The inner zombie

Extracts from Chapter 13: The Consciousness Element

I’m driving along New Hampshire’s long, winding, and rather monotonous Route 4, on my way to teach a class at the men’s prison in Concord. It’s easy to space out, and as usual I’m trying to make the act of driving into a mindfulness practice. The radio is switched off. I’m not listening to any podcasts. I’m not eating or drinking. I’m trying not to multitask in any way. I simply pay attention to what’s going on as I drive. I notice the physical sensations in my body. When another driver is too close or makes a risky maneuver I notice the emotions that arise and let go of them as best I can, while wishing both of us well. I pay attention (of course) to what I’m seeing in front of me and in my car’s mirrors.

Noticing how my gaze can often become fixated on a narrow area in front of me, I become aware of the entirety of my visual field, allowing everything from the center of my visual field to the periphery into awareness. It’s like moving from a kind of “dial-up” connection between the world and my brain to a broadband connection. Doing this generally has a very calming effect on my inner chatter, as if the sheer volume of incoming data I’m paying attention to leaves no bandwidth available for my inner dramas. So as I expand my awareness of my visual field I notice a marked decrease in my inner monologues. A sense of spaciousness arises in my experience. I become distracted less frequently, and it’s easier to keep my awareness in the present moment.

Driving mindfully like this, I’m simultaneously aware of the curve of the road, of the vehicles ahead of me, and of the never-ending trees, buildings, signs, and utility poles that flow past me. My mind is quiet and yet full of sensory impressions. Then I notice a curious thing. I can see my hands on the steering wheel, at the 10 o’clock and two o’clock positions. I can see the steering wheel moving clockwise and counterclockwise, with my hands upon it. I can feel my hands and arms moving. And yet I have no sense that “I” am making these movements. I’m not aware of giving my hands and arms any conscious or explicit directions. They seem to be moving of their own volition. They seem to have minds of their own. And yet, they’re making precisely the movements needed in order to keep the car in its lane. There is an intelligence at work here, and yet it is not under conscious direction. The realization is fascinating, and it’s so hilarious that for the next few miles I keep bursting into laughter.

So who is driving the car? It’s certainly not my conscious self, because my conscious self has only just noticed that my hands are moving. My conscious self has been too busy absorbed in the task of being mindful of my driving to bother about such trivial details as the physical movements involved in, well, the act of driving. But now I’m captivated by those movements, observing in the periphery of my visual field these two hands skillfully moving the steering wheel to the left and right, without my intervention, as if the hands belong to someone else. Who is this stranger with whom I am sharing a driver’s seat, sharing a body? With deft finesse he coordinates the movements of my feet on the pedals and my right hand on the gear stick. It’s clearly my body which is involved in the act of driving, but my conscious mind—which I often identify with as being my “self”—doesn’t seem to be doing anything but observing.

In a way it’s rather spooky, this sense that “I” am not driving the car. It’s as though my conscious awareness is sharing a body with a zombie or robot who does most of the grunt work. It’s as if I’m both awake and sleepwalking at the same time. It’s like a kind of spirit-possession. I feel almost that I’m in the presence of another. Someone else is moving the steering wheel. Someone else is pressing the gas, brake, and clutch pedals. Someone else reaches down at the appropriate moment and slides the gear stick forward from fourth gear to third. The only reassuring thing about all this is that he seems to be a good driver.


Some people, who have experienced brain damage that prevents them from consciously seeing anything—that is, they are profoundly blind—can perform actions such as catching balls, weaving their way unerringly around obstacles in their path, and cleanly picking up objects. This phenomenon has been termed “blindsight” and it produces deeply paradoxical situations. Beatrice de Gelder, of Harvard Medical School and Tilburg University in the Netherlands, has a video of a blind man, “TN” successfully navigating a corridor littered with obstacles. TN is profoundly blind as the result of two strokes that destroyed his visual cortex. His eyes work, but his brain simply cannot process the visual information that it receives—or at least TN cannot become conscious of such visual information. And yet, in the video, we see him deftly threading his way past trash cans, a shredder, a camera tripod, and cartons of letter-sized paper. He moves exactly as a sighted person would—although a little more slowly—neatly avoiding every obstacle. And yet he cannot consciously see a single one of them.

Another patient, a woman called DF, became blindsighted after carbon monoxide poisoning from a broken water heater damaged her visual cortex. Like TN, she cannot consciously perceive shapes or objects. And yet she opens her fingers to the appropriate width when picking up an object, and she can twist her hand to the correct angle when asked to put it through a slot. She acts as if she can see, and yet she can’t.

Conscious awareness is clearly not involved with blindsighted individuals, yet they still process sensory information and respond to it. “Seeing” in this case is taking place in visual pathways that operate outside of conscious awareness. Blindsighted individuals such as these clearly act, and yet there is no conscious perception, nor are decisions to act being made with the involvement of conscious awareness. TN does not even know he is avoiding obstacles when maneuvering a cluttered corridor, and DF is unaware of how she “knows” to open her hand the right amount to pick up a cup one moment and a pencil the next.

The implication of these cases frankly sends a shiver down my spine. We are so used to thinking of our conscious self as having the functions of observing and deciding on actions that it’s a shock to realize the extent to which observing and acting can take place with no conscious involvement. We’re back to the inner zombie with whom we share a body—the stranger within who takes care of the driving while I’m busy being mindful. We think “we” are in control, but presumably the mechanisms that allow TN to maneuver through a cluttered corridor or DF to accurately grasp an object she cannot see operate in the rest of us too. We too respond to visual information being processed in channels of the brain not accessible to conscious awareness. We just don’t notice that this is going on. We’re caught up in the grip of the delusion that the conscious mind is in running the show.

Fully sighted individuals have in fact been shown to act without conscious perception taking place, and without decisions being made consciously. Mel Goodale of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, employs a perceptual trick that makes circular blocks of identical size look as if they’re different sizes. Subjects will invariably report after visual inspection that one block is larger than the other, and yet videotape shows that whichever block they reach to pick up, they open their hands to the same width. The conscious self is fooled by the optical illusion, but the body still responds appropriately. The conscious self may think it is acting in such cases, but it clearly isn’t. Where is the “self” in all this?

5 Replies to “The inner zombie”

  1. I have had the “Eye-max” driving experience on the way home from a meditation retreat – basically as though I had swapped my old windscreen for a high definition model. I also could see both door mirrors while looking straight ahead and had that same sense of watching the hands on the wheel strut their stuff as though they weren’t mine. It was like watching a beautiful movie even though it was just Sunday night traffic on I-95 in Flordida.

  2. I realise this is a post from a few months ago but I just came across it – fascinating! But the question that then arises for me is, where is the intention which causes these things to happen? Is there a difference here between what we may be aware of – i.e. we can act on things of which we have no conscious knowledge, as in your examples – and the action itself – so in the case of driving (or other similar near-habitual activities), for example, one with which I’m sure we’re all familiar, surely for each act there is an intention even if it isn’t consciously apprehended…

  3. Hi Rowan,

    Thanks for your comment. It is fascinating, isn’t it?

    When we think of our “selves” as being a unitary phenomenon — that is, we have this “thing” called a self — then we’ll think in terms of that self as receiving sensory input, evaluating it, making decisions, generating intentions, and then sending out order for action to be taken. But it seems that the “self” is not in fact a unitary phenomenon. There is a whole collection of processes going on in parallel, many of which are not in consciousness at any given time, and some of them never in consciousness. Many of our actions take place without anything happening that we would call an “intention” — or at least a “conscious intention.”

    One thing that conscious awareness is very good at is taking the credit for any actions that the mind as a whole generates, even when those actions clearly originate outside of conscious awareness. There are split-brain studies, for example, where the left brain verbalizes “explanations” of why “it” took a certain action, even though we know that it was the right brain that initiated the action. Since the two halves of the brain have been surgically separated, we know that no communication is taking place and that the explanation is bogus. But the left brain is utterly convinced of the story is telling itself. It thinks it understands its intention, and believes that it generated that intention.

    I think we need to let go of the idea that there is a unitary consciousness, and it’s handy for our conscious awareness to remind itself that it’s not as omnipotent as it tends to assume it is. My experience of driving — or of not driving — is one illustration of recognizing that intention can be entirely unconscious. I often notice this as well when I’m speaking. When someone asks me a question and I respond, I recognize that I am not consciously giving rise to the words that come out of my mouth. The words just appear. My conscious awareness is simply noticing the conversation — it’s not generating it. I’d suggest you watch out for that phenomenon next time you are speaking. Notice how your words just appear. In a way you hear them at the same moment as your listener!

    all the best,

  4. Thanks for your reply!

    so I have also had the experience of ‘doing things’ without being able to recognise/witness any conscious intention to do so, and so it seems like ‘no-one is in control’ (that is, the truth, as you point out) – but it does seem like there’s some kind of purposive process at work here inasmuch as, for example, the unconscious action drives the car rather than crashing it (at least, one hopes), and so forth. Would you say there is a distinction between the purposive and the intentional, or are these actions so entirely conditioned that no present intention is necessary?

    What I would further ask arising from an argument that we can act without intentionality, is what is the impact of this for kamma-vipaka? Would it mean for example that an action which was undertaken with no intention (at all) has no kammic efficacy, so to speak? What about an act where there was no intention but the absence of attention was in itself irresponsible – to continue your example, say, negligent driving resulting in someone other than oneself being injured?

    With metta,

  5. Thanks for your further thoughts, Rowan.

    Just to clarify, I don’t think that there’s no such thing as intention, just that intention is more complex than we think it is, and also that much of it takes place outside of consciousness and in a way isn’t part of “us” (us being taken to be the conscious self — although it’s clearly a part of us in a wider sense).

    For a long time now I’ve thought of karma as being those actions we take (or choose not to take) that modify character. I think actions that are taken with no conscious intention help us maintain the status quo of our character, and are therefore karmically active. So, much of our speech, for example, is automatic (even though we think it’s a high-level cognitive activity). We have habitual ways of relating to others, and express our fears, anger, craving, etc, quite automatically. Those expressions reinforce the character traits that they arise from, and that’s as much part of the vipaka as are any responses we get from the world around us.

    I believe that we do have the capacity to make choices that more actively shape our character. For example I can choose my words carefully, trying not to be critical or hateful. When we do that we’re cultivating a whole set of karmically positive traits (restraint, mindfulness, perhaps even compassion) and undermining our karmically negative traits. (These decisions aren’t entirely conscious — much of the processing takes place outside of awareness, but it clearly happens).

    As for actions of inattention, whether or not there are harmful consequences for others, choosing to drive inattentively has a very negative effect on us by perpetuating unhelpful character traits such as the delusion that we’re invulnerable or special (“nothing’s going to happen to me”), and that in itself is going to cause suffering because we act on beliefs that are founded on lies. If we happen to harm someone else, that’s not the same as deliberately killing them (the law makes that distinction too) but it’s likely to cause us much pain — perhaps as much as if we had deliberately killed. In a way I suppose that that pain is a vipaka of the unskillful karma of “driving under the influence” of delusion.

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