The Power of the Mind

From the Microcosm of the Cell to the Macrocosm of the Mind

csFor the first three and a half billion years of life on this planet, the biosphere consisted of a massive population of individual single-celled organisms, such as bacteria, yeast, algae, and protozoa like the familiar amoeba and paramecium. About 700 million years ago, individual cells started to assemble into multicellular colonies. The collective awareness afforded in a community of cells was far greater than an individual cell’s awareness. Since awareness is a primary factor in organismal survival, the communal experience offered its citizens a far greater opportunity to stay alive and reproduce.

The first cellular communities, like the earliest human communities, were basic hunter-gatherer clans wherein each member of the society offered the same services to support the survival of the community. However, as the population densities of both cellular and human communities reached greater numbers, it was no longer efficient or effective for all individuals to do the same job. In both types of communities, evolution led to individuals taking on specialised functions. For example, in human communities some members focused upon hunting, others upon domestic chores and some upon child rearing. In cellular communities specialisation meant that some cells began to differentiate as digestive cells, others as heart cells, and still others as muscle cells.

Most of the trillions of cells forming bodies such as ours have no direct perception of the external environment. Liver cells “see” what’s going on in the liver, but don’t directly know what’s going on in the world outside of the skin. The function of the brain and nervous system is to interpret environmental stimuli and send out signals to the cells that integrate and regulate the life-sustaining functions of the body’s organ systems.

The successful nature of multicellular communities allowed evolving brains to dedicate vast numbers of cells for use in the cataloguing, memorising and integrating complex perceptions. The ability to remember and select among the millions of experienced perceptions in life provides the brain with a powerful creative database from which it can create complex behavioural repertoires. When put into play, these behavioural programs endow the organism with the characteristic trait of consciousness. In this presentation, the term consciousness is used in its most fundamental context… the state of being awake and aware of what is going on around you.

Many scientists prefer to think of consciousness in terms of a digital quality, an organism either has it or not. However, an assessment of the evolution of biological properties suggests consciousness, like any other quality, evolved over time. Consequently, the character of consciousness would likely express itself as a gradient of awareness from its simpler roots in primitive organisms to the unique character of self-consciousness manifest in humans and other higher vertebrates.

The expression of self-consciousness is specifically associated with a small evolutionary adaptation in the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the neurological platform that enables us to realise our personal identity and experience the quality of “thinking.” Monkeys and lower organisms do not express self-consciousness. When looking into a mirror, monkeys will never recognise that they are looking at them selves; they will always perceive the image to be that of another monkey. In contrast, neurologically more advanced chimps looking in the mirror perceive the mirror’s reflection as an image of themselves.

An important difference between the brain’s consciousness and the prefrontal cortex’s self-consciousness is that consciousness enables an organism to assess and respond to the immediate conditions of its environment that are relevant at that moment. In contrast, self-consciousness enables the individual to factor in the consequences of their actions in regard to not only how they impact the present moment but also as to how they will influence the individual’s future.

Self-consciousness is an evolutionary adjunct to consciousness in that it provided another behaviour-creating platform that included the role of a “self” in the decision-making process. While conventionalconsciousness enables organisms to be participatory members in the dynamics of life’s “play,” the quality of self-consciousness offers an opportunity to simultaneously be an observer in the “audience.” From the perspective of our being able to observe the role of “self” in the unfolding of the “play,” self-consciousness provides the individual with the option for self-reflection, reviewing and editing their character’s performance. The conscious and self-conscious functions of the brain may be collectively referred to as the mind.

In conventional parlance, the brain’s conscious mechanism associated with automated stimulus-response behaviours is referred to as the subconscious or unconscious mind, for the reason that its functions require neither observation nor attention from the self-conscious mind. Subconscious mind functions evolved long before the prefrontal cortex, consequently it historically was able to successfully operate a body and its behaviour without any contribution from, or involvement with, the more evolved self-conscious mind.

The subconscious mind is an astonishingly powerful information processor that can record perceptual experiences (programs) and forever play them back at the push of a button. Interestingly, many people only become aware of their subconscious mind’s automated programmed behaviours when they realise they’re engaged in an undesirable behaviour as a result of someone “pushing their buttons.”

The power of the subconscious mind lies in its ability to process massive amounts of data acquired from direct and indirect learning experiences at extraordinarily high rates of speed. It has been estimated that the disproportionately larger brain mass providing the subconscious mind’s function has the ability to interpret and respond to over 40 million nerve impulses per second. In contrast, it is estimated that the diminutive self-conscious mind’s prefrontal cortex can only process about 40 nerve impulses per second. As an information processor, the subconscious mind is one million times more powerful than the self-conscious mind.

As a tradeoff in acquiring its computational bravado, the subconscious mind expresses a marginal creative ability, one that may be best compared to that of a precocious five year old. In contrast to the freewill offered by the conscious mind, the subconscious mind primarily expresses prerecorded stimulus-response “habits.” Once a behaviour pattern is learned, such as walking, getting dressed or driving a car, those programs are processed as habits in the subconscious mind… meaning you can carry out these complex functions without paying any attention to them.

In contrast to the massive information processing by the subconscious mind, the smaller prefrontal cortex responsible for self-consciousness is limited to juggling only a small number of tasks at the same time. Though its ability for multitasking is physically constrained, the self-conscious mind can focus upon and control any function in the human body. It was once thought that some body’s functions were beyond the control of the self-conscious mind, such involuntary functions included the regulation of heartbeat, blood pressure and body temperature, behaviours controlled by the unconscious autonomic nervous system. However, it is now recognised that yogis and other practitioners that train their conscious minds can absolutely control functions formerly defined as involuntary behaviours.

The subconscious and self-conscious components of the mind work in tandem. The subconscious mind controls every behaviour that is not attended to by the self-conscious mind. For most people, their self-conscious minds are rarely focused upon the current moment since their mental processing continuously flits from one thought to another. The self-conscious mind is so preoccupied with thoughts about the future, the past or resolving some imaginary problem, that most of our lives are actually controlled by programs in the subconscious mind.

Cognitive neuroscientists conclude that the self-conscious mind contributes only about 5% of our cognitive activity. Consequently, 95% of our decisions, actions, emotions and behaviours are derived from the unobserved processing of the subconscious mind.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors/source and do not necessarily reflect the position of CSGLOBE or its staff.

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