UNDERSTANDING YOUR MIND
If there’s anything that should be 100% comprehensible to you in exquisite detail it’s the workings of your mind. I mean you and only you inhabit it 24/7/52. It’s a lifelong relationship, one-on-one; at the very least till death us do part. But if you understand even the workings of just your own mind, put yourself down for a Nobel Prize, you’ve earned it
While different people have slightly different brain chemistries and neural network connections thus explaining different personalities, interests, worldviews and abilities, etc. you have just one normal brain chemistry (unless you deliberately alter it) and one neural network connection to come to terms with. So, we’ll (actually will have to) concentrate on the one, since you’re a typical representation of the generic whole.
You do a lot of mental stuff each day. From the moment you wake up your conscious mind goes into hyper-drive (your subconscious was still churning away while you were sleeping). Those daily mental gyrations tend to be interrelated but involve things like decisions and planning, from the chess board to the dinner table; memory and recall; sensory processing (taste, smell, sight, sound, touch); and learning, even if it’s the evening news, the local gossip across the fence, or what’s on sale this week at the supermarket.
I need to state from the outset that the mind does have a very limited ability to deal with more than just a couple of things at one time. In fact it’s best to deal with issues arising in a linear fashion. You cannot concentrate on driving while at the same time concentrating on a cell-phone conversation as aptly demonstrated on the “MythBusters” TV show. I’m sure you can identify with trying to juggle three, four, five or more things at once, all demanding your full attention with things just sort of going to hell in a hand-basket, sometimes with serious or potentially serious consequences.
YOUR SUBCONSCIOUS MIND
Have you ever had a complex thought leap suddenly, almost or even unbidden, into your conscious (the self-aware or self-conscious) mind? Why? Was it your conscious mind that brought it to the fore, or your subconscious (otherwise more technically known as the unconscious) mind? Chances are, it was your subconscious (unconscious) mind. It’s been shown that your subconscious mind makes up your mind for you split seconds before you’re consciously aware of it. It’s almost as if it was predetermined.
Your subconscious mind bubbles along under the radar without an actual conscious input from your self-aware you, processing, ever processing. What should be random bubbling like boiling water should therefore result in a mess – a hodgepodge. Instead, you seem to get a purposefully and linearly directed nebulous something which at the least expected time pops through your grey matter’s ‘wormhole’ that links your subconscious mind with your conscious mind. Your conscious mind cannot seemingly draw out of your subconscious mind the nebulous something you need when you need it.
So how does your subconscious stay on the straight and narrow without your conscious input? I have no idea, but it apparently does. When your conscious thoughts go off the rails, say you’re distracted by something not relevant to the task at hand; well you can quickly force your conscious mind back on track to the task at hand. You don’t have to do that with your subconscious since the subconscious apparently can’t be distracted.
So I wonder whether the world’s greatest thinkers – scientists, philosophers, inventors, writers, etc. weren’t really conscious thinkers at all but derived much of their inspiration from their subconscious.
It’s not your conscious mind that connects the dots, it’s the subconscious. How often do you hear, or even tell yourself, “I’ll sleep on it” (which is why it is probably a good idea to always have pen and paper or a Dictaphone next to the bed)? How many people can relate to solving an out of the ordinary mental puzzle in their dreams, or the solution comes to them ‘out of the blue’ while preoccupied with something related. There are no tools, only the resources in your own mind. In fact if you consciously try to come up with an original creative idea, you’ll probably fail, but when you’re in mental neutral gear – eureka.
Ever immediately forget something you though of just minutes before and cannot now for the life of you consciously recall? Throw your mind into neutral and when you least expect it, there it is back to the fore again. Now quickly, write it down!
Here are a few other examples where the subconscious rules your roost.
We’re all aware of hypnosis drawing out memories locked away, in the subconscious of course. You have no control in your conscious ability to recall. It takes a more extreme form of that “gotta put my mind in neutral”, the hypnotic state, to bring the data to the fore. Of course unethical or badly trained or amateur hypnotists can implant false memories or manipulate those already there thus producing unreliable results.
It’s not at all extraordinary for a minority (10 – 25%) of absolutely normal adult humans to have at least one vivid hallucination during their lifetime – a product of their subconscious that’s probably much more common in children’s ‘make-believe’ like there’s a monster in the closet or their inevitable invisible playmates. As our minds grow older and mature, we become less likely to have subconscious hallucinations, but they can still happen.
Perhaps connected, we’ve nearly all experienced involuntary (as to subject) daydreams, which, like sleeping dreams, is a product of the subconscious.
Speaking of sleep, when you go to sleep you go into lockdown mode courtesy of the subconscious so you don’t physically act out the actions you dream about. That makes sense otherwise you could do yourself and others in your immediate vicinity a serious mischief, but you have no control over that lockdown process.
An ordinary conscious level mental puzzle might be how to get from A to B on the bus when your car is in the repair shop. These are the sorts of ordinary every day mental gymnastics that usually require tools – hammer and nails; a cookbook; a train timetable; a table of trigonometry functions; and memory. However, in order to utilize them, you have got to have concepts of them filed away in your subconscious cubby-holes, so everyday mental, and apparently conscious activity have mandatory roots in the subconscious, otherwise, no go.
Just as an aside, there’s another version of subconscious activity that usually deals with body language. How often do you see someone talking on the phone to someone else, neither party can see the other, yet probably both parties are making all sorts of hand gestures and using other kinds of body language as if they were talking face-to-face? Probably quite frequently – it’s the norm. Or you see a woman sitting on a bus or in a café or some such, and she’s preening her hair, running her fingers through it but not even aware she’s doing it.
When you only have microseconds to act, say when you’re standing in the batters box 60 feet, 6 inches away from the pitchers mound and a rapidly rotating baseball is heading towards you at 95 mph, do you stand there and consciously crunch the numbers before your go/no-go swing, or just turn the issue over to your subconscious to go for it, or let the ball pass you by. Ditto that for an outfielder chasing down a fly ball. In such situations your conscious mind is worthless baggage. Instinct, training, practice and all those other facets embedded in your subconscious required come to the fore and takeover. You can do the physics calculations at your leisure after the game.
CREATIVITY (The ‘What If’)
Is creativity pre-programmed or an act of free will? How many things do you do during the course of your day that you did not consciously plan to do, yet could have so planned in theory? Those spur of the moment things, even little things, you didn’t walk up having them on your agenda, must have originated from your subconscious. You really, apparently, didn’t have any free will over doing those agenda items – that is doing them consciously with a before-the-fact intent.
I call creativity the mental “what if” exercise. You take this bit from this cubby-hole and that bit from that cubby-hole and a third bit and fourth and fifth bit from other cubby-hols and combine them in a unique, theoretical, creative, what if, ways. It’s been said that from the reality of one drop of water you should be able to come up with, or envision, the idea of a waterfall or an ocean, even if you’ve never seen or heard about either and therefore don’t have a waterfall or ocean cubby-hole. So you reach into your cubby-hole for the concept of many, numerous, billions and billions; your cubby-hole for cliff; your cubby-hole for bowl or depression; your cubby-hole for gravity, and several more besides. And so you come up with new cubby-holes for theoretical waterfall (but probably lacking the thunderous sounds, spray and foam), and theoretical ocean (but probably without salt, marine life, the tides and waves), not actual parts of your reality, only your ‘what if’ reality, and to be honest, a lot of our cubby-holes are of that nature.
Let’s take a simple everyday scenario. I think I’ll cook up a pizza for dinner tonight. It’s a spur of the moment eureka moment that wasn’t present when you woke up this morning. So where did that pizza for dinner thought come from? It probably came as a bolt out of the blue at lightning speed; it leapt into your conscious mind, but it was constructed from the various bits and pieces that resides elsewhere in your mind – in your subconscious mind.
Inside your mind you store a whole dictionary full of concepts, each in its own little cubby-hole, which you probably keep adding to all the time. The dictionary of a fifty-year-old is much bigger than that of a five-year old. Imagination or creativity is that which picks and chooses relevant concepts from those various cubby-holes and strings the chosen bits, at seemingly light speed, into a logical linear conglomerate. Sometimes the bits and pieces are strung together to form an original bit of creativity or of the imagination, though that may not be original or creative to someone else, but it is to you, and that’s what counts. I mean I / cook / small / mushroom / thin base / pizza / dinner might not be all that much a stretch of your imagination or overly creative, but I / cook / small / thin base / magic mushroom / pizza / dinner might be.
But let’s back up a second to that storehouse of cubby-hole concepts. That I / cook / small / mushroom / thin base / pizza / dinner is a very specific outcome. You have cubby-holes for cook from scratch vs. ready made frozen vs. dial-a-home-delivery vs. dine out. You have cubby-holes for toppings like mushroom vs. pineapple vs. pepperoni vs. beef vs. ham vs. olives vs. onions vs. capsicum or some combination of those, and a lot more besides. You have cubby-hole concepts for breakfast vs. lunch vs. TV snack-time vs. dinner. Then there’s small individual size vs. large size vs. family size where everybody gets the same deal. And thin base vs. medium base vs. thick base pizzas. Lastly, there’s the choice of pizza in the first place. Your cubby-holes contain concepts of alternative dinners like steak vs. lamb vs. seafood vs. spaghetti vs. chicken vs. turkey vs. ham vs. any of dozens of other possibilities. From the hundreds upon hundreds of choices / options / permutations drawn from those concepts stored in the cubby-holes of you mind, you make one subconscious decision. It could be even a slightly irrational decision – maybe you don’t have any pizza-related ingredients in stock; it’s nasty weather and you’ll need to go to the supermarket!
I’d suggest that with so many hundreds of options (and this is just one tiny facet of your daily coming to terms with your day), how can you make a final conscious decision using only your conscious mind? You’d be stymied. You’d be indecisive faced with that multitude of conscious options. It seems as if your subconscious crunches the numbers; your consciousness acts on the answer. Your subconscious says I / cook / small / mushroom / thin base / pizza / dinner and then your conscious mind puts that answer into an action mode and makes it so.
Of course not all creative activity is subconscious in origin – or so you think. You compose a letter off the top of your head; ditto holding a real time conversation.
Do you take a right turn or a left turn at Oak Street? That was the issue at hand for a popular song, and surely the resolution of the issue is a conscious decision and subject to free will. Your subconscious cubby-holes will store and provide for you the positives and negatives of either choice when you drag them to the fore. But what if it’s the very first time you are required to make such a decision and you have no prior knowledge to draw on. Surely that decision will be 100% a demonstration of free will. Or will it? How can you make an informed decision when you have no data on which to make a decision? The easy option is to toss heads or tails, but there’s no free will cigar awarded for that.
Perhaps if you are right-handed you might subconsciously (there’s that word again) true right when you reached Oak Street.
Your mind, like the rest of life, the Universe and everything, is composed of molecules, in turn composed of atoms, in turn made up of the elementary particles we all learn about in high school science classes. Now the realm of the micro-verse is governed by the probability laws of quantum physics. As such, if you really want to get down and dirty, any and all mental activities at any and all levels have to take quantum physics into account. So what’s the big deal? Well, your decision to go right or left at Oak Street might just boil down to a probabilistically quantum state of some elementary particle in your brain which could go either way in a totally random way which you have no control over.
In quantum physics, when you have an equally either/or state of affairs, well that’s known as a superposition of states. If nobody is looking, you go both left and right at Oak Street until someone peeks and it’s determined either/or. It’s another version of Schrodinger’s Cat-in-the-box thought experiment with a naturally radioactive substance that has a 50/50 chance of decaying in say one hour. If the decay happens, it triggers a device inside the box that kills the cat. If the decay fails to eventuate, the cat lives. Until someone looks after one hour, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time. After someone peeks, the cat is either dead or alive.
So, in a sort of similar way, perhaps a radioactive atom inside your brain (and you are naturally slightly radioactive) will decay or not decay during the time you are agonising over that left or right turn. The decay/not decay will decide, not if the cat lives or dies but whether you turn left or right at Oak Street. In any case, you have no control. Quantum physics controls your subconscious which controls you and your decisions in the absence of any other driving force.
As noted frequently above, when it comes to the subconscious you have no control over how it operates. Therefore, with respect to the subconscious, you have no free will.
While watching a DVD of a TV show or feature film for the first time, your phone rings. You hit the “pause” button while you answer the phone. Now when you return, mentally you can envision hundreds of possible scenarios or options that could unfold in the few minutes after you resume viewing by hitting the “play” button. But you know there will be only one scenario and it is fixed – absolutely. Why? It’s been pre-programmed. There’s no free will for the characters.
Now what if we could freeze frame your mind like a DVD – hit your mind’s “pause” button split seconds before a pizza dinner in all its finality detail entered your conscious mind. We, the outsiders, could imagine hundreds of scenarios of what would happen when we un-paused your mind, but just the one scenario would eventuate.
Now the question arises – you have no control over your subconscious mind and what it comes up with, yet the subconscious seems to often rule the roost where much of your decision making is unplanned; much of your creativity is unplanned; all that much to do with your imagination is unplanned, unplanned meaning your conscious mind played no active role. You just slept on it; you had that unplanned eureka moment while your brain was idling in neutral.
The DVD analogy was pre-programming. Might your subconscious be pre-programming as well? If so, no free will, and one scenario that pre-empts your free will is your existence as virtual reality in a simulated universe!
So, if you are not in control of your subconscious then that implies a lack of free will of the mind and your mental processes. You certainly don’t have mind-over-matter free will (you can’t flap your arms and fly or run faster than the speed of sound), but you no doubt think you are in charge of your own mind. If that’s not the case, well any sign of that is suggestive that you are living in a computer software-generated simulated universe which gives you no free will at all, only an illusion of free will.
Belief in astrology is self-negating your belief in your free will since the stars and the planets rule in your roost. Perhaps one idea for such acceptance of astrology is that you don’t have free will and so astrology is your scapegoat substitute.
Emotions are strange in that you may see a picture of X and burst into tears, or laugh out loud, whereas I’m totally ho-hum, under-whelmed, boring. However, another image may cause me to rant and rave, while you just yawn-the-big-yawn. In either case, you seemingly have no control over your feelings. You don’t seem to have much free will in terms of who you like or dislike or who you fall head-over-heels in love with, so again, I’d conclude that emotions are part of your subconscious.
THE SUBCONSCIOUS IS THE CONSCIOUS?
It seems however unnecessarily messy to have both a subconscious and a conscious mind. Actually, it was Sigmund Freud who divided the mind into the conscious mind and the subconscious (unconscious) mind. The question arises, might the subconscious actually be doing ALL the number crunching and feeding the answers to your (illusionary) consciousness or conscious mind, sometimes unexpectedly – that eureka moment, but more often as not, humming a constant feed along to you in the background, a feeding which as far as you’re concerned is your (illusionary) conscious mind in action but it’s all just the subconscious. You think your conscious mind is composing that letter, but the words and sentences are being fed through to your (illusionary) consciousness via that subconscious interface without you being self-aware of that. So in fact there is no consciousness housed separate and apart as an organic structure, only the illusion of one. Your automated nervous system runs the body; what we now call the subconscious runs the mind – the entire mind.
That’s probably a vastly oversimplification, but regardless of whether or not the subconscious and the conscious are separate and apart or one and the same, the subconscious is top of the pecking order over which we have no control. Only the automated central nervous system rules above all else – if it didn’t you’d be kaput, extinct, stone dead as a doorknob.
I’d be of the opinion that you can’t in fact operate on the conscious level at all at anytime as hinted at above. You read the word “tree” in a book, hear the word spoken, or see a “tree” in the movies or outside your window. You must immediately reach back into that subconscious cubby-hole and draw back out what a tree is in order for the work or image to make sense. You see gibberish in a book or hear it, say someone ‘speaking in tongues’; maybe it’s real gibberish or maybe it’s an unfamiliar foreign language, but it’s gibberish nonetheless. Or say you see something you’ve never seen before (or never heard or learnt about). There’s incomprehension because there’s o subconscious cubby-hole to reach back into that contains that something that will enlighten you. And so you have gibberish or the great unknown to contend with.
One hundred percent of your perception of reality comes into your mind via your five senses and if anything perceived doesn’t match up with your subconscious cubby-hole encyclopaedia then part of your reality makes no sense.
All of these millions of daily inputs, matching with cubby-hole outputs, take place so fast, not quite at the speed of light but getting there, that you have no awareness of it happening. The lag time between reading “tree” and the “ah ha, I know that that means” is so fast it just doesn’t register. If there was a significant time differential you’d know it. Back in our Stone Age cavemen days, our ancient ancestor’s world of fight or flight, survival of the fittest, any lag time would be detrimental to your well being. I see a “sabre-tooth cat” – five second delay – subconscious cubby-hole says “sabre-tooth cat bad news, run”. By then you’re its dinner; it’s too little too late for you.
Take another common scenario. After you wake up in the morning you tend to greet those around you with a “Good morning (person’s name)”. Say it’s “Good morning, John”. Now you have to reach back into your memory to recall what the appropriate phrase is and what the persons name is. You also therefore need to remember the meaning of ‘appropriate’. It would be strange and inappropriate to say “Goodnight Josephine” instead, or “I think I’ll have pizza for dinner tonight”. But how do you reach back into your memory to draw out the correct phrase when you don’t remember what you’re looking for. If you did remember what you were looking for you wouldn’t have to look. It’s the same with any though process. You’ve got to remember what it is you need to remember in order to think the thought, or say the words, or perform the actions. It’s all very circular reasoning. You have to remember what you need to remember in order to remember!
If you remember where you put your keys you don’t need to search your memory to discover where you left your keys, but you initially still had to perform that search of your memory since you remember where you put your keys! But how did you know where to search for the answer (where did I put my keys), an answer that wasn’t an answer to an unasked question like how many keys are on the keychain or what’s the colour of the key I actually need. Your memory bank is a huge place with millions of bits and pieces of data. Only a very tiny fraction is relevant to “where did I put my keys”. It’s like trying to find one sentence in an encyclopaedia or that proverbial needle in a haystack.
Further, you had to remember that you needed to remember where you left your keys. That infinite regression of I need to remember in order to remember in order to remember is almost like that series of Russian dolls, one inside the other inside the other. Ultimately your entire mind becomes 100% clogged with the key problem and you shut down from mental overload. But you don’t, shut down that is, so there’s another solution.
If you cannot consciously recall where you left your keys, and that’s a scenario we can probably all identify with, then you rely on your subconscious. If you’re too impatient for that relax, wait and see approach, there’s always the tried and true treasure hunt approach, but that in itself also involves numerous memory exercises.
YOUR’RE ON AUTOPILOT
You don’t need to remember to wake up, or to breathe, or how to take one step in front of the other to walk from A to B, or how to digest your breakfast, or if you’re sick or injured your body by itself usually manages to put things right. You don’t have to remember how to heal a cut or get over the common cold. If nearly all of your body is on autopilot, pre-programmed as it were, perhaps all of your body is pre-programmed, including the mind, regardless how many divisions it has.
I actually have two separate and apart virtual reality critters on my PC, the standard Office Assistant (cleverly disguised as a cat) and Felix [the cat]. Now the question is, do these simulated critters in any shape, manner and form mirror the (apparently) really real human?
Firstly, I think we can all agree that these two virtual critters are just that – simulations. As such we can all agree that they are just software programmes and that they have no free will. But there are many, many parallels between their behaviour, their mental processes, and that of the (apparently) really real human being.
For starters, the Office Assistant (OA) has memory. If I perform a certain action, I get a prompt to do something in response. The Office Assistant (OA) has searched its memory for an appropriate reply to my action. It has made a decision. It also shows an emotion in trying to attract my attention since it wants further input from me. Because software can and often is upgraded, well that’s learning in another guise. Felix, on the other hand, exhibits some sensory processing by exhibiting a sense of sight, smell and touch when interacting in a creative with other objects it encounters. It exhibits a range of behaviours that you’d identify with a really real cat. About the only things they are not programmed to do is go to the litter box or have sex or vomit, for fairly obvious reasons, though it could be so programmed if one wanted.
They both feed, albeit off of electrical energy. They wake up when I turn on the PC and go to ‘sleep’ when I turn off the PC. The OA actually takes catnaps during long intervals of inactivity where’s its helpful hints aren’t necessary. There’s also no way of telling if they are programmed to enter a dream state like real cats do. I suspect probably not as it would be unnecessary and a waste of programming.
Of course it’s all just sophisticated programming. I’m not sure exactly how that works, but I’m sure any computer software programmer worthy of the title could spell it out in incredible technical detail.
The upshot is, these clearly simulated cats do indeed mirror many of what we’d identify as real biologically human traits. Of course given the relative sophistications, it’s like comparing the value of a five cent piece against a five dollar bill, but the commonality is that both the five cent piece and the five dollar bill are money. The difference between Office Assistant/Felix and me is just a matter of degree.
MIND OVER MATTER: THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING?
Try as you will, your mind cannot influence the behaviour of non-living material, otherwise you’d always win playing the slot or poker machines and 18 holes-in-one at the golf course would be, well, par for the course.
I say non-living because your mind can influence other living minds, though I don’t mean via telepathy or some such or various other technological devices allegedly used for mind-control purposes. The quite ordinary hard stare or the ‘evil eye’ or the barking voice is all that’s required as any raw recruit at the receiving end of the Drill Sergeant’s wrath can attest to. Some minds are putty in the ‘hands’ of other minds. On a gentler note, your thoughts, ideas, words spoken or written can shape the worldviews of other minds.
Two lovers gaze into each others eyes – mental communication of a sort transpires each affecting the physiological state of the other.
Influencing other odd bods and sods apart, your mind can have some minor influence over your own body. Some people have some control over their heart rate to some extent, and the placebo effect, both positive and negative has been proven beyond all doubt in terms of alleviating minor medical ailments by accenting the positive or aggravating the negative. With respect to the later, if you really think someone’s put the whammy on you, and you believe in the power of the whammy, then you can just waste away and curl up and snuff it. It’s not surprising that such things are possible since your mind is really matter (biochemistry) and your body is really matter (biochemistry) and biochemistry can flow from one to the other. Now that only works on a relatively minor scale. You might defy the Earth’s gravity and arm toss a ball up into the air, but you can’t defy it to the extent where you can arm toss the ball all the way to Mars. Likewise, your mind might be able to shorten the duration and severity of a common cold, but it’s probably beyond realism to expect it to overcome a case of pneumonia.
Free will means having control over your own mind. It’s mind-over-mind. You’re in command. But you’re not in command over your subconscious. Lack of free will points to another undefined nebulous someone (or something) in control of you, or in other words, a scenario that’s more likely as not makes you a virtual reality in a simulated universe.
And no, I didn’t come up with this topic consciously – it came to me unwanted, unbidden, via my subconscious.
*You shouldn’t think of those cubby-holes literally as individual compartments within your brain. It’s just a convenient analogy or way of looking at things. Memory is apparently dispersed throughout your wetware similar to your documents or files on your PC not being located here or there or on this or that piece of hardware, but rather your files, the bits and pieces of your documents, are scattered wherever there’s a bit of space available, which is why every now and again you need a defragmenter program to bring the pits and pieces back together again so that your PC doesn’t strain itself unnecessarily bringing it all together.
Author: John Prytz
Science librarian; retired.