The Blog of Brian Stanton

Consciousness: A Narrow Light in the Darkness

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Most of our lives unfold in the dark. The extent to which this is true, in fact, might surprise you. According to the science, our conscious awareness is but a ripple in a vast sea of unconscious processing.


Many researchers have likened the brain to a supercomputer. Our blob of gray matter, however, is about 100x more effective than the most powerful computer man can build. Terabytes of data – information from sensory organs, thoughts, and bodily functions – bombard the brain each second. The thing is – we’re mostly unaware of it.


“Enormous amounts of information have to be discarded before we can be conscious,” writes Danish author Tor Nørretranders. “We never perceive most of what passes through us.”


And yet, these subterranean data still affect us. Subliminal perception, or the sensing of stimuli below the threshold of consciousness, is a case in point. In a recent study, subjects were asked to rate a neutral-appearing model after being flashed two types of subliminal images: someone being slapped (painful image), or someone being caressed (pleasant image.) The result? Subjects liked the neutral model more when their unconscious was primed with pleasant images. Conversely, the model’s likeability dropped when paired with painful images. Guilt by non-conscious association, as it were. 


The experiment seems to reveal the presence of an unconscious empathic response. Even if we’re not consciously aware of it, we feel the pain and pleasure of everyone around us. How could this affect daily life? We might go shopping at Trader Joe’s - known for hiring amiable employees - and suddenly feel suffused with energy. But what about the flip side of this reaction?


Imagine passing a sullen beggar outside Starbucks. Even without consciously noticing them, you will, in a way, feel their pain. This is bad news for your interaction with the barista. You probably won’t like them, and you’ll have no idea why. This subtle change in likeability could be the difference between calmly tolerating a mistake and angrily dumping your soy latte on the counter for all to witness. You would never do that of course. Order a soy latte, that is.


But isn’t feeling the suffering of others, you might ask, a positive trait that promotes humanitarianism? Perhaps. But Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has argued that the emotion of empathy – or feeling what another person is feeling – has serious pitfalls.


“It’s because of empathy,” begins Bloom, “that governments and societies care so much more about a little girl stuck in a well than about millions or more people suffering or dying through climate change.” We like the little girl more than the faceless victims of global warming - so she gets preference. And we’re usually unaware of this cognitive bias. It’s an unconscious mechanism.


This relates to the earlier point that most of our mental life is, in fact, unconscious. Of course, we don’t feel this way. Consciousness - what we’re aware of in any given moment - appears to encompass all. But mere introspection isn’t well suited to exploring the murkier regions of our mind.


“It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it,” wrote the American psychologist Julian Jaynes. “The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”


Jaynes makes a lot of sense. And yet, consciousness really does pervade the whole of our subjective lives. In terms of experience, there’s nothing else. This is it. Meditation simply reaffirms this truth in a systematic way.


To borrow Jayne’s analogy – we can view consciousness as a beam of light with a certain brightness and scope, scanning the darkroom of our unconscious. When we train our focus, through conscious breathing or other methods, the light gets brighter. And when we practice mindfulness – noticing various appearances in consciousness – the beam gets wider.


Of course, no matter how much you upgrade the headlights, most of the road ahead will remain dark. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Total conscious perception would be an informational deluge of skull-shattering proportions. And so, we remain mostly ignorant of our brain activity. In this case, at least, ignorance is bliss.




Print Sources


Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976. Print.


Nørretranders, Tor. The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness down to Size. New York: Viking, 1998. Print.


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