Home' Nova West : September 2009 Contents LIGHT FEATURE
they achieve through drugs, illness or
A cat is definitely conscious. Humans,
though, have a kind of meta-consciousness:
we can be conscious and we know it. A cat
sees. I also see, but I know that I see, and
how I see, and how what I see affects me,
and how to change the quality of seeing.
A cat operates largely via a stimulus-
response arc. I have a much vaster array of
memories, associations, values and possible
responses to modulate my behaviour. This
higher order mental complexity gives me
choices that a cat does not have.
Our conscious thoughts emerge from,
and sink back into, a dense substrate of
semiautomatic and unconscious mental
processes. Brain scientists call these
"cognitive networks" and "action schemas"
(plans), and can link many of them to
uniquely interconnected groups of brain
cells and regions. When we think about x,
deliberately or automatically, the cognitive
network related to x gets excited and
gobbles up glucose and oxygen to fuel its
activity. This is what a thought is. And it
all changes to different networks when we
think about y or z.
As a rule of thumb, we can assume that
we are usually processing 10-20 thoughts
simultaneously at any time. We think
at random about the day's events, both
consciously a nd unconsciously, regardless
of what is happening on the surface of
the mind. This is our normal default state
of semiautomatic thinking. It actually
becomes more active when we rest or
fall asleep, probably because there is less
interference from sensory input at those
There is a simple way of testing if
you are fully conscious or r unning on
automatic. At random during the day,
just ask yourself, "What am I thinking
about?" If you are honest, you will often
find that either you don't know (because
the thought was too weak), or that the
thought was r unning automatically,
without much conscious input from you.
In brief, you can regard yourself as
'Occasionally, we have bursts of illumination that outshine the
heavens, and at other times we are head down in a swamp.'
© NOVA SEPTEMBER 2009
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fully conscious when you can say with
conviction: "This is what I am doing and
I know it. This is what I am thinking. This
is what I am feeling. At this moment."
Full awareness also gives you a sense
of being an obser ver, grounded in your
body and partially detached from what
you are observing.
meta- consciousness ha s
enor mous adva ntages. It means you can
hold a thought, feeling or sensation for
much longer than usual. This continuity
of attention illuminates detail that was
absent at first, and embeds it in a rich
body of associations and memories. This
leads to clear understanding, which means
you can accurately assess its value and
usefulness. You now have the essential
data that you need to choose an intelligent
response, or modif y an existing one, for
the best outcome.
Meta-consciousness is particularly
valuable when we have to make choices.
In fact, nothing is more likely to make
us alert and focused than a need to
choose between conflicting options. In
other words, clear consciousness sees the
situation accurately, and steers the kind
of goal directed behaviour which is the
ultimate purpose of thought. The cat is
just not in this kind of ballpark.
Given that we have so little control
over how conscious we are, is it therefore
possible to develop it, or any other positive
state of mind? The Buddha thought so,
and his formula still works. It goes like
this:Notice repeatedly when your mind is,
and is not, clear. Notice how that clarity
comes and goes. Notice what precedes
that clarity, and discover its causes.
Also notice what undermines it. Then
systematically develop the causes, even
if they seem as mundane as adequate
sleep and a good diet. And avoid what
undermines it, even if it seems as harmless
as gossip or surfing the Internet. There is
no doubt that this simple plan can make
us immensely more conscious and capable
of self direction than we are.
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