What if consciousness is not what drives the human mind?

It has long been believed that thoughts, beliefs and perceptions that fill our minds every day are part of what it means to have consciousness.

But researchers now suggest our personal awareness does not create these feelings and thoughts - rather they come from non-conscious systems operating behind the scenes. 

Writing for the Conversation, Professor David A Oakley from University College London and Professor Peter Halligan of Cardiff University explain that we don't consciously choose our thoughts - instead we simply become aware of them.

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Researchers suggest our personal awareness does not create feelings and thoughts - rather they come from non-conscious systems operating behind the scenes (stock image)

Researchers suggest our personal awareness does not create feelings and thoughts - rather they come from non-conscious systems operating behind the scenes (stock image)

WHERE DOES CONSCIOUSNESS COME FROM?

The researchers 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. 

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 researchers argue that the contents of consciousness are a subset of the experiences, emotions, thoughts and beliefs that are generated by non-conscious processes within our brains.

This subset takes the form of a personal narrative, which is constantly being updated. The personal narrative exists in parallel with our personal awareness, but the latter has no influence over the former.

The personal narrative is important because it provides information to be stored in your autobiographical memory (the story you tell yourself, about yourself), and gives human beings a way of communicating the things we have perceived and experienced to others.

This, in turn, allows us to generate survival strategies; for example, by learning to predict other people's behaviour.

Everyone knows what it feels like to have consciousness: it's that self-evident sense of personal awareness, which gives us a feeling of ownership and control over the thoughts, emotions and experiences that we have every day.

Most experts think that consciousness can be divided into two parts: the experience of consciousness (or personal awareness), and the contents of consciousness, which include things such as thoughts, beliefs, sensations, perceptions, intentions, memories and emotions.

It's easy to assume that these contents of consciousness are somehow chosen, caused or controlled by our personal awareness – after all, thoughts don't exist until until we think them. But in a new research paper in Frontiers of Psychology, we argue that this is a mistake.

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. 

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.

Not just a suggestion 

If this sounds strange, consider how effortlessly we regain consciousness each morning after losing it the night before; how thoughts and emotions – welcome or otherwise – arrive already formed in our minds; how the colours and shapes we see are constructed into meaningful objects or memorable faces without any effort or input from our conscious mind.

Consider that all the neuropsychological processes responsible for moving your body or using words to form sentences take place without involving your personal awareness. 

We believe that the processes responsible for generating the contents of consciousness do the same.

Our thinking has been influenced by research into neuropsychological and neuropsychiatric disorders, as well as more recent cognitive neuroscience studies using hypnosis. 

The studies using hypnosis show that a person's mood, thoughts and perceptions can be profoundly altered by suggestion.

In such studies, participants go through a hypnosis induction procedure, to help them to enter a mentally focused and absorbed state. Then, suggestions are made to change their perceptions and experiences.

Thoughts and emotions arrive already formed in our minds from what scientists call the 'personal narrative' which is not affected by our personal awareness (stock image)

Thoughts and emotions arrive already formed in our minds from what scientists

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