Consciousness is Overhead

Your unconscious brain handles a lot of stuff, a lot more than your conscious brain. There’s a pop-science saying that you only use ten percent of your brain. It might be more accurate to say that your conscious mind only gets ten percent of your brain’s bandwidth.

Think for a moment about all the things that your brain handles unconsciously for you:

  • Breathing
  • Heart rate
  • Digestion
  • Hormone regulation
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Blinking
  • Preventing urination and defecation
  • And more…

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Now imagine if you had to consciously manage all of these processes. You’d have to simultaneously control your blink rate, heart rate, breathing, and push food through your digestive system all while regulating blood insulin levels and stopping yourself from pissing yourself. Managing just one of the things on this list would likely use up most of your conscious bandwidth. (If you’ve ever forgotten how to breath, you’ll know what I mean.) Luckily your unconscious brain is optimized for handling these sorts of processes, which frees up some bandwidth for some conscious thought.

Unconscious processes always take priority over conscious thought. This means that conscious thought is overhead instead of the other way around. Unconscious processes run the machine and conscious thoughts are an optional add-on if there are enough resources leftover.

Being conscious of something means tracking something with your conscious brain. If you know what System One and System Two processes are, you can think of the unconscious processes as System One and conscious thought as System Two. System One is the much older, and because of that, is much better tuned than System Two for what it does.

The purpose of consciously tracking something is to improve performance or solve a problem. In the pursuit of this, System Two is vulnerable to many pitfalls, the most notable of which is analysis paralysis. Conscious thought is a tool that you have to learn to use. If you track too much info, you get lost in the noise, but if you don’t track at all, you won’t solve the problem. Learning how to modulate your neuroticism to the situation at hand will help you make the best use of this limited resource.

If you want to improve your general problem solving ability, you have to track what you are tracking, which is overhead on top of overhead.

Sidenote: Most of the work done by the Rationality community appears to be a critique of using System One when System Two should be used. Their proposed solution to this misuse of System One is to identify these sorts of situations and tell people to be “more rational”, which essentially equates to thinking harder.

The problem is that System Two uses a lot more time and energy than System One which is precisely why people stick with using System One even if it isn’t optimal. The real challenge now for the Rationality community is to bring their work to the masses by making System Two usage more practical. This would basically entail finding ways of making it cheaper to use conscious thought. I’ll get to that more at the end of this post.

Continuing on:

Pain is a signal that something has gone wrong and needs conscious attention which is why pain is so closely related with consciousness (painfully aware). Things that are operate fine fall under the threshold of consciousness because they don’t need any attention for the time being.

Since only the painful and malfunctioning processes are brought to the threshold of consciousness it is difficult to judge your objective well-being based upon subjective experience. Your subjective conscious experience will always be skewed towards these painful and frustrating processes. The only time everything will be dandy is when there are zero things that need attention or are malfunctioning, which is almost never. You can think of your conscious mind as a mechanic who is responsible for repairing, updating and adding new parts to a machine that is running 24/7. In almost all cases the mechanic will be stressed out but the machine will be working fine.

This explains why we acclimate so quickly to new circumstances, whether that’s good or bad. Any pattern that occurs in your life will eventually by profiled by your brain and relegated to the unconscious. Conscious resources are scarce and whatever doesn’t need to be attended to right now won’t come above the threshold of consciousness. Put in simpler terms: once you get used to something, you stop becoming consciously aware of it. Once you get used to a higher income, you stop being aware of it, which is likely why “money doesn’t buy happiness” and “happiness levels revert to baseline over time”. A large part of the human tendency to “take things for granted” and act ungratefully can be attributed to the fact that your brain is constantly trying to offload work into the unconscious, and once something’s been relegated there, you’re no longer aware of it. So this ingratitude is more like a lack of awareness. It takes intention and effort to remain aware of things that are constantly there and that could easily be taken for granted, which (I think) is what gratitude is.

Unpredictability is the only thing that keeps you conscious of something over time. This is the precisely the appeal of gambling. If you get a raise, the good feelings will wear off after several weeks, but if you gamble, you can experience the same good feelings (and bad ones as well) multiple times within the same night as long as you never figure out the pattern to your wins. Gambling is the rational option for anyone who’s trying to maximize these good feelings for the least amount of work. Gambling is a short-term trap. Unpredictability is also what keeps abusive relationships alive. If you can never tell whether you’ll be beaten or loved when your boyfriend comes home, you’re essentially playing at the roulette with high physical stakes. If your boyfriend beat you every Monday you’d get used to it and either avoid him on Mondays or just leave him.

Useful Implications

With this mental model of System One and System Two / Conscious and Unconscious processes in mind, let’s see how we can use this knowledge effectively. I’m going to list off some low-hanging fruit off the top of my head, feel free to comment below if you additional ideas.

  1. Modulating Neuroticism: Sometimes people overthink things and sometimes they don’t think enough about things. Learning to match your neuroticism (i.e. how much you think) to the situation at hand comes with experience, but you can definitely speed up the learning process if you consciously try different out different levels of neuroticism for each situation you come across. Getting good at this saves you a lot of mental energy and makes you more effective since neither underthinking or overthinking produce great results.
  2. Offloading behaviors into the unconscious: Remember, any pattern that occurs in your life will eventually by profiled by your brain and relegated to the unconscious. You can take advantage of this by purposely acting out productive patterns of behavior (also known as building habits). Eventually these patterns of behavior will become second-nature (relegated to the unconscious), which frees up mental energy for a new set of behaviors that build on top of the old ones. This continuous process of acting out behaviors, waiting for them to become second nature, and acting out a new set of behaviors that build on top of the old ones is the key to learning any skill. When you first learn to ride a bike, it takes all your conscious brainpower to stay balanced. After a while it becomes second nature. Later, you start practicing tricks, like wheelies, bunny-hops, wheel-flicks, and barspins. Once those becomes second nature you start composing them together into even more complex tricks, and so on an so forth.
  3. Conditioning yourself: Very similar to #2 except that you act out a pattern of behavior in response to a situation. The first several times you encounter the stressful situation it will take all of your mental effort to act correctly, but with each subsequent iteration, it’ll becomes easier and easier until it’s second nature. This is especially useful for re-conditioning yourself to act differently when placed in a stressful situation.

Related: Thoughts on Reprogramming



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