Consciousness as Middle-Management

Your conscious mind may not be doing anything all that interesting. No, not just you, but like, for everyone. From San Francisco State University:

Associate Professor of Psychology Ezequiel Morsella’s “Passive Frame Theory” suggests that the conscious mind is like an interpreter helping speakers of different languages communicate.

“The interpreter presents the information but is not the one making any arguments or acting upon the knowledge that is shared,” Morsella said. “Similarly, the information we perceive in our consciousness is not created by conscious processes, nor is it reacted to by conscious processes. Consciousness is the middle-man, and it doesn’t do as much work as you think.”

I have to say, though this kind of freaked me out when I first read it, having a kind of knee-jerk revulsion to the idea of a more or less hapless consciousness, upon consideration this seems entirely reasonable. One really has to let go of the idea of a kind of mini-self in one’s head that does all the pondering and decision-making, and think more about the mind as the layers of an operating system. Some levels of thinking and processing are “higher” than others, but it’s all still merely reacting to input.

Morsella’s theory seems to me to be analogous to a kind of resource-allocation process in a computer, deciding how much power or memory to give to an application, or what parts of a chip to activate and to what degree (I am not an engineer so this may be a sloppy analogy). What we think of as our consciousness may simply be a process that takes in a stimulus, and then works to figure out how to respond.

Another analogy for the conscious mind that rang true for me was by Michael Graziano, who likened our awareness to a miniature model of a battlefield for a general, complete with little tanks and soldiers, made to represent what was really out there, in order for the general to make decisions. But the general doesn’t have access to the “real” world, just the model he or she’s presented with, and has to rely on that to decide how to allocate resources.

So that’s us, isn’t it? No free will per se, no lofty sentience, just a data-crunching processer that says stop or go to a lot of other processes, relying on an incomplete simulation of the world in which it operates. No wonder we’re such a mess.

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