Are you conscious?

You know how sometimes it feels like your thoughts are simmering in a big cauldron, that you keep adding ingredients to, until the mixture really starts to bubble and froth, and turns an interesting colour? (Maybe that’s just me.) A few things have recently come together for me, making my thought-mixture very restless.

My research, in a nutshell, has been looking at things that shift controlled, purposeful action to behaviour that is not under executive control. Add to this a good dash of reading (The Neurology of Consciousness, and Saks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat never far from my mind), an elective I’ve been doing this year, which looks at and takes apart the raw processes that construct what we view as completely endogenous, intact and fully-formed thoughts and beliefs, and a pinch of All in the Mind (especially this episode: Are You Conscious?) and you get some serious bubbling action.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of consciousness and choice. If you are completely disengaged withy your surroundings, and on auto-pilot, are you actually conscious? If there are things you can do that make you much more likely to perform certain other behaviours either without wanting to, or without engaging with the outcomes or consequences, what does that mean for the theory of free will? Does personhood exist when behaviour is automatic? Are “we” really more than disparate processes that have somehow been brought together under the guise of cohesion and seamlessness?

In a concrete, every-day sense, these questions don’t matter, I suppose. Life goes on, regardless of whether or not we are actually conscious at every moment; the illusion (if it is, indeed, an illusion) is so pervasive that we live and breathe (and die) in the Matrix. But engaging with these concepts and thought experiments definitely feels unsettling, and I wonder if we’ll ever understand ourselves. If there truly is no “self” to understand though, who is asking the questions?


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