A few days ago an incident on a local two-lane road made me think about consciousness, free will and the human brain. I was on a local highway, one with plenty of curves and hills, the speed limit being 55mph. I had to stop for a car turning right in my lane and in the opposite direction another car stopped and put on their turn light to make the same turn as the car in my lane. As I sat there waiting for the car in my lane to turn, another car careens around a curve traveling at perhaps 65 mph coming towards the car in the opposite land waiting to turn.  At 65mph and with approximately four seconds to impact the driver slammed on the brakes and began skidding, impact was imminent. Instead of impact though, with about two seconds to go and traveling perhaps 55mph, the car flew onto the grassy shoulder, which fortunately had a gradual slope, zoomed past the stationary car and then jumped back onto the highway as if it had been done on a Hollywood set. Obviously, the driver could only react quickly without “thinking”, or without conscious thinking. I will define conscious thinking as turning one’s attention inward to the analog world for various examination and planning. In this case the driver’s attention was split between two or more things which created a failure to see the car ahead.

I think that sometimes we perceive these fast reaction behaviors as being in a class of their own, but what if most of our behaviors are of this sort, automatic, learned and happening without conscious thought (looking inward). It seems that as we walk around doing our daily routines, we rarely engage in any conscious thought about them, we just do them, perhaps with a little prodding by the appetites. Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking Fast and Slow”) would consider this real world engagement as “thinking fast” whereas I would not label it “thinking”at all, although much subconscious processing must be occurring.  Kahneman’s “thinking slow” refers to deliberate explorations of the analog mind. This type of thinking tends to fall victim to distractions. I will just guess that the subconscious “thinking” is similar to that occurring in other animals that move through their environments reacting to stimuli, but without engaging “slow thinking” which simply doesn’t exist for them. The “fast thinking” occurs in the real world without being distracted by mental cogitation. Consciousness may survey its own analog world and the subconscious also likely models the world and thinks, especially when reality is turned off and dreaming begins. Often, nice nuggets of wisdom can seemingly appear out of nowhere in the “slow thinking” brain.

Here are some features of Kahneman’s system I fast (subconscious) and system II slow (conscious, logical, rational) from Wikipedia.


In the book’s first section, Kahneman describes two different ways the brain forms thoughts:

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious. Examples (in order of complexity) of things system 1 can do:
    • see that an object is at a greater distance than another
    • localize the source of a specific sound
    • complete the phrase “war and …”
    • display disgust when seeing a gruesome image
    • solve 2+2=?
    • read a text on a billboard
    • drive a car on an empty road
    • come up with a good chess move (if you’re a chess master)
    • understand simple sentences
    • connect the description ‘quiet and structured person with an eye for details’ to a specific job
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious. Examples of things system 2 can do:
    • brace yourself before the start of a sprint
    • point your attention towards the clowns at the circus
    • point your attention towards someone at a loud party
    • look out for the woman with the grey hair
    • dig into your memory to recognize a sound
    • sustain a higher than normal walking rate
    • determine the appropriateness of a behaviour in a social setting
    • count the number of A’s in a certain text
    • give someone your phone number
    • park into a tight parking space
    • determine the price/quality ratio of two washing machines
    • determine the validity of a complex logical reasoning


The “School of Athens” by Raphael. Plato is in the center with orange robe.

Plato had a similar model that is referred to as the tripart soul.

Plato’s tripartite theory of soul is a theory of psyche proposed by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in his treatise the Republic. In Republic, Plato asserted that the ψυχή (psyche) is composed of three parts; the λογιστικόν (logistykon, logical), the θυμοειδές (thymoeides, spirited) and the ἐπιθυμητικόν (epithymetikon, appetitive). These three parts of the ψυχή also correspond to the three classes of a society.[1] Whether in a city or an individual, δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosyne, justice) is declared to be the state of the whole in which each part fulfills its function without attempting to interfere in the functions of others.[2] The function of the ἐπιθυμητικόν is to produce and seek pleasure. The function of the λογιστικός is to gently rule through the love of learning. The function of the θυμοειδές is to obey the directions of the λογιστικός while ferociously defending the whole from external invasion and internal disorder. Whether in a city or an individual, ἀδικία (adikia, injustice) is the contrary state of the whole, often taking the specific form in which the spirited listens instead to the appetitive, while they together either ignore the logical entirely or employ it in their pursuits of pleasure.

In Plato’s model the logical would be the slow thinking system of Kahneman, the spirited would be the fast thinking and the limbic and/or hypothalamic would be the appetitive.

I would divide them a little differently. The one that evolved last would be the logical, symbol using one that explores the analog world and plans, giving names to each feature, item and relationship. The next oldest system would be the subconscious which operates the body in real time and which also operates in an analog world, but with few symbols or logic. The subconscious system thinks, processes information from the environment constantly, but the logical system above isn’t aware of the activity. The third basic system would be the appetites originating in the hypothalamus and in the dopamine reward centers that tend to encourage the body to do the appropriate things.

I begin to wonder how much “thinking” in the most evolved, logical system is actually occurring in the general populace whose attention is fought over by so many. The logical thinking system is not necessary for day to day living as the subconscious seems to absorb what is necessary to get along in any culture or environment in which it grows. The medial prefrontal cortex seems to keep human behavior within socially acceptable norms, but this is mostly automatic too. The slow thinking system can spur the subconscious system to move the body in real time and once it is initiated this movement is without conscious thought. For instance, the slow mind may say to itself “It’s time to do homework.” The subconscious system will then begin a series of movements assembling papers, pens, books and need things. All of these motions are already stored in the subconscious. While doing homework a “I’m thirsty” message may come bubbling up from the hypothalamus all the way to the slow conscious system which then gets the body moving to obtain something to drink. The body already know what it needs to do to get a drink and no conscious thought is expended except a brief rehearsal in the mind of the body going to the refrigerator to get the pitcher of water.

Sometimes a person may direct the body, through conscious thought, to not eat the sugary cake and exercise. But the subconscious refuses the directive. It likes cake and hates exercise, which doesn’t have an immediate reward attached to it and it simply says “NO”, even thought the slow mind has arrived at the logical conclusion that weighing 400 lbs is not a healthy state of being. This is certainly not free will because the fast system is vetoing the slow systems logical directives. Additionally, the fast system, having been around the block in an evolutionary sense, may want to do some naughty things even though the logical system, mediated by the social brain, implores it not to. The medial prefrontal cortex may elicit a voice that says “Don’t do it, you’ll get in trouble.” and at the same time the subconscious is prompting a voice that says, “Do it, nobody’s watching, the rewards are great.” Even thought the subconscious does not have a voice, it can induce a dialog in the logical part of the brain.

The problem may be with what we call “attention”. The brain can split its attention into two parts, sometimes performing two tasks in the real world or performing one task in the real world while daydreaming in the analog world, as when driving and daydreaming. I don’t know of any instances where two inner selves can be exploring different parts of the brain’s internal analog world except perhaps individuals affected by schizophrenia.

The brain is behind all tasks needed for driving: visual, auditory, manual andcognitive. Recent developments in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)now allow researchers to see the brain’s reactions to specific challenges and tasks.

A Carnegie Mellon University study produced fMRI pictures of the brain while study participants drove on a simulator and listened to spoken sentences they were asked to judge as true or false.

The pictures below show that listening to sentences oncell phones decreased activity by 37 percent in the brain’s parietal lobe (Figure 2), an area associated with driving. In other words, listening and language comprehension drew cognitive resources away from driving. This area of the brain is important for navigation and the type of spatial processing associated with driving. Because this study involved listening and thinking of an answer and not actual cell phone conversation, the researchers concluded the results may underestimate the distractive impact of cell phone conversation.

The brain scan on the left is a brain fully concentrating on the road. The brain at right is having a conversation and driving and thereby the activity of the brain that was occupied in driving has been diminished.

The same study also found decreased activity in the area of the brain that processes visual information, the occipital lobe (Figure 2). While listening to sentences on cellphones, drivers had more problems, such as weaving out of their lane and hitting guardrails. This task did not require holding or dialing the phone, and yet driving performance deteriorated. The scientists concluded this study demonstrates there is only so much the brain can do at one time, no matter how different the two tasks are, even if the tasks draw on different areas and neural networks of the brain. The brain has a capacity limit. These fMRI images provide a biological basis of the risks faced by drivers.


What does this have to do with the collapse of industrial civilization? As others have said, ninety percent of the human brain’s activity is submerged like an iceberg (Kahneman System I). Only a small amount is above the waterline in consciousness. The submerged part is the voiceless mind that existed prior to logic and language that still runs the body through prompting from the emotional centers below and with some logical input and planning from above. This subconscious part is largely formed through immersion in an environment or culture and once formed is difficult to access and change by any logic or rationality.  Additionally, “attention” is kept from looking inward for answers and connections while being fully occupied in the real world where only spectacle and routines exist, and even if logic says we need a change, the subconscious, already formed, will likely resist changes. We will  react to global warming and ecosystem destruction like the driver of the speeding car described above. At the last second we’ll “come to our senses” throw on the brakes and swerve, but we won’t sail by the obstacle and keep going, instead we’ll hit a immovable concrete abutment.

The end of the line for a civilization that could not follow rationality and logic. Someone was distracted.