NOTE: I started writing this about 3 years ago. It came out of a conversation with Des over lunch. It doesn’t represent 3 years of direct work. It reflects the results of 3 years of passively fostering a feeling that there is a truth in an idea into a more complete understanding as to why it is a truth. This past weekend it all came together for me, not just how I think about the way the brain functions, but how I think about nervous energy being the power of EVERY process that exists within the body.
Sometimes when I’m having trouble thinking about consciousness I try to simplify it by comparing it to a computer.
Consciousness is a process that is running in the background and is one of many processes that are running. Each process requires a certain amount of resources to function correctly. If it does not get what it needs, it will begin to malfunction and eventually shut down. Some processes run in the background working as much as the available resources allow e.g. the process of scouring the memories searching for patterns and relationships – these would be like the indexing for faster search type process with an operating system. Most of the other processes are called when needed and the amount of cognitive effort they take up is usually a product of how long they are being used. E.g. you are singing a song so you need to use you voice, creative and memory processes, much like a computer playing an audio file using the sound card and media player,
If you are in a flow or meditative state or if you are sleeping, your consciousness is going to require the least amount of cognitive resources. The freed up resources go towards some other brain activity. I call this the base line because the brain is effectively running with no input from your active conscious mind.
If you end up getting stuck in a loop you begin to drain the reserves.
Provided the you do not get stuck in a loop you will return the energies to the underlying processes and return to the base line once you stop thinking.
We are usually unaware of the other underlying processes that require cognitive energies but we can see the consequences when we try to use them under adverse conditions such as driving in snow, giving a presentation when you are really nervous or trying to find the perfect line while skiing when your still thinking about the work you need to do.
There are countless unconscious thought processes that get impaired when we engage in conscious thought or get stuck in a cognitive loop. It can be an obvious process like the one that renders words to speak at the presentation or it can be one you’ll never be aware of like the one that compares the visual input to memories searching for patterns. The consequence is the same in both cases, if they do not get their share of the cognitive energy impairment will begin and they will eventually shut down.
The cumulative effect of excessive calling of cognitive processes is stress and the outcome is degraded or incomplete processing.