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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #47, 12/15/2006

Understanding Consciousness

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

What is consciousness? For simplicity, we can say that it is an interactive movie playing in your head that only you can see. At least, that's how I perceive my own consciousness, and I can only assume that your experience is similar to mine.

Certain aspects of consciousness will always be a mystery. Emerging neuroscience can tell us how conscious experiences correlate with certain physical activity in the brain, but science will never explain how you, personally, got inserted into the machine. For that matter, religion doesn't give you an answer either, except that "God did it." How you happened to be stuck in this particular movie theatre—or inserted into this body—is unknown and unknowable. You just have to accept it.

However, the contents of consciousness can be quite decipherable. You don't have to understand how the projection system works to watch and critique a film. There are good forms of conscious processing and self-destructive ones. Even if you don't know how "thinking" works, you know at any moment what you are thinking about, and you probably have a good idea of why you are thinking about it.

Consciousness has some relevance to Family Court. In court, we are trying to manage behavior—of juvenile delinquents, abusive parents and estranged spouses.—and behavior is intimately linked to conscious experience. A lot of "acting out" that makes no objective sense on the surface does make sense within that person's internal movie. If we entirely ignore the contents of consciousness—that is, the feelings that people experience when they come to court—then we probably aren't going to change the behavior.

Although we don't know what consciousness is or where it comes from, we can understand its framework and limitations. If we can assemble a list of these characteristics, then it might help us deal with both our own conscious experience and that of others.

The analogy to a movie is a useful, because the content of consciousness has similar characteristics. The pacing, for example, is about the same. A movie feeds experiences to you at about the same rate that your consciousness can process them. If the pacing of a movie was too slow, you would get bored and leave; if it was too fast, you would lose track of the plot and leave. If you took a two-hour movie and tried to watch it in fast-forward mode in fifteen minutes, it would have very little meaning to you, because the words and images would be happening too fast.

This brings up our first known fact about consciousness:

Fact #1: Every conscious experience takes time.

This is a very simple observation but also profound and practical. It means that there are limits to how many things you can think about in a given period of time. It is hard to define exactly what your "thinking rate" is, but if you daydream about something or ponder some problem you are facing, there is a lapse of time, measured in seconds or minutes, between the start of your thought process and the end.

The practical implication of Fact #1 is that if there is something you need to think about, you have to give yourself the time to do it. Taking a few days before making a major decision is always a good idea, as it gives you the time to play through all the scenarios in your head.

Another observation about consciousness is also obvious:

Fact #2: You can only think about one thing at a time.

In a movie, you aren't shown a car chase at the same time you are watching a love scene, even though the filmmakers could easily split the screen and show you both at the same time. You can only attend to one or the other, not both.

Conscious experience is also like that: only one discrete thought at a time. Sometimes your thoughts might integrate two apparently disparate pieces of information, but it's really only one thought.

The practical effect is that one thought or conscious activity can push another out of consciousness, and in general the most powerful and pressing thought wins. If you are driving home from work, daydreaming as usual, and you are involved in an accident on the highway, then that event is going to demand your attention for a while and push the daydreams away.

Conscious attention may seem infinite, in that you can think about anything you want anytime you want, but in fact the time constraints are quite limited. There is a limit to the number of movies you can see in a day, and also a limit to the number of thoughts you can think. This dictates that some form of intelligent management be used to get the most you can from your consciousness. You can't possible go to every movie; you want to read some reviews first, then decide deliberately which one you want to go to. Likewise, one ought to intelligently manage one's conscious experience.

Is consciousness manageable? Can you tell your brain to think about some things and not think about others? Maybe or maybe not. What is certain, however, is that you can control the outside inputs to consciousness. If you have an important decision to make and have taken a few days to think about it, you can choose not to watch television during that time. If you turn on the TV, you know it is going to suck your conscious attention and block you from thinking about other things.

The management of consciousness is important because most of our higher reasoning seems to take place there.

Fact #3: Consciousness is required for complex decision-making.

You don't need conscious awareness for most of the mundane tasks of life. Once you learn how to drive, for example, you become quite unaware of your foot on the gas or your hand on the steering wheel unless something draws your attention to these things. Instead, you become more concerned about where you are heading rather than how you are getting there.

If you have driven the same route to work every weekday morning for the past seven years, then you are mostly doing it on "automatic" without much conscious intervention. Your body knows when to switch lanes and when to signal without you having to think about it. In general, the only things that you are consciously aware of are the unusual events that you don't see every day. Some days, you may even "space out": losing yourself in some reverie for ten minutes while the car drives itself. When you "come to," you look around in a daze and have to figure out where you are.

You stop spacing out as soon as some unexpected event occurs that demands your attention. If somebody cuts you off on the highway or you suddenly find yourself in potential danger, then consciousness kicks in immediately, and you start analysing your potential options. There is something about these complex tasks that requires the involvement of conscious awareness.

In an aircraft, simple in-flight navigation can be handled by the autopilot, but only a human pilot can perform take-offs and landings. The human is also necessary to occasionally monitor the autopilot, in case something happens this is too complicated for it to handle. On the ground, each of us has many systems that operate on autopilot most of the time, but we wouldn't want to fire the human pilot, because those automated systems can fail very easily in anomalous situations.

If you are driving your usual route to work but actually intend to go someplace else, then your nervous system may take you to work anyway. Deliberate conscious intervention is required to change course and get where you really want to go.

Perhaps one of the most terrifying human experiences to wake up in the morning with a hangover and no memory of what you did the night before. In the absence of conscious monitoring, do you really trust yourself? For all you know, you could have killed someone during that missing time, and without consciousness, you have no basis for saying that it did or didn't occur.

Only consciousness gives us the confidence that we are in control of ourselves, in part because of the next fact.

Fact #4: Consciousness is required for memory.

There are many events that we were conscious of in the past that we might not remember right now, but virtually all of the events we remember now, we were conscious of at the time. Whatever consciousness may be, it needs to be "turned on" for a long-term memory to be formed (or at least the kind of episodic memory that can consciously be played back).

To remember where you parked you car in a large parking lot, all you need to do is make yourself conscious of it at the time. If you note to yourself when you park the car, "I'm in section B-2," then you don't even need to write it down to remember it. On the other hand, if you aren't conscious of your location at the time of parking, then you are going to be searching for your car later, even though your eyes saw where your parked and your body walked you from there.

Human memory is symbolic, not photographic. We remember certain important aspects of a scene or event, not the whole thing. To conserve storage space, every memory is compressed into the smallest possible package, based on the conscious processing that took place at the time. Therefore, the quality of this real-time processing is important.

If you happen to be in a convenience store during a hold-up, you may notice and remember only a few details about the robber. An off-duty police officer is probably going to recall more than you did, because he knew, even before the event occurred, what sort of information the police would need.

Likewise, your memory for any event is going to reflect how well you used your consciousness at the time. Consciousness should not be a passive phenomenon, where things just happen to you and you simply respond. You should be actively molding the experience as it happens. If nothing else, you can move your eyes and shift your attention to gather information that you expect will be useful later.

Fact #5: Consciousness is continuous and connected.

From your viewpoint, you have never been unconscious. To you, consciousness has been a continuous phenomenon that stretched from early childhood to the present moment. Even when you go to sleep, seven hours seem to go by in an instant and you wake up in the morning with no direct awareness that time has passed.

In your inner world, one thought flows into another and another, with no apparent breaks. The only disruptions are when an outside event intrudes. This provides a fresh stimulus for a new chain of thought.

The potential pool of memories and speculations available to consciousness is essentially infinite, but our actual thoughts may be quite restricted. We are probably not going to think about something unless it is topically connected to our previous thought or an outside event. If you remember something that happened to you when you were ten years old, it is only because a previous thought or outside event evoked that memory. Truly random thoughts are very unusual. Ideas don't just pop into your head; they are topically evoked.

To use an internet analogy, conscious experience is like "surfing the web." One webpage has links to others. When you click on one link, it leads you to another page, which contains more links. Eventually, you may end up from where you started, but there was a continuous sequence of connections that lead you there.

Occasionally, an unexpected webpage may be forced in front of you—a pop-up window. This is the outside world intruding into your stream of consciousness. Maybe this unsolicited window tells you, "I'm hungry!" and it keeps popping up on your screen until you do something about it. This page, in turn, contains it's own set of links, which eventually lead you to the refrigerator. Once satiated, that pop-up window goes away, and you can go back to the surfing you were doing before.

Memories and experiences are not accessible if they are not connected to this web. You are not necessarily "suppressing" these memories; you just have no current route for accessing them.

Sometimes, however, certain memories and conscious experiences are blocked by a webpage that you find unpleasant. Whenever you land on that webpage, you become distressed, and you back up quickly and choose another link. Surrounded by these anxiety-producing pages, you can be trapped in a well-worn pattern where, say, you are only accessing hockey websites and nothing else. This can restrict your vision and limit your growth.

That is why it is important to encourage random inputs to consciousness—occasional pop-up windows that you have little control over. These might provide access to areas you would not otherwise visit and give you a richer perspective on life. These random pages shouldn't happen too often, because you have to have time to process them, but they are as important to health as diversity in the gene pool.

Fact #6: Consciousness is deeply emotional and personal.

What passes through consciousness is not just a series of facts and abstract problems but profoundly personal things that you wouldn't necessarily want to share with others. You are thinking about jealousies, frustrations and bodily functions. Thankfully, a mind reading device is not currently available, because none of us would want to submit to it. We need our private workspace to figure things out. Only after we have cogitated for a while, in our own unique way, are we ready to activate the mouth or fingers and produce a public output.

Our conscious thoughts, if they were ever made public, would probably be embarrassing, but our actions don't have to be. It is only our actions that count in the world. Consciousness is the space where we formulate them, according to whatever methods suit us.

You wouldn't want the government or your next-door neighbors rummaging around in your consciousness. In spite of the frequent social admonishment to "share your feelings," you ought to cache most of them until they are in a refined state where they should be shared. Your feelings are part of your own private control system, and you should share them only when you have considered their impact on others. Raw conscious impressions are rarely good to share. At least to some extent, you must repackage them for public consumption. The package should resemble what you are really feeling, but consciousness always needs to be simplified and sanitized before it is expressed openly.

Fundamentally, you have to deal with consciousness alone. No one can directly experience the same things you are. There may be some close parallels between your awareness and someone else's, but they are relatively rare, and you have to rely on your own experience most of the time. You can try to merge with another person, but there is always a limit to how far it can go. Ultimately, you are responsible for your inner life, and he is responsible for his.

If, in any relationship, you neglect the autonomy needs of consciousness—your own or someone elses—eventually it is going to bite you. Attempts to merge the unmergable usually end in disaster—often in Family Court. In every relationship, there have to be boundaries, and you need to identify and respect them if you want to avoid a explosion.


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