How many times have you found yourself doing something without being aware of it? It is often said that this is acting on “autopilot” – and whether this is real or not, it is a question of 1,500 years, since the philosopher Saint Augustine asked whether consciousness is continuous or whether we are conscious only at certain times of time. For a group of psychophysicists at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, the answer is: both.
“Consciousness is basically like a movie. We think we see the world as it is, there are no gaps, there is nothing in between, but that cannot be true. The change cannot be perceived immediately. It can only be apprehended after it has happened “says the lead author of the study published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, psychophysicist Michael Herzog.
According to him, “we have the feeling that we are conscious at every moment” but, because it is an abstract concept, its definition is also so. “What we do know is that a person goes from unconsciousness to consciousness upon waking up in the morning or from anesthesia Most philosophers agree with the idea of continuous conscious awareness – because it follows basic human intuition. ”
Discreet and continuous
On the other hand, the human being may not be conscious all the time – like programs that run in the background, only at certain times of time does consciousness arise. But for how long and when?
Herzog and the other two authors of the article, also psychophysicists Leila Drissi-Daoudi and Adrien Doerig, put the two theories together in a model that describes the human mind divided into two stages. In it, conscious awareness is preceded by a long duration of unconscious processing – this is because human beings “need to process information continuously, but cannot perceive it over and over,” says Herzog.
The process is exemplified with a simple activity: cycling. Unless you don’t know the way, it is normal for the mind to get lost, while the action of pedaling happens mechanically.
“If you fell and waited every half second to respond, there would be no way to hold yourself back before you hit the ground. However, if you combine brief conscious moments with longer periods of unconscious processing into which the information is integrated, your mind tells you what you have perceived and you stop. It is the zombie inside us that drives your bicycle. Thoughts and surroundings are updated unconsciously; if something doesn’t make sense, you change your route. ”
Living without conscience
The combination of the two models satisfies philosophy and its question of a millennium and a half, and still opens fields for scientists in different areas. “If true, it could change the models in neuroscience, psychology and potentially also in computer vision,” says Herzog.
The authors write that the proposed two-stage model both solves the 1,500-year-old philosophical problem and opens up new perspectives for scientists from different disciplines. “Conscious processing is overrated. We should give weight to the processing period that takes place in the shadows. We would have that extra dimension of time to solve problems, if people took it seriously ”, explains the psychophysicist.
The proposed model, however, raises more questions. How do the two levels of consciousness interact? How do we move from one stage to another? Do disorders like schizophrenia change this balance? Can we live without conscience? Herzog’s response: “We have no idea.”