What is Consciousness? (Part Two)

I was discussing Part One with my wife and we got to talking about a certain sensation that arises in times of great danger. You've probably heard it described and perhaps you've experienced it. It's said, "It was as if I was standing outside myself, watching myself act."

This is consistent with what I said in Part One. Indeed, it seems as if in dire circumstances the illusion is partially stripped away and consciousness is seen as the so-called "helpless observer" (or perhaps I should say "transcriber" to reflect my theory).

It's not clear to me what physically creates this shift in perspective; I'm no neurologist. I will say this, though: when it has happened to me I was in a situation where there was no time or energy to fritter away. My entire being was working on saving me from harm. In such cases, perhaps the “transcribing with personal significance” aspect gets turned down. There's no sense recording my actions in full resolution if I don't survive the incident. This is “crunch time”, when the carefully assembled model of self gets the big test. It's precisely to prepare for moments like this that consciousness does what it does.

Interestingly, I (and others) have noted time compression when recalling such incidents. “It's as if time slowed down,” we hear. Even before I came up with the theory of Part One it occured to me that perhaps time seems to slow down because (A) adrenaline supercharges the body and (B) the scant vestiges of consciousness still transcribing see a vast amount of sensory information being assessed. That's only reasonable, since in such crises it can't be known what small factor will save the day.

The last time this sort of thing happened to me I was only barely aware of what I was doing. I had to slam a door and close some bolts that I had installed myself. When the incident occurred my body was doing all that (and doing it very well) and I only had a vague sense of what doors and bolts were — there was no energy left over for remembering such trivia. There was also no energy left over for being scared. That's a common report in such circumstances.

Part Three of this series of five articles about consciousness can be found here.

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