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

The abattoir


t was going to happen at some point: our flock of herdwick sheep would reach a certain size, and we'd have to make the decision of what do with the surplus (a clinical way of putting it). We can only sustain so many sheep on the farm due the amount of land, and hence amount of grass that we have, and due to finances - we can't support all the sheep for the rest of their natural lives. And since we need the small-holding to be self-sustaining, we needed to make some money using the sheep. The obvious way to do this is to sell the sheep. The options were: (1) sell the excess sheep off to other farmers at market; (2) or slaughter the excess sheep for meat, and by selling the meat, aim for the small-holding to be self-sustaining. If we sold the sheep at market, we didn't know what quality of life they would have on other farms. So, we opted for option number two.

In a perfect world I'd home-slaughter all the animals that we were rearing for meat as I think that it is the least stressful way for them to die. One second they're eating breakfast, and the next they are dead, without an inkling of their impending doom. That is the way that I would like to die: without any knowledge of it coming. But, UK law means that we cannot sell any meat that we home-slaughter. So, it all has to go off to the abattoir. My concerns were that this would lead to the sheep being stressed and unhappy. Neither of us wanted this. So, we tried to make it all as straightforward and efficient as possible. We visited the abattoir beforehand, and planned how we were going to transport them with as little stress as possible.



On the morning of 'slaughter day' we fed them, and then loaded them up into my truck: two hoggets (a sheep between one and two years old), Bert and Ernie, and a ewe (a female sheep which has had lambs) Alice. We'd booked a 9am slot at the abattoir, and as soon as we arrived, after a thirty minute journey, the staff were waiting for us. Once off-loaded, we walked our sheep through to the stunning room, and were able to spend five to ten minutes hand-feeding them, and trying to calm them. They were obviously aware of the new surroundings, and sniffed the floor of the abattoir holding pens as we walked pass them. There is research which says that when animals are stressed they release a specific hormone in their urine. Other animals following behind can then smell that hormone, and this in turn leads them to feel stressed. This ran through my mind as I saw Ernie and Bert smelling the floor. But they continued to follow my wife with the food bucket. We entered the stunning room. It was small, and had a conveyor-type lift in one corner which led through hanging plastic drapes to the next area of the abattoir.

Alice surrounded by this year's lambs

Alice surrounded by this year's lambs

As we hand-fed Bert and Ernie (Alice was not as relaxed as they were) the onsite vet said that he could see they were more pets than livestock. I asked him what the difference was, to which I got no reply. Two men then went into the small pen with our three sheep. One picked up a pair of tongs about 24" long. They put the ends of these tongs over Alice's temples, and in one to two seconds she had fallen to the floor, unconscious. These tongs pass a large amount of electricity through the brain, hence causing a loss of consciousness. She then had one of her hind legs attached to the conveyor lift with a chain, was pulled up off the floor, and was moved into the next area where her throat was slit. This is what actually killed her: loss of all blood - exsanguination. This last part was out of sight of Bert and Ernie. The same happened to the two boys, and was over in the space of about one minute. 



I don't know what they were feeling. I'll never know. Bert and Ernie, being that they are very tame, were happy to eat out of our hands and the bucket. This makes me think they were relatively relaxed. I know I wouldn't want to eat if I was feeling anxious or stressed. Alice has always been more wild. She may have been feeling stressed. I hope not too much, but I don't know.

It was better than I thought it would be. I'm glad I was there to the end, both to witness it, and also to be there for the sheep. I hope that having two familiar humans around helped to calm them. It does feel like the ultimate betrayal. There's no getting round that. 

Content vs. Feeling


hen I was doing my counselling training in 2008 and 2009 one of the course leaders made a passing comment. She said that the content (or story) of what a client spoke about was almost irrelevant when compared to how a client felt about the content. At the time I found this statement hard to hear: "Surely it makes a difference whether a person is talking about a divorce, the death of a relative, or the hoover breaking?" I thought. Over the years this statement has stuck in my head - probably because it felt so counter-intuitive at the time. Yet, my trust in this truism has grown.

So, what makes feelings more important than content you might ask? As humans we are always in contact with life, and our experiences blossom from this contact with the world around us, be that another driver on the road, a beautiful moorland walk, or an abusive parent. Experiences shape us, along with our genetic inheritance, to make us who we are. But we are not stationary: we are constantly experiencing, and therefore constantly shifting, even if only in tiny ways. I believe that we are constantly trying to "make sense of" ourselves and the world around us. In order to "make sense of" these two things, we have to look at the feelings that we have about these experiences, and then how they have altered our behaviour and feelings towards the world around us. So, in terms of therapy:

 if:  the content in a session = the experience a client has had,

then: the feelings about that content = an opportunity for a client to understand themselves, and the world around them, via those experiences.

Time for an example after all that abstract talk! I have put the content in bold, and the feelings in italics

I am outside using the chainsaw to chop up a birch tree for firewood. I run out of fuel, and curse myself for not bringing a spare fuel can down into the woods as now I will have to walk back up the hill to get the spare fuel, taking time and energy. While walking back up the hill, I become aware that I am really angry with myself. After some time I realise that I am angry because I do not like the trait of always rushing as it leads me to wasting time and effort in the long-run. If I slowed down a bit at the beginning of the task, I could be more mindful of what I actually needed to take down to the woods with me to chop firewood, and then I would not have to expend more time and energy having to walk all the way back to get the spare fuel. 

My chainsaw in pieces as I try to mend it...yet again!

My chainsaw in pieces as I try to mend it...yet again!

So, using this example it can be seen that the personal trait of 'rushing and not taking time to plan ahead' could show itself in many ways. I could have run out of fuel in my car, or missed some vital ingredient in my lunch, or in my haste, omitted a washer when rebuilding the chainsaw to the left - not a fictitious example this time! While the content would have been different each time, the feeling would be very similar: frustration with myself. Hence, the content is secondary to the feeling as it doesn't matter all that much what specific experience I have, only how it makes me feel, and then what that teaches me about myself and the world around me.