Let’s get this straight, human beings have no idea why they feel the way they do or why they think the things they think. And to be fair it isn’t their fault because exactly no one understands the complexities of consciousness and how a thought moves from being electrical impulses in certain parts of the brain to being a thought in awareness.
Most people never think about thinking or consciousness. Most people never consider the processes that are involved with influencing thought. Most people assume that they are their consciousness and that they are in control of the machine.
But this isn’t the case. Consciousness, like understanding language, walking, feeling hungry, etc…. is just one of a multitude of mental processes that is occurring in the brain. Consciousness is, in fact, another unconscious thought process. All we are aware of is the outcome of the process not the process itself. This distinction isn’t all that important, it matters only when we consider that almost all of our thinking, almost all of the things we would consider thoughts, happen independent of our awareness of them.
Consciousness is built upon a rich infrastructure of unconscious thought.David Deutsch
Recent studies in fMRI machines indicate that when given yes / no questions, the subjects brain reveals the answer BEFORE the subject consciously becomes aware of it. There are distinct “yes” and “no” activity patterns that can be measured BEFORE the subject consciously knows the answer to the question. There is a lag of up to half a second between when the brain activity signals an answer and when the person finds themselves saying the answer or becomes consciously aware of the answer. Half a second is a very long time, particularly when dealing with the human brain, an organ of billions of neurons and hundreds of billions of interconnections. The amount of processing that occurs during that period of time makes it appear to be an eternity as opposed to an instant.
When we imagine a simple yes / no question like “are you in an MRI machine?” fully unpacking the question reveals that it isn’t at all simple. Some of the examples of things that need to be sorted out, understood and factored into the decision making matrix are: what is an MRI machine, what is meant by you, what is a machine, what is meant by in, what is three dimensional space, what is a question, what type of question is this and how do I respond to that type of question. But before that can happen, parts of the brain that are responsible for processing the electrical impulses that come from ears need to sense, encode, process and convert to workable units of information that represent the question. This information has to be pattern matched to the long term memory about language. It goes on and on like this depending in how granular you want to go.
The subject in the MRI machine has no awareness of any of this happening. The machine operator may be able to see the activity moving around the brain, with some parts get brighter as they perform their function, but it all happens so quickly that in real time they don’t see much of anything. Slowed down and compared to other scans and detailed picture will begin to emerge. But not as it happens and not without the help of computers that process billions of cycles a second to help render an image that has meaning to the investigators.
All of that brain activity to say “yes” when asked whether they are in an MRI machine. It’s mind blowing to consider what must happen when faced with a tougher question. “What are the four most common things that you buy at the supermarket?” or “in what ways does elementary school resemble a capitalistic economy?” likely trigger 100s of billions of nerve impulses. We cannot even pretend to know what’s going on in our brains. Maybe, if we work at it, we can create enough mindfulness to have a decent idea what we are conscious of from moment to moment. We may even develop the ability to know what we are feeling from moment to moment or to develop the distinction to know when we are taking actions that serve a confirmation bias. But most people never consider that they are having thoughts and that they have the ability to think about thinking let alone choose to think about a though that pops up.
Personally, I find all of this reassuring because it shines a light on what we can do and what we cannot do.
Sure, we cannot know the answer to a question before the brain answers the question as being consciously aware of an answer is the last part of the process. We can, however, direct our attention onto things, maybe not completely, but we do have influence over the machine that is our brain. We can’t stop it from going where it’s going, but we can nudge it towards particular things. We may have some agency in determining what sensory information we seek out. And we do seem to have the ability to insert thoughts onto the white board that is our working memory and manipulate these ideas; in essence, creating that which does not exist, and push this vapour into the inner workings of the brain to generate output that is based on experience, long-term memory and our world view. We can rehearse and improve at things that are not happening, we can test run different scenarios and most impressively do the impossible by creating something that doesn’t exist.
Given all of this, I’m not bothered by the fact that I have no idea what is going on inside my brain. I no more feel like a servant to the machine than I feel like the pilot. Whatever it is I believe I am, it only exists as electrical impulses that arise and pass away each moment as the universe is recreated over and over again, in my brain.