Consciousness

Human consciousness image

In a cute trick of nature, our immensely impressive biology has evolved a brain smart enough to reflect on itself. After three million years of brain expansion we have become creatures with consciousness and we know it.

Consciousness is hard to miss but almost impossible to describe. It is always there when you are awake, host to all of your sensations, temptations, urges, and thoughts. Often it does not make any difference whether those thoughts and feelings are bidden or unbidden, welcome or unwelcome.

Consciousness is the core of what we think of as ourselves. It is what we think we think with and many erroneously believe consciousness is the essence of mind. On the other hand there are those who, perhaps out of sheer perversity, consider mind a myth.

The subject of mind has intrigued philosophers and scientists for millennia, at least since the time of Aristotle. Scientists in recent decades have belatedly begun to seriously study the mind but frankly not much progress has been made. We know more about the moon and how to get there than we do about our own cerebral orb. Perhaps that is inevitable in a culture so manifestly materialistic. But I digress.

There is an important distinction between mind and brain. “Brain” — the gray matter in your head — is a material, corporal, biological part of the body. It can be touched, injured, examined, even diseased. It is tangible, clearly a material substance. Mind, on the other hand, is entirely an intangible process. That is, it is something that happens in the brain. You cannot physically touch, feel, dissect, remove or otherwise directly observe a mind. In fact you have only indirect evidence that anyone else has one. Sometimes we have to wonder if indeed they do.

“Consciousness” is a hot topic these days. I’m sorry to say that many of my neuroscience colleagues have jumped onto the technology bandwagon and are missing the big picture. They are using the latest gadgets and gizmos to test every little process and thing they can think of that might yield insight. I don’t think it is going to work out for them. Knowledge of every molecule that scurries across a synapse or electrical impulse that boogies down a neuron will not tell the story of consciousness. It’s like trying to understand a TV program by studying the pixels on a screen. Oh well.

Consciousness is mind and it is important to us because most of us would like to have better control over our mental phenomena. We want to know more about it and how to control it, how to make it work for us more and against us less, and how to overcome some of its liabilities.

You are probably confident that you have a mind, although you must at times find it maddeningly perplexing. Furthermore, you undoubtedly believe that you exist as a unique, separate, functioning personality. That’s the healthy way to think of yourself. And because you can be aware of yourself thinking, you are pretty sure that your mind is separable from the rest of you in the same way that, say, your heart and femurs are separate parts of you. If you are like most people you consider it intuitively evident that there is a clear distinction between the thinking part of you — your mind — and the protoplasm that houses it — your body, including the brain.

Conventional wisdom posits a separation of mind and body, but that has not always thought to be so. A Frenchman named Rene Descartes in his famous cogito started this separation of mind from matter in the seventeenth century. Rene wrote a lot of very smart stuff, most of it in Latin. (But hey, Latin is really hard, with all those conjugations and whatnot, so just using it will always make you sound smarter.) One of the most famous things he wrote was cogito, ergo sum. You probably already know that that means, “I think, therefore I am.”

Descartes’ cogito got people to thinking and that always leads to trouble. In this case it led to the conclusion that mind and body are separate. This mind-body separation has become a habit of thought over the intervening centuries and it is now so ingrained it is difficult to refute.

But refute it we must because that little nugget of duality causes problems. Its truth is not as obvious as it first seems. For instance, how do we explain how ideas make the body do things? They do, you know. Think about something really simple like lifting your arm. Go ahead, lift it. Now, tell someone how you did it. Yes, yes, there are muscles and tendons attached to a skeletal system which is made to move and do work through the firing of neurons and stuff like that. That explains the mechanical part of raising your arm, at least at the gross level. But what started all that mechanical action? How did it get triggered by a mere idea — the thought that you wanted to lift your arm — if mind and body are separate? Why can’t I make your arm raise by thinking about it?



On the other hand (arm?), why is it that the sight or sound of water can trigger a need to relieve one’s bladder? A daycare center for the elderly in California has a large aquarium for the enjoyment of the participants. It is well known that watching fish swim is very relaxing. If you are not a worm or a damselfly, that is. Unfortunately this aquarium is placed in the daycare’s foyer near the main entrance. When participants gather there to get on the bus to return home for the evening, the sight of the water makes many of them have to go to the toilet. That causes delays that make closing time a daily hassle which does not exist in other centers that do not have an aquarium. How can the sight of water make the body have to relieve itself?

Examples of the mind-body connections abound. Like the way the mere sight of Juliet makes Romeo’s heart go pitty-pat. Or the way a perfectly easy task, like talking, suddenly becomes almost impossible for some people when they are in front of an audience. And the way a suggestion, which is essentially only thought and therefore exists only in the (non-material) mind, can affect the (material) body. For instance the way the pupils of your eyes constrict when you look into a bright light.

Pupillary change is in fact one of the quick tests of suggestibility used by hypnotists to select the better subjects from a group. Try it (the test, not the hypnotist). Stand in front of someone where you can observe the pupils of their eyes and ask them to imagine that they are standing in bright sunlight. Then, after a few seconds, ask them if they can feel their skin becoming cooler as they enter a dark cave. The question about feeling a difference of skin temperature is merely to misdirect the person from being aware that you are watching his eyes. Most people’s eyes will respond at least somewhat if they honestly try to imagine the sun and shade. The pupils constrict at the suggestion of being in bright sunlight, then dilate with the suggested darkness. This is another case of an insubstantial idea causing a substantial bodily response.

Science cannot adequately answer questions about how this works. Well, for that matter, we really don’t know a lot about anything. This is not the place to go into that, but it is well known — and reports of our ignorance are relatively easy to come by — that once you scratch the surface knowledge and delve deeper into any natural phenomenon it becomes obvious that we do not know how it works. This is true whether it is in a hard science like physics or chemistry or a “soft” area like psychology. You don’t have to probe very deeply to discover that there are a lot more questions than answers.

Much of the time these knowledge deficits are largely theoretical. Most people don’t have to give them any thought because, in practical terms, we do have a mind, whether anyone else wants to believe it or not. It has distinctly conscious and subconscious qualities, which we will get around to later.

And it is possible to influence the body with the mind. There are well established ways of going about that, ways that just about anyone can use if they know how and don’t mind putting in a little effort.

Awareness as Consciousness

It is helpful to know a little about awareness, which is usually considered to be the same as consciousness, which is part of a process we think of as mind, which goes on in the brain. In passing I should mention that it is more accurate to say that all of this goes on in the central nervous system, which includes the brain.

As portrayed in figure 1, the mind consists of a continuum that runs from consciousness to what is generally referred to as the subconscious or unconscious. There are four key qualities or values of the human mind that it is important to understand. More will be added to this list later, but for now the main concepts are unity, functional division, liminal shifting, and dominance.

Mental Unity

The concept of mental unity means that no matter how many ways we conceptually divide it up, there is just one mind. This is illustrated in figure 1. There is no discernible border in this illustration because consciousness becomes subconsciousness with no line drawn between to delineate one area from the other.

conscious-subconscious mind graphic
Figure 1. Model of the human mind with its major divisions of conscious and subconscious.

You would not say you have two houses because you have a basement and an upstairs. In the same way, even though there is a “basement” to your mind it is still just one mind from top to bottom. Consciousness is at one end and subconsciousness at the other. Our terminology sometimes causes difficulties because we refer to the conscious mind and the subconscious mind as if they were two separate entities. There are not; this is just a convenient shorthand notation to avoid a lot of extra words.

Sometimes the left side of the brain is referred to as the conscious side; the right side, the subconscious side. There definitely are left and right-side concomitants to the mind. For instance, speech is a conscious phenomenon and our speech centers are on the left side of the brain. On the other side, for example, is creativity which is more of aright-brain phenomenon. But to say that consciousness belongs entirely and exclusively to one side, and unconsciousness the other side, is too simple.

Functional Division

The functions and operational methods of the conscious and sub-conscious parts of the mind are different. Even though there is no hard and fast border delineating the conscious from the subconscious, they nonetheless function differently. You have a good idea of how your consciousness works because that is the part you are always thinking with. Or that you think you are thinking with. The real surprises in mental functioning come when we take up the subconscious part of mind in the next chapter. For now, accept the notion that conscious and subconscious processes are quite different and be prepared to be surprised if this is your first look into the subconscious part of your mind.

Liminal Shifting

The border between consciousness and subconsciousness fluctuates. The band of change from consciousness to subconsciousness is constantly moving. The width of the band changes, and so does the relative position of the band. In most cases the range of change is not great, but it does not take much change to make a noticeable difference.

To comprehend liminal shifting, take the model of the mind as ball from figure 1 and imagine it in water. Assume that the ball just barely floats so that only a small percent of it is above the surface at any time. This is represented in figure 2.

mind model showing conscious and subconscious areas
Figure 2. Model of mind showing consciousness (above water) and subconsciousness (below water line).

Assume further that the ball maintains its basic orientation in the water—the subconscious part is always down—but the ball does roll slightly in the water. It also bobs up and down, which changes how submerged the ball is from one moment to the next. Another variable is represented by the surface of the water, which is not smooth. This further changes the ill-defined border between the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind.

If you are beginning to get the impression that it is difficult to define the differences between consciousness and subconsciousness, you’re right. It is always changing, within limits, and the ways this liminal shifting influences our mental functioning are complicated and difficult to capture in a simple example.

Certain kinds of mental performance depend on conscious processes, while others depend on those of the subconscious. Consider for instance the differences between giving a speech and painting a picture. A good speech would seem to require mostly conscious skill because language and talking are pretty much conscious phenomena. Thus a speech given on a high-conscious day will in general be better than one delivered on a low-conscious (and perhaps high-subconscious) day.

Conversely, artistic functioning like painting or sculpting involves a lot of subconscious processes. Creative functioning will be better at those times when consciousness is lower and subconsciousness is higher.

But nothing mental is ever this simple. Seemingly conscious activities like public speaking are heavily influenced by subconscious dynamics, especially as they relate to subliminal communication (next chapter). And when talking about creative production we cannot dismiss the essential role of consciousness. Most mental activities that result in higher order behavior — art, speech, sports, whatever — require both parts of the mind. It is safe to say that liminal shifting has some influence on everything we say and do. We will be able to use this to our benefit when we begin to formulate and apply suggestion.

There are definite limits to liminal shifting. Thus there are areas of the conscious part of the mind that are always conscious when we are awake, and there are areas of the subconscious that are never accessible to consciousness. That is, they always remain subconscious.

The ebb and flow of consciousness (or subconsciousness if you are looking at it from the other direction) occurs naturally but it is also influenced by what we do, eat, drink, smoke or breathe. And the amount of sleep we get. Lack of sleep can really make you nuts.Sleep deprivation can quite literally throw you into a psychotic state. Enforced, severe sleep deprivation was for many years a favorite method of inducing temporary psychosis in volunteers so psychologists could study mental illness. This practice ended when it was discovered that the subjects’ mental state did not immediately return to normal with a good night’s sleep. It was found that it could take weeks of normal sleep to return to mental normalcy. Keep this in mind. If you are continually shorting yourself on the amount of sleep you need, you might be driving yourself insane.

Numerous rhythms work on us to vary our conscious-to-subconscious ratio at any given time. Lunar rhythms cycle approximately monthly. Diurnal rhythms that cycle twice a day. There are shorter and longer cycling rhythms, some that may take years. All of them influence our conscious-to-subconscious ratio. Complicated as this ball-in-the-water model of mind may seem, it comes nowhere near the actual complexity of just this one aspect of mental functioning.

But let’s take one more look at the model of the mind in figure 2. Imagine that the water is not very clear and you can see only a little way down into it. The area between the water line and where you can no longer see the ball represents the liminal band between consciousness and subconsciousness. All mental events that take place below the liminal band are subliminal (subconscious; unconscious) and everything above it is supraliminal (conscious; aware).

Dominance

Most of us, most of the time, nurture the belief that we are consciously in control of ourselves and direct our lives with rational thought. The fact is we are not as much in conscious control as we like to think. It is actually the subconscious part of the mind that is dominant at all times, or at least potentially so. The subconscious does not exercise its dominance every moment of the day, but it can take control at any time and in any situation.

So what does this have to say about free will? We actually have a great deal of freedom to consciously guide our lives. There is no way to quantify this. I used to guess at about 90 percent of the time. These days, though, I have to lower my estimate to no more than 60 to 70 percent of the time that we are consciously in control. But even that lowered figment of time of conscious control is enough for us to get ourselves into plenty of trouble. It is only when we start to do something that violates subconscious values or needs that the subconscious intervenesSuicide and other forms of self-destructive behavior are cases resulting from psychopathology that is not the norm.

With this concept of conscious control we are entering the domain of the things we want to do but somehow can’t, or don’t seem to be able to. Weight loss and quitting smoking are two obvious examples. So too is the ability to concentrate on an uninteresting subject for any length of time.

Some people can quit smoking or drop pounds almost effortlessly. They are the lucky ones for whom there is only a very weak subconscious need to smoke or be overweight. At the other extreme are those people who seem unable to quit smoking or control their weight no matter how hard they try. They have subconscious needs that cannot be overcome by conscious desires or decisions. No matter how much they consciously want to do it—no matter how much so-called “willpower” they exert—they fail. The subconscious is in control. Fortunately there are ways around this. We’ll get into that later.

There is an aside I should make here before moving on. Over the past few years behavioral and social scientists have begun working with geneticists to look into the ways genomic differences among human beings are linked to differences in behavior and social outcomes. The fundamental question being investigated is this: Is there a genetic basis for the differences in levels of success and failure? Why is education difficult for some, easy for others? Or how about mental states in general; are emotionally secure people that way because they are genetically different from those who are not?

It is too soon to have definitive answers to these questions, and we have to be careful because there have been earlier claims that genetic factors lead to success or failure. It cannot now be said with any confidence that what we achieve is due in part to what we drew in the genetic lottery. I personally believe this to be the case, but we will have to wait for more conclusive evidence before going that far.

The Preconscious Mind

The liminal band, that area between conscious and subconscious, can also be called the preconscious. This gives us a third designation within the mind to add to the concepts of the conscious and the subconscious. It is at least theoretically important to have a transition area like this as part of the mind. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain things like intuition and premonition, or even memory. The term “preconscious” is borrowed from the lexicon of Sigmund Freud as used in his psychoanalytic theory.

I do not mean to imply by this that Freud was right about anything else; there is a lot of Freud’s theories Freud had some brilliant insights but, to my way of thinking, borrowed a bit heavily from his precursors and certainly did not originate the idea of an unconscious mind. In case you’re interested in knowing more: The Unconscious before Freud by Lancelot Law Whyte (1960); The Discovery of the Unconscious by Henry Ellenberger (1970). that have been shown to be wrong. But we can still use some of his basic ideas about the preconscious, the mental province between the conscious and the subconscious (unconscious in his parlance). Actually there are many facets of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory that are like religion — they can probably never be proved or disproved.

There is usually (perhaps always) a good deal of information in your preconscious mind. These are things about which you might be unaware one moment and aware next. Memory is tricky and it is difficult to come up with analogies and metaphors for it since we really have very little solid information about how it works. How we recall something is a bit like the arm-movement thing — we don’t really know how we do it. Try to analyze how you remember something and you will have to conclude, most of the time at least, that you have no clue as to how you do it.

So the concept of a preconscious comes in handy. For example, it is convenient to theorize that all of the memories For that matter what exactly is a memory anyway? And how is it that they can appear unbidden? How is it that an electrode touched to the surface of the brain can result in something like vividly hearing your mother call you to dinner even though that last happened 30 years ago? The mysteries of memory are perplexing indeed. that we can bring to consciousness reside in the preconscious until recalled. Even though we may not be able to remember what’s-her-name at the moment, if it can ever be remembered, it is in the preconscious area of the memory. Or perhaps it is in some sort of “index” in the preconscious that can pull up a memory from deeper regions of the mind.

Events about which we know we could have memories, but that we can never remember, are further down in the subconscious. Hypnosis can sometimes bring those memories up enough for them to be remembered, but often they are beyond recall.

Now that we have touched on the concept of the preconscious, and we agree that it is there, we do not have to spend any more time on it now. Much of what happens at the preconscious level belongs under the topic of the unconscious, or subconscious, mind. This is appropriate because preconscious functioning has much more in common with the subconscious than with conscious awareness. From here on, as a matter of convenience, I will just refer to the subconscious with the understanding that the preconscious is included.

The Spirit of the Machine

Permit me to repeat what I said earlier: Despite a lot of pontificating and pronouncements to the contrary by some psychologists and various other species of mind researchers, we do not know a lot about consciousness. Researchers have found it all too easy to turn a blind eye on what gave them a sense of themselves in the first place.

Behaviorism was in the ascendancy in both philosophy and psychology for much of the twentieth century. Behaviorism is fine if you want to teach dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell or children to stay out of the cookie jar. But it is an inelegant and mechanistic theory of behavior in which mind is a taboo subject.

For the behaviorist, consciousness is like a nasty family secret. It exists but it has to be kept out of sight because consciousness for them is deemed a purely private realm that could not possibly have any relevance to empirical, objective science. Even neurophysiologists during most of the 20th century denied, or at least refused to acknowledge, the scientific legitimacy of consciousness. They were perfectly content to view the brain as nothing more than a physical system of neurons and biochemistry. It was in this climate and mode of thought that philosopher Gilbert Ryle Ryle was specifically being derisive of Cartesian Dualism with the phrase “the ghost in the machine.” Unfortunately, he was widely misinterpreted as meaning “mind” was a ghost and therefore nonexistent. That’s not what he meant. was believed to have derisively labeled consciousness the ghost in the machine.

Recently, consciousness has escaped from the closet. Researchers, theorists and philosophers now openly acknowledge something that you have probably never doubted: that you are conscious. This change of position vis-à-vis consciousness was probably motivated by post-positivist disenchantment with behavioristic and materialistic reductionism. Or something. Whatever its cause, it may be the most significant scientific revolution Okay, I could be accused of being a bit melodramatic here. But it has been a big deal. Perhaps I should save the “scientific revolution” stuff for the developing field of genomics mentioned earlier; i.e., looking into the genetic bases of some behaviors. Time will tell (if we have enough of it left). since the 17th century when Descartes was going around doing his cogito shtick and sounding smart in Latin.

In opposition to (and often shunned by) the majority of mainstream thinkers, some of us have argued that consciousness was incontrovertibly real and that it was fundamentally irreducible to the mechanistic terms of neural science. Electrochemical impulses from neurons through synaptic gaps have always been woefully inadequate ways to explain consciousness. Indeed, the entire panoply of neurophysiology will never lead us to an understanding of the nature of consciousness, even though conscious processes are dependent upon neural processes. That is to say, no brain, no consciousness. (But it is possible to have a brain with no discernible consciousness, as for example with people in comas and unfortunate cases of so-called brain death. At least we think they have no conscious awareness.)

Now a brief word about “agency.” I see this word cropping up nearly everywhere today and yet there does not seem to be any consensus as to what it means. It is sometimes conflated with consciousness but we ought be careful about that. An entity has agency when it can act autonomously to change its behavior and environment to achieve its goals. This is the kind of definition a behaviorist might come up with to describe consciousness. The ingredients might be necessary for consciousness but they are not sufficient. Robots and computers and all kinds of artificial intelligence also fit and we should resist the current crop of Silicon Valley mavens trying to convince us consciousness extends to anything they want it to.

It is comfortable to say humans have consciousness and agency and at the human level the two concepts might not have a lot of distinction. A rabbit being chased by a fox are both agents and probably conscious. A macrophage chasing down and destroying an invader in the bloodstream might be said to have agency. Maybe. I’m not sure. But I am pretty sure that a macrophage is in no way conscious.

The newly emerged recognition of and respect for consciousness, though, has not yet led to any consensus about what it is or how it works. We are still stumped by mind. Does this scientific ignorance create a problem for us in our pursuit of our day-to-day goals? Not really. As far as we’re concerned at a practical level it doesn’t really make any difference. It is kind of like my neighbor’s wife. She has no awareness at all of what makes her car work, but she still manages to use it to come and go. A lot.

Of course I have my own ideas and I lean more toward the mental side of the mind-body issue. To borrow the terms of Ryle’s unfortunate phrase, I am more tempted to view the machine as a ghost in disguise. It is not inconceivable that the body is no more than a mirage, an insubstantial energy construct that exists primarily for the purpose of making more minds. I am not ready to go quite that far—at least not in mixed company—but I certainly see plenty of evidence that matter is less substantial than it pretends to be.

Our entire conception of the material world as what is“real” is suspect in the light of modern day physics. When we tunnel down into the smaller and smaller elements of which matter is composed, we eventually reach a sub-microscopic level (in theory, anyway) where the concrete elements are so far apart as to be virtually non-existent. And even they do partake of corporal existence, they may be composed of energy fields.

Solid matter is mostly empty space and electromagnetic wavelengths.

This is what makes the apparent solidity of matter suspect and leads me to at least entertain the notion that mind Mind is what houses, perhaps causes, consciousness. Mind is implied with consciousness. The reverse is not true. might be more real than matter. Matter is real in the practical sense, of course. Otherwise you would not bruise your shin when you bump into the coffee table. But is it possible that matter is more like mind than mind is like matter?

Compartmentalization

Compartmentalization is a very common, conscious mode of thinking. A certain amount of compartmentalization is necessary to organize our mental lives. But it can also go wrong and really gum up the works. No one is immune to it.

Consider this conversation I had when I was a student. It was with my primary adviser, who was a psychologist of the first rank, a leading thinker, researcher and clinician. He was a giant in the field, recognized internationally as brilliant and incisive.

One day the topic of animal cognition came up. To make the point that some non-humans are capable of certain limited kinds of thinking similar to the way humans do it, Bruce (not his real name) related an incident with his poodle. He said that a few days earlier he and his wife had gone out to run an errand and left the dog alone in the house. They thought they would be gone only a few minutes but something came up that detained them and they were gone several hours.

They were worried because their dog had a small bladder and they were afraid he could not hold his water for as long as it was taking them to get back home. Sure enough they discovered when they got home that the pooch had not been able to wait. But instead of making a mess like they had feared, he had piddled in a bathtub, much to their relief.

Now here is the part that surprised me. Bruce contended that the incident showed how his poodle had used human-like reasoning to urinate in a place where it would do the least damage and would be least likely to get him into trouble.

I was flabbergasted! That is not at all why the dog whizzed in the bathtub. It is well known that dogs’ bladders and bowels are triggered by the smells of other animals’ waste and that is what they look for when they relieve themselves. Bruce’s poodle had obviously followed the smell to the drain in the bathtub and that is why he had done his business there. It was the smell working on the dog’s instincts, not his reason, that prompted him to take a leak in the bathtub instead of on the carpet.

Don’t get me wrong. I love dogs. I am in fact overly fond of all animals and some of my best buddies have been dogs and cats. I know from experience that they are capable of strange and wondrous things. But I was dumbfounded to hear a neuroscientist of Bruce’s caliber leap to such an unfounded and no doubt incorrect conclusion. His professional judgment, the hard critical thinking for which he was famous, had been corrupted by sentimentality because of the affection he felt for his beloved pet. (This is why most professionals will not treat members of their own family.) He had probably flunked many a student for less.

This student did not deign to point out the error of Bruce’s thinking.

Bruce’s anthropomorphic interpretation of his dog’s behavior is a typical example of how compartmentalizing goes works. It is as if we have separate, different parts of the mind where we store or deal with different cognitive constructs. Family constructs (mother, brother, cousin, father-in-law, etc.) might be in one compartment, probably with lots of sub-compartments, while logical reasoning (cause and effect, mathematics, the principle of Ockham’s razor, etc.) is in another. Religion is in yet another. Jumping across compartments can be difficult for anyone. Most of us have trouble when we try to be coolly logical about our parents or our children, for example.

I consider this tale of Bruce’s dog as cautionary. If a person of his intelligence and psychological sophistication can be blind-sided by compartmentalized thinking, so can we all. This is especially true when we analyze our own mental needs, conditions, and problems. We are easily blinded by what we want to believe or by what it is convenient to think about something. Sometimes our emotions drive us to think or feel a certain way despite any logic to the contrary. As the old adage goes, none are so blind as those who will not see. (That’s will not, not cannot.)


There are many reasons to study and explore consciousness. One that appeals to a lot of people is to be personally and financially successful. It is necessary to go beyond mere “mindfulness,” the current buzzword that means, for the most part, being aware of the thinking self in conjunction with behavior and goals. Many people think mindfulness will be enough to get them where they want to go.

Unfortunately that is not necessarily true. There are numerous variables involved in being successful at something. It frequently happens that it is the unexamined variables that are critical to success. These often include luck, intelligence, natural ability for the kind of work being done, and yes, I’m sorry to say, race and gender. Racial and gender equality have made significant progress but we’re still not there yet.

Hard work is often billed as the ticket to success. It probably is necessary for most kinds of success, but hard work in and of itself is hardly ever sufficient. Hard work tends to be correlated with success but it is hardly ever the sole cause of it. You are not likely to increase your chances of great success by merely deciding to work harder. (But add smarter and you might be onto something.)

Correlation and causation are difficult concepts for lots of people who are products of the American system of education. Brits, on the other hand, seem to have a better grasp of the matter. That is because their system of education is primarily inductive, while ours is deductive. This is also the reason that British authors tend to write better spy novels than Americans.

Causation versus Correlation

Causation means one thing causes another, while correlation means there is a relationship between two or more things but none of them causes the others.

Things are correlated if they tend to occur together, as in the case of red bumps and measles. Sometimes correlated things always occur together, as in the case of the rash (starting with the red bumps) of measles that always, as far as I know, appears. But things that are correlated do not always have to appear together. If sometimes they do not, then the correlation is not perfect (does not achieve unity, as we used to say around the pool hall). There are degrees of correlation. Something that only appears infrequently with its partner, or partners, has a lower correlation than those things that always, or almost always, appear together.

Things that are related — correlated — make it possible to predict one from what you know about the other. High school grades have a fairly high correlation with college grades, so if a college freshman had good high school grades we can predict that she will probably earn good college grades. We can predict that a person who flosses his teeth regularly will have better overall health than one who does not. (Yep, true.) And until we can redress social inequity a woman, all other things being equal, will probably make less in lifetime earnings than a man. That is, earnings are correlated with gender. And so on.

Good grades in high school do not cause good grades in college. Flossing does not cause good health. Flossing will be a partial cause of good dental health, but only correlated with general health. And being a woman does not make a person intrinsically worth less. To mistake causation in these examples is an error in reasoning. It is important that you understand this because an inability to distinguish between causation and correlation makes it difficult, sometimes even impossible, to correct or eliminate a problem.

To put this another way, too many times people try to resolve correlations instead of causes. Take for example the business of school grades. If high school grades really caused college grades, all one would have to do to make it easily through college would be to cheat in high school. Or bribe a lowly paid clerk in the principal’s office to doctor one’s transcript. Illicit tactics like that might garner a perfect high school grade record. But unless those same tactics could be repeated at the college level, good grades would not be forthcoming. We all know there is another factor that is the cause of grades in both high school and college, namely good study habits. Grades are correlated, studying is the cause. (Or not studying in the case of bad grades.)

School grades are a good example for clarifying the difference between correlation and causation because we are all in the habit of thinking that studying causes grades. But anyone who has ever studied hard then blown a test knows that studying, even studying very hard, is not sufficient. It is also necessary to study smart, which includes studying the right subject, the right parts of the subject, while in a reasonable state of mind, and so on.

Here is another obvious example. You have noticed that as the number of birds increases in the spring, the grass becomes progressively greener. However, because you’re a smart cookie you know that longer hours in the day and the angle and warmth of the sun are the relevant variables. You are not likely to conclude that the birds cause the grass to turn green or vice versa.

Cause-and-effect relationships in things like gender bias and greening grass and returning birds are easy to tease out. But not all situations are as obvious. Lets return to the subject of hard work and its relation to success as an example. Some of us are indoctrinated practically from birth with the idea that hard work and unceasing industry will make us successful; keeping one’s nose to the grindstone is all it takes to become healthy, wealthy, and wise. We come to believe that it just makes sense that a person who works harder is going to be more successful than someone who does not work as hard.

Common Sense

The usual misconceptions about hard work and success are examples of how common sense, especially when it is nothing more than warmed over conventional wisdom, can really get in the way of figuring out if something caused a thing or was just correlated with it. And if you cannot do that, you cannot expect to consciously address problems with any hope of changing them. Don’t waste your time trying to correct things that are not the real problem. Make sure you address the real causes of the anything you want to change, add or eliminate.

Quitting smoking provides a good example. Most smokers consider their habit to consist primarily of an addiction to nicotine and that is what they will have to overcome to quit smoking. And that is exactly why most would-be quitters fail. Nicotine addiction is actually a minor part of the problem. The real reasons why most people smoke are subconscious needs to be an adult and to have friends.

There are other reasons individuals can be driven to smoke but the need for adultery (I mean, adulthood) and social needs are the real trouble makers in most cases. These needs are strong and can be very complicated. It is almost impossible to figure out all of this with common sense.

Develop a habit of being skeptical about any common-sense ideas of cause and effect. Always keep in mind that any source of a problem identified through conscious logic is suspect. It might not be the source or cause of the problem. It might be only a correlation. Or even worse, unrelated.

Pleasure and Pain

Nature has provided us with a simple set of principles for conducting much of our lives. One of these principles is to seek pleasure and another is to avoid pain. Of course saying this is about as useful as trying to explain a glorious sunset by describing the scene as composed of light and darkness. It is too general to be of much help.

But general as it is, it is worth noting that just about everything we do, and everything we avoid, has some element of the pleasure-pain principle involved. We do not have to learn to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We must learn what is pleasurable or painful, but the raw drive itself is built into the subconscious.

Deferred gratification, however, is a conscious concept. This means that what we commonly call “mental discipline” or “willpower” resides only at the conscious level. So when we have trouble resisting the immediate gratification of a piece of cake for the deferred gratification of not being fat we experience the unequal forces of the conscious mind in opposition to the subconscious mind. Consciously we opt for discipline but subconsciously we want the pleasure now. Add to that any other hidden subconscious needs to eat the cake and there is no contest. Nine times out of ten the cake gets eaten.

It is not because you are stupid that you eat the cake or smoke the cigarette or whatever is at issue. You know most of the good reasons for not doing these things. You know the outcome will ultimately be unpleasant and you will at the very least feel guilty, at worst be dead. But you do it anyway because you cannot consciously thwart a strong subconscious need. The conscious goal of a slim, svelte, healthy figure or physique in the future is a puny defense against the subconscious need for a donut right now. “Later” is a conscious quality that does not have much influence on the subconscious mind. In this sense the subconscious mind works on the principle that a bird in hand is the only game in town. (I know, I mixed two metaphors. I couldn’t help myself; my subconscious made me do it.)

Accept or Change? That’s the Question

Once you are looking in the right place and you identify a legitimate problem, you have the choice of either changing it or accepting it. Consider weight control for a moment. If you are overweight, if you have trouble controlling your eating and making yourself exercise, there are two major activities you can use to change into the person you want to be. One is suggestion and the other is autoquestioning to identify the real causes and make suggestion effective. With suggestion you can change your attitudes about food and the kinds of things you crave. You can change your motivation to exercise so you do it regularly and adequately. You can even change your metabolism Don’t get too carried away with this thought. I’ve never known anyone who went from being overweight to being just right while continuing to over-indulge in the wrong things. You are not likely to change your metabolism that much. — at least some people can, within reasonable limits — so that you burn more calories.

Another option is acceptance. You might opt for acceptance if you think it would be better in the long run to accept yourself as you are. You can use suggestion for that, too, and stop worrying about trying to change yourself if you like.

Or you can mix change and acceptance. You can change what it is reasonable to change and get yourself to accept the changes you cannot reasonably make. A lot more people need to seriously consider this option.

If for example you are a young woman and you think you want to look like a super model, consider this: there are roughly three billion women on this planet who do not look like super models. Only about eight women in the world do. So figure your odds. Besides, I can assure you that many of those pencil-thin Hermesians you see on Pinterest live miserable lives dominated by diet pills, tobacco, and booze. Hunger is their constant companion and they spend most of their time on thoughts about food.

If you are thinking, “I don’t care, I would do anything to look like that,” then you need help. Bulimia or anorexia may be just around the corner for you, and they are just not worth it. People die from those conditions, and the way they die is not a pretty sight. Rather than killing yourself (figuratively or literally) trying to turn into a CosmoVogue, you would be better off working on suggestions that help you accept yourself as you are, or as you should really be. And how you “should really be” is determined largely by your genetic makeup. You probably have plenty of room for improvement if you are overweight, but keep in mind that Great Danes are not meant to look like Chihuahuas. Both are beautiful animals when healthy and in shape, and both are ugly when fat and out of shape. They are also ugly when they are emaciated from starvation.

The counterpart of women’s model madness is men’s body builder mind set. Like the female who craves the model shape, the wannabe body builder thinks he would do anything to have huge muscles of steel. A skinny butt. A waist with ribbed abdominal muscles. The more muscles the better.

My first bout with this mindset was when I was a kid influenced by Charles Atlas. If you are wondering who Charles Atlas is, or was, you are either not very old or you never read comic books. Charles Atlas sold a set of weights and other gadgets with which men and boys could build their physique. He had a famous advertisement for his muscle-building gizmos that appeared for decades in comic books and other magazines. It was done in the style of a cartoon strip with drawings that depicted a skinny kid getting sand kicked in his face by a muscled jerk at the beach. The skinny kid did not like getting sand kicked in his face, especially in front of all those good looking babes sunbathing on the beach (“girls” they would have been called back then). So he ordered Charles Atlas’ body building kit, worked out awhile with it, then “later” decked the muscled jerk at the beach.

“LATER…” That’s what it always said in the box above the critical frame toward the end, when the jerk was getting decked. What did “later” mean? That sucked me in when I was a kid because I thought it would be cool to go around decking jerks and “later” meant like, what, a couple of weeks? Uh huh.

I ordered the Charles Atlas Super Muscle Building Kit and started on what I thought would be a career of kicking sand in jerks’ faces. It didn’t work that way, of course, and in fact the whole thing was pretty much just a pipe dream. After a couple of weeks of sort-of strenuous working out with the Magic Muscle Builder, about all I had to show for my efforts was soreness and disappointment. Not one whit of difference could I detect in the mirror. I was still just a chubby, freckle-faced ten-year old. So I chalked it all up to tuition for the lesson I had learned and decided to be smart instead. (That decision didn’t work out as well as I hoped either, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, the point is, be realistic about what you were born with. Change what you can change and work to make yourself happy with the rest. Forget about trying to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger unless you were born with the genes to do it. (With the presently limited state of genetic science the only way you can know is to try it. To give you some idea of what it takes, Schwarzenegger did four to seven hours of rigorous weight training every day, seven days a week. He maintained this schedule for ten years between the ages of 14 and 23. At 23 he held the Mr. Universe title and had won every meaningful bodybuilding title in the world. You can’t make yourself look like Schwarzenegger with three 20-minute workouts a week like so many contemporary gadgets advertise. Sorry, but there really is no free lunch.)

Focus and Priority

We all know how decisions get more complicated and difficult to make as we get older. We cannot easily abandon the goal of being a CosmoVogue or a Schwarzenegger, especially when we have grownup in a culture where parents tell their kids they can be anything they want. But it does not work that way. No one can be “anything” in that sense. It is true that we all have a great deal of latitude in what we can be or become but genetic limitations cannot be changed. If you are tall and athletic and you want to play professional basketball, go for it. But if you are five-two and pudgy, forget it. No amount of desire and effort are going to win you a starting position with the Lakers. Use your head instead and end up owning them.

We could come up with can’t-be-done examples like this all day. People with poor vision cannot be airline pilots. High school dropouts cannot be brain surgeons (not on my brain, anyway). Janitors do not get promoted directly to CEO. And so on. No one can be “anything” he wants to be if he happens to want to be the wrong thing, regardless of how much drive and ambition he has.

Another problem is that “anything” in this kind of usage tends to be interpreted as “everything.” “You can be everything you want.” Rich cowboy-surgeon-fireman-quarterback-ripped…

There is just no end to the mischief this kind of nonsense can cause. For instance, “can be” tends to get interpreted in young minds as “deserve to be.” This has the result of stunting development of the kind of discipline and drive required for significant achievement. Anyone who hires people can tell you how common it is for new hires to expect pay and perks far beyond what they are worth or willing to earn.

Another problem commonly rooted in the be-anything myth is a perverse kind of perfectionism often accompanied by an ironic inability to finish things. This can make a person look fickle, frivolous, self-indulgent, and generally undependable. Yet the psychology of this kind of person is far more complicated than it would seem. It is as if the person is truly trying to be and do everything with the result that she ends up doing nothing. To try to be everything condemns one to not being much of anything. You have to make choices in life.

The primary message here can be summed up in two words: focus and prioritize. Focus on what it is you really capable and desirous of wanting to be and doing, and prioritize your life so irrelevant distractions are swept aside. You will be years ahead of the game if you have done this before spending a lot of time and effort being something, or someone, you should not be.

Don’t Be Nothing

The opposite of the be-anything myth is the be-nothing syndrome. It is encapsulated in, and often inculcated by, statements like, “You’ll never amount to anything.” Sometimes these sorts of statements are made repeatedly by a parent, but such thoughts need not be spoken to have their negative effect. Children and teenagers are very good at picking up nonverbal signals that tell them what their parents, teachers, and other authority figures think of them.

Be-nothing kinds of statements can also be made concerning many different topics over a number of years with the same negative cumulative effect. If a child is repeatedly given negative feedback about different subjects, she eventually adds it all up mentally and concludes that she cannot be anything good. Or good at anything. The adult who suffers from the be-nothing syndrome is not likely to make much effort in life. What would be the use? They figure they can’t do anything anyway, so why try?

If you have ever been repeatedly subjected to be-anything or be-nothing kinds of messages over a prolonged period of time, be aware that your mind has probably been conditioned (at least somewhat) by those messages. They have influenced you in ways that skew your opinion of what you are capable of doing. You may need to consciously work toward overcoming mental limitations to make yourself capable of being or doing what you want.

Any discussion of what can or cannot be done is troublesome because the boundaries of the possible keep moving. I remember reading about a young British medical student named Roger Bannister who was told it was highly unlikely anyone would ever run a mile in four minutes or less. Everyone knew it was probably impossible for a human being to run that fast. But when he was 25, running in a meet at Oxford in 1954, Bannister did just that. He officially ran a mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. He broke the psychological barrier to a four-minute mile and once he did, others were able to do the same. A sub-four minute mile is still a notable time but it is done regularly. Some runners such as John Walker of New Zealand and Steve Scott of the United States have run a mile in under four minutes more than 100 times.

Very often it is not obvious what is and is not possible, so decisions can sometimes be difficult. Don’t try for the clearly impossible, but if you think that some objective might be possible, and you really want it, go for it. We all know that sometimes it is better to have tried and failed than to have never tried. Even better yet is to put forth your best efforts in the area at which you have the most aptitude and interest.

It is probably safe to assume that Roger Bannister was born with the right genes to break the four-minute mile barrier. Without the requisite genes no amount of training and desire would have been enough.

It is essential that you have enough self-knowledge, objectivity and experience to be sure that your goal, whatever it is, is within the realm of achievability for you. Otherwise, no matter how strongly you consciously want something you will never attain it.

On the other hand, thinking you’re not built to do something may just be a cop-out. You have to watch out for that because we are all extremely dexterous at finding excuses for not trying (here’s our old frenemy fear-of-failure again). Which explains a lot of half-heartedness: if we didn’t really give it our all, then we didn’t really fail.

So what are we left with vis-à-vie the role of conscious thought and achievement? With a sticky wicket, as the Brits like to say. Humankind is not likely to have advanced much beyond scratching in the trees if there had not been those who didn’t buy it that something was impossible.

So, what the hell! If you want it and you can convince yourself that it is not impossible for you, go for it.

charles e. henderson, ph.d.

By Charles E. Henderson, PhD

Charles E. “Chuck” Henderson PhD has had three careers. As a professional woodwind musician he worked with a number of well-known groups and musicians in America and Europe. When CTS ended his musical career he went into sales where for 16 years he broke numerous national sales records. He retired from sales to earn three college degrees (BA, MA, PhD) in communication and psychology. His research and clinical specialty has focused on subliminal communication and he has been a leader in the research and development of self-hypnosis techniques and applications. The author of nine books and numerous articles and audio recordings, he lives with his wife in Madison. Wisconsin.

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