The Caretaker Mind
Consciousness is one of the great mysteries still unsolved by modern science. The fact that a mind – a single unified conscious experiencer – develops off the machinery and chemistry of the brain is already so mystifying, so beautiful and curious, that nobody stops to ask the question: is there only one mind in your body?
I think there are actually two minds in each human being’s body, two separate experiencers with different levels of phenomenology. What you and I experience as subconscious, unconscious, or automatic, is often described by neuroscience as below the level of consciousness, processed by very complicated but nevertheless non-self-aware circuitry for balance, reflex, and bodily functions. But as we look around the biological world and see so many animals, cows and monkeys, dolphins and chickens, which people are slowly realizing are conscious, feel pain, love and suffer and communicate – we have to reconsider our own consciousness. Is there more to the subconscious?
The human hindbrain and midbrain, together with the spinal column and a mess of other neurons in your body, contain more neural tissue than do many higher mammals. They are responsible for complicated and intelligent learned behavior like breathing, rhythm, motor activity, and sleep. Many bits and pieces of the brain, clearly distinguished from “conscious thought,” control our internal organs, our experience of pain, the integration and storage of memory.
These parts work together like a blind caretaker inside your body, sharply aware of all your sensations yet without high-level control. The caretaker mind takes care of 99% of everything the brain is responsible for, while you read or daydream or consume or theorize. Although he may not feel as you feel or think the way you think, surely in all his emergent complexity he too experiences something.
Have you ever felt emotion viscerally, physically, before it really registers? Your other mind is communicating and moderating your feelings to you, silently helping you react in all the subtle ways you don’t need to think about. When you’re running, even before feeling tired your caretaker has already increased your heart-rate and opened your sweat glands. When you’re frightened and ready to flee, your caretaker is already pumping adrenaline into your body. When you fall in love, your heart quickens and your cheeks redden without command. Your caretaker is like a hyper-sensitive ninja, a master dance instructor, pulling your hand away from a hot stove, coordinating your every muscle and organ movement in the intricate choreography that is staying alive.
Your caretaker mind is not too smart – he does not know words or numbers or think real thoughts on its own. He has never talked to another person besides you. He catches passing glances of your stream of consciousness fleeting by – a cacophony of sights and sounds and tastes and feelings – but has no time to revel in them as you do, so demanding is his constant occupation. Nevertheless your caretaker laughs with you, cries with you, loves life with you. He is your one constant partner in life.
After a long day when you fall into bed and pass out, your caretaker mind gets to work. He shuts you down to a quiet buzz and lets you rest as you watch him clean up after you. All the ups and downs of the day, he cleans, he organizes, he shelves for future reference. All the aches and bruises on your body, he mends and heals with a gentle touch, brewing masterful soothing chemical concoctions to cover your every need. Your internal organs are his workplace: he tinkers with your digestion, checks all the meters, leaves you little warning notes to deal with when you wake up in the morning. It’s a comforting thing to have him around always.
As with all life-long partnerships, sometimes one partner leaves before the other. Some unfortunate souls suffer spinal injuries or brain damage or neurodegenerative disorders. More often than not, you will go before your caretaker. He will struggle and fight against your passing, but soon he is left alone to take care of an empty body without his friend, to sweep your ashes and maintain his vigil until he too disintegrates. Rarely, your caretaker will fail before you. You will be reduced to powerless childishness as you lose agency over your bodily functions. The hospital will try to replace your friend piece by piece with tubes and machines, but it’s not the same. It’s a terrible way to die, suffocating in a coffin next to your best friend’s corpse.