Your Identity Is Almost Entirely Based on Unconscious Brain Processes

It’s not personal awareness but a different mechanism which lends an evolutionary advantage, allowing our species to thrive.

We often think that our deeply held beliefs, opinions, and emotions are the result of a long time spent thinking. We see ourselves as an executive of sorts somewhere inside our own head, pondering, making plans, and coming to decisions. This is what is known as a top-down model of executive control. It isn’t only laypeople who think this way, but scientists and scholars, many anyway. This has been the prevailing theory for decades.


Most experts see human consciousness as a combination of two different phenomena. The first is the consciousness we experience from one moment to the next. That’s knowing who and where in the world we are. It’s also the ability to evaluate things, and calculate opportunities and threats. The second is our thoughts, feelings, impressions, intentions, and memories. So here’s the innovation, a new paper published in Frontiers of Psychology says that actually, our thoughts and feelings are developed by unconscious mechanisms behind our logical thoughts.

We don’t so much come to conclusions on things as become aware of how we feel. In fact, researchers write that the “contents of consciousness” are completely unrelated to the “experience of consciousness.” The contents of consciousness are derived from “non-conscious brain systems.” In fact, study authors write that “personal awareness is analogous to the rainbow which accompanies physical processes in the atmosphere but exerts no influence over them.”

Researchers compared the experience of consciousness to a rainbow, a natural phenomenon that has no influence on its surrounding environment. Credit: Getty Images.

The authors write that these unconscious systems create the contents of our consciousness through what they call a “continuous self-referential personal narrative.” Basically, our thoughts, feelings, and emotions are generated “behind the scenes.” These processes are fast and efficient, as they should be. Our survival depends on them.

And what about our own, personal narrative? Researchers say this is the accumulation of what we’ve learned and the impressions we’ve had from past experiences. It is also constantly being updated as new experiences influence us. Our personal narrative is important because it allows us to communicate with other humans, understand them, and allows us to bond to and cooperate with them. That can help promote strategies for the common good.

So how did these researchers find this out? They looked at studies on hypnosis, particularly when used to treat neuropsychological and neuropsychiatric disorders. Such studies have consistently shown that people can change their thoughts, mood, and perceptions, when in highly suggestive states. One particular study found volunteers raised their hand even when they didn’t tell their brains to do so, as if it were unintentional. Researchers suggested aliens were making them do so.

What’s noteworthy is that they recorded participant brain activity while volunteers were under hypnosis. All this begs the question, How responsible we are for our own behavior, and how much of it is totally out of our conscious control? The two researchers who made this discovery are David Oakley, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at UCL, in England and Peter Halligan, Professor of Neuropsychology at Cardiff University, in Wales.

Our personal narrative helps us understand ourselves and others better. Credit: Getty Images.

So given much of what we thing and feel is outside of our control, how responsible are we for our choices, opinions, or behavior? Oakley and Halligan write in The Conversation that they believe “free will and personal responsibility are notions that have been constructed by society.”

Though they may reflect a conventional opinion on how things work, these notions wrongly influence how we conduct ourselves and how society is conducted. But this predisposition toward say free will also helps us talk about ourselves, convey our narrative, form closer bonds with kin, and so help hold society together.

To learn more about the search for consciousness, click here:

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Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

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This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

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But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

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