Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Nonconscious Processes Support Consciousness

Several words seem to be used synonymously: — nonconscious, non-conscious, unconscious, subconscious.

A few examples of nonconscious neural functionality:

· Spinal reflexes: touch a hot stove and your finger withdraws immediately without conscious thought.  This sensory and motor response is entirely within the spinal cord.

· Startle response code: hear an intense blast of noise and your head immediately turns around to locate the source of the noise.  The sensory and motor response occurs without conscious intervention.

· The hypothalamus provides homeostasis (blood pressure, breathing, etc.) for many bodily processes without conscious intervention.

Much activity of the brain is nonconscious. The autonomic nervous system provides much functionality for the sense of self. Abnormal states such as pain or immune responses such as fever can rise to the level of consciousness.

Many brain processes run automatically and are influenced by attention slightly or not at all. (Parasuraman; Attentive Brain, 6)

Our behavior is mostly governed by a cauldron of emotions and motives of which we are largely nonconscious. Incarnations of this idea include such phenomena as blindsight, or the elicitation of changes in skin conductance in patients who have no conscious recognition of faces. (Ramachandran; Illusions of Body Image, 29)

Although executive processes result in conscious content in working memory, it is important to recognize that some unconscious processes made the result possible. (LeDoux; Synaptic Self, 191)

Many important aspects of human social behavior, including decision-making as well as the way we react to members of racial and ethnic groups, are mediated unconsciously. (LeDoux; Synaptic Self, 27)

Explicit aspects of the self that we're consciously aware of are referred to by the term "self-aware". (LeDoux; Synaptic Self, 27)

Implicit aspect of the self are all aspects of self that are not immediately available to consciousness. (LeDoux; Synaptic Self, 27)

Neurons in the upper cortical layers, are mainly concerned with unconscious processing. (Koch and Crick; Neuronal Basis, 109)

Much of procedural memory (e.g., ride a bicycle) and other nonconscious learned activity depends on the functions of the basal ganglia. (Edelman; Wider than the Sky, 24)

Nonconscious neural processes occurring in the sensory and motor periphery can influence the dynamic core. Ongoing nonconscious assistance to our conscious life occurs whenever we speak aloud or only to ourselves, write or type, play a musical instrument, perform athletic routines, drive an auto or simply set a table. It occurs when we perform a mental calculation or merely follow a train of thought without doing or saying anything.(Edelman; Universe of Consciousness, 182)

The FAPs of movement are all executed nonconsciously, except during the process of learning. Think of the muscular movements of walking or riding a bicycle. All of the muscular movements are performed nonconsciously; only the overall sensation of walking or riding the bicycle is at the level of consciousness.

Abnormal function of body can rise to the level of consciousness. We may feel pain or notice an awkward movement.

Brainstem functionality of the sleep/wake cycle along with the limbic can keep us awake or cause us to doze and get sleepy.

Amygdala Emotions Spread Out in All Directions. The sub-cortical amygdala can influence our conscious experience of emotions.  This is already proposed by Joseph LeDoux, who has extensively studied amygdala functions and its input-output connections with other brain areas.  (See the article, “   “, for a specific proposal regarding the upward (conscious), horizontal (behavioural) and downward (autonomic) effects of amygdala processes.) Rif.

    The amygdala has more indirect connections with the cortex, especially by way of the cingular gyrus, than direct connections.  The final emotional experience, as in all conscious experiences, is a distributed process involving many cortical areas.  But an essential area may be the orbito-frontal lobe.  The medial frontal lobe may also come into play.  Their position permits a direct interaction with the lateral frontal lobe, which receives messages of environmental input from the parietal lobe.  Therefore we have a design well-suited, within the frontal lobe, to integrate the inner emotional life with the external environment. 

    Work by Antonio Damasio and Edmund Rolls offer more detailed maps of the frontal lobe architecture.  This helps us understand the development of conscious “intention” and “goal creation” that then prepares us to take specific action.  The final action component is transmitted directly to the motor cortex.  But different parts of the frontal lobe also connect to the basal ganglia, the sub-cortical area important for specifying specific action “routines.”  (From basal ganglia to thalamus to motor cortex, as Edelman shows.)   In addition, since the cingular cortex also has strong connections to the basal ganglia, we have still another mode in which sub-cortical emotions, starting at the amygdala, can determine behaviour. 

(From amygdala to cingular gyrus to basal ganglia.)


Excerpts from science experts

Much of mental life occurs outside of conscious awareness. (LeDoux; Emotional Brain, 33)

Much emotional processing occurs unconsciously. (LeDoux; Emotional Brain, 67)

Emotional and cognitive processing both largely occur unconsciously. (LeDoux; Emotional Brain, 68)

We do not consciously plan the grammatical structure of the sentences we utter. (LeDoux; Emotional Brain, 31)

Many important aspects of human social behavior, including decision-making as well as the way we react to members of racial and ethnic groups, are mediated unconsciously. (LeDoux; Emotional Brain, 27)

Most brain systems are plastic and work outside of consciousness; they can be thought of as implicit memory systems. (LeDoux; Emotional Brain, 28)

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was the single most important figure in pointing up the role of unconscious processes in our behavior and feelings. (Edelman; Bright Air,144)

Neural processes underlying creativity have nothing to do with rationality. Creativity is not born out of reasoning. (Llinás; I of the Vortex, 170)

Activity in the basal ganglia is running all the time, playing motor patterns and snippets of motor patterns amongst and between themselves. Because of the reentrant inhibitory connectivity among and between these nuclei, they seem to act as a continuous, random, motor pattern generator. (Llinás; I of the Vortex, 170)

Mozart said his music came to him, interrupted. (Llinás; I of the Vortex, 170)


Brain Stem, Hypothalamus, Homeostasis, Metabolism

Hypothalamus is connected to all levels of the nervous system. (LeDoux; Emotional Brain, 100)

Pathway that can transmit information directly to the amygdala from the thalamus; elicit fear responses without the aid of the cortex. (LeDoux; Emotional Brain, 158)

We do not consciously plan the grammatical structure of the sentences we utter. (LeDoux; Emotional Brain, 158)