What is consciousness? Tough question as there are different views about this very question all the time. So where do I start? As most people do I looked at google and found, as usual, Wikipedia at the top and this is what it says.
Consciousness is the state or quality of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. It has been defined as: sentience, awareness, subjectivity, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind. Despite the difficulty in definition, many philosophers believe that there is a broadly shared underlying intuition about what consciousness is. As Max Velmans and Susan Schneider wrote in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness: “Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives.”
So what is it?
There are many arguments about this subject. Up until recently these have all been in somewhat of an agreement that consciousness cannot be specifically measured by science and has been seen as a spiritual thing. They all agree that our consciousness is what makes us who we are. Without it we couldn’t be us at all. We would’t even be able to prove that we or anything else exists at all, or for that matter care about wanting to do it. There are discussions about whether is exists inside our bodies and where. For example many would say it was only in the brain because that is where all the information from our body ends up to be processed. However that says nothing about “gut feelings” there are many that have times when their “gut” tells them what to do and their brain tells them to so something else. There are discussions about whether consciousness exists inside our bodies at all. Our bodies receive information all the time from inside and outside our bodies, where is the information that tells us we are us and what the things around us are? You can view this a bit like two strangers talking to each other from different countries (with different languages). You could be hearing the foreign language and translating it yourself for the information transfer or the other person has already translated it and is giving the information that way. Either way the final result is that you understand each other and the information gets across.
Science is now starting to get into the argument too. Scientists always want to know how things work and why and have been trying to study the brain to find out answers. They mostly study this by looking at how humans are affected by brain injuries and how we change. Is there a part of the brain, if damaged, stops us being conscious? We know that different areas of the brain control certain things and we looked at things like this in my left brain right brain
post. There is the belief that we must have evolved this ability and so it must be in the body and can be studied and, of course it involves thought so must be in the brain right? Logical yes, true? Neuroscientists in the USA have come up with a new theory that consciousness is like another state of matter. We have solids, liquids, gasses and now consciousness. Therefore since we have many different types of solids, liquids and gasses then there must be many different types of consciousness. This matches what others have said in the past, specifically about us having different levels of consciousness, including subconscious and unconscious thoughts and reactions.
Different types of consciousness
The idea of consciousness was famously described by Descartes in the 17th century as
“cogito ergo sum” ( I think therefore I am)
He was a philosopher who believed that consciousness was separate from the body and communicated with us through a part of the brain called the pineal gland. This fits in with the external view we read earlier. Scientists have since rejected the connection to the pineal gland but believe that it has something to do with the outside of the brain called the cerebral cortex and a region called the claustrum. The scientists who made these discoveries, Koch and Francis Crick (also one of the people who discovered the double helix structure of DNA), know that they affect being conscious or unconscious and haven’t found out why these areas are involved. Still the research continues. In the past philosophers and psychaitrists were the only ones to study human nature and the brain. Sigmund Freud came up with this.
This is an early version of the iceberg picture many of us have seen denoting that only a small part of our brain ( around 10%) is available to us, the rest acts without us being aware of it. His diagram shows thoughts and perceptions at the top, then memories and stored knowledge, then fears and doubts in his “preconscious level”
From the information I have, the conscious level holds the information most required of us at the time. We are able to focus our attention to specific images or sounds and work out what is happening around us. Our brains however are always remembering everything we see and hear, the stuff we are not focusing on goes into our memories too. Studies such as hypnosis have shown this to be true and work into autism can show some subjects able to recall vast amounts of information in a very short period of time. I remember a case of a boy who was flown around London for about half an hour and then asked to draw what he saw. Most of us may draw a landmark or two, this boy was able to draw every building he saw during the flight as a view of the city, almost like he was drawing from a photograph. Amazing. Memories and stored knowledge are close to the surface and if we think about them we are able to draw them into our conscious minds and use them. Fears and doubts are shown as below these, sometimes we don’t know why we are scared of something or don’t trust something. To find out what these fears or doubts are based on often requires getting the brain in a state of being in the memories and knowledge part first then “digging deeper”. Below that is relatively unknown. What we do know is that some things happen without thinking about them at all. Things that we have no knowledge of but we do anyway like working our livers or kidneys or our digestive system. Breathing and our hearts beating seem to fall at the top of this layer because they work automatically but we can control them. We can slow down or speed them up at will, but they can also change on their own under certain stimuli, usually emotionally or physically to satisfy the needs of our bodies eg exercise or fear. Freud put socially unacceptable behaviours at the bottom at a level we are unable to change in his unconscious level. Many would argue this decision to put these here. Often people use the terms conscious and subconscious mind to describe the levels and some would still use the term unconscious to describe the things that we cannot change (if you try to hold your breath there is always a point when your body forces you to try and breathe)
The arguments about what the conscious actually is rage on. Is it spiritual guidance that connects us to a greater intelligence and guides our lives? Is it part of us, a decision making part of the gut or a subconscious part of our minds that we cannot control? Or is it our soul, the spark from a divine being that makes us aware and above the animals and plants in this world that will live on beyond the physical limitation of our bodies when we die?
However different these arguments may be they do have a common thread.
- We are unaware of what consciousness is
- We know it exists
- It is an awareness of self and others
- It helps us make decisions – even ones that don’t make sense at the time but work out anyway
- There are different levels of consciousness (our bodies still function when we are asleep, we also know that we can learn in our sleep too without any waking knowledge of it)
- We can affect our conscious mind and our subconscious mind ( we can access our memories and change our behaviours)
I ask you to make up your own mind on this one. To me the important lesson is that we can change what we do right now. We can change our minds consciously and make steps towards a great new future. We can also change the habits that are holding us back, step out of our comfort zones and change our fears but these will take work. Things we have learned can be re written over time and this may take months or even years to do so but could be very worth while. Go out and make a difference, be the best that you can be and start living your life today.