Thursday, July 01, 2004

What is the Unconscious?

Freud outlined a grand scheme of the human mind, and many of the details have been contradicted or superseded by subsequent research in psychology and neuroscience. But one big piece of the puzzle he got right was that a large amount of processing goes on unconsciously. We have access to some of the operations of our brain and body through our thoughts and feelings, but many functions go on without conscious access. These include the more obvious examples of basic bodily functions (digestion, hormone release, etc.), but also some higher cognitive processes, such as laying down and organizing memories. Most of us have even had the experience of having unconsciously worked out a complex problem while our attention was directed elsewhere.

In my earlier posts, I asserted that a key to a better understanding of the universe was to realize that consciousness was a fundamental, irreducible part of nature, and also that it was everywhere in the universe. Given this, what in the world is the unconscious?!

I raise this issue in order to refocus on this potentially difficult part of my earlier discussion. I said (in my June 2004 post entitled “Evolution and the Ubiquity of Consciousness”) that while human capabilities are unique in the known world, some sort of basic or primitive consciousness must exist even in the world’s most fundamental and simple parts. Our quality of being an experiencing subject could not have suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the course of evolution.

Using the word consciousness to describe this ubiquitous feature of the world can be misleading. On the one hand I like that it conveys dramatically how my worldview differs from the conventional scientific stance: we exist as part of an evolving conscious universe as opposed to a world defined as consisting of inanimate matter/energy. On the other hand, simple organisms and of course inorganic parts of the world do not have anything which approaches human consciousness, so I am stretching the word to its limits when I use it in this way.

Like some philosophers who have followed this line of thinking, I have concluded that utilizing the word experience rather than consciousness (or mind) can clarify the argument. In fulfilling its role in the evolution of the universe, then, each part or system inherently has some level of subjective experience. The qualities or robustness of this experience, of course, varies widely and depends on the complexity of the system.

With this in mind, let me return to the topic of the “unconscious”. Given my arguments, the functioning of our brain and body in its unconscious mode is not without some level of experience, which is inherent in components such as our cells (or cell groupings). However, this is a primitive sort of localized experience which simply withers in comparison with the full-blown holistic and reflective experience of the healthy conscious human.

Why is there an unconscious mode at all? Part of the reason is that some of our lower-level processes are holdovers from more primitive stages of evolution and naturally are unaccompanied by the high-level human-style experience. In the case of unconscious processing which seems to be of a higher-order, the explanation is not as clear, but there is evidence that natural selection has deliberately constrained the scope of full human reflective consciousness so that we are not overwhelmed by input. Psychological studies have shown that humans don’t function well if faced with too much (or too little) stimulation.

One last issue for this post: how does this primitive experience of cells or other component parts of a human being get transformed into the full human version of consciousness? While the details are sketchy at present, I believe the evolution of higher and higher levels of complex functioning has been naturally accompanied by an increasingly robust leveraging of the experiential quality inherent in the world. This has reached its pinnacle in us: the highest cognitive abilities of the human brain have been attained hand-in-hand with the richness of the human conscious experience.

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