“Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of…It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”

This flashlight analogy from the late, great Julian Jaynes, illustrates the problem of “mind investigating mind” — thinking about thinking, if you will — better than any technical explanation I’ve seen. Jaynes, who was psychological researcher at Yale and Princeton for decades, wrote, IMHO, the best-ever book on consciousness, perhaps the best that will ever be written. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind nominally purports to set out Jaynes’ wacky-but-intriguing theory of how we used to have, essentially, two brains (a theory that can never be proved or disproved). But it’s really his clear and down-to-earth discussion of consciousness as we actually experience ourselves (nothing woo-woo or overly scientific) that makes TOOCITBOTBM one of my Desert Island books.

Take this, for instance, as he compares consciousness to, “A secret theater of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries. A whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can.” Has anyone — from Plato to Decartes to William James to Dan Dennett — ever expressed what it means to be conscious in so few words with such exactitude? For me, this nails it.

(I had to look up “prevenient.” Here it means “anticipatory.”)

Another useful analogy for how we experience consciousness — I forget where I first heard it—relates to “the little man in the fridge.” If you’re as ancient as I am, you may recall a song from childhood about the little man living in the fridge who turns the light on when you open the door. (“…Funny little man with a nightie on/When I asked him what he did/He said, ‘I put the lightie on.’”) Or does he? Maybe he leaves it on when the door is closed. Or maybe there is no little man! How can we know?

Photo: W.carter, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Similarly when I ask the question, “Am I conscious now?” the answer is always, “Yes.” What about when I’m not introspecting? Am I conscious then? How can I know? I can’t. Whenever I check, sure enough I am conscious, so I’m stuck with the persistent illusion that I’m conscious all the time. Hence the notion of “stream of consciousness.” This is Willam James’ (Henry’s brother, by the way) idealized picture of how our brains work, that our waking lives are imbued with continuous awareness. Again, we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. Or, in Jaynes analogy, the flashlight thinks it’s on all the time.

I’m pretty sure I’m as deluded as the flashlight. There is no all-aware self that is having a continuous experience. To put it bluntly, I’m a temporary fiction.