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:

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

The dos and don’ts of helping a drug-addicted person recover

How you talk to people with drug addiction might save their life.

Videos
  • Addiction is a learning disorder; it's not a sign that someone is a bad person.
  • Tough love doesn't help drug-addicted people. Research shows that the best way to get people help is through compassion, empathy and support. Approach them as an equal human being deserving of respect.
  • As a first step to recovery, Maia Szalavitz recommends the family or friends of people with addiction get them a complete psychiatric evaluation by somebody who is not affiliated with any treatment organization. Unfortunately, warns Szalavitz, some people will try to make a profit off of an addicted person without informing them of their full options.
Keep reading Show less

10 science photos that made history and changed minds

These photos of scientific heroes and accomplishments inspire awe and curiosity.

Surprising Science
  • Science has given humanity an incalculable boost over the recent centuries, changing our lives in ways both awe-inspiring and humbling.
  • Fortunately, photography, a scientific feat in and of itself, has recorded some of the most important events, people and discoveries in science, allowing us unprecedented insight and expanding our view of the world.
  • Here are some of the most important scientific photos of history:
Keep reading Show less

In a first for humankind, China successfully sprouts a seed on the Moon

China's Chang'e 4 biosphere experiment marks a first for humankind.

Image source: CNSA
Surprising Science
  • China's Chang'e 4 lunar lander touched down on the far side of the moon on January 3.
  • In addition to a lunar rover, the lander carried a biosphere experiment that contains five sets of plants and some insects.
  • The experiment is designed to test how astronauts might someday grow plants in space to sustain long-term settlements.
Keep reading Show less