Two weeks ago I was hit by a car while cycling on the bike path in Pleasantville, where it crosses a residential street. Witnesses said the driver stopped, looked at me lying unconscious in the street and then fled the scene.
Thankfully the injuries weren’t too serious — a couple of small fractures, lots of gashes and bruises, and a concussion.
The last time I was knocked out I was a teenager and once again I had the strange experience of interacting with the people around me even though I was unconscious.
The last thing I remember before the crash was seeing the car approaching fast, realizing I would be hit and trying to steer away. When I regained consciousness, I was propped against a telephone pole at the side of the street. A police officer watched as ambulance staffers prepared to remove me and after a minute my wife, Michelle, arrived.
She said I had called her on my mobile phone, told her I’d been hit by a car and where I was, including the name of the street.
The police must have given me the street name, since it was new to me. I probably was talking with them as they moved me to the side of the road, and they probably suggested calling my wife. I wasn’t conscious of any of this and have no memory of it. Yet apparently to others I seemed lucid and perhaps even rational. For all I know, the police interviewed me about the accident.
I had a similar experience playing high school football. A hit to my head, despite my helmet, knocked me out for half an hour. When I came to on the sidelines and asked my friends what happened, they looked at me like I was crazy and laughed. They said I had been talking with them the whole time, completely normally.
Such experiences make it seem that the unconscious is practically a separate mind within us. It’s not. We have one mind, complex and vast.
But the unconscious portion of it is amazingly capable. It handles the immense job of sensing the world around us and ourselves, and blending it all into a coherent and reliable awareness that makes basic, daily living possible.
I think that many thousands of years ago, our species did quite well with only what we now call our unconscious — expertly guiding individual lives based on instinct and experience. I imagine we were like my very smart dog, only more so. Her senses, particularly smell and hearing, greatly outperform mine, and her awareness of the environment and its creatures is far superior. But she doesn’t have thoughts, for example that the school closing for summer means no more food in its dumpsters to lure squirrels she likes to chase. For that, consciousness with cognitive abilities is needed.
Scientists are still trying to figure out the basics of the human mind. Lately they think that instead of levels of consciousness, we have something much more complex — global states of consciousness that are like dimensions of our minds.
Two things seem apparent, though, and useful to understand.
One is that although we are tempted to identify with our consciousness — which whenever we’re awake seems to be in control and making decisions — our higher mind is inseparable from and based on the vast and powerful unconscious. And this multidimensional mind is inseparable from our body and an attribute of it. We like to break things down and analyze them, but that can obscure the reality of the wonderful whole.
The second is that our awareness is far more extensive and complete than the relatively small amount our higher mind concentrates on and thinks about. People’s conception of God typically includes omniscience — seeing all, including everything we do. Well, each person’s mind has a similar view of their personal life.
My favorite piece of wisdom handed down by my watermen ancestors is based on exactly this. As my father put it, I could fool him and other people if I tried, but I could never fool myself. Deep inside I would always know the truth and if I lied to myself or did something I thought was wrong, the cost of doing so would outweigh whatever benefit I mistakenly expected from such behavior.
I have found this to be universally true. Every time a person cannot be honest with themselves — almost always in an attempt to think better of themselves — they bury an awareness and close off a path of their mind’s development. You can try to flee something unpleasant about yourself, but it will remain within you until you address it.
The good news is that the more you see the truth about yourself, the greater your ability to be honest with yourself. That opens paths of awareness and enriches those global states of consciousness — developing the mental attributes that are unique to people in this universe (as far as we know).
So not deceiving yourself is the way to be more fully human. Simple to say, so challenging to do.
Email Kevin Post, the editorial page editor, at email@example.com.