The deception of the power of consciousness

"What was the reason for this gift of consciousness...this awareness that one was aware, when it was incapable of changing what one did?" Helliconia by Brian Aldiss (p.1061)

I have grown up having been taught, and therefore assuming, that conscious self-awareness is what makes humans special, and that it is our greatest gift. This comes handed down from Plato's Ancient Greece, and probably before, and from scholars such as Descartes who pronounced “Cogito ergo sum” - I think therefore I am. Again, pushing the idea that it is our conscious thoughts which make us human and give us control over our lives.

However, over the last few years I have come more and more to question this assumption. We believe that we have the power to change the world around us, to be unique, to be different from the rest of the animal world, through our conscious choices. Yet, neuroscience would suggest otherwise. Libet's (1983) experiment on the conscious decision to act demonstrated that there was a half-second delay between the electrical impulse that initiates action and the conscious decision to act: the brain has already decided it is going to act, and then it makes us believe that we have consciously chosen to do it! In fact, some philosophers such as Daniel Wegner, see consciousness simply as an epiphenomenon: a secondary or by-product of unconscious brain activity, not the main creation of our human brains. Consciousness is not, after all, the highest expression of the human mind, but is possibly just a by-product. 

John Gray, in his brilliant book Straw Dogs, states that “As organisms active in the world, we process perhaps 14 million bits of information per second. The bandwidth of consciousness is around eighteen bits [per second]. This means that we have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we daily use to survive.” (p66). So, our unconscious minds are taking in and processing 14,000,000 bits of data every second. Yet we are only consciously aware of 14 of those bits. I find these figures fascinating as they add credence to the idea that consciousness is a small part of our overall processing capabilities (nb. these figures are an estimate based on seventy years of research in Information Theory made by Vincent Deary, and there is an interesting article about those figures here). 

So, to really understand ourselves we need to submit to the power of our unconscious selves, which arises from our animal bodies and our animal brains. A key aim of therapy is to bring unconscious material into conscious awareness so that we can better understand ourselves, why we act as we do, and to try to live more in line with who we really are (i.e. our unconscious selves) as opposed to who we think we are (i.e. our conscious ideas of who we are). Carl Rogers said that it is the conflict of these two parts of us that leads to problems in living, and that therapy is there to enable us to learn and listen more to our organismic/unconscious selves (i.e our desires, dreams. fantasies, and needs). That by listening to ourselves more fully, we can lead fuller lives. 



Aldiss, Brian (2010): Heliconia; Gollancz

Gray, John (2002): Straw Dogs; Granta Publications

Rogers, Carl (1951): Client-Centred Therapy; Constable and Robinson Limited

Wenger, Daniel (2002): The Illusion of Conscious Will; MIT Press