Neuroscience Matters – the first in a series

The human brain is like an iceberg. It is estimated that only five per cent of mental activity is concerned with conscious thought. The remaining 95 per cent gets on with the job, and needs no help from us. And so our newspapers publish intriguing stories about how our brains have developed to respond automatically to our experience.

It’s in the news because the neuroscientists are examining how different parts of the brain, either alone or in conjunction with other parts, react to different stimuli. To take a simple example, our brains fire up when we hear the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, because music speaks directly to the amygdala – an almond-shaped part of the brain which responds to emotion.

These nuggets of human behaviour become available because methods of scanning the brain have become common. No need to ask your opinion, for we can talk directly to your brain. Although the answers may not be sophisticated they are at least direct. You cannot plausibly claim that Beethoven means nothing to you if your brain response gives you the lie.

But there are problems. Neuroscience is a subject of immense importance: full of promise and full of threat, and we are still only at the threshold. It would be a pity if our grasp were restricted to the party pieces which take up a couple of column inches in our newspaper.

And they are party pieces, because it is a strong temptation for neuroscientists, dependent on reputation for their funding, to get noticed for this often rather superficial work. In fact, at this early stage, relatively few new insights have emerged. Much of what is being confirmed about human nature now through neuroscience has been known for a long time through observation and studies. Try Plato’s dialogue Gorgias or Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

An important issue of concern relates to the opportunities which arise for manipulation. The simplest of examples will face you the next time you are confronted with a purchase priced at £5.99. Can’t fool you, of course: you know immediately that that is really £6. But that’s your rational brain. Your deeper brain evaluates prices from the left digit, and you buy.

Now, imagine that commercial offerings, from shops to advertisements, have all been designed, with the help of neuroscience, to sneak around our rational defences and trigger our subconscious responses. Imagine further that at election time our candidate has been briefed on what to wear and what to say by neuroscience rather than through his own judgment. Welcome to our world! It has been like that for years. It’s just that we are about to become much better at it.

In my example I used the term “manipulation”, but was I manipulating you? Is there a difference between manipulating people and handling people? After all, both words come from “hand” (Latin: manus), yet the emotional load is different. And I chose the one that I wanted so that I could trigger my intended emotional meaning in your mind.

I take you right back to the Canadian federal elections of 1974 for another example. In this study we may not be surprised that the candidates previously judged to be attractive gained two and half times as many votes as the unattractive. But we may wonder why 73 per cent were quite unaware that their votes had been influenced by appearance, and 14 per cent refused, when challenged, to entertain even the possibility of that influence.

Of at least equal importance to us are the issues which this knowledge raises about our free will. Were these Canadian voters free when they chose the attractive candidate without knowing why? Is a woman free when her sexual choices may be at the behest of her monthly cycle? Are your charitable gifts free when your emotions have been hooked by a subtle advertisement? If it is true that some 95 per cent of our choices are sourced through influences of which we are not aware, what price the virtuous life?

In these contexts we must also consider a subject which I have mentioned from time to time. We have to take seriously the integration of body and soul. So there are questions here too. We want to know why God has intended us to evolve with our great intelligence, yet allows the larger span of our minds to be beyond our conscious control.

We also want to know why, if every aspect of our thought and response is traceable to brain functions, we have any need for a spiritual soul. It is true that the neuroscientists have not yet run to ground freedom of the will or moral obligation or consciousness. But they have solved so many earlier mysteries, that we might expect them to succeed with these as well.

In this column I have done no more than sketch in some introductory aspects of neuroscience, and I have raised more questions than answers. But I am planning in future columns to look further at some of these issues – because they take us deep into the heart of God’s gift of human nature.

My next column on neuroscience will examine just why it is that around 95 per cent of our responses have to be directed by our subconscious minds. There are very good reasons for this being so, and their discovery can give us a whole new view of human nature – and very useful one, too. You may never be the same again. I give away no secrets if I tell you that I will begin with considering a bowl of water.

Meanwhile,  come and contribute to Your searching questions or objections will be invaluable.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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54 Responses to Neuroscience Matters – the first in a series

  1. milliganp says:

    I can speak from some personal experience; having had a nervous breakdown I became deeply suicidal – the self-hatred was deeply subconscious but very real. It took both chemicals and talking therapy to get to somewhere reasonable. Suicide used to be considered the “unforgivable” sin but now we realise that the mind can become deeply unbalanced.

    However, on the issue of culpability, there is the ancient concept of the practice of virtue – we can modify and train our behaviour, perhaps not at the subconscious but at the pre-conscious level.

    A question in response:-
    If a primary instinct (such as the sexual urge) is subconscious, to what extent can we call its manifestation temptation or the work of the devil?

    • Nektarios says:

      May I first say, you are very brave to open up on the blog.
      The practice of virtue is not a mechanitic process as such.
      Virtue is a state of being.
      Virtue comes through much trials, difficulties and sorrow, none more difficult than what you have been through with a mental breakdown, such a term most think they understand, but don’t.
      But you do! You know what it has cost to get your world back into some order.Not being a seen thing like a broken arm or leg, a broken mind most find difficult to understand.
      I have known many exceptionally bright people who have had a total mental breakdown
      and have still not recovered decades later.

      As to you question in response you as: If a primary instinct(such as the sexual urge) is subconscious, to what extent can we call it’s manifestation temptation or the work of the devil?
      The sex drive after puperty is a natural biological urge.It is not a subconscious urge, obviously, but taking place in one at a conscious level. In some it is a very strong urge
      in others it make take a little more time to come to feel the urge of the sex drive..
      With some the urge becomes distorted and some people have all sorts of machinations
      as to their sexuality. It takes time, wise counsel and plain common sense to figure it out, but sometimes it goes the way of the distortion.

      With the mixed messages in the media, magazines, and so on a young person is all the more likely to be confused about their sexuality. But all the time the sex drive is making its
      presence felt and people act upon that.

      We can call it a temptation when one is presented with the urge meeting or desire
      and the urge to satisfy that desire. Practically everyone goes through this.
      When is it a work of the devil? It is most certainly of the devil when the tempatation becomes a tyrant over ones other mental emotional and moral sense and leads one away into mild titilation, gratification, to where one will do anything to obtain sexual gratification. Behind that is the tempter of all mankind – the devil.
      And you know, once has the faith in God to say no to him, that old devil flees from one for a while. We can all say no.
      I hope this goes some way to answer your question, I also hope you remain well.

      • Nektarios says:


        Sorry about so many mistakes, it is very late.
        2nd line – should read mechanistic.
        Last Paragraph: Ist line – should read: meeeting our desire …
        ” ” 7th line – should read: Once one has faith in God, to say……
        ” ” 8th line – should read: We as Christians have Power, we can all say no
        no to the devil.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      Yes, I once took a turn around that particular track myself. Virulent self hatred is a powerful enemy. Yet I think that there is a kind of amplifying mechanism at work with minor mental illness-as if some biochemical brake is let off and the whole thing runs off the rails- Overall I came away with a profound respect for biochemistry, a deep gratitude for pharmacology and a kind of scepticism toward regarding temperament as any indicator of spirituality! Sexual drive is neutral by the way, I guess we use the phrase ‘temptation’ as a kind of transformer which modifies basic drive into something which can be given a moral register. So self control becomes paramount and culpability is organised around its indices.I’m not convinced we need to pay too much attention to the devil at all or give him credit for our failings. As a footnote Paul, having been broken- what a joy comes from being made whole and what pleasures are to be found in simple contentment..I think this was the most valuable lesson.

  2. Nektarios says:

    If I may make a sugestion, that if one is not totally aware, it is essential that one becomes totally aware, surely?
    If one is to avoid manipulation, surely it reinforces ones need to become totally aware?

    When it comes to the questions defining what is the conscious and what is the subconscious, there are explanation after explanation, usually given by psychologists, analyists and neuroscientists.
    We have been so bombarded with the phrases and jargon of the psycholgists, analyists and neuroscientists that we accepted there is such a thing as the subconscious. Is there such a thing as the subconscious which we we cannot even access?

    We are occupied with one little corner of consciousness, the rest we call the subconscious.
    Why we divide it all up into a group of thought activity and call it conscious, and a group of thought activity we call subconscious we may have time to explore a little later? This is a big and important question to go into together and explore.

    For the moment, I cannot understand why we attach so much importance to the subconscious,
    if there is such a thing, for it seems to me, like the conscious level, the subconscious level if there is one, is equally trivial, and stupid as the conscious mind,equally petty, narrow, bigotted and conditioned as the conscious mind.

  3. Vincent says:

    Since our decisions have consequences, both for ourselves and for others, it does seem important to understand as far as possible the ways in which we may be motivated subconsciously.
    I am not clear about one thing, however. Is Quentin suggesting that 95% of decisions are wholly subconscious and 5% wholly conscious, or is he saying that our decisions are a blend of motives – some conscious and some unconscious?
    Already I have become more wary of judging people’s character by their appearance!

    • Nektarios says:

      I believe Quentin is suggesting that only 5% of the brains activity is connected to our mental, conscious and cognitive functions and tasks and the other 95% is operating on its own which he and others call the subconscious.
      I question this assumption that there is a subconscious at all. We can go into all that when we see what others are contributing.Why for example, am I supposed to be dependent on anyone to tell me if a have a subconscious or not? Does the brain actually operate the way the neuroscientists, analyists and psychologists, whose language and definition this is, say it does? I am questioning that too.

      If we are not totally aware of ourselves, then we are in no position to judge anothers character for we know even less about another than we do about ourselves it seems,
      so judging others is a no no, practically all the time.
      Assessing someone for a job like say, a doctor or a mechanic is not judging another, but assessing ability to a practial and written exam levels as to competance.
      There are more subtle aspects to assessing one for a job that is judging another.

    • Quentin says:

      Thank you for this. You make an excellent point, and I shall look for an opportunity to clarify in a forthcoming column. For the most part I think that we have mixed motives for our actions. So I would conclude that we should expect to find the rational and arational elements. in our choices. The 95% figure is more of a suggestion of scale than a precise measurement. This may go some way towards milliganp’s query about our basic urges and the Devil. As I understand it, there is a tension between the desires of our lower nature and the aspiration of higher nature. It is in this tension that the Devil is active. But I speculate.
      I like his thought that we can perhaps modify and train our behaviour. But we have to get good at understanding the part that the subconscious plays, so that it may come under our conscious control.
      I am lucky to have such thoughtful critics. You have already helped me to think further.

      • Rahner says:

        Quentin, I think you are in danger of reifying the “subconcious” and treating as a ghostly entity separate from the mind. To say that some action or experience is produce by the subconscious is to say that its causal origins are unknown and/or are other than what we normally take them to be.

      • Quentin says:

        Thank you for this. There is a problem of vocabulary here. Freud and freudians bagged the word “unconscious” to describe the deep happening like the Oedipus complex or the trigger for dreams. So we are left with conscious and subconscious. (I have sometimes used infraconconscious but it just confuses people). If we go back to the example of the Canadian elections, we have a simple case of people being influenced by good looks in a candidate, and not being aware (conscious) of it. Vincent tells us that he is now more aware of it and, being in his conscious mind, he can “aim off” to allow for it. If you can think of a better term for such states of unawareness (which I have suggested is a major state of the mind in practice) that would be helpful. But I will bear this in mind for the next column.

  4. Bob Kovsky says:

    Good luck on your blog. I search for blogs like this because I have similar interests, but my approach is rather different. I set forth my approach in an essay “How to solve free-will puzzles and overcome limitations of platonic science” discussed at “Platonic science” is the comprehensive belief system expressed by scientists through references to “the mathematical scheme that governs the universe,” declarations that “all things are made of atoms” and the hegemony of mechanism and probability.

    Concerning the subject of your posting, I suggest that the “science-religion” debate reveals character defects or sinful conduct on both sides, and that the defects or sins mirror each other. In his Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis wrote “Every man naturally desires knowledge; but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed a humble rustic who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars. He who knows himself well becomes mean in his own eyes and is not happy when praised by men.” Such an attitude is often missing in religious zealots who perform on the debate stage. Debating scientists claim certainty and knowledge that is both foolish and contrary to recent histories of changing notions in their own professions.

    I will be persuaded of that “evolution is true” when practitioners design and produce new species. In comparison, practitioners of “electromagnetic waves” design and produce all sorts of useful devices, like microwave ovens, and they don’t even claim that “electromagnetic waves” are true, but rather acknowledge the importance of photons. I have a rather pragmatic idea of “truth.” I can’t say “evolution is true” on the evidence now in front of me.

    Then, on the other hand, as a practicing Quaker, I am conscious of and sometimes obedient to the indwelling Christ. I recognize that first-century disciples and apostles of the Lord Jesus had superior knowledge and experience of him, which they expressed in concepts and thoughts of their own time. Their writings help guide my inner experience of the Lord but they do not prescribe it. In my view, many passages in scriptures were not based on spiritual principles but were inserted for momentary and political purposes, such as condemnation of and distancing from “Jews” who were in revolt against the Roman Empire when the gospels were written. Passages were even fraudulently inserted into earlier texts.

    I suggest that neither mathematical formulas nor scriptures provide authority for certainty. Two opposing sides each claiming certainty discredit themselves as well as each other. Of course, the participants disclaim certainty and everyone pledges allegiance to the “open mind,” but as this blog notes in its advice page, there is little likelihood of anyone being persuaded to change any opinions.

    • Nektarios says:

      Bob Kovsky

      Welcome to I hope you will have plenty of contributions/postings to make in the future.
      As to your posting above, I for one can agree with so much of what you say, even though I was aware some tihngs you wrote of your Quakerism before I actually got to the bit where you state you are a practicing Quaker.
      God bless, and enjoy your time on this particular blog.

      • Horace says:

        This I don’t quite follow –
        “I will be persuaded of that ‘evolution is true’ when practitioners design and produce new species.”
        What does the word ‘practitioners’ mean?

        Science seeks to construct the best and most useful description of the world using both observation and experiment. (i.e. actions which the scientific model predicts to have certain consequences demonstrably having such consequences).

        Truth doesn’t come into it
        – belief does in so far as scientists believe (pace Bishop Berkeley – George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne) in an external world which is objective, consistent and predictable.

        Experimentation perhaps predicates free will; if you are not able to choose which experiments to perform then surely the concept is valueless!

  5. Horace says:

    Starting with the quote:-
    “only five per cent of mental activity is concerned with conscious thought. The remaining 95 per cent gets on with the job, and needs no help from us”.
    To me this is perfectly obvious and necessary if we are to behave with reasonable efficiency. (See “Is God just the “Big Bang”? Sep 11 2008 discussing Kornhuber’s experiments; “these experiments suggest that it takes nearly two seconds to make a conscious response to an external stimulus”.)
    Consciousness and free will are very difficult concepts – the latter in particular, in my opinion, cannot be explained in terms of physical brain activity – and this leads us to the concept of the soul.

    • Nektarios says:


      I won’t go into the concept of free will for the moment but because you have raised
      it along with Consciousness as a, `very difficult concept’, let’s see if we can define it somewhat, not by way of labelling, but of function.
      A lot of people get all mystical and mystified when they here this word Consciousness
      and the sub conscious – a lot of which needs debunking. It is also usually conceived
      as Eastern in origin and a kind of Eastern philosophy and so on.
      It is quite clear everyone on this blog has a consciousness and some believe a sub-conscious too, but very few are acquaint on this blog with Eastern mysitical, Buddhist
      or Hinu thought, which just goes to show that consciousness as such, is neither Eastern or Western but universal. How one talks about such things do differ of course, then we have to discern between the wheat and the chaff.

      Observe, Consciousness is the total field in which thought functions and relationships
      exist. All motives, intentions, desires,pleasures, fears, inspirations,longings, hopes, sorrows, joys are in that field we call the conscious or consciousness.
      We have come to divide the consciousness into the active and the dormant, the upper and lower levels. – that is, all the daily thoughts, feelings and activities on the surface
      and below them, the so-called subconscious, the things we are not familiar, which expres themselves occasionally through intimations, intuitions and dreams.

      But why does the consciousness divide into the conscious and the so-called subconscious?

  6. st.joseph says:

    I may be out of my debth here, but what is our brain doing when we or others sleep walk?

    • Nektarios says:

      st. Joseph

      Google in Sleep Walking, plenty there to keep you reading for ages (yawn),
      but don’t you dare nod off and miss what is happening on this blog!

  7. Nektarios says:


    I tend to agree with your comment to Quentin, but you have not said what you think the subconscious is actually? What is the subconscious that wenormally take it to be? Would you ike to expand on that a bit?

    • Rahner says:

      Neuroscience is a young science, a very young science. And biology is a long way from a comprehensive understanding of much simpler organisms than the brain. I am pretty sure that there is no comprehensive empirical theory of human consciousness or behaviour that integrates the results of current neuroscience and quite sure there is no agreed philosophical theory of the mind either. And any comprehensive neuroscience will require input from philosophy.
      I welcome Quentin’s investigation of this area but my own hunch is that we are probably a few hundred years away from a confirmable, comprehensive, empirical theory of the mind.
      What is the subconscious? This cannot really be answered by armchair speculation. But presumably, it will be a particular, related set of causes of experiences and behaviour that is in some way distinguished from other causes of experiences and behaviour.

      • Quentin says:

        Rahner, I hope that what I have just replied to Nektarios here will help a little.

        There are philosophical difficulties about finding an empirical theory of consciousness. It is the nature of consciousness to be subjective – which would appear to rule out an empirical solution. I have often asked secularists, not to explain consciousness, but to say what sort of explanation would do. No solutions offered so far.

        Having said that, I can see no reason why we shouldn’t learn as much as we can about human choices and reactions – conscious or unconscious.

  8. Nektarios says:

    Quentin & Rahner

    I can agree with Rahner, as to what the subconscious actually is, cannot be answered
    by armchair speculation. As you wil find out in a moment, it will take everything you have got, all your attention, energy and fibre of your being.
    Quentin, unawareness, is not being able to live totally within the field of consciousness with complete attention.

    The question is, it possible to be totally aware of the whole field of consciousness and not merely a part or fragment of it?
    Perhaps you would like to comment on the above. we can continue tomorrow if you want to?

    • Quentin says:

      Some interesting questions here – which I hope to be answering at more length in my column. But, for the time being, let me say this. It is necessary for much of human activity to be carried out automatically, leaving us to concentrate on the decisions which we need to make with full awareness. That is an efficiency built into our system, and we couldn’t operate without it.

      Nevertheless, the more that we know about this subconscious system the more we are able to achieve fuller control, if we choose to. An example: suppose that I inform someone that a distrust of strangers is built into us because of our primitive need to protect ourselves – and that that distrust registers as fear in the brain, it becomes possible to make allowance for it when we consider our attitude to people of other races.

      • mike Horsnall says:

        “..The subconscious system….”

        Earlier we were speaking about Sherrington. In his time animal experimentation was in full swing and Neurology was making strides forward. I remember being fscinated by the accounts of the decerebrate animal-dogs usually having been sedated and their cortex removed. The decerebrate dog , if its paw was squeezed would still produce a whole body response accompanied by a grimace and a convincing snarl. I have a strong interest in the autonomic nervous system and in reflex change so have followed the conversation through a bit. I have mentioned Antonio Damascio before -a contemporary Neurologist. Damascio puts forward a strong thesis that much of what we call ‘subconscious’ behaviour is in fact a reflex response emerging into consciousness for its outworking. Of course Rahner is right about speculation but I think we will come to the realisation in the end that much of uour life is based on primitive reflex layering up into complexity and choice, its a very interesting line of enquiry and, to me , one which tends towards the understanding of Pope Benedict:
        “Only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is..”

  9. Rahner says:

    Quentin, “I have often asked secularists, not to explain consciousness, but to say what sort of explanation would do. No solutions offered so far.”
    Well, presumably a causal explanation that accounts for the emergence of certain properties that constitute consciousness might be a starting point.
    Are you suggesting that there is a solution only available to theists?

    • Quentin says:

      I think I would need an example to be sure I was testing the point you are making. If your starting point just tells us that the burst of neuronal activity demonstrates that you are conscious of a certain stimulus presented to you, it doesn’t get us very far. (And in fact is not necessarily true. It is possible for the brain to record something in the visual field of which the viewer is not conscious. Seeing is not necessarily noticing.)

      Here’s an example of what I mean by the kind of answer. If I have a piece of bendy material and I expose it to heat – and it then loses its plasticity. I do not know exactly what has happened. But I know the answer is likely to be some causal (and in principle empirically demonstrable) agent which can act on the molecules and change their relationship with one another. I don’t know the actual cause, but I know the sort of answer that would serve, and the sort of lines I need to pursue to establish it. When I look for what causes consciousness I can think of no empirical agent that could carry it out because it isn’t an empirical phenomenon. it’s like looking in a haystack, when in fact there is no haystack.

      I don’t know whether answer is available to anyone, theist or not. But the theist may be content not to know, while the empiricist will always be seeking sufficient cause for phenomena.

  10. Horace says:

    Not the least of the difficulties raised when we think about consciousness is the dependence of consciousness, or at least our subjective recognition of consciousness, on memory.
    (See my story/comment on the post “Grandmama” September 1, 2010 at 5:07 pm)

    Here is another little story to explain my lifelong interest in consciousness, especially in association with epilepsy :-
    I was about 15 years old and found myself contemplating a ceiling, a rather elegant ceiling, not in any of the rooms at home and certainly not in the school dormitory!
    I was lying on a kind of sofa but dressed in outdoor clothes!
    Fortunately there was no-one in the room so I had plenty of time to try and work out what had happened.

    I remembered the morning’s lessons, lunch, and going out into the playground. We were to be taught how to climb a smooth high wall. The instructor had a rope with a substantial log tied to one end. The technique was to throw the log over the wall, pull on the rope until it lodged just below the top, and then climb up the rope. Unfortunately our instructor was a little too enthusiastic in climbing and the log flew over the top of the wall, sailed through the air, and hit me on the left side of the head. I was knocked down but stood up almost immediately. Then my right thumb started to jerk and the jerking spread to the fingers, wrist, elbow and finally shoulder – at this stage I could not remember any more and was therefore, at least from my point of view, unconscious.
    Many years later I realised that the episode was a Jacksonian epileptic attack.

    So what do I think is consciousness (in this sort of situation)? Basically consciousness is what I can remember of my thoughts, behaviour and surroundings.
    Externally it is more or less possible to judge if a person (or a dog,cat,elephant or dolphin) is ‘conscious’ by the response to stimuli, but this is by no means always reliable.
    [Irrelevantly – My friends later told me that when they carried my unconscious self to the Infirmary they were met by a junior nurse who asked “Does he have permission to come to the Infirmary?”]

    • Quentin says:

      This and your “Grandma” story are fascinating. They raise in my mind the question of responsibility for what one can be shown to have done but cannot remember.

      I raised this under “Justice and Memory” a month or two back.

      • Horace says:

        I spent one memorable afternoon, many years ago, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields being interviewed by a barrister who must surely have been the inspiration for “Rumpole of the Bailey”.

        We were discussing the case of a coloured man employed in a furniture business who needed to use a knife to strip upholstery from articles being repaired.
        He had come in for a good deal of abuse from fellow workers and had apparently stabbed one of them. I knew that he suffered from epilepsy and I was supporting his claim to have stabbed his coworker in the course of an epileptic fit.
        It is well known that during an epileptic fit there can be a period of automatism during which complex actions, such as stabbing someone, may be carried out without the subject having any memory of the event.
        My interlocutor was unfamiliar with the concept of epileptic automatism but was quoting to me the well known case of case of Hill v Baxter [1958] where the defendant was stung by a swarm of bees while driving and lost control of the car.
        In the latter case there is no question of impairment of consciousness – the act is considered a spontaneous reflex over which the individual has no control.
        Such an argument could hardly be supported in this case so the question resolved into; was the defendant guilty by reason of an action performed during a period of epileptic automatism?

        I understand Lord Denning has defined an involuntary action as an act done “by a person who is not conscious of what he is doing” (sleepwalking may be an example). I would be very wary of this because of the difficulty of determining if a person is actually unconscious or simply has, or claims to have, no memory of the event.
        In the case of epilepsy, however, we can be reasonably certain that there is an associated disruption of the normal activity of the brain, even though the patient might appear conscious, (as in the “Grandma” case) and this could well be manifest as a delusion with abnormal and non volitional behaviour.

  11. Nektarios says:

    Quentin, Rahner & Mike Horsnall

    Before we go further into the issues of consciousness and the so-called subconscious from where we left off, let me make a few comments on your contributions so far.

    Quentin – I question some of what you said, ” It is necessary for much of human activity to be carried out automatically, leaving us to concetrate the decisions that we need to make with full awareness.”
    Let me ask you, is that full awareness this supposed 5% consciousness? If it is, it is not a `full awareness’ – how could it be?
    Secondly, Am I right in assuming here that you equate concentration with attention? If you are,I question that idea for two main reasons, concentration is exclusive so one can concetrate on the task in hand. Attention, on the otherhand is inclusive and actually contains concentration, excluding nothing. So, Concentration is one thing and attention something else.
    The source to concentrate is will power, subject material and so on, Attention is not a matter of will power, but is choiceless and of Love.

    When you write of empirical theory or evidence, this relative to consciousness, is the language of the psychologist, analyist and neuroscientist and is subject to the known evidence. Within the limits of empirical theory and evidence and experimentation, is one not, once again limited to this arbitary 5% conscious activity and the 95% subconscious?
    Neuroscience has taken off by enlarge because of technological advances in scanning devices
    which allow them to look at the brain while it is working and operating under stumuli. The conclusions they draw from some their observations and statements they put out, is far short of scientific.
    With present thinking by psychologists, analyists and neuroscientists, we may never get to a complete empirical working model until they deal with the issue of consciousness and the so-called subconscious.

    Mike Horsnall
    I agree with you to a point. Certainly psychologically, despite the thin veneer of our civilzation,
    we are as primitive now as we were in the early days of man. Only technologically, in the realm of the mechanistic and the repetitive have we made huge advances, it has to be said,
    But it is clear that our conscious is having to deal with all this inflow of information with only this 5% conscious awareness. Why?
    It is guess work to assume that this so-called subconscious will sort it all out almost magically – it won’t.
    And your Quote from Pope Benedict I can oly agree with. However am I or others of mankind
    only able to 5% able to meet with Christ as the rest is so-called subconscious and unexcessible as so would have it – surely not?

    I am going to take a ten minute break, and put forward more on the subject of Consciousness and the so-called subconscious in another posting.

  12. mike Horsnall says:

    Your problem lies in your fascination with ‘thought’ and not ‘being’. Our being encompasses much more than what we think of as our conscious awareness-which is fundamentally a cultural construct rising out of what is believed about individuality. As an example of this let us take the earlier mention of Freudian theory. You will not find much in the way of contemprary literary criticism still wedded to Freudian theoris of self. Literature and Art have both moved away from Freud into a more ‘narrative’ mode which identifies the individual more according to that persons story rather than from a psychoanalytic perspective. This has come about over the past 20 years as Freudian theory has become discredited. In a like manner theories and beliefs of what is ‘self’ change and determine how we understand our ‘selves’ – I am not talking here about eastern mysticism (with which I am reasonably accquainted) but of the overall ‘blueprint ‘ of self which is more culture specific- the one you absorb from simply living in your mileux (this is why western buddhists are often different than their eastern counterparts)

    So, your thoughts regarding consciousness and the subconscious-structured by your experience and teaching seem to assume that only the ‘conscious’ part of a person can meet with God….but if a donkey can meet with God to obey him (Balaam) then we can rest assured that our whole being also can meet with God-not just that thing which you choose to call consciousness. If you think about it the religious experiences of many people have reference and resonance to encounters that one which would seem to ‘come into consciousness’ from elsewhere-people talk of instincts and intuitions, senses of God only dimly articulated -more ‘felt’ than explained. The whole person meets with God but only that part of the self which is capable of ordering its experience is capable of ‘categorising’ that experience. The seperation of conscious/subconscious probably has little revelance to our spirit which expresses itself as our ‘form’ pretty much regardless I imagine.

    • Nektarios says:

      Mike Horsnall

      I was not suggesting that only the conscious part 5% of us can meet God, what I was trying to show that, the opposite in fact, so Mike, I was actually agreeing with you.

      As to being preoccupied with thought: I can do no better than quote the title of a book by Elder Thaddeus, who was an Orthodox Church saint who died in 2002.
      His book entitled, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. A book well worth reading.

      We have discussed the Self in past topics, but to refresh in a sentence for you – Self is a thought construct, with a centralized `me’. Therefore that Self has to be understood and denied.

  13. mike Horsnall says:


    I think that some of our difficulties re the conscious /subconscious divide stem from our inability to ‘feel’ our physicality and from the neccessary blocking of much ‘animal sensation’ from access to our conscious awareness. This mechanism seems to allow huge chunks of our sensed vegetative existence-blood flow,tissue pressure, proprioception, blood gas levels etc- to remain in the condition of reflex response-by this I mean a response which does not require a judgement. Most of our bodily life is not taken up into what might be termed our ‘monitoring environment-or control station if you like. But this doesnt mean that there is any ‘seperation’ per sec. I think it probably means that much of our sensory existence just doesnt trigger particular reflex nets which activate a reflective response. In a like manner we tend to divide up conscious/subconscious thinking when one is probably just a more deeply submerged part of the other.. I guess the ‘subconscious’ is probably by now a near redundant concept

    • Quentin says:

      I think there is a real problem here about definitions. We each seem to assume that our definition of “unconscious” and “subconscious” is the correct one. Yet distinctions are important if debate is going to be progressive. How are we going to refer to the elements which play a part in our decision or responses of which we are unaware in distinction from those of which we are aware? I would have hoped that by giving examples, and of course more will be forthcoming as later columns appear, that my use of the term subconscious would be clear. There simply isn’t space in a newspaper column to substitute an adjectival phrase. I have to assume that people are able to pick up the meaning which I intend from a single word.

      • mike Horsnall says:

        Pick up meaning from a single word….!!!!! Now there’s a man travelling in hope -first class too!

      • Horace says:

        From Merriam Webster Definition of SUBCONSCIOUS : existing in the mind but not immediately available to consciousness

      • Quentin says:

        I’ll buy that, although it might be necessary to define for precision in a specific case. But the word “immediately” is important because it implies that some times, or under some conditions, we have access to our subconscious. Part of my drift is to establish how we may take better control over our responses by an exploration of how these subconscious influences work.

        Oxford Concise gives, for subconscious: “the part of the mind which is not fully conscious but influences actions.” And, for the unconscious: “that part of the mind which is inaccessible to the conscious mind but which affects emotions, behaviour etc.” This is why Freud uses unconscious rather than subconscious.

        So I am glad to confirm my usage. I shouldn’t be surprised since I have written two books in this important area.

  14. Nektarios says:

    Quentin & Fellow bloggers,

    To continue on the subject of Consciousness and so- called subconscious.

    Is it possible to be aware totally of our consciousness or only a fragment of it?
    If one is totally aware of their consciounesss, then one is functioing all the time with total attention, not partial attention. This very important to understand because when one is totally aware of the field of consciousness, there is no friction. It is only when one divides consciousness, (conscious & subconscious) which is all thought, feeling and action that there is friction.

    Why, or rather what causes this friction and division in ones consciousness?
    It is caused because we live our lives in fragments. We are one thing at home, another at the office; You talk of democracy,but in our heart one is autocratic; one talks about loving ones neighbour, but kill him with competition. Are we aware we live this fragmentary existence in ourselves?
    And is it possible for a brain that has broken up its own functioning, it’s own thinking into fragments – is it possible for such a brain to be aware of the whole field of consciousness?

    The trouble with neuroscience, psychology and analysis is it’s approach.
    Dealing with the complexities of consciousness, they naturally and correctly go step by step, uncovering layer after layer, as they examine every thought, feeling and motive. One has got caught up in the analyitical process which can take weeks, months or even years and with the passing of time comes all sorts of distortions.
    One comes to see this is not the best approach. One cannot understand the totatlity of the consciousness in fragments or by living fragmentary lives.
    The only way is to look at oneself totally, what you see in that totality is the truth.

  15. Nektarios says:

    Mike Horsnall

    We are getting into semantics here.
    The real you that you are calling self, has a body, obviously,
    but the self one thinks one is, unless they are very careful, is an illusion and and thought construct.

  16. Nektarios says:

    Quentin & Fellow bloggers

    It seems as we explore the subject of Consciousness and the so-called subconscious
    you are all getting bogged down with a search for a definition of both. You have found the definitions seem inadequate?

    Now please, observe: it is not surprising that you are are scrambling for definition of Consciousness and the sub-conscious, for that is your mental conditioning.
    One wants to label it, measure it, see how it works ( the analytical approach) and see if it can be made more efficient, or horrendously, control it.
    Of course all of this seems very complex, doesn’t it. Definition of the subject is only a rather sad attempt at nailing it down.

    What I am writing in the blog on this subject of Consciousness and the subconscious is not to provide you with a definition, I leave that to others groping in the dark, but to provide you with
    something of the means to observe your own Consciousness, that is, look at Consciousness as a whole, and the cause of its fragmentation.
    I don’t think you have ever been presented with such an approach or at such a deep and penetrating and serious level. It does not seem to be registering, you want your descriptive labels.

    Like I said earlier in the blog, to discover the totality of Consciousness will take all your heart, energy, every fibre of ones being to discover.
    Don’t think for a moment, you will discover anything without giving everything in yourself to discover.
    I am sorry I cannot play games with some bloggers on this issue, or use it as entertainment for the bored, it is too fundamentally important for us all, for our well-being, religius and spiritual, in the family and workplace
    There is so much to discover, but I see your locked into your conditioning in your approach to all this
    which will lead you nowhere and at the end of it, still be living fragmented lives. How sad!
    I apologize for being so blunt, but it is a fact.

  17. mike Horsnall says:

    I like those definitions, I’ll buy them too.

  18. Quentin says:

    It may be, Nektarios, that you are ahead of us in contemplating these questions. We are at a rather simpler stage. In order to discuss ideas in this area we feel the need to know what phenomena are intended under labels such as conscious, unconscious and subconscious. The labels are only sufficient for identification, they do not exhaust our understanding of the content. The dictionaries have helped us to make important distinctions

    Looking at the point you have made, I agree that we may be culpable through inadvertence or ignorance in allowing some elements to slide back into the subconscious. But, for the most part, the human system is constructed to respond automatically to background phenomena so that we can concentrate attention new or unusual phenomena. The existence of the subconscious is not a fault line but a necessity for our proper operation. We should thank God for it.

  19. Nektarios says:


    I don’t know if I am ahead of you or not – I do not compare myself with others, that just leads to a life of frustration and envy.

    One cannot contemplate Consciousness in its totality, but we can look, observe its movements.
    Observing is not the same as contemplation as generally understood. We cannot say, observe,
    without knowing what is that observing? Like I say, it takes a lot of energy to go into all this.

    When it comes to Consciousness perse, as you are finding out, descriptives are not the actual.
    Any ideas we may proffer may at best, come close to what it actually is, but will not tell you much.

    Relative to consciousness in its totality, ideas are like a picture of someone. The picture gives one a certain amount of information like rough age, possible race, colour, young, middle-aged or old. It may show the person to be happy or sad, or if they look well or not. So all I am saying to you and my fellowbloggers on this topic of Consciousness, unconsiousness and so-called subconsciousness,is ideas about it are very limiting and will not tell you very much at all.

    I don’t know if you have noticed that the way we describe things by thought ,is to divide it up and analyize, colour, smell, sensory feeling, the size of it, the weight of it, the efficiency of it and so on.
    We are fixated upon measurment, thinking we can measure everything, but it is obvious that we can’t. Total consciousness is just one aspect we cannot weigh and measure.
    Cmparing conscious with being unconscious, awake as to being asleep, again one is only talking about the the process of thought in the wakeful state as it applies itself to the daily routine and tasks, most of which is memory.

    Let me ask a question, in all this gathering of ideas on consciousness or subconscious,
    what at the end of the day does one hope to discover? Is it a cloned consciousness according to the neuroscientist, the analyist or the psychologist? Perhaps it is a consciouness they can with this limited 5% conscious tasking ability, determine what it is, how to influence it, control it? That is of course would be an illusion, isn’t it?

    Finally for now, I did not say, of the subconscious, that it was a natural fault line at all. Consciousness operates in a totality. The subconscious is produced by the fragmentary way we live our lives.

  20. John Candido says:

    I can’t say that I know anything about neuroscience, psychology, or philosophy, and certainly not as it relates to consciousness. I have not read anything about the following author, but I feel that he could help with anybody’s research into consciousness.

    ‘The Conscious Mind, In Search of a Fundamental Theory’, by Professor David J. Chalmers, Oxford University Press, 1996.

    I am sure that there are a plethora of other authors that you can consider on the subject of consciousness; David Chalmers being only one of them. What is interesting about his perspective is that he believes in a dualist conception of consciousness; constituting part matter and part non-matter, or consciousness’s immateriality. Therefore, he is against a wholly materialist theory of consciousness.

    This is his homepage:

    This is his Facebook page:

    The following links are some of Chalmers’ papers and monographs. Happy hunting!

    Click to access TheExtendedMind.pdf

    • Nektarios says:

      John Candido

      I can agree with Prof Chalmer’s conclusion on consciousness, discussion with John Searle, `that it will always remain primitive.’ Granted there they are looking for answers to the problem, but in the wrong place – it won’t take them very far at all – primitive is the right word.
      I hope, we are taking this journey together, as we explore Consciousness and the so-called subconscious, a little step further forward?

      We have but commenced our discussion on Consciousness and subconscious and it is clear some are looking for some clarity from academics, philosophers, those with so-called authority.
      But on this subject, amazingly, there is no authority, short of God himself. The Church institution’s discussions on this subject – in a word – they may well all have been unconscious at the times when they were discussing it. It is only interested in conditioning the mind to conform. That is not the way to truly discover anything.

  21. John Candido says:

    One of the above links does not work as it is broken when I copied it from a webpage, which is the seventh link from the bottom of my previous post. It relates to a book that will be released in December 2012 called, ‘Constructing the World’, by Professor David J. Chalmers.

    Try this one instead,

    • Nektarios says:

      John Candido

      Why are you waiting for the book to come out? As part of exploring consciousness and subconscious, we can explore for ourselves, deducting from the title, Constructing the World, our own understanding. It will be interesting to see what he says when it comes out, and just how right we were in our own discussions here?

  22. Iona says:

    Just back from a weekend away and here you are all plunged into discussion of a really tough subject.
    Neuroscientists, psychologists and analysts – I don’t feel it’s helpful to group these together as though they were all in agreement with one another. Psychologists are concerned with behaviour, although they are certainly interested in how this links to brain chemistry and anatomy. Many psychologists have no time for analysts (if by this is meant psychoanalysts?) How analysts view the other two groups I don’t know. Freud started off with an interest in the brain rather than the unconscious and I think always hoped to find a correspondence between brain states and the mental states which he was investigating.
    I’m going back to have another look at Quentin’s original post, as I think the discussion may have drifted off-topic rather, – or maybe that doesn’t matter?

    • Nektarios says:


      My point entirely, neurosientist, psychologists and analyists are not in any agreement really on this subject.
      I think I have explained previously, the limits of these disciplines, necessary though they are in some respects.

  23. Iona says:

    (having re-looked at Quentin’s post, I now realise why it is I’ve had Beethoven’s Fifth running through my mind for the last couple of hours).

    Understanding / knowledge / awareness can give us back the freedom which savvy shop owners take from us when they label goods at £5.99 rather than £6, or waft nice smells of baking bread through the supermarket, or put the cheap items on the bottom shelf where we are likely to overlook them in favour of the upmarket stuff at eye level. The frontal lobes of the brain are where the thinking and reasoning processes go on, and where decisions based on them are made, and over these we have some control. Perhaps similarly in the moral / spiritual sphere we can inform ourselves about the way we’re manipulated by “the world, the flesh and the devil”, and by our own individual tendencies such that we retain and even promote freedom and the ability to make virtuous choices. In panic situations we will tend to lose that freedom, although even these situations can be dealt with by informing ourselves and by practice (as when one learns how to control a skid by practice on a skid-pan. I went into a skid a couple of years ago and although I knew in theory exactly how I was supposed to deal with it, I couldn’t stop my “natural” braking reaction. If I’d had prior practice, I probably could have).

    • Quentin says:

      Iona, glad to see that you are now focussed in on the last column. There will be more – and your commentary is going to be invaluable.

      You’re right about the skidding question. I had plenty of practice in the long winters in Austria when I did my National Service. A skidding ten-tonner can be interesting. However I am told that modern anti-skid brakes are a problem: on ice the different feedback can confuse them.

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