Consciousness has always been a topic that’s fascinated me. How do we know that we’re aware? How do we know that other people are aware? Where is consciousness? Who’s voice is that in my head? Do other people have voices in their heads? Fascinating.
There are a couple of things I’ve come across recently that, if this area is of interest to you, too, I suspect you’ll find compelling. The first comes from Seth Godin’s podcast, Akimbo. In particular, the episode from a couple of weeks ago. At the end of this episode, a listener asked Seth a question about consciousness. That is, “what do you think consciousness actually is.” Seth’s answered reminded me of some of the stuff I’ve come across, but the example he cites is on-point. In the context, he’s talking about the idea that the voice in our head might be a vestige of history:
Let’s think about a football game. Let’s think about the idea that there’s instant replay and there’s play-by-play and there’s the colour commentator. Now, let’s imagine that a play has just unfolded before our eyes. What happens is, the QB drops back to pass, he fakes a hand-off, he throws a long bomb, it’s going, it’s going, it’s a TD. Now, you just heard what the play-by-play announcer was saying.
“2nd and 13, Pickett under pressure, puts it up deep, and oh, what a play by Brandon Llyod. An incredible catch. A one-handed leaping catch by Brandon Lloyd.”
“This is one of the best catches you’ll ever see. Ever.”
You heard it after you saw the play on the field. Of course you did. Because the announcer also saw the play as you saw the play and after the fact, the announcer made up all of this story about what you just saw. For a moment, imagine what it would be like if it was in the reverse order. Imagine what it would be like if when you were watching a football game, the announcer, sped up by 10 seconds on the track, said what was about to happen and moments later, it did happen. How weird would that be?
Well, we have come to be comfortable with the idea that we say stuff in our narrative brain, in our conscious brain, and then we do it. But it’s probably true that it’s the opposite case. That at a base chemical level, much quicker than we come up with a narrative, we’ve already decided to do something. We’re already doing something. And then, only then, only after that fact do we come up with a narrative. It’s possible using fMRI and some thoughtful mind experiments to prove that this happens all the time. That really what we’ve got in our head is a play-by-play announcer. It’s possible that this evolved over time. That human beings talked to themselves. And that that was the version we had first of what we now call consciousness. But then, our brains evolved to the point where we could talk to ourselves without talking out loud. That language leads to this notion that we have a little man or a little woman in our head who’s telling us what to do. But, we don’t.
Another example that comes to mind comes from another love of mine — baseball. When a pitcher throws the ball, it reaches home plate really fast. It’s so fast, in fact, that the batter doesn’t have time to think about the pitch and then decide to swing. There technically isn’t time to make a decision to swing (or not swing). So what’s happening there:
(With pitch velocities ranging between 80 to over 100 miles per hour, it takes approximately 380 to 460 milliseconds for the ball to reach the plate. Minimum reaction time between the image of the ball reaching the batter’s retina and the initiation of the swing is approximately 200 milliseconds; the swing takes another 160 to 190 milliseconds.) And yet, from the batter’s perspective, it feels as though he sees the ball approach the plate and then he decides to swing. (This discrepancy in the timing of our perceptions, though ill-understood, is referred to as the subjective backward projection of time.) One of the all-time great hitters, Ted Williams, once said that he looked for one pitch in one area about the size of a silver dollar. Not to be outdone, Barry Bonds has said that he reduced the strike zone to a tiny hitting area the size of a quarter.
Even though players know that their experience of waiting until they see the pitch approach the plate before making a decision is physiologically impossible, they do not experience their swing as a robotic gesture beyond their control or as purely accidental. Further, their explanations for why they swung/didn’t swing will incorporate perceptions that occurred after they had already initiated the swing.
We spectators are equally affected by the discrepancy between what we see and what we know. Take a group of diehard anti-free-will determinists to the deciding World Series game and have them watch their home team’s batter lose the Series by not swinging at a pitch that, to the onlookers, was clearly in the strike zone. How many do you think would be able to shrug off any sense of blame or disappointment in the batter? Indeed, how many would bother to attend the game if they accepted that the decision whether or not to swing occurred entirely at a subliminal level?
Worse, we think that we see what the batter sees, but we don’t. Not needing to make a split-second decision, we can watch the entire pitch and have a much better idea of its trajectory and whether it is a fastball, curveball, or knuckleball. And we judge accordingly. How could he have been a sucker for a change-up, we collectively moan and boo, unable to viscerally reconcile the difference in our perceptions. (Keep this discrepancy in mind the next time you watch a presidential debate from the comfort of your armchair. What the candidates experience isn’t what we onlookers see and hear when not pressured for a quick response.)