Consciousness, Autism, & Meeting “the Alien”
“Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. How simple that is to say; how difficult to appreciate! It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”
—Julian Jaynes, The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind
In Jaynes’ influential work, he presents evidence for the idea that, in terms of conditioned learning, not only is consciousness unnecessary but it actually prevents learning from occurring. The more conscious we are of being conditioned, Jaynes points out, the less susceptible we are to it. This brings us back to the question of belief, and how the idea that we have consciously chosen to believe something is, nine times out of ten, an error. We believe, or disbelieve, because, at one time or another, it was necessary to believe.
In Jaynes’ book, he describes how, when a person is asked to say words at random, if the listener responds to certain words (say nouns) with a nod, a smile, or some other approving gesture, the subject will unconsciously begin to favor that particular class of words. Another example Jaynes gives: members of a psychology class were told to compliment anyone they saw wearing red and, within a week, the place was ablaze with red. In a similar experiment, students paid rapt attention to their professor and laughed at all his jokes whenever he was on the right side of the room. He was unaware of anything unusual, but the students reported that they were “almost able to train him right out of the door.” Such incidents indicate how susceptible we are to suggestion and how powerful the unconscious is, not only to shape our perceptions but to influence and even determine our actions. The proof Jaynes offers is that these kinds of experiments cease to work the moment the subject is made aware of how he or she is being conditioned.
A final example from Jaynes is one the reader can try for him- or herself. Take two identical glasses or mugs and fill them with unequal amounts of water. Move them around with your eyes closed until you are unsure which is which. Keeping your eyes closed, pick them up and judge which is heavier. You will probably find it easy to do so. Now look for what is making the judgment. The assumption we make is that our mind is making the judgment. In fact, our mind is not “doing” anything besides reporting what our nervous system has already done. Jaynes uses this example to point out how the entire basis for believing our judgments are based on mental processes is inaccurate. On closer examination, the mind may not really be doing much of anything besides skewering the evidence—and keeping us sufficiently unconscious to be conditioned?
Despite all of this, the idea that we are what we are conscious of being seems to have gained precedence in the Western mindset over the past few decades (not counting the preponderance of New Age ideas, which often seem more like compensatory “make believe” than deeper understanding). Transhumanists such as Ray Kurzweil are busy promoting technologies which they promise will extend human existence into the infinite, by way of replacing biology with hardware and consciousness with software. Kurzweil believes he can resurrect his dead father by gathering enough information, samples of DNA from his disinterred corpse, memorabilia, photographs, and his own memories about him, and converting it all into digitalized form. He believes (or pretends to believe) that all there is to his father is a set of specific characteristics making up his visible personality, his social identity, which can then be reassembled in this strange fashion—by adding all the parts together like Baron von Frankenstein with his creature (or the Kabbalists and their golem) and zapping it with a bolt of lightning. Bizarre as this scenario may sound, the thinking behind it appears to be becoming more and more prevalent, not only in transhumanist circles but everywhere.
Such beliefs can only arise from a denial of the existence of the unconscious and a raising up of the conscious ego mind to the throne of being. But if the ego mind is all the things we know and believe about ourselves, our memories, opinions, preferences, character traits (real or imagined), etc., needless to say this changes over time and varies from person to person, sometimes extremely. Not to mention that, at different times during the day (most obviously when we sleep), our conscious (or semi-conscious) minds are filled with different elements, all of which we identify as “ourselves.” Everyone knows that, to some degree at least, we respond to far more than we are consciously aware of. We all know what it’s like to experience irrational anger, to fall into despair for no apparent reason, or to find ourselves doing things with no idea of why we are doing them (and sometimes no memory of having done them). We are all, to one degree or another, aware of the existence of the unconscious, that there is far more to us than we are ever able to observe, much less categorize or explain, with our conscious minds. Yet we are also able to conveniently—and somewhat miraculously—ignore this fact throughout most of our lives.
Around the time I was becoming less and less interested in UFOs, I developed an interest in autism. This was not entirely coincidental, because there are some very obvious correlations between the two fields. Autistic people are often seen (and even describe themselves) as like alien beings; some of the more New Agey literature even suggests that autistics are literally extraterrestrials, walking unrecognized among us. Old faery lore, on the other hand, which has well-known correspondences with modern UFO lore, is filled with accounts of “changelings” being left in the place and likeness of a human child. Similarly, autistic children often seem perfectly normal until their second or third year, at which point the “symptoms” begin to show and parents may feel as if their child has been replaced by an alien imposter.
Autism relates to specific behaviors that are the result of a radically different way of perceiving the world. Autistic children, for reasons still unknown (it has to do with their brains having larger neural networks), seem to be hardwired in such a way that their senses function in totally different ways to ordinary children. One result of this is that they may fail to develop the kind of social identity which children are expected to develop. Autistic children are unable to imitate the behaviors of other children (or adults) and so to assume, or adopt, a socially acceptable “ego-self.” They are not able to learn, or rather, they can’t be conditioned. Our western bias (“neurotypical” is the word autistics have for it) assumes that this incapacity to “learn” (i.e., be conditioned) is due to a lack of consciousness. As Jaynes and others have shown, however, the reverse may more likely be the case. To the extent that autistic children are more conscious than ordinary children, they do not “learn” in the normal sense of the word, because, as Jaynes demonstrates, consciousness prevents conditioning.
Another of way of saying that autistics are more conscious is that they don’t suppress or shut down their perceptual awareness to the same degree as other children. This would mean there is less of a clear dividing line between their conscious minds and their unconscious psyche (or what quickly becomes unconscious in “normal” children). Hence, they are often seen as “aliens,” psychics (Indigo kids), and, more commonly, as retarded, brain-damaged, dysfunctional, or handicapped. This is an inevitable presumption if all there really is to us is our conscious minds—what else are we to make of autistics who haven’t developed such a mind except to presume that they are “non-beings”? In fact, in many cases that’s exactly how they are seen and treated.
Very often low-functioning, non-verbal autistics who have been diagnosed as severely retarded are discovered to be above average intelligence once someone finds a way to communicate with them. If we find it so difficult to understand an autistic human or communicate with them, what does that say about the chances we would understand something truly alien if we encountered it? If we aren’t able to recognize or communicate with the psyche (or “the alien”) when it wears our own biological form, what chance do we have when it’s zipping around the sky or materializing as an uninvited goblin in the dead of the night?
All of this points to our own lack of awareness as to the nature of the unconscious, i.e., that it is incomprehensible to the conscious mind except through letting IT tell us what it is. To do that we have to first learn its language.
Ditto the UFO. The psyche is the greater reality we are none of us aware of save in a superficial way, and the UFO experience cannot be approached as a superficial question. To try and interpret the UFO material without applying psychology is, to paraphrase Charles Fort, like trying to ride an imaginary camel through the eye of a hypothetical needle, in a haystack that never was.