“In a world full of temporary things you are a perpetual feeling.”
— Sanober Kahn
Way back, in the earliest of days of life on earth — you know, single-cell days—the formula for stimulus-response was simple: automation. An animal’s nervous system monitored the environment (for stimulus). If genetically predetermined conditions were met, a chemical release occurred, and boom: a fixed, adaptive response.
If a bacteria’s stimulus-evaluation system concluded, for example, that the thing pressing against its left side was dangerous (say it monitors for the condition that at least 20% of its exterior experiences pressure, indicating something large is out there — a predator!), an internal chemical reaction made its legs swim like mad to the right.
Though we might see the script as creative (swim 10 degrees right and then 13 degrees left, vibrate, stop — a protoplasmic disco dance), individuals within a species enacted the script without deviation. If this exists then do that.
When humans (and other creative species) emerged, something fundamental in the stimulus-response system stayed the same, and something fundamental changed. What stayed the same is that stimulus-evaluation, the first job of the stimulus-response system (does this aspect of the world matter to me?), still occurred automatically.
Yes, the human brain monitors the world for different conditions than do bacteria. As explained in the prior article (How Does Your Unconscious Decide What Matters to You — Without You?), our brains unconsciously and automatically evaluate the world to determine whether any of our roughly 40 psychological goals are at stake (such as needs for order, adventure, to be loved, to love, etc.).
I call these 40 internal, inborn goals Ingoals. And though human beings are obviously conscious, Ingoal evaluation is a biochemical process that requires no conscious involvement. As disturbing and fascinating as it is, your unconscious automatically determines if something matters in your world.
Even though stimulus evaluation continued to be automated in creative species, something big changed down the line in the stimulus-response chain. Responses were no longer always automated. Like in more primitive species, sometimes they were. If you touch a hot stove, you are going to lift your hand. That’s the biochemical script — and good luck deviating.
But with humans (and other species), responses are often also creative (meaning left to the individual). In addition to jerking your hand (automatic), you might run it under cold water. You might put vitamin D on your fingertips. You might invent a cold stove. These creative responses are managed by the conscious mind. You decide to use vitamin D. You invent a cold stove.
So in human beings, we’ve got two very different systems that need to exchange information: First, stimulus-evaluation systems, which are unconscious and automated, determine Is this important in the world? If so, then second, creative response systems, which are primarily conscious, determine What do I do about it?
Consciousness is obviously a profoundly different biological system than the unconscious stimulus-evaluation system that informs it. Whereas stimulus-evaluation can be seen as chemicals launching chemicals, consciousness does its job in a dimensional imaginary workspace.
The workspace is where you (consciousness) live. While many argue that consciousness is a product of chemistry/electricity, what emerges is fundamentally non-chemical. You think. You see. You hear. If we can sum it up, consciousness experiences.
All that is the background to explain how the unconscious mind communicates with the conscious mind — meaning how the unconscious delivers its conclusions (the stove is hot!) to you (consciousness). Evolution would have no use for consciousness without first solving a very tricky problem. How could an older, primitive system (the chemically automated stimulus-evaluation system) speak to this new-fangled conscious response system (an imaginary workspace that experienced experiences)? Consciousness doesn’t understand chemicals!
When two systems speak different languages, what is needed is simple in concept and near-impossible in design: a universal translator. Outside of the fantasy world of Star Trek, could a universal translator exist?
We know the answer is yes — because evolution invented a biological process that translated chemical signals into the language of experience. And you know what the solution is. Intimately. You just don’t think of this process that runs your life as a universal translator.
Here’s a hint.
A man sits atop a horse. He has a goal: to reach the shaded side of a mountain. He tells the horse, “To the far side.” But the horse does not move. He implores, “Please, beast, go around the mountain, to where my sweetheart awaits.”
Nothing. He grows angry. “Go now!” The horse gnaws the grass at its feet. Perhaps Spanish. “¡Yo soy el jefe!”
The man exhausts himself. And yet, the horse does not move.
What should the man do? How can he possibly communicate his goal to the horse? He cannot, right? The horse thinks in a different code than a man. Two incompatible systems.
And yet, the solution is obvious. So obvious that we can easily miss the brilliance it represents. Kick the horse, man. Pull it left and right with its mouth chain! And feed the animal warm hay and sweet celery.
So long as there is experience, pleasure and pain are universal translators. They communicate a directive from one type of system to another.
How does the unconscious offer its chemical conclusions about the world to the conscious mind — so that the conscious mind, unaware of the unconscious, can solve the problems and opportunities identified by the unconscious?
The answer is feelings. Pleasure and pain and their many siblings. Excitement, happiness, anxiety, sadness. Feelings translate neural/chemical signals (unconscious impulse) into the language of experience. So that the ancient chemical system, evolved over billions of years, can direct the new brilliant system (the conscious mind).
And so you elate. And so you suffer.