American neuroscientist Dean Buonomano believes that your brain might be processing the world around you in a totally different manner than how you think you’re perceiving it. We’d like to believe that our brains take in information on a first-come first-serve basis, but in actuality our brains are operating more like a cross between a tour guide and an overworked line cook at a busy diner. The tour guide tells you what’s going on while the line cook side gets everything ready behind the scenes. Together, this creates a conscious reality that Buonomano describes as a “a narrative created for our viewing pleasure by our unconscious brain.”
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So consciousness is one of the deepest mysteries that we have ever attempted to resolve. And part of the problem with studying consciousness is that it’s very difficult to measure. But we do have some insights, and for one in the context of how the brain tells time, there’s evidence that consciousness is not really what it seems to be.
So what I mean by that is we feel our subjective experiences unfolding in the world around us in sort of this linear narrative, in which B follows A and in which C follows B and D follows C, in which things are happening in a linear progression.
But in reality it seems that our subjective experiences, our conscious narrative might not be that linear. So there’s a number of experiences or experiments that suggest that the brain processes information in sort of a discontinuous and discrete manner. So it’s not that I’m conscious of everything happening in a nice linear progression. It seems to be in some cases that what happens after interferes or modulates what our conscious experience of those things that came before.
So there’s something called the “cutaneous rabbit illusion” in which if you feel a couple of taps on your arm maybe one, two, three, four—people will feel that as sort of a continuous progression. But in reality that can’t be a continuous progression, because it’s the taps that came later that determined where you felt that the previous taps were occurring.
And if you think of something like speech, you’re probably not aware of my speech in a syllable by syllable, word by word manner. It seems to be that we become conscious of events around us sort of in chunks, in which your unconscious mind reaches a point of analysis by taking and sampling everything that’s happening around it before a subjective experience is delivered into your conscious mind. So I think there are some suggestions that the unconscious brain is continuously taking in, sampling events through its sensory organs, waiting to appropriate points in the narrative to deliver something: a nice narrative of the world around us into our conscious mind. So in the case of speech, for example, we don’t have an experience of every syllable by syllable, every word by word.
But sometimes we have this chunking that happens. So, for example, if I say, “The mouse pad was beside the computer,” in that case the mouse could have another meaning. The mouse could mean a rodent or it could be the mouse pad of a computer. But you only knew the meaning of the word mouse with the word in this case that came after the word mouse. So “the mouse pad,” I could have said, “the mouse was hungry.”
So the meaning of the word mouse can only be understood based on what comes after that. So it seems that when people understand that they might have to wait until the appropriate time to create a conscious perception or a conscious interpretation of what we’re listening to.
So I think there’s mounting evidence that consciousness is not a linear flow of what’s happening around us, but sort of a creation, a narrative—a convenient narrative of what’s happening around us created for our viewing pleasure by the unconscious brain.