Our conscious experience is so commonplace that we seldom think about how remarkable it is. How does the mind integrate all the sensory information into one coherent picture? How does it seamlessly update the information from moment to moment? How does the perception of the self emerge? The brain is one of the last frontiers of the scientific endeavor. Much research has been done in identifying different parts of the brain and their functions. Although a large amount of progress has been made in connecting behaviors with specific brain activity, consciousness remains elusive. There is still no well-established scientific theory of consciousness.
What is Consciousness?
On the surface consciousness seems simple enough; it is our subjective and individual experience. My consciousness is different than yours and every person has experiences that are uniquely theirs. Clearly the individual brain is fundamental to consciousness, but when we look into the causes or location of consciousness it becomes ambiguous. Philosophers and scientists alike have tried to explain consciousness and tried to explain why they can’t explain it. Philosopher Dan Dennett calls consciousness “An illusion.” Philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers calls it “The hard problem,” as opposed to “The easy problem,” of explaining behavior.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman provides an interesting angle to the puzzle of the mind. Rather than focusing solely on an orderly brain map with clear correlations of cause and effect, he views the brain from a holistic perspective. In an excerpt from This Explains Everything, Eagleman writes:
“It [the brain] possesses multiple, overlapping ways of dealing with the world… It is a representative democracy that functions by competition among parties who all believe they know the right way to solve the problem.”
Eagleman is referring to mental functions, yet the concept can also be applied to consciousness. If I had to make a general comment on consciousness, I would say that, “Consciousness emerges from or is the result of multiple processes of the mind and body.” Still it goes further than that.
Some would say that a part of consciousness resides outside the brain, something like a soul. I would partly agree as we have to account for the world beyond ourselves. Consciousness is an emergent property (greater than the sum of its parts), which also includes the outside world (something to be aware of). In a way, consciousness is non-local, as it is the integration of the brain with the outside world. That being said, I am not going to attempt to explain consciousness. However, I hope I can shed some light by analyzing it further.
Observations, Possibilities and Questions
- Can consciousness be explained by physical and chemical means? Some people support a purely material view; what we feel as non-physical is solely the result of physical processes. States of consciousness can easily be altered with the use of drugs, brain injury and deterioration, a clear correlation between physical causes and non-physical experiences. A material explanation only provides a starting point. There is still a lot of work ahead to identify the specific mechanisms that give rise to consciousness.
- Does consciousness develop? We can’t assume that consciousness is the same for everyone. For instance, an infant can’t have the same awareness as an adult. And at what point does a newborn become conscious? Does it happen at birth or at some time before in the womb? The fact that a person has no memories before the age of 2 or 3 makes me wonder if an infant is even conscious (at least not fully conscious). Does he/she respond only by instinct? It is well-known that the brain is not fully developed at birth, and maybe consciousness also develops over time (a gradual awakening similar to waking up in the morning).
- Life has varying degrees of consciousness. How aware are bacteria or worms, fish or birds, cats or dogs? Life does not necessarily equate to advanced consciousness. You would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks trees and flowers are conscious. There is clearly a progression of consciousness in life. And like anything else consciousness had to evolve, which means primitive life was barely conscious, if conscious at all. As life branched out over long periods of time varying degrees on consciousness emerged.
- How do thinking, imagination, memory and dreams fit in? These mental functions are different than typical sensory perceptions. But how can we deny their role in consciousness? The mind can think of concepts, imagine pictures, have clear memories and vivid dreams. There are often feelings associated with these mental states. We could call this the abstract mind and it is more mysterious than the perceiving mind. Nonetheless, the abstract mind is a piece of the puzzle of consciousness, and clearly affects our experience.
- Different parts of the mind compete for your attention. We can’t be fully aware of all the potential conscious aspects of the brain at the same time. If I divide the brain in two parts, the thinking brain and the perceiving brain (for the purpose of explaining), we can see how this works. When we focus on our stream of thoughts, our surrounding environment becomes numbed. By comparison, when we focus our senses on perceiving our environment, thinking subsides. The mind blocks out what it does not focus on; consciousness continuously shifts from one state to another. You can’t think about work, taste your coffee, watch a video and hear background noises all at the same time.
- Does consciousness do anything? We could imagine a world where all human behavior is automatic, completely controlled by the laws of physics. Those that believe in a deterministic universe (with no room for freewill) should have no problem with this. If determinism is real, our subjective consciousness may just be observing the world. We could be like the actors and audience in a play, experiencing events with no power to affect the outcome.
- The subconscious does more. Who is driving the car when we are thinking of something else? Of course the subconscious takes over to perform previously learned tasks. This is just a simple example of the multitude of actions our subconscious mind and body do every day. Most of our bodily functions are automatically controlled. It is easy to forget that we are also subconscious beings (more so than conscious beings).
- Consciousness may be our greatest gift. We often here about the gift of life, but consciousness may be our most valuable gift. Of course we need life to have consciousness, but I suspect that the fear of death (losing one’s life) is really the fear of losing consciousness. Life without consciousness would have no meaning; we wouldn’t know that anything exists. There is also a downside to consciousness. Just as it allows for feelings of pleasure, it also allows for feelings of pain. I guess that is the price to pay for experiencing the fullness of life. Everything that is worth living for would not be possible without consciousness.
References: Edge Foundation, Inc., This Explains Everything (New York: HarerCollins Publishers, 2013), 91.
Waking Up with Sam Harris – The Light of the Mind: A Conversation with David Chalmers, Sam Harris, Published on Apr 18, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qi2ok47fFcY
Dan Dennett: The illusion of consciousness, TED, Uploaded on May 3, 2007. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjbWr3ODbAo