Absolute unconscious activity is neuronal activity that can never become part of conscious experience. This is typically the activity occurring in peripheral nerves. We would not expect this to become conscious experience as we would not expect isolated peripheral nerves to have conscious experience. Absolute unconscious activity can be used to describe the activity in reflex arcs. For instance the patellar reflex (knee jerk) elicited by knocking the patellar ligament with a tendon hammer would consist of absolute unconscious activity within the circuit between sensation and motor response. We might feel this and attend to this experience but this is in addition to the absolute unconscious activity that occurs in the reflex arc.
Absolute unconscious activity is represented as a circular arc on the outside of the inner structures. This means that all the time there will be absolute unconscious activity. Before sensations are perceived by us they pass through the stage of absolute unconscious activity. As in the case of the reflex arc above our body will generate a response before our conscious experience enables us to respond consciously. These are the involuntary, immediate neuronal responses that our bodies engage in continuously. These processes surround our inner conscious experience and we may be unaware of them. For instance we may be unaware of the subtle changes in respiratory rate or heart rate in response to the environment or internal changes in the body.
Transient unconscious activity is represented as the middle structure in the diagram above. Transient unconscious activity occurs when activity is not part of conscious experience but occurs in the neuronal architecture which is capable of ‘supporting’ conscious experience. Thus although we may be unaware of the activity occurring here, should we attend to this we can make it part of our conscious experience. For instance in mindfulness meditation we may attend to the subtle tension in the muscles of the shoulder which otherwise we may be unaware of. This brings us onto the last part of the model – conscious experience.
Conscious experience acts like a torch that transforms transient unconscious activity which happens all the time. Our greatest resource however is very concentrated – conscious experience at any given time is limited to a small proportion of the totality of all possible transient unconscious activity. With conscious experience we can slow down the information that is being processed, hold it and manipulate it, imagine with it. There is an interesting relationship that we have with this type of activity. Essentially we have maximum control over the events that happen with conscious experience. We have moved from the automatic reflexes of absolute unconscious activity that remain outside of our awareness and into the realm of volition.
Appendix – Related Resources on the TAWOP Site
Index: There are indices for the TAWOP site here and here Twitter: You can follow ‘The Amazing World of Psychiatry’ Twitter by clicking on this link. Podcast: You can listen to this post on Odiogo by clicking on this link (there may be a small delay between publishing of the blog article and the availability of the podcast). It is available for a limited period. TAWOP Channel: You can follow the TAWOP Channel on YouTube by clicking on this link. Responses: If you have any comments, you can leave them below or alternatively e-mail email@example.com. Disclaimer: The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.