04 Feb Consciousness of Unconsciousness
As we work on our film about the relationship between our emotions – both conscious and unconscious – and health, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the idea of how information reaches our awareness. One of the most difficult things for people to wrap their minds around is how to become aware of the shaky frames that define our consciousness. Cultural norms are constantly evolving, which should give us a good reason to question all cultural norms. For instance, fashion: how we decide what to wear, how we react to what others wear, and how both of those make us feel about ourselves gives us an indication of how powerfully our unconscious assumptions are related to both personal impulses and cultural relationships to the world. What we think of as culturally acceptable is based on personal instinct, history, and experience. This partially explains why cultural shifts happen over time, and not overnight. When we examine these patterns, it can give us great insight into ourselves.
I recently watched a video of Dr. Howard Schubiner explaining the process by which our unconscious reactions affect our health. One of the first things that he points out is that we are only “conscious” of about 5% of the information we are exposed to. In other words, 95% of the data that reaches our brain is processed unconsciously. If you’ve ever seen The Terminator, you might remember the computer brain scanning the environment at light speed, taking in everything and then zeroing in on a target. Just as androids – or other futuristic computer-based intelligence – mine data to make sense of the world, so do humans. Part of our brain filters out the information that it believes is either less relevant or less challenging to us. We learn to react unconsciously. While it makes sense that we can’t pay full attention to every sound, smell, or visual stimulus that reaches us, most of us don’t realize how much of what reaches our awareness is governed by unconscious patters of judgment. A computer uses algorithms to learn “proper” behaviors, and so does our unconscious. We build behavior patterns based on a series of unconscious judgments because in order to be able to function in the world, our planning conscious brain has to rely on the unconscious brain to coordinate the vast majority of our reactions. If we had to make conscious decisions about things like walking, chewing, or where to direct our attention in every moment, we’d never be able to get anything done. It would take us all day to brush our teeth. So our conscious brain, with the aid of our instinctual behaviors, slowly trains our unconscious brain to filter out all of the things that it doesn’t feel we need to focus on.
I remember when I first moved to New York from a sleepy college town in the South, I was both excited by all of the new-found stimulus, and overwhelmed by it as well. For the first three months I was in the city, I was exhausted all the time. Slowly, though, it seems I learned to stop paying so much attention to things like the shapes of windows, or the way people talked, or the smell of the deli because focusing on these details made it impossible for me to get to class on time, concentrate on my studies, or feel rested.
While one part of the unconscious brain deals with incoming stimulus from the senses, another part organizes and regulates a host of other functions like breathing, blood pressure, moving, and other “automatic functions”. One can picture the way in which the unconscious and the conscious awareness systems coordinate their functions as a corporation. Let’s imagine that there are 1000 people in the organization. 900 of them are skilled workers who perform specific functions and have almost no contact with the manager class. Occasionally, they might report some information up the chain of command, but for the most part, like breathing, digesting, and sweating, these 900 workers are only occasionally observed and chastised by management. However, they essentially keep chugging along, doing what they have been trained to do, unless there’s a problem. There are 100 workers left. Let’s think of those workers as if they are arranged in groups according to the different senses. Imagine 5 groups of 19 people gathering information from the five different directions. They organize the information that they gather into tiers of usefulness. The level of usefulness is based on both present (observational) and past (genetic/instinctual) experience.
In order to organize the flood of data they take in, they meet in committees to discuss what information should be pushed up the chain of command. They might argue among themselves about what information is most useful to the CEO in terms of both present dangers (hectic traffic conditions), desires (a doughnut shop across the busy street), future concerns (cost and health issues related to the possible treat), and the negative and positive consequences of getting that treat (pleasure, possible weight gain, high blood pressure). Perhaps other people on the team have presented information like this in the past and they’ve gotten in trouble, so they suggest leaving it out of the summary (essentially arguing that they should keep this information away from consciousness by distracting it in some way). Sometimes, some of the more child-like and insistent members of the team argue loudly for the pleasurable activity, even throwing tantrums when they feel not listened to. Someone from the taste committee might remind everyone how much the CEO enjoyed the last doughnut, but touch (which regulates pain as well) reminds everyone of how awful the doughnut felt once it got to the gut. Taste and sight overrule touch and they quickly move the item onto the agenda. The older, more established members of the team try to put their foot down. Things get ugly, but eventually the noisiest members get their way. The cat is out of the bag at this point: the CEO has the information, the doughnut shop has entered awareness, and long established patterns will simply continue to run their course.
If we think of the CEO as our consciousness, we can begin to see that it lets the unconscious know what information is acceptable to it. Eventually only information it feels it needs – or wants – to hear gets to it. Some of the information that doesn’t reach our consciousness is essentially useless information in terms of day-to-day decision making and staying alive. However, this process also leads to important information getting stuck in committee, never reaching consciousness. Eventually, the stand off turns ugly, and one part of the unconscious tries to get the CEO’s attention, while another part tries to distract it from noticing. In a sense we can think of this as a war within ourselves. When this war is taking place outside of our sphere of understanding, problems can quickly build up. If we think about a company like Enron, that hid its losses in off-the-books subsidiaries, we can begin to imagine how our bodies might start to have problems if we hide our thoughts and feelings outside the realm of our consciousness. At Enron some employees were hiding the information not only from others, but also from themselves. They simply looked the other way because they had been trained by the culture of the company to do as they were told and not ask questions. The same thing happens within the corporation that we are all the CEO’s of: our bodies. Just like a corporation in which the CEO realizes things have gone off track, our conscious brain can make a concerted effort to change direction. Meditation, or therapy, can be a bit like a fact-finding mission in which the CEO listens to the different spheres of influence within the organization in an open way, in an effort to get all the information. If the boss doesn’t know what’s going on down below, it’s hard to get the entire organization to function as a team. Perhaps, the CEO realizes there might be another way, and decides to pay more attention to the gut which advises against the doughnut. Though corporations – just like people – resist change, it is possible. Sometimes it just takes a new approach to awareness.
Given the framing device that symptoms in our bodies are messages from our unconscious there are many different ways we can describe the process. Some see the symptoms as being an over active fear response in which we learn to fear things in ways that affect us emotionally without even realizing it. Ashok Gupta tells the story of a person who is lost in thought and almost gets hit by a bus. The fight or flight response kicks in and before they even realize it, they have thrown themselves back on the curb, devastated with fright. At this point, the unconscious might check in with the awareness to see if it should be vigilant for similar threats. If awareness indicates that it needs protection, from then on their unconscious is more wary of danger than ever, priming the body with stress response hormones. These hormones make us more prepared to deal with potential threats. However, just as a government that spends 55% of its budget on defense leaves it with few resources to deal with things like social services, when the body is over prepared to defend itself from threats, it has fewer resources available to deal with daily life. This stress response can also bring on pain, gastrointestinal problems, and fatigue. If awareness had responded to the threat by reminding itself to be a bit more present, then the threat level might not have been increased. If instead awareness doesn’t tell the army to stand down, the stress state becomes the norm, which is not good for the body.
Dr. Sarno describes the process in more Freudian terms. He explains that the id (inner child) wants something and tries to get the consciousness to know about it as well, but the super ego (super parent) tries to keep this childish desire from reaching the awareness. The super ego is our inner critic that tries to keep us in line, hewing to the expectations of our parents and our culture. The super ego fears dissent and likes order, but the id wants what it wants and it expresses rage when it doesn’t get it. The super ego tries to keep the ego from becoming aware of this unacceptable rage by working with the autonomic nervous system in creating distractions like anxiety, depression, or pain. The id throws a tantrum and the super ego has to yell even louder to make sure the ego doesn’t hear. This battle reaches the awareness as a distress signal. If consciousness becomes aware of the signal, or symptom, and sees it as indication that the body is communicating distress, it can try to figure out what’s going on. If instead, it sees the symptom as a purely physical problem, then the symptom, or distress signal, might get stronger.
I think we’ve all had the experience of pulling our hand off of something that’s too hot before we were even aware that it was hot. Or perhaps we dodged a ball that was coming towards us before we even saw it. A large part of our awareness is always on the lookout for danger and it’s ready to react to it. This reaction is centered in a part of our brain called the amygdala. This is the fight or flight response. If you’ve ever had a pet, especially cat, you have seen it react to danger and when the dangers past, it will kind of shake it off and go right back to sleep. If it’s a stray cat, the response can be quite different. Strays can be hyper vigilant. They face a lot of danger, so they are more constantly aware of danger. The stress is harder on them for sure, and they are less likely to live to a ripe old age.
As humans we often have a response that is more akin to the stray cat than the house cat. We hold onto the fear response and our bodies begin to process it unconsciously. A few years ago, while in a playground in Brooklyn, my daughter and I heard someone screaming that we need to stop someone. A young man was running towards us with the apparent victim of a crime following close behind. I got ready to tackle the guy until he spat out, “Get out of way, I have a gun.” I stepped back. The man who was chasing the robber snarled at me, “Why didn’t you stop him?” I could see that my daughter was terrified, so I didn’t even respond about the gun. I took her and I left.
A few years earlier, she had had a bout of anxiety. The noises of the city scared her and she didn’t like the subway. When she was out of the house, she was on high alert all the time. I’m not sure what sparked that bloom. However, it was clear that this incident had a major impact on her. She often walked around in a panic and being around a lot of people scared her. When we told people about it, the always responded with shock and disbelief because she is so vivacious, confident, and in control. However, those same traits make her reaction to fear just as powerful. The anxiety eventually lessened, but it stayed present and quite strong. After the street robbery incident the anxiety once again got quite severe and it took a lot of work to get it back in check. In fact, one of the reasons that we decided to leave Brooklyn for a while was to give her a chance to reset. It has seemed to help.
For some people, the response is less clear and less conscious. They may not even be fully aware of the fear response. Yet the unconscious part of the brain puts the body in a fight or flight response. Earlier, I discussed moving to New York from a small town and how the information overload was stressful. At the same time, as the demands of my education ratcheted up, so did my unconscious anxiety. Like many of Dr. Sarno’s patients, I put myself under pressure to be perfect and good. I want to be seen by others, and my parents, as a positive person who helps others and excels. However, this unconscious need is incredibly stressful, especially as the demands of life start to increase. I’d get up in the morning and when I became aware of feeling anxious, I’d start to think about what test, paper, or class I might be stressing about. Soon the stress became somewhat constant and it kind of became a new normal. Imagine if this stress response happens hundreds of times a day, everyday, for years. We know we heal more slowly when stressed. If we are chronically stressed, our body becomes severely taxed.
The key to solving this conundrum is listening to the symptoms. When I was in college, I listened and I found the outer layer, the very present day worry or fear. However, I did not go deeper and think about why I might be responding in that way, or whether or not it made sense to push myself as hard as I was. My goal to finish whatever race it was that I was running, without thinking about the damage that I might be doing to myself. Over the past few years, I’ve learned to listen a little better. Meditation helps. However, I still have a long race to run. I have, however, learned that I need not rush to the finish line because once I get there, I realize it’s also a starting line.