On Consciousness, Thoughts, and Meditation
Okay, having looked a bit at the subconscious and the concept that it's a lot of autonomously running programs in there driven by neurological (neurons and network wiring) and neurobiological (neurochemicals and hormones) processes that run our lives all of which in turn produces our conscious experience, I think it's time now to look a little more at this business of consciousness and what it is and what's in there and why it's there.
Now, I likened human consciousness to your computer screen and speakers. This is a useful analogy because the visual and auditory are what dominate our conscious experiences (in other words, what we are most experiencing consciously at any one time). It represents what you are currently working on from all what your computer is capable of doing with its inner processors, memory, software, and data input through the Internet. I liken the Internet to our own five senses for bringing in external data to work with what's already in the processing hardware and software programs we have inside. It's not like senses such as smell, taste and our tactical sense of touch don't have a great deal of “pull” in guiding our behaviour, it's just that visual and auditory data get the most conscious attention and awareness (for some very good reasons that we'll have to leave aside for now).
Let's now have a closer look at the consciousness you experience when you wake up each morning and your “mind” flashes to life (I'm going to leave for now what the “mind” is for it is my position that when we are talking about consciousness and the mind we are really talking about the same phenomenon created by the brain and whatever differences there are is just splitting philosophical hairs).
Human consciousness has the ability to work in multiple time frames – present, backwards and forwards; at once holding the present, the ability to match that with past “data” and make future projections based on that. This is very unique in the animal world as far as we know, at least to the extent that humans can do it.
Human consciousness is also unique for its “theory of mind” - the ability to be aware of and conceptualize others' thoughts, plans, states of mind and so on. As you are reading these words, you are not only able to take in and discern their meaning (again, an ability unique to the human brain) you are able to conceptualize and imagine the person writing them and to mentally connect to that person (hopefully in a reasonably good light!). That you are even aware that you have a conscious (AKA: self awareness) is unique to humans (though animal cognition researchers appear to have found some levels of this in certain species - primates, dolphins and elephants if my memory serves correctly - certainly it is not at the human level).
You are capable of carrying in your conscious mind at any one time numerous images, numerous conversations, multiple emotions, numerous plans, numerous ideas – all in past, present and future carnations of each. Not to mention being able to do this while at the same time performing rather difficult tasks such as maneuvering the two tonne death machine that you know as your car through dazzlingly complex grids and networks of hundreds and hundreds of other many tonne death machines (AKA: city and freeway traffic). Though we're going to see – not today, but in a future related post – that we are not as good at this “multitasking” as we imagine. In fact, ironically, the better we “think” we are at multitasking, the worst we score on multitasking tests (something to bear in mind when attempting to mentally and physically multitask while behind the wheel of your car).
As I hope is becoming clear to regular readers, our brains are not as different from that of most other mammals as we humans would like to think – much of the basic “layout”, “hardware” and circuitry is essentially identical. (1) The story of human evolution then is the story of the evolution of consciousness – or perhaps I should say “higher consciousness”. (Higher cognitive abilities as well, of course, but I'd argue that our higher cognition is part and parcel our higher conscious abilities) Every single thing that humanity has accomplished – from higher social organization to the building of belief systems to all our enormously advanced technological achievements – all grew out of the higher human consciousness that we evolved (and are continuing to evolve – hopefully, that is. There's also nothing to say that other species that currently exist or may exist in the future may also evolve as high or higher levels of consciousness).
Now, as the neuroscientist David Eagleman says, “consciousness developed because it was advantageous, but advantageous only in limited amounts.” (original italics) By this he is referring to the fact that our brains are – to quote him again - “in the business of gathering information and steering behaviour appropriately” and that in our moment to moment day to day existence, our brains have to take in such an astronomical amount of “data” (sensory information) and be generating so many appropriate responses and behaviour that it is completely impossible to be able to consciously deal with it all (we have a brief look at these subconscious brain systems in the post Zombie Programs - An Introduction).
Hence consciousness can only ever be aware of a tiny fraction of what's going on in the enormously vast jungles of our tens of billions of neurons, trillions and trillions of synaptic connections and hundreds of kilometers of wiring (not to mention all the hundreds of neurobiological components) that make up the organ that runs our lives. Your brain then is capable of taking in and processing exceedingly more “data” than your consciousness could possibly be aware of and handle on a magnitude of perhaps as much (or more) than a million to one.
And this is what makes human consciousness so handy (or advantageous as Eagleman puts it) and unlike any other species on earth or in the history of earth (and in the known universe at this time) – it creates a “priority system” for what to be aware of and deal with out of that astronomical amount of data pouring in through your senses every second you are awake on top of all the millions of gigabytes of “data” your own brain can potentially store and put forward for use (memory, in other words).
But it is an imperfect system for a number of reasons very important for us to understand and most pertinent to mental health problems (to finally get to the crux of the biscuit). We'll look at just two of those reasons today.
One, as outlined in Evolution, Life and Why Our Brains Developed the Way They Are, the great majority of human brain evolution took place in and for environmental conditions far, far removed from what our conscious selves must navigate in today's world. And as I said at the end of that post (and I urge you to revisit it to review what I am getting at here and why), while the ability of the human mind to adapt to changing conditions has been and is incredibly impressive, it's not reasonable to expect it to have adapted for as much and as rapid environmental change as it has had to do in the past several centuries and especially the past several decades.
Two, however advanced (and advantageous) our consciousness is, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is the brain itself that both creates consciousness and largely “decides” what's going to be put on that “conscious awareness plate” or “computer screen” at any one time. That is still for the most part (and by “most part”, we're talking in the neighbourhood of 99%) taken care of by the huge number of autonomously running – and very often competing – neuronal network programs that run beneath the surface of our conscious awareness. This is very, very critical to understand.
What the brain does – to put it ridiculously briefly and simply for now – is it'll detect or calculate something that it considers to be of importance and then puts it up on your conscious plate (or “screen”) for attention. As such, we can think of consciousness as a working arena of attention and focus for what your brain "feels" is important at any one time (and often, as you'll have noticed, these "important" things are contradictory to and at odds with one another and detrimental to our selves).
This could be something that your visual processing system has seen and which within other systems have detected danger, or certain plans and thoughts which it calculates are important for your survival or mating success (yes, most of it – as sophisticated as you “think” you are – is this base. This is also what I was talking about in that post on brain evolution and the priorities arranged for your evolutionary and survival success).
While a lot can be put up into your conscious by your subconscious brain (and I know what an understatement this sounds like to many of you), today I want to just focus on thoughts and ideas as it is these that tend to dominate and which generally have the most power.
This is only going to be a brief introduction to thoughts and the brain but what we'll look at here today will suffice to begin to make you more aware of the power of your own thoughts. I want to touch on both how and where thoughts arise and the power they have over “us” (that is the power our own thoughts have over our own brain networks).
First we need a very brief working definition of “thoughts”. The science of human thought is endlessly fascinating and I could bore you to tears on this subject. It is also where the brain and mind and self and awareness and everything to do with consciousness gets almost hopelessly philosophically tangled. But we'll let the philosophers get into their academic fisticuffs about that. We're just going to think of thoughts as the language and dialogue your brain uses to communicate with “you” (yes, I know how weird this sounds). Think of it as the “code” your computer uses to put things on your computer screen in a way you can understand them.
We also need to understand that a good deal of our thoughts are in fact “rationalizations” for actions or decisions our brains have already created. The concept of our thoughts as “post-hoc rationalizations” is something we will look at in more depth when we start to learn about mindfulness meditation cognitive behaviour therapy, but for now we just need to understand this to mean that your brain will create an action or behaviour first and then it will create in our thoughts a story line in your mind to justify it. It's likely something that we can recognize in others but not in ourselves. But trust me, we all do it (and at times for very good reasons which I touched on in Broken Ego Defenses). Untangling our thoughts and why they're in our minds can be very, very challenging (because they are so much and deep a part of how our brains work) but once you get going on the work, you'll see the benefits (while bearing in mind that none of us will ever be perfect at it).
Thoughts can be generated from many different regions of the brain and for different reasons. Where exactly thoughts come from in the brain is almost as complicated as the brain itself as so many regions are involved in even the simplest of thoughts (far flung memory networks, all the emotional centres, speech processing centres to name a few). We also explore the power of imagination in creating and forming our thoughts in the post Understanding and Taming Imagination. For today's purposes, we need to understand that a good number of these thoughts are the “dialogue” - the “language” - your brain is using to communicate the importance of something to your conscious plate.
Or at least that's the basic idea. For many people this system works brilliantly. But we're here to discuss thoughts because …. well, they often drive us literally crazy.
Our thoughts are huge factors in most disorders from schizophrenia to bipolar to depression to anxiety. Both psychology and psychiatry understand this. The majority of drugs prescribed for schizophrenia, bipolar and anxiety are for pummelling these crazy making thoughts into submission.
The reason thoughts have so much power over us is a very interesting area to explore. On the plus side, our power of thought and self-dialog with our brains and using them to access the tremendous calculating power of our neuronal networks is demonstrably advantageous (to again come back to Eagleman's term). Our thoughts can steer us towards some very good behaviour and achievements. The right kind of thoughts can create enormous motivation and drive, activate our powerful belief systems in positive ways and much so on.
Then there's that nasty downside.
Take our fear and stress response systems. With absolutely no visible or tangible threat present whatsoever, mere thoughts can send our pulse rates through the roof and send us into fits of rage and anger or to become frozen by fear.
Or mere thoughts alone can send us into high and perhaps inappropriate sexual arousal.
Or mere thoughts alone can create hate for someone we know nothing about nor even have any particular reason to know or care anything about.
Mere thoughts will shape how we see ourselves, our concepts of our selves and greatly mold our esteem and confidence (or lack thereof).
Words and thoughts of others will shape how we see ourselves, our concepts of our selves and greatly mold our esteem and confidence (or lack thereof) and then those thoughts become part of our thoughts.
The human brain is capable of scores and scores of what are termed by psychologists as "cognitive distortions", something I introduce in this post on understanding the mind. And this is where a good deal of the crux of mental health disorders lie – our own minds cannot recognize either the danger of the thoughts we're having nor even that they're distorted nor how much power they have over our brains and resultant behaviours.
Or, even if we do recognize these things, how goddamned difficult they are to control.
I cannot even begin to relate to you the power of the bipolar mind to generate thoughts. Not just thoughts, but potentially wildly delusional and distorted thoughts. And not just wildly delusional and distorted thoughts but unbelievably wildly opposite delusional and distorted thoughts. Nor can I even begin to relate to you how incredibly hard it is to control them.
Bipolar is a nuclear powered generator of virtually every kind of thought the human mind is capable of across the entire spectrum of human mental states from the highest high to the lowest low. And they can come with a stupefying speed and power. And they can flip through that entire spectrum almost within the blink of an eye. You can go from thoughts of being the most wonderful and brilliant human on the planet to thinking you are the worst piece of dog shit to ever get stuck to the bottom of a shoe. Just. Like. That. <snaps fingers>. Not only that, but because of other aspects of bipolar which drives one to act on these thoughts,they have incredibly frightening potential to alter behaviour (this is all greatly understood by both psychology and psychiatry – they do get some things right) up to and including jumping off of or in front of things and other forms of suicide.
So if you are sitting there thinking how hard your own thoughts are to control, yes, I do understand. I DO.
Which is generally why if you are diagnosed with bipolar and exhibiting these behaviours and wild thoughts, the medical establishment will carpet bomb your brain with plutonium grade weaponry such as lithium, anti-psychotics, various mood stabilizers (most of which were originally created to control epilepsy), benzodiazepines and anti-depressants.
Which, you know, has its own detrimental effects such as brain damage (mostly in an area called the basal ganglia and frontal lobes) and impaired cognition and blunted emotions, among other "fun things" to endure (I'll get to the sickening real world manifestations of that brain damage another time).
But if we understand why these thoughts are being created and by what brain systems, we can start to get a better idea of how to control them.
And if we learn how to manage our consciousness – that "computer screen and speakers" of our mind where all this occurs – we can then learn to start “clearing the screen” of these unwanted and dangerous thought intrusions. If we learn how to understand our thoughts and create different ones and to subdue unwanted ones, we can clear that conscious experience of ours up considerably and then direct our brain so that it is more optimally, as Eagleman put it, “gathering information and steering behaviour”.
If all this sounds suspiciously like another big sales job for meditation, you're right.
Even just simple meditative methods that I introduced at the end of the previous post are going to be enormously powerful tools to get you on the road to a) clearing your conscious mind of so much clutter and destructive thoughts and b) being more in control of what your brain is putting there for attention and action. What I described in that previous post is basically all I do.
But most vital, learning those basics will set the table for the more important mindfulness meditation CBT and the kind of mindfulness we need to apply to all our daily actions, activities and mental states.
I have developed other methods and techniques to learn how to retrain my thoughts and thought processes that are unique (such as my Brain Training Exercises). Many techniques that are taught to control thoughts involve trying to make the intrusive and harmfully negative thoughts “go away”. But this is often more akin to putting a band-aid on a leaking boiler – it may hold it off for a while but eventually it's going to blow. My approach is how to cut the thoughts off at the source rather than just suppress them, or put a "band-aid" on them. This can be exhausting in itself and itself ties up valuable consciousness resources and "bandwidth", but gradually your brain gets better at it (yes, it begins to autonomize the process) and it gets easier with time and the next thing you know, it's more a part of your natural neuronal processing.
A lot of consciousness management involves learning to stay in the now, in the present day, the process and learning of which we examine in some detail in the post Positive Difference Making Fundamentals - Staying in the Now. Your conscious mind has enough to do with the present, let alone piling upon it all the worries and concerns of a thousand tomorrows and the memories and weight of thousands of yesterdays (which those zombie systems will do if you let them).
Learning to simply let go of many things is vital as well. I think of letting go as a way of “clearing the cache” of the RAM of our working memories and thus our consciousness.
Learning to tune out the majority of things screaming for your attention via social media, traditional print media and television has been proven to greatly alleviate stress.
Speaking of stress, as we learn more about the stress response system and how that works, we'll see it is the number one culprit for putting all kinds of distressing demands on your conscious awareness plate that literally scream for attention.
But nothing will be more powerful and simple to learn (though simple does not equate to easy) than meditation, not only for keeping your conscious plate clearer of unwanted and unneeded clutter and screaming demands, but to literally rewire neuronal networks and build up critically important brain regions. Again, the evidence for this is now enormous (and I'll get to a dedicated post on this as soon as I can, I promise).
So those simple techniques I told you about at the end of the previous chapter? No, I'm not going to teach you anything more than that today. I'm only going to ask that you keep practising those simple steps. Those are the simple ABCs upon which you're going to construct a whole new inner language and self communication and control over your conscious experience.
And as you learn how to actually manage your conscious experience, you will learn to be less beholden to those “zombie systems” currently driving you batty.
1. The main anatomical differences would be found in the structure of the neocortex (the outer layer of the brain). In modern humans the distinct 'folds' - the sulci and gyri - that can be seen in the outer cortex are much more pronounced. As well, there are significant differences in the frontal and prefrontal cortex.
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