Conscious vs. Unconscious

I’ll now resume blogging about consciousness, and in general I hope to post an entry at least every two weeks. Today I want to contrast conscious and unconscious states of mind, things that we do and do not experience. Right now, for example, notice the sensations in your legs. You probably weren’t aware of them a moment ago, unless they were uncomfortable. And yet your brain was continually receiving neural signals from those lower limbs. If a rattlesnake had started slithering up your ankle, you would hopefully have noticed a change in those sensations. (Did you feel a creepy little tingle in your calves, just reading that last sentence?) Complex sensory information is constantly flowing into your brain, but the brain has cerebral sentries posted, tasked with letting some things “into” consciousness and keeping others out. These gate-keeping mechanisms recruit a small fraction of your current perceptual inputs into sensory awareness.

The difference between consciously “present” and non-conscious mental events is partly a difference in the way we know things. If I’m paying attention to my legs I know they exist because I can feel them. But suppose someone gives me a drug that prevents me from feeling my legs for the next hour, and blindfolds me as well. Although I would still know my legs exist, “knowing my legs are there” without being conscious of them is different from knowing my legs through feeling them and seeing them.

Is everything in your mind either conscious or unconscious? Some say yes and some say no. I suspect that in borderline cases there is no fact of the matter about whether a mental event is conscious. For example, I was once watching a TV show about hippopotamuses. My mind began to wander and suddenly I realized that the TV had been showing zebras instead of hippos for a minute or two. It seems likely that in some sense I did experience the shift from one animal to another. I was looking right at the screen, and the shapes I was gazing at were a lot different when the striped beasties went away and the much portlier hippos began cavorting. But at first I was not fully aware of this change. So there may be a gray area of semi-awareness. Even so, most would agree that some mental events are clearly conscious and others are definitely unconscious.

In case you’d like to practice focusing on your own stream of consciousness, here is a way to do that.

Just notice. Sit or lie down in a quiet place, set a timer for perhaps 10 minutes, close your eyes, and notice the flow of your own awareness. Start with sound-experiences. Every time you hear something new, even if it’s very soft, just think sound. Then after a while, do the same thing with bodily sensations, thinking body in each case.

Eventually you can do this with everything that moves through your mind: smell, taste, thought, emotion, sight (noticing visual patterns with your eyes closed), and so on. Of course at times you will start pursuing thoughts about some topic and fall away from this exercise. Just say the word “thoughts,” silently, and return to your focus, until the timer rings. This standard meditation technique has numerous benefits in addition to acquainting us with our own mental processes. It will help you become more “conscious of consciousness,” more aware of your own inner life.

Roger Christan Schriner

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