Are we conscious beings, or just being conscious? Or nothing of the kind?
Peter W. Halligan and David A. Oakley believe our experience of consciousness is orchestrated by non-conscious systems in our brains. We don’t have our own thoughts. In fact, we don’t think.
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This seems to go against everything you know about being yourself. After all, aren’t our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and perceptions what it means to be conscious? What it means to be ourselves?
Now researchers tell us that our personal awareness does not create these feelings and thoughts; instead, they come from non-conscious systems operating behind the scenes.
Writing for The Conversation, Professor David A Oakley from University College London and Professor Peter Halligan of Cardiff University explain that we don’t consciously choose our thoughts. We just become aware of them.
We all know what it is like to be ourselves – we have an awareness of who we are that is unique to us, partly borne out by our thoughts, feelings, perceptions and experience which we believe we generate ourselves.
But apparently, we’ve got that all wrong.
We don’t think our thoughts
“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,” explain Oakley and Halligan.
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 we think them. But in a new research paper in Frontiers of Psychology, Oakley and Halligan argue that this is a mistake.
They 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.
In other words, we don’t think thoughts, they just arrive with no input from us.
If you can’t wrap your head around this, consider the following, say the two psychologists.
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.
It’s just all there in a flash and you recognize it in an instant: yourself, your surroundings.
“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,” they write.
The two London academics base their thinking on 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,” they write.
Think for instance about an asthma sufferer who under hypnosis becomes completely symptom free.
So where do our thoughts, emotions and perceptions actually come from?
The researchers suggest that the content of consciousness is a subset of the experiences, emotions, thoughts and beliefs that are generated by non-conscious processes within our brains.
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 is secondary.
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.
Don’t we sound like flesh-and-bone robots?
Interestingly, these observations are in line with the teachings of the mystic Dr. David Hawkins.
In his book I – Reality and Subjectivity, he describes the content of consciousness, the incessant internal dialogue we all live with, as: “… this voluminous, ever expanding and ongoing phantasmagoria of content…” and then goes on to make the observation that “Experientially, one can only state that thoughts, feelings, images and memories come into one’s awareness in an endless progression.”
That is the point, isn’t it? That’s all we can actually report – that thoughts and feelings arrive in our awareness. If you close your eyes and just try not to think, thoughts parade past on the screen of the mind in endless progression, without our effort. Does that constitute consciousness?
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