Consciousness Divided

The Ancient Greeks recommended to examine life. Actually, Homo is an examiner. The examiner. Homo finds out about the world, thus becomes powerful. Part of the world, what we see the world through, is ourselves, though. So examining the world means examining ourselves.

(Famously, to establish Quantum Mechanics, Niels Bohr and his “Copenhagen School”, pondered what it was, for human beings to experiment.)

I mountain run. Alone. A good occasion to study how the human mind works. And I found something I feel is interesting about the problem of consciousness: it’s much more divided, multiple and hierarchized, than is generally assumed.

Mountain running is one of the great dangerous sports out there, and the one most eminently human. Human superiority over other beasts, which is undeniable, was founded upon mountain running. Why running? Because only Homo can run in full heat all day long, catching up with dogs (who have a poor cooling system) and even horses (capable of more perspiration than dogs, but still not as good as humans). This helped make humans the ultimate predators.

Why calling running out there in the wilderness mountain running? Because wilderness running, except on a beach, is always on very broken-up ground. There were no roads, for the last 100 million years, when our forebears learned to run. But plenty of holes dug by ground squirrels, even on the prairie, in which to break one’s leg.

The first challenge in running mountainous terrain, is that the ground is full of rocks, roots, and loose terrain (by definition). This has all to be processed well and faster than any supercomputer can. Failure will be ignominious, potentially lethal. I remember that trail I ran on many times where, once, in a three weeks span, two women fell off it, and died.

Fly Over Country: When the Rattler Is Across the Trail, And They Tend To Be Across Trails, One Second Away, You Take-Off, And Fly Over, Or You Die! A full bite from the rattler below, Crotalus Oreganus, from the genus Viperidae, will make you unconscious in 15 seconds.

In the last month I hit two branches from above (one from a poisonous vine). In another incident, I slipped on a loose slope, accidentally catching a root with my right hand while falling, breaking two bones, tearing three tendons with bone attached, etc. The soles of my shoes had become too smooth. This was the result of a fraction of a second of deficient logic (I had to observe the root, which I didn’t, and anticipate what would happen if I slipped, which I vaguely anticipated, and caught the root). The surgeon said I will never fully recover, and it will take ten weeks anyway.

Death can occur in other ways: lightning (which I experienced too close many times) and wasps and their kinds. Two years ago, I was stung more than 40 times in a swarm attack, from a non-identified nest. I ran out… Having decided that was the best strategy (supposedly running is not advised with snakebite).

Yeah, I still mountain run (but more carefully, considering the state of my multiply fractured right hand, although I nearly impaled myself with a perfidious sharp brown redwood branch lying on the brown sequoia redwood forest floor! You put your foot on such a branch, it sticks up, you die…).

The first problem with mountain running is to have a brain which can process the unfolding ground fast enough to know where to land one’s feet, and affect overall balance. On the sort of stupid track common sport activist favor, any step is similar to the one before: one could run blind. However, on a mountain trail, every step is different and tricky, and there will be several such hazardous steps per second. Tripping on a sharp rock and crashing head first on another will kill  the runner.

A related problem is the deeply existential question of snakes. If you are ten miles out in a forest with 100 meters tall trees, deep in a twisting canyon, out of phone range and you encounter a viper, you will have to think quickly. Rattlesnakes can be huge: up to seven feet long! (I saw one once around that sort of length across a trail; since it refused to move, I interpreted that as aggression, I threw him two stones, two hits, and it fled to the side, threatening from the bushes rattling away… I do not attack vipers which get away, but will punish aggressive behavior!) Actually, if you are moving at three meters per second, when coming upon a rattler across the trail, you will have to take off, faster than a pelican, and hope to fly over the startled reptile before it can know where to strike (I did this once; arriving a four meters per second on a twisting single track, with impossible terrain right and left, I found a large rattlesnake in the middle of the trail, and jumped over it; by the way, baby rattlers are also lethal).

When I run, part of my brain is on a constant snake watch. However, a root, or a branch can well look like a snake, and, at sustained speeds up to 20 feet per second (6 m/s), as when descending, something interesting happens. When the snake watch system identifies a plausible snake, it immediately gives avoidance orders to the neuron motor system, the balance system, and the neurohormonal system. Consciousness itself, gets informed from the sudden modification of trajectory, and some neurohormonal effects having to do with activating attention circuitry which are even faster than a massive adrenalin shock (which itself takes about one second). At that point, consciousness knows a snake alert is underway, and dread prevails. Before consciousness gets aware of anything at all, there is actually a suppression effect. Probably because all central nervous system power has to be mobilized, consciousness first shuts down, as all ongoing processes get instantaneously stopped.

Then the visual system turns on to the max to identify the threat and find where the head could be. Consciousness follows to find out whether that’s more probably a root or a snake.

I have observed this effect thousands of times, having found myself avoiding potential snakes thousands of times. (My latest close call with a rattler was three feet, three weeks ago, it was going away while rattling in thick grass, didn’t see it; I walk heavy through grass to alert the beasts.)

This clearly shows that consciousness role is that of a supervisor. The time I had to jump over that snake, I detected it 5 meters away, a second away. Consciousness had no time to get involved, but higher level processing determined instantaneously that there was no possibility of braking, and the only hope was to jump above an animal which can strike so fast, high-speed photography is needed to catch the action. Then I had to land on the other side. By the time full consciousness returned, the danger was passed.   


Consciousness Divided:

Some will sneer: what did you prove? That there are parts of the brain reacting automatically? That there are reflexes, instinct? A reptilian brain, as the saying has it? An unconscious mind?

All those terms are time-honored, yet vague. And they don’t fit what is really perceived: actually, the point is that there is consciousness involved, a sort of ultrafast consciousness, not deliberative consciousness, but consciousness nevertheless.

A proof is this: if one stops concentrating on the trail, one crashes very quickly. Actually higher level decisions about where to go have to be taken all the time: imagine running in a boulder field from metric ton block to metric ton block. You will have to decide continuously where to land next, and how, while anticipating a few moves after that. 

Let me repeat slowly: It’s more “divided consciousness” than “unconscious mind”. It only LOOKS “unconscious” because most of it is not recorded in short-term memory.

As I said, the proof is that one needs to stay concentrated while running. That’s crucial. So actually the frontal cortex elaborating strategies is not on vacation. If not building up strategies for the next two seconds, one crashes, and pretty fast, and pretty bad. Potentially lethally…

Thus, although part of the mind can wander, there is definitively extreme consciousness of the terrain as it unfolds. Why? High level strategies have to be investigated and deployed, often with a time horizon of less than two seconds. For example in descent the terrain has to be analyzed carefully (which I didn’t do enough of when I broke my hand…) The terrain has to be used to brake and chose the best trajectories getting oneself where one wants to go, without too much accelerations, or terrain which is too hard, or too soft, or too sharp, or potential collision with various objects, on the ground or in the air (branches), unknowable dark ground to be avoided, bushes not to be approached too much less an ambushing snake lurks, etc…

Simply all this intense mental activity is not registered even in short-term memory, most of the time. It’s pure consciousness, no strings attached. Meanwhile, the rest of consciousness can roam, but when a serious problem arises, like a looming snake, all of it concentrates on said problem, right away, and with a computing power never used in normal life.


Examining Life Thoroughly Means Questioning Existence, Best Done In Extreme Situations:

So we are supposed to examine life. But what is it to examine? It means considering what was not considered before, getting out of set neural patterns. And doing this deliberately, forcefully. And nothing beats a life and death motivation. One can do this by activating the flight or fight neurology. Socrates had killed four men in combat. He was also famous by the courageous fighting he did, covering a retreat of the army, after a disastrous Athenian defeat at Potidea, 33 years before his execution, saving the life of the wounded Alcibiades, pierced by an arrow, in the process. Also Socrates had “loved” everybody, for decades, Plato said… So much so, adds Plato, that led Socrates to a wise abstinence later.

To examine, we have to embrace all that can be embraced, take it all in consideration. That does not mean visiting all the restaurants, and jetting around the world. It means a rich and diverse wealth of experiences. And extreme, and in particularly extremely dangerous ones, are an indispensable part of the mix.

An amusing aside, then, is that some of the individuals engaging in the most dangerous hare-brain pursuit, are, deep down inside, motivated by the examination of life, which is at the core of the essence of the genus Homo. It’s hilarious to think that some of the most apparently dim-witted brutes (like your average Jihadist) are thus motivated by the nobility of the human spirit, but so it is!  

I think, therefore I am? Not so simple! What is “I”, if “I” is multiple, as a method of division of work, evolutionary selected?

Consciousness is not only experienced dependent, but a much divided experience. Some will say: we knew this already, aren’t we multitasking already? What I tried to show above is something different. Just as there is the ship of state, there is the ship of mind. There may a captain to the soul, sometimes, but it has also a crew. With a mind of its own.

Patrice Ayme’  


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11 Responses to “Consciousness Divided”

  1. SDM Says:

    In neuroscience, some have concluded that much of our brain activity is performed by what they call the unconscious mind, that part of the neural activity of the brain that operates “below” the level of conscious thought and is actually responsible for most of our actions. It has been likened to what we commonly call our gut reactions and when our conscious mind tries to override the unconscious mind, then we find ourselves confused or confounded. Another term used is the “reptile brain” for a similar aspect of our divided consciousness.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Yes, SDM, thanks for reminding me of this. I think I may not have expressed my meaning as well as I should, and will go back to tweak the essay.
      First for criticizing the usual concepts: 1) reptilian brain is a strange idea. Our ancestors have not been vulgar reptiles for at least 255 million years, before the Permian/Trias extinctions. They were proto-mammals,probably social, and they probably buried themselves as the planet got too hot/too cold from the Siberian Traps…

      2) I don’t believe the “unconscious” is really that “unconscious”, that’s a point I was trying to make.

      It’s more “divided consciousness”. And the proof is that one needs to stay concentrated while running. If not, one crashes, and pretty fast, and pretty bad. Potentially lethally… Thus, although part of the mind can wander, there is definitively extreme consciousness of the terrain as it unfolds. Why? High level strategies have to be investigated and deployed, often with a time horizon of less than a second. For example in descent the terrain has to be analyzed carefully (which I didn’t do enough of when I broke my hand…) The terrain has to be used to brake and chose the best trajectories getting oneself where one wants to go, without too much accelerations, collision, unknowable dark ground to be avoided, etc…Simply all this intense mental activity is not registered even in short term memory, most of the time. It’s pure consciousness, no strings attached.

      • SDM Says:

        I would agree on (2) above. The “unconscious” mind is a term that has been used by some but a more accurate term would be helpful in describing what is happening. That part of the mind is no doubt acting on stimuli and engaged in reasoning of a more ingrained or programmed nature than what we would generally term as consciousness- it is more of an autopilot program in a sense. Built up over millions of years. Almost an instinctual undercurrent to our sense of being aware, thought, perception, etc.

        • Patrice Ayme Says:

          My view of the “unconscious” is that it mini Hebbian activity. Namely neuronal circuitry which gets activated, and thus establish WEAK connections. How? By shutting down parts of the brain. How to shut down part of the brain? With sleep or heavy exercise, or passion, including abject fear and mad hunger, tourism, etc…. Shutting down part of the brain, including inhibitory circuitry and organs, forces to use unusual pathways. If those make sense, they get pre-established, and should some real world situations INPUT resemble what was encountered in the inner brain, those networks, that mean those logics, those solutions, will get activated…

          So, in my view, there is programmation, but it’s self-generated, self evolved… That’s a situation quite similar to what happens in biological evolution of the phenotype itself… And it’s related; namely lots of “instincts” are just evolved neurocircuitry. Evolved during one’s lifetime, even in a bee’s brain…

  2. John Rogers Says:

    Very nice. Thank you. It’s seemed to me for a long time that the nature of the brain is that of a committee, not a point mass.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Yes, thanks John. Also consciousness itself is not a point mass, I tried to point out better in the comment to SDM. (I will back modify the essay to make my meaning clearer, if that’s needed, as it seems…)

  3. benign Says:

    When I lived in Minnesota I used to go cross country skiing alone in nature preserves with hills and icy trails, wearing only high-tech thermal underwear and shell. This when temperatures were -5 deg. F. or so. If I had broken a leg, I would have become a popsicle in short order.

    Later, in my wiser years, I took up soaring, piloting an engineless airplane (a true glider, not the hang- variety) many miles from an airfield, riding on thermals. Only had to “land out” once in a farmer’s field. Can’t afford it any more, but it was a great nervous system refresher in my late 50s and early 60s to go through the training and pass an FAA glider pilot flight test.

    Your stories do make me question the entire notion of “intelligence,” however.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Just saw your very interesting comment, Benign!
      What a life you had! I am still at the crazy stage (I mountain run again, in spite of my cast system… And my last encounter with a rattler was with the cast on. I didn’t see it, but it was going away, 3 feet away…) Refreshing the nervous system with the FAA should have been a fruitful ordeal…

      Yes, you are correct, as consciousness can be completely divided, so should intelligence. Actually nighttime is when really fresh POTENTIAL logic is explored and thus partly established. We call it dreaming, but it’s thinking creatively!

      Intelligence is first of all the ability not to follow a logic, but to jump out of all and any logical box!

  4. dominique deux Says:

    About stars: yesterday evening after sunset I had my coffee and pipe at my garden table, as the summer sky got darker and darker. It went from a sumptuous, velvety grey-blue to a much deeper dark blue. At first the only star in sight was Venus (a planet of course), a glorious solitary jewel. Then I could observe stars as they literally popped out, one by one, not there at a given moment then twinkling merrily the following minute. A propeller plane’s lights joined them briefly. This show, with the many bats doing their rounds, was entrancing. Sorry, that’s the closest I can get interested in your paradox, so call me a Philistine! But a happy one.

    About snakes: I know you don’t believe in instinct. But another animal which survives in the wild because of its running abilities, the horse, displays lightning-speed evasive behavior at the sight of anything snakelike. Horses which never saw a snake in their lives – for example horses imported from European stables to Africa – have been known to rear and flee at the sight of a coiled garden hose. That cannot be put to learning. How would you call that specific brand of “consciousness” in a horse – admittedly a highly evolved mammal, but not really the sharpest tool in the box… and would you draw any inferences regarding your own snake spotting and evasion skills?

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Bonjour Dominique, and glad to see you back through a combination of snakes and velvety sky sumptuously fading into twinkling stars!
      There is a direct circuitry going from snake like shapes to alert systems. One reason, one way that could be learned is that, for a running animal, roots and branches, not just snakes, lying about, can also be deadly (impalement by branches is definitively a possibility, tripping on a root and breaking one’s skull on the next boulder even more likely). So, without believing there is a specific snake alert system, certainly there is a long lying object alert system… And that’s learned.
      Moreover, if the object moves, any object that moves definitively triggers alerts. So a moving root would definitively be very disturbing.

      When I was two years old, I was observed playing with deadly Sahara yellow scorpions:”Coucou Be’!” Now, though, I am often on the look out for scorpions, and their company makes me jump backwards…So definitively the fear of scorpions is not innate. At least in humans… many mysteries out there, not just from that black sky with twinkling diamonds…

  5. SUBCONSCIOUS (Theory thereof!) | Patrice Ayme's Thoughts Says:

    […] from, my own brain is a full lab at night, and not just at night; for example hard mountain running causes divided consciousness, but it also shuts down part of the brain, while opening others: thinking about the Foundations of […]

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