We had reason to visit another suburb today. It wasn’t until I was sitting waiting for some traffic lights to change that I thought about how I was navigating from home to destination.
We just got into the car and drove there. I didn’t consider the route in advance, and it seemed that I just pointed the car and we got there. Obviously I knew the way, as we had been there or through there a number of times in the past. But I didn’t have the destination in mind from start to finish, at least not consciously. I’m not sure that I had it in the forefront of my mind at all.
I knew that it was in that direction though, and that did not leave a lot of route options. I did have a general feeling that I should go south, in this instance and that really only leaves two options, the back road, or the motorway. The back road is a lot prettier!
I made the choice to take the back road but it was not, as I said, at the forefront of my mind, as I was doing other things at the time, like finding my keys, my phone, my wallet and these things occupied the forefront, while the decision about which route to take was more background.
So the route was chosen more of less in the background, but not subconsciously. Much the same process happened on the way there, and at each junction or turning point, I didn’t have to consider at the front of my mind which direction I should drive. I just did it. Some part of my mind knew that to get to our destination I had to turn right, or go straight on or whatever.
This is good because the front of my mind was doing the driving, keeping the car on line, signalling, accelerating or braking, keeping us safe on the road. Except that it wasn’t right at the front mind, since I was also talking to my wife about various things. Christmas things from memory.
I’ve been driving for many years and I’m confident that if needed the driving part of my mind can instantly oust the things currently in my mind should the unexpected happen. Many year ago, when I used to smoke, I was driving with a friend and an emergency happened. When it was over I realised that I was no longer holding my cigarette. Meantime my friend was scrabbling between his legs where my cigarette had ended up when the driving part of my mind grabbed precedence and the cigarette holding part was temporarily ousted.
The route planning part of my mind would not suddenly get control like that, fortunately. That would be highly dangerous. I could if I had wanted have brought the route planning part of my mind to the front, but it wouldn’t say much except “turn left at the next junction”.
I have on occasion made a navigating mistake. I’m going to A and the route to B is the same in part. Suddenly I realise that I have missed a junction and will have to backtrack. It seems that the route finding part of my mind spends much of the time dozing and checks in only infrequently, sometimes missing the turning point or ritually following a more usual route.
It also seems that the information it keeps is like an instruction to take an action at each decision point rather than the whole route from home to destination as well as a general direction, less well specified. GPS guidance systems seem to work this way too in that they instruct you to take an action at each junction without setting out the whole route each time.
The model of the mind that I’ve used above, of various parts of the mind at various levels of “forefrontness” or consciousness is nothing new. The need to make a part of the mind the one at the top of the conscious levels, suddenly as a result of a danger, or selectively by choice, as in route following reminds me of the way that computer programs
Computers have several methods for navigating through programs and reacting to things that happen when they are running. One big part is called “handling errors”. Dividing by zero is an error and if the computer reaches a point where it has to divide by zero something needs to be done. The program can report the error and gracefully stop, or it can take some action to fix the error and then carry on.
Computers handle error by means of “interrupts”. Whether the errors is software (eg divide by zero) or caused by hardware connected to it (eg input/output errors) the computer stops what it is doing and runs a bit of program that handle the errors by sending a message or fixing things up. The bits of program that were running are suspended and after the error is handled the bits that were running may be given back control.
The mind seems to work in a similar way. When an emergency arises the current part of the mind that is at the forefront gets suspended and the emergency is handled by another part of the mind. A pedestrian steps into the road and you react by standing on the brakes “before you know it” as the saying goes. As soon as the emergency is over, the conscious mind takes over again.
You do indeed react “before you know it”, one might say instinctively. But humans have not been driving cars for much more than one hundred years, so it appears that the reaction is not instinctive in itself, but is an instinctive reaction to a danger that has been learned. We seem to have this fast reaction to events which is instinctively based but can be applied to learned situations, which is much more flexible than hard-wired instincts would be.
So, pondering on how I get from A to B has led me to conjecture that there are parts of the mind which are forefront in our minds and other parts which are not directly in the forefront but which can be brought to the forefront in an instant, when an event happens. It is evident that these parts are only partially backgrounded as the mind as a whole has some aware of the location at the time, but they do act semi-autonomously, that is until the pedestrian steps out onto the roadway.
Evidently there are parts of the mind that are less foregrounded and more backgrounded. When the part of the mind that is concerned with driving wants to signal or change gear, another part of the mind which controls the arms and legs wakes up and make the limbs move as needed.
I’ve spoken above as if all these different levels are discrete states, but I think it more likely that is a continuum from the foreground of the mind to the background or a least the series of levels of consciousness are close enough togerther to appear so. The mind is a complex and wonderful thing.
[Comment: After finishing this post I went looking for other discussions of the same topic. I first found this Wikipedia article which has the issues mentioned in the article’s header. Interestingly the implication in the article is that there is a single level of consciousness at any one time. This I do not agree with. Another article I found was a little better, I feel, but only because it acknowledges that several levels may be active at the same time, but divides them into three levels with well defined scopes. I feel that it is a lot more complex than that, with all sorts of sections of the mind at all sorts of levels being active at the same time. Neither article deals with the issue of one section of the mind apparently seizing the highest level when an external event triggers it.]