When you consider all the tasks that we accomplish in our daily lives, without even thinking about them, it seems plausible that we possess an unconscious part to our being. Normally referred to by some as the subconscious, this part of our brain, if they are right, would be the one responsible for executing simultaneous routine tasks requiring no concentration whatsoever. This is what enables us to walk while concentrated on reading text messages without tripping or to be attentive to a passenger speaking to us while driving and instinctively avoiding obstacles and other vehicles on the road. While it’s true that learning something new requires a conscious effort as well as constant focus on our part (the efforts of a newborn as they learn to walk, for example), once the skills are learned and mastered, their use is achieved subconsciously. So considering the limitations of our conscious state, where it can be difficult to perform more than one task at a time, we realize that it’s an entirely different story with the subconscious. So without naming every biological and physical function that our subconscious is simultaneously responsible for (breathing, seeing, eating, listening, walking, thinking, etc.) and despite not being able to quantify the power of a cerebral state over its counterpart, it seems nevertheless clear to me that our subconscious is way more powerful than our conscious.
Considering, therefore, that there are probably two separate states to our minds (conscious and subconscious), how do we figure out who we are? In his book « Incognito », author David Eagleman demonstrates using concrete examples, that at best, our consciousness is only capable of making a very incomplete and even imperfect representation of the reality that surrounds it. Thus, ultimately, to overcome its own limitations, the conscious mind fills the gaps as best it can. It predicts, it presupposes, it guesses, it interprets, which also allows prestidigitator to impress us with an eyeful. Conscious perception of who we are is therefore subjected to the same fate, as it represents an interpretation made from scratch by our consciousness based on information available to it and which includes among other things, the perceptions it gets from others as to who we are. (For example, by continuously hearing others say things such as: “You’re the best” or it’s opposite, “you’re good at nothing”, we come to believe them; just like occupying a public office position or any other position of high responsibility also makes us more likely to identify “ourselves” with them). This incomplete and somewhat biased image does little to account for the actual characteristics and potential of our being, since it ignores a large part of our subconscious attributes.
Thus, considering that to this day it is still impossible to pin point the exact region of our brains where our ideas, emotions, feelings and perceptions reside, or even if they are to be considered material at all, we presuppose that they are related to the subconscious. Therefore, considering the limitations of the “conscious” self as outlined in the previous paragraph in regards to its inability to acquire a full picture of who it is, it seems evident that our subconscious could be more representative of who we really are. The picture our conscious self paints of itself is flawed and incomplete but to top it all, it’s also greatly influenced by our subconscious. Therefore, this conscious self’s perception of being in control couldn’t be further from the truth since it’s more likely at the mercy of the subconscious. Think of a person in a state of depression, you can tell them to make an effort, to take charge, but as long as the emotional state (which is clearly in the subconscious realm) does not change, nothing can be achieved. This means that despite all our good intentions, it is almost unlikely to consciously succeed in taking control over our mind state, whereby the need arises in many case to see a mental health professional.
Finally, have you ever had situations where you were told: “Just now, when you reacted I didn’t recognize you. You seemed like an entirely different person.”? Or a situation where you surprised yourself in reacting to a conflict in rage and having the feeling that you were beside yourself and that your reaction was more akin to that of an “animal” than that of a civilized human?
If we accept that our genetics and our life experiences are, among others, behind our feelings, our emotions and our thoughts and that they are what ultimately shapes our actions, it might be that our consciousness at best acts as an intermediary and that the perception we have of ourselves is merely the one we want to have.
Ultimately, our consciousness acts only as a filter and buffer; buffer as it adapts our subconscious reactions to the context of the situation and alleged social expectations and filter as it interprets the external stimuli within their context, and thus ensures that our reactions are proportional and appropriate.
So, are we really the person we think we are? And if not, who are we in that case? Isn’t that something great to reflect upon? To be continued …
© 2013, Jacques Dufort. All rights reserved.