If you weren't conscious, you wouldn't be reading this article. Or, at the very least, you wouldn't be aware you were reading this article. Consciousness is responsible for all our thought, experiences, and feelings. Without it, we would have no free will, no sense of self, and no awareness of our surroundings. To quote Descartes, "I think, therefore I am".
But what if this assumption is wrong?
What if you were told that free will and personal responsibility are just social constructs? That our consciousness has no control over our beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions of the world?
That's the conclusion made by two scientists, David Oakley from University College London and Peter Halligan from Cardiff University. Their theory, published in Frontiers in Psychology, takes into consideration research into neuropsychological and neuropsychiatric disorders and recent cognitive neuroscience studies.
According to Oakley and Halligan, "the contents of consciousness are generated 'behind the scenes' by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains. All this happens without any interference from our personal awareness, which sits passively in the passenger seat while these processes occur."
"Put simply, we don't consciously choose our thoughts or our feelings – we become aware of them."
The pair use Victorian biologist Thomas Henry Huxley's metaphor of a train to clarify their idea. The relationship between the mind and the brain, they say, is like that between a steam whistle and an engine. The steam whistle acts in response to the work of the engine, but has no influence over it. Similarly, consciousness is the product of the brain. It cannot control it.
The current consensus among experts is that consciousness can be split into two elements. The first is a sense of personal awareness. The second is a personal narrative, i.e. the combination of thoughts, beliefs, emotions, memories, and sensations we are bombarded with constantly. Oakley and Halligan argue that this personal narrative is a fraction of the emotions, experiences, thoughts, and beliefs produced in the brain during non-conscious processes.
So what, then, is the point of consciousness?
According to Oakley and Halligan, it's a communication tool. A sense of self and personal history allows us to communicate to others what we have perceived and experienced. This ability to communicate is imperative to our survival and gives humankind an evolutionary edge.
There's also the question of free will. Without an active consciousness, can we be held personally responsible for our actions?
Yes, say Oakley and Halligan.
"Just because consciousness has been placed in the passenger seat, does not mean we need to dispense with important everyday notions such as free will and personal responsibility."
"In fact, they are embedded in the workings of our non-conscious brain systems. They have a powerful purpose in society and have a deep impact on the way we understand ourselves."