Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Staying Awake

(I was going to label this blog post “probabilistic consciousness,” but I decided not to do so.  This decision was based on wanting people to actually read it)

I remember taking a shower one morning at some point during the winter.  I had the heat cranked up, and was spending longer than usual because I knew it was the warmest I would be all day.  The universe then gave this idea a million little icy middle fingers when the heat turned off.

In that moment, as I was showered with a barrage of condensed misery droplets, I think my conscious brain turned off.  I reflexively leaped out of the stream, fumbled for a towel, nearly fell over, lost my breath, all that stuff.

The experience was very eye-opening to me (not just because it woke me up), but because I realized that for a few brief seconds I had stopped thinking and jumped into a realm of nothing but reflexive thoughts and actions.

Why?  Because my body and brain believed, fairly instinctively, that prolonged exposure to cold is dangerous, that I was uncomfortable, that I needed to escape the situation.  Those instincts to avoid the cold and pain matched with a learned understanding of my environment, how showers worked, how not to crash through a shower curtain in embarrassment and pain.  Myself?  I didn’t get much of a say in things.  But my body and brain functioned without my go-ahead.

This told me a few things.  The first thing it told me was that under the right circumstances, I lose my free will.  I can become something that acts under pure impulse and panic.

The second thing it told me was that I don’t revert completely to animal instinct.  My animal instinct is tempered and mingled a bit with human learning.  I’m sure the ability to manipulate the shower and the shower curtain are not genetically coded into me, but I leapt for them reflexively.  In times of danger, I revert to a combination of instinct--avoid the cold--and learned behavior--how to turn off a shower and get out of it.  If I had not used my learning at all, I would have fallen through the curtain as I did nothing but flee the discomfort.

So, we come to the point of the post; keeping your mind awake when the body and instinctual brain want to shut it off.

I’ve come to see our conscious behavior as a chance-based thing, a matter of adding up the factors and checking the total, followed by a dice-roll of sorts.  If enough things should tilt the scale, I will not make conscious decisions.  A sour mood might combine with no sleep, and it might combine with the fact that I’ve had crappy experiences with fast-food workers in the past, and I will suddenly snap and say something horribly rude to my cashier without thinking about it.  Then I might go, “wait, did I really just say that?”  On a given day, it’s unlikely any of those things would cause me to snap at somebody, but added up together they increase the likelihood.  Hence, I might have used the term “probabilistic consciousness.”  Factors decrease or increase the likelihood I will retain my ability to make conscious decisions.  On one day I might.  On another, with more factors influencing me in the wrong direction, I might not.

I want to give your consciousness a fighting chance though, and I don’t want to leave it in the realm of “I have a 72% chance of being a jerk and therefore it’s not my fault when it happens.”  Accountability is important here.  In fact, this is the point of understanding the concept, so that you can notice factors decreasing your conscious thought process and combat them.

Because, as it turns out, awareness of a situation is the number one factor that supports conscious decision making.  There is a reason, in clinical psychology, that you don’t tell volunteers what you are testing; being aware of the test affects its outcome.  If I tell you, “I’m testing whether people like ‘red’ more when they are angry, and I’m going to make you angry by having a secret tester make annoying noises in the waiting room,’ then you will be less affected by everything.  The noise is annoying, but you know it’s a manipulation.  You have to pick some appealing colors for a shirt, but you know your decision might not be your own.

When you know that you are more likely to be rude or snappy when you’re tired, you are better equipped to spot the nasty words before they leave your mouth and inhibit them.  Or you can go out of your way to tilt the scales in your favor from the start, and give yourself an edge at the beginning.


So that’s interesting.  Why write about it on a competition blog?

Because, first and foremost, I mention the fact that when you aren’t consciously thinking, you don’t revert only to instinctual behaviors.  If you did, you couldn’t panic-throw a ball as a quarterback about to get sacked.  You couldn’t suddenly swat a tennis racket in a forehand motion.  You couldn’t reflexively snap a headshot when an enemy comes around a corner in Counterstrike.  If you focused only on behaviors that are instinctual, you would jump up and scream at everything before running away, or you would kick over the computer and bite the keyboard.

You instead rely on a combination of learned behaviors and instincts, and you do so unconsciously.  And this is a good thing in some cases.  Cases where life and limb are on the line, or if you’re in a safer environment of gaming, victory and defeat.  Maybe both if you have a very interesting life.  The point is, when every fraction of a second counts, you want to let the conscious mind die down and allow your unconscious habits, tendencies, and learned instincts to come to life.  If you understand the states of mind, the moods, or the situations that make this more likely, you can have some degree of control over the process.

Another reason I write about it here is because sometimes you want the opposite to be true.  In slower-paced moments where you need strategic thinking to take the fore, you must understand the factors that lead to impulsive, unconscious, knee-jerk reactions.  Are you more likely to suddenly make a stupid move because somebody in the crowd boos you?  What if the opponent challenges you at something you think you’re strong at, and your pride flares up and makes you aggressive without noticing?  Those states of mind are likely to lead to impulsive behaviors when you need conscious thoughts instead.  Awareness that this might happen tips the scales in your favor even more.

If you want to get meta, there are actually levels of consciousness probability.  I spent a long time struggling with depression (and still do), and I would often fall into certain judgmental patterns of thought.  I would consciously think negative thoughts about myself, but I would fall into those lines of thought without noticing; I would lapse into a type of conscious thought, but do so unconsciously.  Kind of strange.

Later on, I began to notice that the thoughts occurred more frequently at the end of the day, that they would be more likely if I hadn’t slept much, or if I had a beer or two that night.  Then, even though I was consciously running through negative scenarios, I had a higher level of thinking that allowed me to override that one.  I could notice it, understand that I was more likely to think that way under certain conditions, and decide if it was legitimate or not.

Ironically, now I usually notice those things without thinking about them.

Thanks for reading.

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