Unconscious is like the filaments of mycelium under this moss: crucial.
Recently there is great fuss about consciousness -- not just “thinking” but also speech and objectivity (as opposed to subjectivity). It has been demonstrated again and again that one’s point of view (what one has at stake; one’s idea of one’s identity; notably gender assignment, training and education) all affect what one sees, thinks, assumes is reality. It is clear that the very grammar of our sentences as well as our vocabularies and their trailing veils of association, are constructed and “national.” We know that even scientists making every effort to be objective, “real”, statistical or instrument-proven, are vulnerable to fooling themselves in subtle ways so that decades later the work is challenged.
There is concern that if we admit consciousness is produced by our brains, that means we are robots or denying that we have souls. All of this produces talk, even though our vocabulary doesn’t include words for the concepts we’re encountering, which makes it very difficult to talk about with others or even think about privately. But we no longer worry about whether consciousness is present in animals. Except that a few people are still trying to get gorillas to speak and claim Lassie understands words or even that porpoises recognize themselves in mirrors. Animal: somewhere between robot and angel. They can count low numbers, but they can’t do math.
A cell that perceives time.
Not much thought is given to the UNconscious though it is what controls our bodies, maintains the homeostasis of life, weaves the substrate of our identity and awareness. A moment of reflection and attention can make us aware of our body’s state: contented or irritated or in a rage. Those who take drugs -- legal or illegal -- can tell us how undependable and phantasmagorical the so-called conscious mind can be. Athletes and musicians can tell us that their muscles know what to do and playing is unconscious once they have installed the movements and associations with the desire for them. Desire lives in the unconscious, not the spoken conscious mind which struggles to express it but never quite succeeds in any final sense.
The unconscious is in the whole body: gut feelings, the clues that a lie detector records, posture, tension, staying upright, heart and breath which are powerful symbols for the conscious mind. In fact, until the prefrontal cortex evolved, the brain was probably unconscious in the sense of being aware of itself and reflecting on decisions. But both the conscious and the unconscious are complex, informing and controlling each other.
Our capacity for empathy is considered the crown of evolution so far, carried by specific cells and accessed often through sight, but it is not necessarily conscious. One sign is that two people sitting across a table for conversation will often show by their body language whether they are attuned. Those in agreement often assume the same pose. Those against may throw up a physical guard, like crossed arms, but may not realize they have done it.
The neuron connectome makes a cat’s cradle back and forth through ALL the neuron cells, reaching from over the eyes clear back to the top of the spine, moving from the muscle-connected neurons to the hormone-excreting organs to the autonomic system in the viscera, possibly changing the code slightly as the message moves through nerve nodes that sort and edit. Neuron activity that is anchored in the "limbic system" -- which is in all animals though possibly not very well developed -- constitutes thought as much as conscious words in sentences and might have more to do with identity than anything the person could name when asked.
“Felt concepts” is a category that interests me greatly. These are the elements of the unconscious that show up in dreams, that make "Freudian" associations, that come to the surface in art work, stories, music, dance -- whole body concepts that a dancer can express with no words at all. Felt concepts are what led me into the “religious” context, though it trapped me in the institution. Felt concepts are “spiritual.”
One category of felt concepts may be quite concrete, the “haptic” objects we handle in our lives: food, weapons, each other, our pets, furniture, clothing, ornaments, plants. These things we put our hands on daily become the source of metaphors, some of them deep enough in our assumptions that we’ve forgotten where they came from. (“Chairing” is quite different from “tabling” and lately people talk about “plating” food.)
Another category is about motion which is change in both the position of the body and its orientation in space. It is suggested that when the symbolism of sounds (speech) developed in the brain, it formed on the left half. In other mammals the “grid” of knowing spatial placement and orientation is on both sides, as so many brain parts are, but now in humans it’s mostly on the left side, which controls the right side of the body, the “handedness” primary, thus tilted to the concrete. The “haptic” side and maybe the old “gps” grid have persisted in our grammar and our assumptions. Nouns for objects, things we could put our hands on, are strong. Verbs, when we move around, describe what we do. So then are keyboards “hyperhaptic”?
Perhaps the idea of math being on the left side of the brain comes from the grid cells remaining. Once I had ocular migraines that were expressed in lines, “graphs.” I notice that some people who are capable of dissociation make art that is similar. But it is the right half of the brain that is metaphorical.
Research is now telling us that memory is controlled by indexing sensations: smell, sight, taste and so on, which is why past moments are sometimes vividly triggered by a scrap of music or drift of fragrance. The moment of recording and the moment of remembering are somehow connected -- they are telling us now that's probably by re-assembling the markers (not necessarily accurately and sometimes including things that weren’t originally recorded or dropping out other parts). Also, they feel they have found cells capable of recording the time. Both moments of memory (original and recalled) are conscious but where are they when in between? In what state?
More than any other aspect, human bodies are governed by rhythms, those wavy lines we see in every medical story with patient's “brain waves” being recorded and presented on instruments. Mostly we are only conscious of brain and heart rhythms, which are unconscious until we think of them but not necessarily controllable unless one is a yoga adept. One researcher suggests that there is something like the sweep arm on a radar screen that keeps all this stuff more or less in sync. If something ultra-brief happens quickly enough that the arm never hits it, it will not be perceptible. Pretty arcane.
This TED talk by John Searle is a big fav in a certain crowd. Here’s this old white man who cusses and he seems to be taking down the idea that the “problem” of consciousness can be solved. He’s defending rationality, the uniqueness of humans, and the superiority of those who “think.” But this old white woman is here to tell you that he’s way behind the research. We are NOT robots, we are NOT angels, but we ARE animals with a few evolved abilities that keep us VERY busy. I remind you that computers don’t have gut feelings. They have no guts.
Except in the movies.