Suddenly I became aware of the two women sitting opposite me talking, with one of them saying about my glasses, “… they are bifocal … if you look at it sideways, you will see those lines …” My glasses do have lines in them, but they are not bifocals. But that’s not what I am concerned about here. They were also quite rude, talking about me in front of me. But that’s also not what I am concerned about here.
What struck me was how I suddenly became aware of what they were speaking about. I wasn’t paying attention to them earlier. I was thinking about where to run, and how. I did not choose to listen to them. Yet somehow, my ears heard what they said, part of my brain processed what they said, up to a certain point without me being aware, conscious, of that. Then a part of my brain decided what they were saying were of sufficient interest to me that I should be aware of it, and brought it to my attention. It was the conscious me that decided it was interesting, rather the unconscious me that decided that. How much is the conscious me in control of me? Isn’t that fascinating?
Was what happened on the train influenced by the fact that I am reading the book “Consciousness and the Brain” by Stanislas Dehaene, a famed cognitive psychologist? The neuroscientists have found that something such as speech is processed locally by various parts of the brain, with come communication among the different regions. The information gradually propagate to higher and higher levels. At a certain point, generally 300 milliseconds after the signal enters our ears, some part of our brain decides that the information is important enough that the information is broadcasted all over our brain, making us conscious of that information. That’s what I experienced on the train. The more I think about it, the more amazing it feels.
Cognitive states, emotions, attention, and consciousness are all part of what we are investigating in out Computer-Human Interaction Laboratory. Exciting stuff.
I guess I have to thank the two women who helped to make science so vivid to me, albeit unwittingly.