A radical suggestion

How much and what type of our thinking is consciously done? The naïve feeling is that all our thinking is conscious. But we know better and tend to believe that a good deal of our thoughts are created unconsciously. I want to put forward the notion that none of our thoughts are the product of consciousness. Please set aside your disbelief for a short while in order to understand this idea and then you can resume your critical faculties and judge it.

Consciousness is about memory not thought. We cannot remember experiences unless we consciously experienced them. We can only know that we have been unconscious be noticing a discontinuity in our memory. We are probably only forced to have conscious experience of items that have been held in working memory – this has been called type 2 cognition, which always forms a conscious experience and uses working memory. That does not necessarily mean that the type 2 cognition is a product of the mechanism of consciousness.

Memory of experiences has functions. Why would we remember an event? We might find such information useful in future is about the only answer. For example, if we know there is a nasty dog in a particular yard, we may want to notice whether the gate is closed before we pass by. The various places we have experienced and mapped in memory have a lot of information associated with them. That is useful to have ‘on tap’ when we find ourselves in a particular place. ‘Where’ is an important element of the memory of an event. Also ‘when’, ‘who’ and ‘what’ are elements of most events. This information is available from the mechanisms of perception, recognition, navigation etc. We know that the processes that create these elements are not conscious, but the end product is. We also want other pieces of information to form an event to remember and use in recall. We want to know the event’s place in chains of cause and effect, whether it was an important event, what our emotional involvement was, whether it was a surprise or predicted. A very important element has to do with agency. We want to know whether we had any part in causing the event, and if we did was it deliberate or accidental, and whether the outcome was favourable or not. We assume that much of this volition information is created by conscious rather than unconscious mechanisms but experiments put that in doubt. And quite honestly there is no way that we could tell the difference.

Consciousness only needs to contain what is worth remembering but not all may be remembered. We can think of consciousness as the leading edge of memory containing all the information needed for the stable memory. However, we really do need to tell the difference between the ‘now’ and the stored memory of the past. And, although a fairly full description of ‘now’ may be delivered to short-term memory, much of it may be discarded before it reaches a more stable form. Memories are sketchy compared to conscious experience. The conscious stage of memory also has access to the current state of much of the brain. Low-level vision, hearing, feeling etc. can be used by the conscious model of ‘now’ to give it vivid realism – this would not be as easy for older memories.

Of course, these episodic memories are not our only memories and there are memories that are not produced from consciousness. Consciousness may have other functions than memory. All that I am trying to show here is that it is possible that consciousness is not involved in cognition. It may record some aspects if they will be important to remember for the future, but consciousness is not a cognition or thought engine in the brain. It is the engine to assemble experiences to be remembered as experiences.

Resume critical faculties…

3 thoughts on “A radical suggestion

  1. LincolnX

    But, how do I remember dreams in which I fly? Isn’t that almost entirely a product of consciousness?

    1. JKwasniak Post author

      We have to assume that dreams are produced during some type of housekeeping that occurs during some type of sleep (REM). We would not normally be conscious of dreams. However when we are aware of a dream (because we awoke during the dream for example) then we could be conscious of what we had been dreaming just before waking. This does not say anything about what produced the dream or how. It only shows that when we are conscious we are conscious – not what consciousness is or does. Neither remembering dreams or flying in dreams indicates anything other than the rare awareness of a some of a dream – the awareness need have nothing to do with producing the dream.

  2. Goeran Johansson

    I agree, to me it is obvious that none of our thoughts are the product of consciousness. Consciousness is an effect produced by the brain when it is analyzing and integrating sensory data with the internal world model comprised of memories of previous experiences. So consciousness can be seen as the brains latest hypothesis about the current state of the world and the body. Thinking is association chains of conscious states, there is no active “thinker”. The brain is just an extremely complex adaptive automaton (something that most people never will accept).


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