limbic system – is lost without the planning and organised systems of the neo-cortex, as we see in patients with the breakdown of action, planning and agency following neurological damage to the pre-frontal cortex. At the same time, as work by Antonio Damassio has shown, damage to some of the emotional centres of the brain, like the insula, can leave patients as rational narrators unable to act: people who cannot make decisions, plump for one rather than another of the  options they have painstakingly worked out. What’s needed is cooperation between the ensemble of systems that make up the mind, and that orchestration is done by nature not by us.

We flatter ourselves that we are in control. When we fear that the conscious mind does not rule all of our actions we suddenly say, “I am at the mercy of unconscious forces”. Or neurons. However, I am all of those things. Who is the ‘I’ that separates itself from the neurons, from the full panoply of unconscious cognitive and affective processes? It’s the conception of the self, the knowing ‘I’ that is the tricky part of our natures: not some hidden inner vault of dark forces. The conscious mind conveniently makes up its mind to suit the circumstances, claiming responsibility for many things that would go on anyway, or distancing itself from the whole of our natures and what makes me, me.

It is here that we might find what people think of as the unconsciousness: not a place, an inner container, but a version of our conscious storytelling and explaining that leaves out certain inconvenient truths. When we try to explain our own behaviour, our motivations, our feelings, our thoughts, we need to give a convincing account that makes sense of what we say and do. Sometimes, that rational explanation will have a seductive and satisfying appeal – especially to ourselves. But it may leave out lots of facts that don’t fit into the story, and there may be an interpretation of what we think and feel, hope and fear, want and wish, that makes much better sense of what we actually say and do than the self-serving account that we ourselves would give. That gap between the interpretation that makes best sense of our overall life and conduct and the version we cling to might be a good way to think of the unconscious. But this is very much about giving the right explanation to the conscious goings on.

Underneath that will be many cognitive and affective processes that shape and structure what surfaces in consciousness. How things really work there and what enables us to do what we do may be quite unlike the picture of ourselves that everyday experience provides. Cognitive neuroscience is providing fascinating examples of the gaps between how things really work and how we think they work. This notion of unconscious, or better, non-conscious processes, that can never come to mind, are best approached from the point of view of scientific investigation. They are not (just) a matter of making sense in a narrative way. We are governed neither by reason nor by causes alone but by content-using cognitive and affective processes that work in tandem with the sophisticated reasoning and language-using systems we have developed as humans.

We care about our capacity for language and reasoning but it can also lead us astray. Peter Johannson and colleagues conducted some fascinating research where people are stopped on the street and asked for their political opinions by ticking boxes on a questionnaire. When they finish and the researcher takes back the questionnaire on the clipboard, they cleverly superimpose a different version of the same page showing the opposite answers to those given by the participants. And yet, when asked why they made the choices they did a large majority of the participants will start offering spurious justifications for the choices they did not make. We are served by our capacity for reasoning but it can also provide the means by which we confabulate. We do not always know ourselves so well.

 

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Peter on 11/03/2016 1:39pm

It was neither neuroscience nor Freud that dethroned 'consciousness', if here defined as a sense of self that has control. A proper understanding of the wisdom traditions of the world reveals it has been known for millennia. Contrary to the false presentation, outward trappings and distortions of much of institutional religion, the deeper understanding of the spiritual traditions has always been the overcoming of the false egocentric self through initiation into the clarity of a timeless, space-less presence that has been deemed to be our true nature. Methods of meditation and initiation have always been used to 'restore' this 'condition', refining and cultivating a clarity and quality of awareness on which 'we' - known to be false - float. This is why such traditions emphasise the necessity for self-surrender or 'dying to one's self' in order to be awakened to our true nature. The critical point has always been that language and its usefulness breaks down here - it is not a place where the intellect functions and can quantify it but what eastern traditions would perhaps describe as 'non-judgmental, ever-present-witnessing-awareness' - no distinction between the sense of self and more refined levels of boundless awareness. It must be directly experiential, according to such traditions. It is not 'anti' intellectual but considered superior, though not exclusive, of intellect.
Interestingly, one must come back to a sense of self in order to think scientifically. This, perhaps, is why scientists struggle to grasp spiritual matters, which demand non-egocentric and timeless presence - the giving up of what scientist's may treasure and value most from a position of personally rewarding satisfaction in pursuit of their interests - a necessarily bitter pill to swallow for some honest enough to consider the ramifications to their careers and ego. (The spiritual definition of ego is not related to Freud’s narrow definition – whereas Freud assumed for it a sense of self that assumes control the wisdom traditions have conversely seen it as the problem to be overcome)
The failure of many scientists to truly grasp the real nature of much of what the world's wisdom traditions have profoundly understood is partly due to an understandable incredulity or aversion to much 'literal' nonsense perpetrated by religious institutions caught up in the power politics of maintaining their existence, like any perhaps initially well-intentioned organisation that loses its principles when its energies become diverted to promoting its threatened survival; and also to deliberate misinformation through the centuries and today for the purposes of maintaining power and control politically. This is a necessarily, and unfairly, over-simplistic and limited overview for lack of time and space here, but alludes to an important point.
Freud, like many intellectuals, failed to grasp the nuances and subtleties and use of metaphor, parable and symbol, etc., in religious scriptures, beyond mere stories, to convey the apprehension and transcendent experience of self-less awareness. He, like many 'intelligent' people, made leaping assumptions about religion, having taken as whole the' literally presented', and made a straw-man of it, which he then proceeded to take apart - much like Richard Dawkins and others today. And so we lost the proverbial baby with the bath water and modern science stepped into the shiny suit as saviour of the world from all that silly nonsense of old and now pronounces to the world as only just discovering what has long been known.
In so far as the brain is concerned, much new knowledge is being discovered but can only be considered as correlative not causative when placed alongside an enlightened awareness as there is a danger that scientists, having collated information experimentally and intellectually, still themselves remain as a 'self' communicating second-hand. There remains much more space yet for humility and a proper appreciation of the subtle difficulties that elude description and direct insight, not to mention problems of definition related to perspective. Many scientists only make far reaching and unfounded claims due to massive ignorance of a wealth of knowledge that has gone before them but in terrains they fear to tread - and often only through fear of what their peers may think and the damage to their careers, promotion and funding. The arguments are not so clear cut.

binra on 08/03/2016 4:10pm

Consciousness is term that can obviously mean different things to different perspectives. Consciousness can be said to be the generating of a unique or individualized perspective.
Definition is the act of self-concept in relation to - and as we define ourselves - and our world of 'not self' - so do we generate a polarized, conflicted and spilt consciousness. If self-concept is not willingly yielded to the source of wholeness - it runs a focusing selection and a shadow denial. The dethroning of Source Consciousness is the idea of an independent private capacity to define or create meaning and power to assert such meaning. This is the idea of segregation, a sense of disconnection, deprivation, war, sickness and death. But to have this or any experience, is inherently dependent on Source Consciousness - for want of better words.
The sense of oppositional power reflects its image back to Source and makes a jealous and fearful god - that then comes between its Cause and true effect. Thus runs a false or deceptive lens of definition and interpretation that effectively denies true perspective in favour of survival of the false - and by mutual agreements and reinforcements, makes a false 'reality' of completely believable experience while blind to truth that is in plain sight.
The nature of such definition and belief is that it is invisible while living or acting out from it. In order to regain perspective on it, one has to yield that perspective rather than reinforce its continuity. This does not result in chaos or loss of self - excepting in any transitory confusion. Rather it opens the space and frees the attention for the re-cognition of what was already and always true - but had been forgotten and eclipsed - and in a sense usurped - by the self-belief that had been accepted true but which was out of alignment with who and what you truly feel and know yourself to be. In other words, the thinking operates to deny anything but its current focus.
This 'control' is in fact a limiting and distorting filter.
The 'loss' of control and indeed the loss of privacy - is the breaking down of the structure by which a sense of such capacities had been generated and this can be experienced positively as the opening into fresh insight but also as the fearfully conflicted drama of a sense of loss.
Because no matter what the apparent conditions, the core experience is resulting from the definition we are operating from.
"Forgive them for they know not what they do" has nothing to do with judging what they do. It is simply the state of spiritual blindness of those who know not their own purpose - being deceived in the actor or persona of a surface conscious focus, and unaware - and in active denial of - the initially defined "negative" feeling and thought imprinting that is thus "unconscious" and associated with subconscious automatic routines and habits.
I do see elemts of this in the article above - but as usual with IAI the whole thing is still framed in terms that perpetuate the idea of 'control' even while acknowledging it is not what it seems. Power corrupts - it is said. All power is of God is a safety here - because if the movement of desire feels aligned with your core integrity - it is not trying to rob power from others or mask itself in power to seem to be 'more' or indeed less than it is.
The Idea of God is in some sense implicit in the recognition that we - however we define ourselves to be, do not author or originate, cause or create ourselves to be - though we can clearly focus in such an idea and believe it ... for a while.

Is IAI operating from a pre-judicial identity of wish to control outcome - or is it desiring to open the quality and nature of creative thought from illegitimate or suppressive deceits?

The core issue of our times is that of re-waking a sovereignty of true willing despite and regardless of the usurpation of true individuality by deceits - some of which are incremental drift and some of which are of an opportunistic agenda to exploit such availability.

The loss of Humanity - call that loss of Consciousness or loss of free willingness - the EXPERIENCE is that of a tyrannous will no matter how rationalised or justified it presents itself to be. But once using our own fear and guilt as leverage - we do not even realise we are thus controlled.
And that comes to a core quality of the nature of Mind and Consciousness; what you put out is what you get back. Judge not lest ye be judged. Control not lest ye be controlled - for by the measure as you accepts as defining you - so must you receive. It has no cruelty or vengeance in it - unless of course you make that your devotion and replace your true desire with a demand or dictate for a fixed outcome to validate a self concept that is not the whole true of you.

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