The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

Stopped in My Tracks

In an emergency, we draw on our power

There is a road across the northern end of South Island, New Zealand, that goes from Christchurch in the east to Greymouth on the West coast and the Tasman Sea. It crosses the spine of high mountains – the so-called Southern Alps – by way of Arthur’s Pass.

For the previous six weeks I had been traversing the Western coast of Antarctica in a small ice-strengthened vessel. It had been a somewhat hazardous voyage, rounded-off by a day of Force 12 gale force winds and 60 feet high seas; to say I was relieved to be ashore in New Zealand is an understatement. However, I was intending to spend a few weeks travelling around the country; starting from Christchurch and driving to Greymouth. Calling the Automobile Association from the hotel in Christchurch, I asked about the condition of the road over Arthur’s Pass. There was a moment or so of hesitation before the representative on the other end of the line responded: "Well… it’s not for the faint hearted."  Further questioning on my part produced no detailed information, save for the fact that it was a high and narrow pass.

It was only on rounding the last bend at the summit that I realized the full import of what the AA representative had implied. The road gradually descended alongside a near-vertical cliff for about 200 yards. It was not a solid tarmac road. It was a wooden road – a long series of horizontal wooden planks (rather like railroad ties) projecting from the cliff face, seemingly held in place by long timbers somehow mounted on the cliff face, and rising at a 45 degree angle to support the lefthand edge of the road’s planks suspended there in mid-air. There was no guardrail – just a sheer drop of several hundred feet. One could feel each plank sag a little as the car slowly descended – a click-clacking descent with space visible at times between the ties.

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This road no longer exists. I’m told that Arthur’s Pass now follows another route around the summit of the Southern Alps. On a much later visit we bought a book containing an aerial photograph of the old ‘road’ suspended out there in space; had I seen it previously I would have given up any thought of getting across to the Tasman Sea. And yet, of course, I had to return to Christchurch later the same way, hugging the cliff wall all the way up. No greater feelings of security on the inside route.

It was certainly not a road ‘for the faint hearted…’ And I was certainly fearful enough to be in that category – just above the kind of outright fear that can cause both physical and psychological paralysis. But I was certainly stopped in my tracks, alarm bells ringing. It was a level of ‘faint heartedness’ that I think Edmund Burke had in mind when he said that "Early and provident fear is the mother of safety." The question then is whether the kind of ‘faint heart’ I experienced falls into the Burke category, warning one of danger, as opposed to rendering one incapable of following through on the venture at all. I certainly did not suffer such a degree of physical or psychological paralysis. But… had it been possible to turn the car round I would certainly have done so. Faint heartedness and outright inaction were pretty close together on that eventful first crossing of the Southern Alps. Yet it was not a matter of self-willed courage that got me down the pass, but some sort of a hitherto unconscious mental directive that took over, kept the eye in the right place, heel and toe coordination effectively braking, and outright fear numbed.

This is the remarkable thing about human consciousness. For those of us who can not approach great dangers with the kind of natural fearlessness and resolve some of our fellow humans possess, often find, ourselves able to operate on some sort of ‘emergency’ mental power controlling the senses; inducing some kind of intelligent response, and inhibiting the paralyzing effect of fear… Such was my experience on Arthur’s Pass.

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of men and women in the world who have to function in this way, and in so doing display a capacity for courage that keeps them going, whatever danger, fear, and suffering are involved. They may be faint hearted in the sense that they are physically worn out and fearful, and hope for the future would seem to be virtually non-existent; yet they manage to find the physical and psychological strength to persist in their attempt to survive. They are to be seen on the television news programs – refugees coping with unimaginable suffering in the face of war, natural disaster, civil unrest.

The short-lived hazards of Arthur’s Pass would be ‘small beer’ for them. Yet that drive across New Zealand brought me to realize that the journey of life in general, for the vast majority of us, is not for the faint hearted. We none of us know what lies around the next turn in the road. As the philosopher and writer Henry David Thoreau so aptly put it, ‘…most men live lives of quiet desperation.’

Graham Collier, author of What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?, is an exhibiting landscape and portrait artist in Britain, an artist-philosopher in America, and a frequent Antarctic voyager. more...

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