The Blog of Brian Stanton

We Live in the Past: The Delayed Movie of Consciousness

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“Speak for yourself.”


It just slipped out, and I instantly regretted it. I was sitting in a wooden room heated to 200 degrees. I had already stayed too long, and my sweat was beginning to radiate outwards in dark, fractal patterns on the bench.


I was responding to an older gentleman sitting on my left. He’d just declared that “we” - the two of us - yearned for the physique of a third guy looming by the sauna door. Admittedly, the third guy was a beast. On the spectrum of monstrosity, he was somewhere between body builder and commando. He could, I was reasonably sure, crush my windpipe with a tactical blow to my throat. Nonetheless I breathed fire.


I was, in fact, astonished I’d said anything at all. An awkward silence filled the air. The smothering heat, I noticed, seemed to match the mood. Then, mercifully, the older guy changed the topic. Sensing my opportunity, I coughed, stood up, and slipped out the door.


Later, fully hydrated, I puzzled over the causes of my strange behavior. I quickly found, however, that I was getting nowhere. The fundamental causes, I realized, will forever be unknown to me, the conscious center of my mental life. What is more, consciousness might not be the cause of anything. Our momentary experience could simply be an epiphenomenon - a mere byproduct of brain activity, like heat from my overworked laptop.


This may sound absurd and somewhat depressing. It’s not. I’m going to argue that this construal is not only probable, but that it’s good to know.


Take a simple example. When you socialize (in the sauna or elsewhere), the interaction feels current. But actually, you aren’t in direct contact with the other person at all. Rather, your experience of the conversation is a post-hoc, trimmed-down, simulation. In other words, your conscious perception is an abridged view of the interaction after the fact. What we call consciousness operates on a delay. This sentence, for instance, hits your eyes well before it shows up in your visual field.


This is not just philosophy. The time-delayed nature of consciousness has been studied by very clever neuroscientists - scientists who might chuckle at my attempts to explain this phenomenon. Nevertheless, here goes.


First, sensory data hit the sense organs and are sent to the globule inside our skull. Simultaneously, an even larger data package is produced by the brain itself to lend meaning to these sensory inputs, and to initiate any actions we might take. The totality of this info, however, would overwhelm us. To fix this problem then, our brain reduces the data to a mere smidgen. Then, after a short delay*, this smidgen is played back, like a movie, to create our lived experience.


Naturally, this movie seems quite interactive. We feel like we’re commanding the screenplay from the director’s chair of consciousness. But since this feeling likely arises from unintended, past-tense, brain activity - who, exactly, is in command?** In the sterile light of neuroscience, the movie is revealed to be running on a set of reels that we never really glimpse, much less control.


This is not to diminish the movie of our life. Even if the unconscious runs the reels, everything we care about hinges on the tonality of conscious experience. When things are good, the only place they are good, subjectively-speaking, are in our little simulations. And when things are bad, the subconscious may be at fault, yet only our conscious selves reap the punishment. Consciousness seems to feel everything, yet do nothing.


To take this perspective is at once spooky, comforting, exciting and relaxing. It also appears to be true.

And so “I” - the conscious self - watched in horror as my comment echoed off the sauna walls. But really, “I” had nothing to do with it. My words, like everything else, were formed long before I knew about them.


*A study using FMRI suggests that this delay can be up to 10 seconds

**I’m certainly not sure that consciousness arises from brain activity, but it seems to be the most plausible theory around

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