The philosopher Rene Descartes once said, “Cogito, ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am.” He may have been more right than he suspected. A pair of researchers believe that thoughts and feelings don’t rise out of our human consciousness, but from non-conscious structures in the brain.
“We suggest that our personal awareness does not create, cause or choose our beliefs, feelings or perceptions. Instead, the contents of consciousness are generated ‘behind the scenes’ by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains,” the pair wrote in a column for The Conversation.
Basically, they said, human consciousness doesn’t control or generate thoughts and emotions, it just becomes aware of them.
To support their argument, the researchers pointed to the sleep process.
“If this sounds strange, consider how effortlessly we regain consciousness each morning after losing it the night before …” Oakley and Halligan wrote.
They also noted that thoughts and emotions often arise fully formed in people’s minds; they’re not aware of the process of forming them, just as they aren’t aware of the process that pumps the heart or filters blood through the liver.
A study on hypnosis also supporters their argument, the researchers claim. Through hypnosis, subjects’ perception of reality and emotions can be influenced by outside suggestions, the scientists said.
Instead of emotions and thoughts making up human consciousness, Oakley and Halligan argue, people’s awareness of those processes and the personal narrative they construct to explain them is true consciousness.
But while humans may not be able to control thoughts and emotions, this doesn’t mean everyone has free license to do whatever they want, the researchers said.
“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,” they wrote.