A Boston University team lead by Andrew Budson, MD and Professor of Neurology, recently published a new theory regarding consciousness, which posits that consciousness itself functions as a memory system more than anything, acting secondary to the unconscious directions of the mind.
Per Dr. Budson:
“What is completely new about this theory is that it suggests we don’t perceive the world, make decisions, or perform actions directly. Instead, we do all these things unconsciously and then — about half a second later — consciously remember doing them.”
It’s kind of unsettling when you begin to let the reverberations expand into a more comprehensive picture — the idea that our consciousness is essentially a process of remembering our unconscious actions, sensations, and decisions — playing something of a second fiddle to our unconscious navigation through reality.
It’s also kind of intuitively difficult to wrap the mind around. For ease of understanding, if needed, imagine that our conscious mind is akin to a back seat passenger in a vehicle driven by our unconscious self. A self-driving vehicle may be a more interesting example in light of the context presented below.
I figured this to be the best example as I meandered through Dr. Budson’s insights; then something switched as I gave the theory some more thought.
Using Dr. Budson’s findings, I’ve expounded something of a supplement to the central proposition, one that accounts for an important variable in the overall equation (time) and one that I reserve to a segmented follow up (Part IV) to the interview presented below.
The Q&A itself drove through two scenarios that served to expand on this new theory, looking at the increasing digitization of consciousness and memory function (approaching things from a technological angle) in the first instance, and sportive function or flow state immersion (approaching from a physically-performative angle) in the second.
Part I: Q&A [Andrew Budson]
Borealism: How does your theory prove compatible (or not compatible) with the idea that we’re increasingly digitizing our memories, and does it potentially mean that we’re digitizing [an integral] part of our consciousness as well? Encoding, consolidating, and retrieving are continuously being supplemented (if not replaced) by our devices — from reminders or notes that we set for ourselves, rather than using our memory ability, to the photos we take that replace our mental representations of memorable events. It would ostensibly seem that your theory can suggest that our consciousness is, more easily transition-able to technological hardware than we would otherwise think.
A.B.: As we did in the paper, let’s start by clarifying what we mean by consciousness: “Our own personal experience of perceiving, thinking, emoting, and acting.” Our theory is that this personal experience of consciousness is the process of remembering, such that our perceptions, decisions, and actions are actually memories of unconscious sensations, unconsciously made decisions, and unconsciously performed actions. We can use external aids for: factual information (semantic memory in the brain) such as books and Wikipedia, autobiographical information (episodic memory in the brain) such as diaries and photographs, and even our ability to keep information in mind and manipulate it (working memory in the brain) such as through word processors and digital imaging software. Once this information moves from the page, photograph, or computer monitor to our brains we can become conscious of it, in the same way that we can retrieve a remote fact or autobiographical memory from our semantic and episodic memory and then become conscious of it. In that sense, external devices can certainly be part of our functioning memory system. However, I want to state clearly that the information needs to be processed by our cerebral cortex for the personal experience of consciousness to be possible, as we argued in the paper. Just because we store information in a computer doesn’t mean that it is somehow “conscious.” It has the potential to become conscious, just as a childhood memory has the potential to become conscious.
Could consciousness be transferred to electronic hardware? In theory, in the future, absolutely. Because I believe that consciousness is the product of the brain, which is the product of neurons and supporting cells, which, in turn, function via the principles of biochemistry and physics, I believe that consciousness could be replicated in electronic hardware that replicates the cerebral cortex. For better or worse, we are decades away from even understanding how multi-layered cerebral cortex works — and much farther away from replicating it electronically.
Borealism: To build on the prior question — do you have any concern over this digital ‘outsourcing’ of conscious function? Until now, we’ve been exceptionally more effective by outsourcing various capabilities (think calculators) but we haven’t so much affected the hardware of the brain (neurology / neuroplasticity) which is at risk of changing amidst the continued dependence on technology; do you foresee any such potential change(s) to be good or bad?
A.B.: People ask me variations on this question a lot, such as: Wasn’t human memory much better in the days when people would remember books in their head (such as the Iliad) compared to now when we can just touch our phone and pull up the entire library of human literature and knowledge? Is my brain somehow smarter because I can still recall my times tables from third grade and my daughter needs to punch the equations into a calculator? My answer is, absolutely not. First, of course, on the scale of human evolution, the last 5000 years are the blink of an eye, and our brains are no different from those of the pyramid builders in Egypt who began writing things down. Second, we still have the capacity for performing amazing memory feats if we want to. For example, I recently co-authored a book entitled, Why We Forget and How to Remember Better: The Science Behind Memory, that explains exactly how to use 2000-year-old memorization tricks and techniques to recall 50 digits of Pi and anything else you care to remember. Lastly, I think that, if there are changes occurring in the software of our brains because of what we no longer need to remember, it’s nothing but a good thing. My daughter may be dependent upon her calculator for some basic multiplication that was drilled into me so I’ll never forget it, but she was a math major in college and I struggle to understand even a fraction of the math she can do. So, if outsourcing some basic functions to books, calculators, and the cloud is our destiny, I think it is nothing but a good thing for the future of human beings.
Borealism: On the intention of our actions: Your theory has some deep implications regarding our ability to undertake conscious action and you use mindfulness as an example to convey the idea that controlling our conscious thoughts is not easy to do; that this lack of control we experience over our conscious mind is antithetical to the very point of consciousness as we have generally understood it. How do you reconcile this with athletes, who develop an ‘intuition’ that seems to break the traditional unconscious-action-to-conscious-thought process? You posit that it is, first, the physiological action that occurs, from which quickly follows the reactive conscious awareness, but athletes who hyper-specialize in a particular activity seem to demonstrate the reverse — they intentionally refine their subliminal interactions (whether we’re talking about hand/foot to eye coordination, visual tracking capabilities, reflexology, instinctual movements); they do this through not only repetition but also an expanded awareness of their subconscious tendencies. In effect, they seem to defy the norm, especially when they enter into variable flow states of peak performative output — i.e. they’re able to make split-second ‘intuitional’ decisions before any conscious thought processes kick in, signifying more than mere muscle-memory at play.
A.B.: Yes, I readily acknowledge that this is all a bit confusing. I think it is useful to bring up the horse-and-rider analogy that we used in the paper. The horse represents our unconscious brain processes. The rider is our conscious mind. The first point to make is that, just as the rider can communicate to the horse where they want to go, the conscious mind can communicate to the unconscious brain what it wants to do. However, it is the unconscious brain that decides whether they will do it, just like it is up to the horse whether it will go in the direction that the rider is urging it to go or not. An athlete may possess a powerful and agile body, but one that needs training to perform well in a 100-meter hurdle event. Consciously, deliberately, the athlete works on training their body to have the perfect rhythm and balance to run the race, just as a jockey might train their horse for steeplechase racing. This training is the basis of procedural memory, an unconscious form of memory used in tying your shoes, riding a bike, or typing on a keyboard. After thousands of hours of training — that includes training in all sorts of variations such as rain, heat, wind, etc. — the day of the race is here. The successful athlete now lets their unconscious brain (via procedural memory) control their body and run the race without conscious interference, knowing that such conscious meddling is more likely to hurt than help. How can they make split-second intuitive adjustments faster than conscious thoughts can occur? Because of their thousands of hours of training in all sorts of conditions. This is just procedural memory at work, but it is unconscious procedural memory honed to expertise through conscious, deliberate, practice. (The term “muscle memory” is just inaccurate slang for procedural memory, which is in the brain, not the muscles.)
Borealism: I suppose it may be worth asking a follow up to the prior question as well — how does the trending concept of the ‘flow state’ fit within your theory, perhaps looking at it from a sportive perspective for ease of understanding. While it does seem to compliment the idea that our physical actions can undertake an unconscious or pre-conscious stature, it also seems that the encoding/consolidating/retrieving actions are occurring at both ends, pre- and post- conscious function.
A.B.: When an athlete describes being “in the zone,” we could also say that they are experiencing a flow state — again a situation in which procedural memory of a task has reached sufficient expertise such that the athletic performance can be performed effortlessly with a high level of mastery. But to me the more interesting relationship between the flow state and our theory of consciousness is how people can feel that they are truly present in the moment. In our theory we explain that there is no such thing as direct perception; perception is a memory of a sensation. This perception is not simply us remembering the sensation by itself; the perception is combination of the “bottom-up” sensory processes — say an image coming in through our eyes — and our already stored “top-down” memories — say our memory of the image of a tree when its leaves are blown by the wind. It may be that a perceptual flow state is as close as we can get to perceiving reality directly. Perhaps in a flow state we can reduce the top-down memory processes to a minimum and focus on the bottom-up sensory processes. Maybe that’s what people mean when they feel they have become one with the tree.
Part II— Post Q&A [Commentary]
Such a conversation, on such a potent topic, can lead us to many differing crossroads; technology and athletics are just two avenues atop an infinite roadmap of discussion.
Amidst countless questions, the one that may be most fitting is what kind of backseat driver we may/should find ourselves to be — are we passively along for a ride that takes us wherever we end up or are we able to steer things in the directions we know we want to go?
Evidently, we can work to close the gap to some degree, as Dr. Budson himself posits that we can perhaps “reduce the top-down memory processes to a minimum and focus on the bottom-up sensory processes” as we combine our differing perceptions of reality.
And as we’ve seen in numerous applications, especially those that I’ve tried to elucidate almost obsessively via Borealism, a holistic synchronization or harmonization is totally possible, if not necessary for those who want to squeeze the most out of their inner psyche.
The question thus becomes: how we can best close this perceptual gap, in ensuring the most conscious, direct and immersive experience of reality possible?
It’s evident that through symbiotic technological co-existence or optimized physical performance, we’re able to adjust the balance, but surely there must be more we can do.
What if we can expand our awareness and formulate an intensive intention to control the unconscious actions?
Such an influence is entirely possible.
Then I began to consider the exceptions I’ve encountered, and the times I myself have experienced a certain momentum that can be generated from adjusting the role of time within the overall equation; the horse suddenly become thrown in front of the cart.
Part III: Slip Stream Consciousness [& Time]
I hate to leapfrog theories in such a way, or to throw my two cents so exuberantly into the mix, but this was too tantalizing.
At first, I approached Dr. Budson’s theory by way of the aforesaid analogy: we’re the back seat drivers to our unconscious mind and, if we yell enough, we can bear some influence as to where we’re going.
But I still couldn’t account for the more exceptional outliers beyond the firefighters that run into a burning building because of their conditioning or the nay-sayers to ice-cream fixations, examples referenced in Dr. Budon’s paper; and there was still something intuitively missing from an all-encompassing angle, something bigger at play.
The monks, the freak-level elite athletes, the anomalies of the world; the inexplicable exemplars of spooky actions at a distance; neuroplasticity, genetics, evolution, morphic resonance, quantum entanglement.
The over-riders of consciousness and the intuitional but inexplicable functions of our conscious operation — some of the fringe-saddling dots remained frustratingly unconnected.
Then I stumbled into the one thing that could unify things a bit, not because it was missing until now but because it was constricting interpretation maybe a bit more than it ought to have.
Suddenly, I realized that it didn’t so much matter as to who’s situated where inside of the [un]conscious vehicle — it’s the road itself that may hold some underlying clues.
While Dr. Budson‘s theory accounts for the over-ride function of our conscious capabilities and discusses the variable degrees of control we can gain from combining our differing spheres of perception, it seems to quantify everything from a perspective of linear progression through time with a relative manner of immediacy between our conscious and unconscious interaction.
For those who have sought to reinforce the connections between surface- and sub- consciousness, and for those who have explored the murky underwaters of their psychological dynamics, it’s obvious that there’s an entirely different schematic at play with regards to time — a schematic that need not subscribe to a linear progression model of immediate self-reactivity.
The way that our consciousness, sub or surface, flows around and moves us through reality is curiously transcendent of (or immune to) temporal consideration (time) — it’s more so a dance than a march, a rippling pirouette of cause and effect.
In other words, things don’t always necessarily move a singular way from point A to point B; they shuffle around, bouncing off of or aligning with the various impressions that are formed, like slipstreams and currents that push and pull our consciousness along greater patterns and repercussions at play.
It’s [un]fortunately not so black and white when we just zoom out a bit: we see that conditioning of the unconscious mind by the conscious self (or vice versa!) isn’t as formulaic as it may seem.
Think chess, not checkers.
And time plays a critical role in the functions of consciousness, no matter how we really look at it. Regardless of how distant or impending, the past and the future hold an immense grip over the present, not to mention the ways in which they impress upon one another.
Events of yesterday can surely effectuate the actions of tomorrow and those of tomorrow can always retrospectively contextualize yesterday.
We should — no, we need — consider this bilateral dynamic of time, and we should stretch it as far as imaginatively possible.
Consider someone who has recovered from a debilitating addiction — someone who had once lost everything to a vice and had then successfully mastered it — such a person will allow the prior conscious decisions to direct their future unconscious actions even decades later. Consider a prisoner who’s preparing for a potential parole qualification in two decades’ time.
As such, we should consider that conscious intention needs not have an expiry date — it can last forever, not just minutes or milliseconds. We need to temporally stretch the schematics of consciousness to account for the inexplicable dots that lie farther out than the outliers do.
In this way we can see how some individuals achieve the kind of unbelievable mental feats they achieve; we can see how the differing levels of consciousness can effectuate tangible physiological changes; how our dynamic conscious self can be, simultaneously, directive and adherent to its deeper (or higher) self over a lifetime, not just over a bowl of ice cream.
We should thus consider all prior experiences, all future considerations, transcending a linear model of time as much as fathomably possible.
The mind can imagine into the future, be motivated by the past, introspect across boundaries of all kinds. And to the mind, time is much more circular — perpetually cycling, so long as there’s propulsion ahead (in the form of a deeply dedicated self-awareness or intention), bringing the conscious mind into this slip stream dynamic.
We can calibrate our unconsciousness to such a degree that our conscious action follows through in the ways we want it to, affording us more control so long as we ride the currents of our intensive intention.
Accordingly, we need not lack so much control, we need only employ some faith in the beautifully enigmatic and unquantifiable relationship between our surface and sub levels of consciousness.