For my first blog post, I will ramble on about something I often think about, thinking. As humans, we are self aware and have conscious thought, but what does this really mean?
Recent developments in neuroscience have shown us that the majority of our brain’s activity is performed at a subconscious level. In fact, even the ideas which we come up with most likely stem from the subconscious, and not the conscious part of our brains. Our subconscious is influenced by many things out of our control, such as interactions with our surroundings and cultures, and our actions in turn effect the actions of others. Furthermore, genetics play a large part in our behaviors.
Across many studies, behaviors were shown to be heritable from parent to offspring. Everything from behavioral disorders such as anxiety and depression to the offspring’s desire to play sports and seek thrills showed a strong correlation to genetics. Even intelligence showed a strong correlation to genetics, with a stronger correlation as children develop (if you want to take a look at these papers leave a comment letting me know). An interesting side note is that one of the few things that did not show significant correlation as the offspring grew older is religious beliefs. Returning to the main topic; with this much influence from our subconscious what role, if any, does our conscious mind play?
Even with such a dominating role played by the subconscious, the conscious mind still has an influence on our actions. Our conscious mind performs mostly as a planning center for the body, selecting ideas or actions given to it from the subconscious. In addition, our sense of self-awareness, an arguably important trait, is also derived from the conscious mind. But this begs the question; is the conscious mind even necessary? After all, many animals function fine without self-awareness. So what role does our conscious mind actually play in our actions? Reflex actions do not need any input at all from the brain, conscious or subconscious; they are simply a reaction caused by the nervous system before the signal even reaches our brain. Other actions, while consciously thought out, are actually difficult to perform without an enormous amount of assistance from your sub-conscious.
For instance, imagine you are riding a bicycle and you are approaching a right turn. (I will make the assumption that most people reading this have ridden a bicycle at some point in their lives, and if not, you should definitely try it sometime). Now, consciously think to yourself what you would do to make this turn. I imagine that most of you, who have not extensively practiced bicycle handling, would thing that you would do the one of the following: A – turn the handlebars by moving your right hand towards your body and extending your left hand, or B – lean your body to the right to make your turn and possibly slightly tilt the handlebars akin to part A. In reality however, A does not work at any reasonable speed except a crawl, since the centrifugal force (yes, centrifugal force isn’t a ‘real force,’ but ignore your high school physics teachers and learn about frames of reference if need be) will throw you off your bicycle. On the other hand, while part B sounds correct, it is still flawed. In order to consciously steer a bicycle to the right without crashing, you need to do the following things: First, you must slightly pull your left hand towards your body, causing counter-steering which in turn causes your bicycle and in turn your body to lean towards the right. Then, if the turn is sharp, you must push down with your left foot as well as keep your body low in order have a center of mass that will allow you to maintain your balance. Finally, you must once again counter-steer to end the turn and bring the bicycle back to a vertical position. Yet, when actually riding a bicycle, the only conscious thought we have is ‘oh hey look, let’s make a turn here’ and the subconscious does the rest for us, and hopefully correctly or you may end up with a nasty case of road rash.
Now, this brings up some of the following questions: What role does our conscious mind really play in our lives? With all the influence from the subconsciousness in addition to our genetics, how much of our own thoughts and behaviors do we really control with our conscious mind? And more specifically, if our subconscious affects our behavior to such a large extent, what does this mean about our free will? I will refrain from answering with my opinions on these questions in this post, and you will have to wait for my next post to hear my answers. Instead I encourage everyone to comment, discuss and leave their own opinions on these questions. Additionally if any of you are interested in further readings about any of the topics brought up, let me know and I may have some good reading suggestions.
Featured Image by A. Williams, all rights reserved.