Regular readers of this blog will have seen this diagram before. No need to worry, though. This post is not a repeat of a previous one though it does return to an earlier theme.
I was at a meeting the other day where a conversation with a friend clarified that I am not the only one to find the idea of consciousness having thresholds an extremely useful one that resonates strongly with personal experience. It was only a snatched exchange of ideas as the meeting moved from one part of the agenda to another but it was enough for us to pass shared fragments of agreed reality to and fro.
‘Please, friends,’ shouted the facilitator. ‘We need to sit down. . . . ‘
‘I really like this idea of the brain as a filter,’ my friend whispered.
‘. . . we really have to make a start. . . . . ‘
‘I know,’ I replied out of the corner of my mouth.’ It fits with the other analogy of the brain as a receiver.’
‘. . . we’ve got a lot to do still. . . . ‘
‘Yes,’ she hissed. ‘It tunes to a wavelength and only catches a tiny part of the spectrum.’
‘Right,’ came the shout from the front. ‘We need to watch the presentation on the make up of this neighbourhood.’
We had to sit back down again, keep quiet and tune into the broadcast of the meeting.
It was enough to trigger another spate of ideas on this subject. This is partly because, as I think I have said before, this blog all too often simply relays other people’s ideas and doesn’t share why they resonate so strongly with me at a personal level. Perhaps it would be useful to do bit more sharing at that level. It feels a bit scary though so I’ll start with a few generalisations.
Filtering – a mixed blessing
It is efficient for consciousness to be protected by filters. It would be hard to focus on what to do next if we were flooded with all the possible incoming data, most of which is not relevant to our present purposes. When the filter breaks down problems of distraction or destruction creep in such as with so-called ‘psychosis’. I read a paper by Hemsley on this many years ago, 1975 in fact, in which he examined ‘attention deficits in schizophrenia.’ “Inefficiencies in . . . the ‘filtering’ . . . . mechanism” is referred to as one of the factors behind this problem with focused attention. Attention is grabbed by passing distractions and their grip was thought to be too strong sometimes to resist. Much water has passed under this bridge since, particularly in terms of radically questioning the whole construct of schizophrenia, but the idea that we need a filter to keep out unwanted distractions if we are to function efficiently still seems plausible.
But efficiency is not the same as effectiveness. This protection comes at a price. We are blind and deaf to much that would enrich our lives. When consciousness is controllably permeable there is an opportunity for creativity and/or mysticism. This is an area that Myers was very much concerned with and I will eventually return to that topic in this blog. (‘How long, O Lord, how long?’ Well. at least another 400 pages by my reckoning. I got bogged down for a long time in the rather swampy prose of the chapter on memory in Irreducible Mind.)
Anyway, to get back to the main point. What makes me feel that what I am conscious of is protected by filters that create a threshold that certain kinds of experience cannot or at least do not usually cross? I am not going to go into any detail about the way the brain works to control attention. One example of its reality should be enough to convince that a filtering process of stunning power exists. An experiment was run where people were asked to count the passes of the ball in a basket ball game. During the game a man in a gorilla suit walks across the court in full view. Half those watching the video and counting passes did not see him! The significance of this is discussed at the following link. A key comment for our present purposes is this:
Question: What does this experiment demonstrate to us about selective attention?
Christopher Chabris: What this experiment shows is that when we’re paying attention to something, basically doing a task that demands our attention such as counting the passes of the basketball in this case, or really any other kind of really attention-demanding task that we do, we can seriously overestimate our ability to do other tasks at the same time and especially to notice and handle unexpected or surprising things. We think that we’re going to notice unexpected things that come into our field of view and we think we’re going to pay attention to the things we should pay attention to, but in fact, when we’re focused on one task, we’re noticing and paying attention to a lot less than we really think.
Coming up from below
Of course, I am not talking only of this kind of filtering, which most of us would readily accept as part of our makeup. I am talking about something more radical.
The idea that consciousness has material pressing upwards upon it from below has a long history, and Freud is probably its most famous proponent. While I do not accept that his description of my mental architecture is accurate nor that his account of the complexes is completely credible, I do agree that underneath my awareness there are strong currents of unacknowledged experiences flowing. This was brought home to me in 1974 in the most compelling fashion imaginable.
Shortly before this stunning experience, I had been standing in a pub in Hampstead, staring out of its leaded window panes onto the mishapen street outside as I waited for a friend to join me. An unexpected thought just flashed through my mind concerning my work as a teacher: ‘If I have to carry on with this another thirty years I’d rather shoot myself.’ I was shocked. Thoughts like that were not just rare occurrences in my consciousness – they had been non-existent until that moment at the age of 31.
I decided it was time for a little self-exploration. Not realising the risks I might have been taking and because of my antiestablishment stance at the time which bordered on the anarchic, it never occurred to me to try any conventional approach to self-understanding – I had to go for the totally alternative. I got to hear of a group which called itself ‘People Not Psychiatry.’ I discovered that one of their followers ran encounter groups in a squat not far from where I was living at the time. I booked in for an ‘encounter group’ weekend.
The full story will have to wait till next time.