The off-switch as the ground of the Unconscious

In a report of recent neuroimaging techniques, the lead scientist said the following – “our findings suggest that unconsciousness may be the increase of inhibitory assemblies across the brain’s cortex” (See here).  The statement is taken to be supportive of a particular theory about consciousness put forward by Susan Greenfield, which may or may not be the case.  Greenfields hypothesis seems, on the face of it, simply another form of modularity thesis about consciousness and although her metaphor of consciousness as a ‘dimmer’ switch rather than a binary state of on/off may be a good metaphor, it’s also rather obvious.  Did anyone actually think consciousness was a simple state that one either ‘had’ or didn’t have?  If they did, it seems rather absurd.  That said, the neuroimaging work, in probing the dynamics of the brain as it rises and falls into consciousness, sounds fascinating.  The spectral consciousness that begins to appear on the horizon as a result of increased levels of communication and signalling between neural assemblies in the brain doesn’t directly answer the central problem with any modularity concept when applied to the mind, rather than the brain, however – which is the question of how the parts become the appearance of a whole, the extent of what we might call the ‘holistic reality’ of the mind.  There’s much interesting discussion of this problem, some of which is usefully summarised in Carruthers article ‘Moderately massive modularity’.  In general Carruthers account of this holistic reality rests in the architecture sketched, in which language enables us to “build non-domain-specific conscious thinking out of modular components”.  All of this is fascinating stuff and at some point I want to explore the details of this in more depth.  For now, however, I want to pursue another thread, albeit in a kind of rambling ‘thinking out loud’ way.  As is common on this blog these are notes for myself, part of the process of thinking through things.

What struck me as I read that phrase from Professor Pollard, the lead scientist on the neuroimaging work, was this idea that the increase of inhibitory processes is the ground of the unconscious.

It’s worth noting quickly that it could be possible to simply read the neuroimaging results, done as they are on patients undergoing anaesthesia and being ‘put out’, and claim that it has no relation to an unconscious in any conceptual sense.  The non-conscious is not equivalent to the unconscious.  If the unconscious is part of the holistic reality of the mind, loosely in the sense Freud intended, then it is plainly active, whereas it could be argued that the anaesthetised patients are simply non-conscious, rather than in a state of unconsciousness.  I’m aware of the ambiguities and whilst not trying to deliberately confuse the two conceptual senses of unconscious – a ‘Freudian’ sense and a ‘physical privation’ sense – I’m interested in how far these two senses might be one and the same, or at least rest on one and the same ground.

Take, for example something central to Freud’s own ‘architecture of the mind’ that he sketches in the last chapter of the Interpretation of dreams .  “A most promising light would be thrown on the conditions governing the excitation of neurones if it could be confirmed that in the psi-systems memory and the quality that characterises consciousness are mutually exclusive”1.  The more we ‘lay down memory’, the less we are conscious it would seem.  Would this be reversible?  That is, the less we are conscious, the more we ‘lay down memory’?  I’m using that strange phrase – ‘lay down memory’ – because if we used the easier English of ‘remember’ we would have the sense of recalling and this is not what is meant.  The process of memory that Freud is referring to is one of traces of perception laid down in a system that is distinct from perception itself.  It’s a system necessitated, he thinks, because of the architectural prerequisites of association.  If perception left not traces then no associations could ever be established and yet if perception was itself ‘contaminated’ by these traces then it would gradually muddy up, the memories eventually distorting the perceptual system, contrary to its function as an sensory entry point.  Memory and perception are distinct systems, he speculates, because otherwise perception would simply clog up with memory.  These two systems (Pcpt. and Mnem. in Freud’s shorthand) form the left hand side of his famous diagram, with the Unconscious (Ucs) and the Preconscious (Pcs) on the right hand side.  The left hand side is ‘input’ (sensation) and the right hand side is ‘output’ (activity, motility, ‘innervation’).  The diagram describes a sensori-motor ‘system of systems’.  Each of the sub-systems has its own functional dynamic within the wider dynamics of the ‘system of systems’, the whole.

Freud figure 3

The crux of this diagram2, is to be found in the fact that this represents the waking life.  During sleep the ‘output’ function is blocked and so the line of development, from Pcpt. to M, folds back on itself and activates Pcpt. – it is this activation that is the dream.  The flow across the memories (association), through the Unconscious, usually gets censored and organised by the Preconscious.  During sleep this last function dissipates and the associative flows have a different dynamic, although here the issue is curious.  The ‘waking’ flow is what he calls ‘progressive’ and he distinguishes the ‘sleeptime’ flow as ‘regressive’, referring in this sense to the diagram, Figure 3, in which ‘progressive’ simply means movement from left to right through the function.

We have, then, a kind of double model in which we have the movement during waking life of (1) [Input]>[Association]>[Action] and the movement during non-waking time of (2)[Input]>[Assocation]>[‘Dream’].  If we take the first of these as the ‘primary’ or basic mode, governed and directed by fundamentally evolutionary dynamics – albeit ones that are complicated through the particular nature of our social existence – the second (‘dream’) is a kind of side-effect, effectively making ‘dreaming’ equivalent to ‘activity of the consciousness that is non-action orientated’.  When we are not action-orientated the system idles and produces something that appears as effectively a waste product.  Now what seems odd is that, assuming this ‘non-action orientated’ state consumes energy, why does it persist?  Why, in other words, does the brain not simply switch off?  The options, it would seem are that it cannot switch off (perhaps complete cessation would equal death rather than sleep); that it is more expensive to switch off than power down (energy wise); or that productive work is done by ‘dreaming’.

The first option seems too general – the brain operates in a variety of ways, modules or hierarchies often being invoked.  Automatic and semi-automatic functions such as breathing and blinking are maintained by deep brain structures that often persist even when the ‘conscious’ elements are apparently inoperative, such as in persistent coma states.  The third option would be the one that, presumably, Freudian notions of the unconscious depend upon, although the question then is whether a clear sense of this ‘work’ might be able to be given.  I’m not sure I have a good sense of what might be ‘productively’ done in this state.  It is the second option – that it is too expensive to switch off – that seems most likely as a hypothesis.  If the off-switch is a dimmer switch then on this model it is a dimmer-switch without an off-state.  The central problem here would be why is it so expensive to the organism to switch off consciousness?

Whilst this is all speculative and the question is really one the details of which can only be investigated through empirical research, it’s purpose is little more than a thinking aloud, a kind of wondering.  That said, I would note that ‘empirical research’ only operates effectively on the basis of the questions it develops and this development of questions is not capable of being governed by simply empirical means.  That something is worth asking a question about is dependent on a background of assumptions about what is or is not questionable.  Given this caveat and assuming that the hypothesis that it is too expensive to switch off consciousness, once possible answer as to why it is so expensive might lie in the nature of the ‘I am’ that is central to consciousness, or to the ‘non-domain specific consciousness’ as Carruthers calls it.

Subjective consciousness in which the ‘I am’ is central is not mere awareness, not a mere sophisticated input-out system.  The consciousness of the subject organises its inputs and re-organises them according to necessities but also according to its own dynamics.  The necessities – eat, shit, fuck – that drive the organism might co-ordinate and dominate the agenda of action-orientated consciousness but there’s no need for a subjective consciousness to fulfil only those issues that necessity places in front of it.  Once the machine is running it simply keeps going – ‘necessity’ isn’t an agent using a tool which puts the tool back in the box once it’s done with it.  Necessity produces means to ends and the means might well fulfill other ends than those necessity poses, so long as it does fulfil the necessities then necessity doesn’t care what it does on its time off.  Indeed it has been noted that there is something curiously inefficient in adding the subject to these entirely physical functions – the monkey makes better use of their brains than the human in that sense.   Of course the productive power of the subjective consciousness is hugely superior, in some sense, to those of non-subjective consciousness but the bulk of that productivity is not obviously beneficial to the organism.  Whilst language and culture might offer an evolutionary advantage for a particular moment, it seems a strategy with limited future.  The point is, however, that evolutionary potential doesn’t care about the future, it only cares about today, not least because it is a ‘blind’ process governed only by death and driven by mutation and iteration.  Yet the power of subjective consciousness in evolutionary terms offers us a clue, perhaps, as to the expense of subjective consciousness.  The thought here would be something like subjective consciousness is a new causal power.  Instead of being a reactive mechanism it becomes an active causation.  In order to do that it must distinguish the world as a mechanism that is capable of being directly effected.  This would reinstall a crucial naturalistic ground for subjectivity.  The argument would simply be that the evolutionary effectiveness of an organism becoming a causal factor is so high as to be an order of magnitude over other reactive mechanism and thus immediately selected for – not least because it can select.  In other words, evolution produces a new set of causal powers the moment it produces a subjective consciousness.  The cost of such production, however, lies precisely in this need to produce an ‘I am’ which goes hand-in-hand with producing a sense of ‘the world as mechanism’ – to do this means to effectively reproduce the world inside the consciousness of the organism.  It is this necessity to reproduce the world inside consciousness that ramps up the cost of the procedure and the need to never – or very rarely – switch off such a reproduction once constructed is why we encounter the curious operation of the off-switch.  




1.  Freud, Interpretation of Dreams, Basic Books, 2010; p. 542, emphasis in the original.

2. Ibid, p.543 – this is ‘Figure 3’ from Chapter 7.

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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