By Ted Wade
William James said (1892) we have a “stream of consciousness.” One thought after another. Research agrees that what you think changes rapidly, but you can’t focus your mental attention on more than one thing at a time. However, you are much more than that pitiful conscious trickle; the ocean of information inside you is mostly unconscious.
It’s ridiculous. How can you know yourself when most of your mind is hidden? Why do we even have this distinction between conscious and unconscious? The answer is surprisingly simple, related to how the brain models reality itself.
Here’s your mind. There’s a deep and burbling swamp. Perched above it is a frog on a lily pad. The frog thinks it is the crowned king or queen of the swamp. Whenever a gas bubble or another creature, such as a bug or a turtle, appears above the surface, the frog turns its bulbous gaze upon it and croaks, “I am thinking/seeing that thing.”
The frog-in-swamp is a literary conceit. The foolish frog is consciousness. The swamp is the unconscious mind, a massive, inscrutable entity, large and in charge. Gas bubbles are perceptions, the insubstantial shades of real-world things, made-up and malleable. Other animals are thoughts. They are no more under the frog’s control than the weather. The crowned frog analogy agrees with the findings of the mind sciences, that the conscious self is not in charge; that what we experience is distorted, that our thoughts are dictated, that our decisions are rationalizations for processes that are unconscious, that conscious is slow and unconscious is fast.
The Predictive Brain and Conscious Narrowness
Why can we only attend to one thing at a time, instead of perceiving, all at once, everything going on in our brains? You can talk about “why” in terms of the purposes or advantages of consciousness, and many people have debated this. But let’s ask “why” in the sense of “what stops the entire mind from being conscious?” Is there something inherent in how consciousness comes to be that makes it so … narrow and exclusive?
***I get out of my car on an early-summer Colorado morning, expecting a blast of heat. But sunlight caresses my skin. It’s like learning a new pleasure. I realize that my tips (fingers and toes, nose and earlobes) were cool, but I didn’t know it. As I walk the trail, my focus is on the warming sensation, which lasts — another surprise — for minutes. I am surprised by my surprise.***
There’s a fairly popular theory called the predictive brain, that goes as follows. Your brain models aspects of the reality that is outside of your body and the reality that is inside of your body. The model works by predicting changes in these realities and then adjusting when predictions don’t fit. The math of the theory says it tries to minimize “surprise.” The result is that you survive and, with luck, thrive. The most effective model of reality for a human is one that includes a model of the entity (you!) that is doing the modeling. We develop this self-y part of the model in our early years. It’s what we call our conscious self or ego.
Knowing this, we have one reason for the narrowness of consciousness. At any one time, each of us has things going on that require making choices. The predictive brain can be full of conflicting purposes, needs and desires. But in a situation of conflict the person, the human organism that is you, can only make one immediate choice from those possible. You, like the frog, can only jump one way or another. So I’m saying: a person’s life is single-threaded, serial like words in a sentence, and therefore so is the self model.
*** At the mall I turn to speak to my child, who knows that she should stay close in a crowd. She’s nowhere. Adrenalin pours as I scan around, her name rising to my lips. The mini-panic starts to fade once I see her weaving through the clothes racks towards her mother. In those moments I was, as we say, “beside myself.” My train temporarily jumped to another track. My normal self was a ghost on the siding, because I can only be in one state at a time. ***
If you had three eyes and each one saw a different reality, you-the-person would not know which reality to respond to. Even when a person contains multiple selves, as in dissociative personality disorder, only one of those selves is running the reality model at a time. Even when a single self is in deep conflict, it will alternately visit each side of the conflict at different times.
So, because we have only one life to live, then we must have at any instant only one apprehension of that life. That’s why we can only consciously attend to one thing at a time. Right now, my single thread of consciousness sometimes says that this explanation is trivially obvious, and at other times says that it’s important — because it also explains the unconscious.
The Reason for the Unconscious
A model is a simplified representation of something more complicated. So the self-model represents you as a mental organism, but by definition, it is simpler than the entire you. Our model, remember, is also single-threaded which is another simplification. All the parts that are left out of the model are the unconscious parts. Many of them are the automatic bits that run the bodily machine. The left-out parts are unconscious simply because you don’t, indeed cannot, model them. That’s the big picture.
Going back to the crowned froggy, we know that mental things (like memories, reflections, emotions, desires, unexpected percepts, and pain) pop in and out of consciousness, sometimes as needed and sometimes when they are unwanted. When they do enter consciousness then they become part of the model. They have to, because the model is what lets us behave like a unified person.
As animal awareness evolved, it doubtless included some perceptions and feelings that were important, and therefore conscious, more or less all the time. However, we are often out of touch with these. Our lack of mindfulness might happen because the glaring light of human self-consciousness is so bright that we can’t feel these fundamental things. It’s like the sun blocking our view of the stars. We also repress unpleasant thoughts, banishing them to the unconscious where, figuratively, they plot against us and try to get expressed.
By now it’s a common pop-psychology metaphor that consciousness is a rider on the unconscious elephant. Researchers continue to work on how these two sides of our minds influence each other. If we know more about how it all works, maybe we’ll work it better.
Suppose we had no conscious, first-person self, but we still had these big brains stuffed with what is, currently for us, unconscious: the many semi-independent calculating processes needed to run the body of a big animal and manage long-term social relationships in a complex society. The possibility of such a separation seems absurd, doesn’t it? When we study the social mammals, such as wolves, lions, baboons (R Dunbar, The Social Brain Hypothesis), and elephants, it seems that sociality and self go together.
*** In 1973 a circus elephant named Shirley spent 3 months with an elephant calf named Jenny. Jenny resisted the next twenty years of life as a circus performer. She was then crippled during a failed attempt to use her for breeding. Two more years traveling with a small circus left her unable get in and out of her trailer. Finally she was rescued from an inadequate animal shelter, and taken to an open-country elephant sanctuary in Tennessee.
Twenty years after they first met, Jenny and Shirley reunited at the sanctuary, with instant recognition and “immediate, intense and unforgettable” bonding between the two cripples. They had a connection like mother and daughter for 7 more years. Then one day Jenny went down and could not get up. Unable to get Jenny to rise, Shirley walked away into the woods, staying there until Jenny died, and didn’t eat for two days. ***
The connection of self and sociality suggests that individualism and social interdependence are intertwined. So the study of consciousness, while it might seem esoteric or academic, could be relevant to dealing with our political paralysis. Or, to our underlying, unaccountable mix of cruelty and kindness.