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If we formulate a question properly, the question itself may suggest its own answer or, at least, the line of reasoning leading to an answer. Thus, we don't ask so much what consciousness is as much as we ask what consciousness does. What makes consciousness unique among neural activities? How does it differ from things like reflexes or instincts?
The Ancient Greeks devised a concept of force that did not lead to useful results, but without that concept pre-existing Isaac Newton could not have refined it and created modern physics. With that thought in mind, I want to describe what I believe consciousness does, doing so in the fond hope that someone will refine it into something closer to the truth. I'll start with what seems fairly obvious, based on the way in which people use the word: consciousness is self-referential awareness, the private experience of the self. Basically, then, I conceive consciousness as me looking at myself in my mind.
One obvious property of consciousness lies in my awareness that I exist and that I do so as a unique being, one localized in space and time. But I'm not the only entity that enjoys that privilege. Experimenters have used what we might call a simple version of the Turing test to show that certain other animals, such as apes and elephants, are aware of themselves. The test involves an experimenter putting a mark on the animal's forehead and then leading the animal to a mirror. If the animal reaches up and touches its own forehead, then we conclude that it has some awareness of itself, that it is not a mere automaton blindly processing percepts through instinct. That fact tells us something about the origin of consciousness.
Consciousness arises when an animal begins to do un-natural things. In nature an animal uses instinct and memory to guide its behavior; for example, if a panther gets thirsty its instinct brings up memories of water so that it can return to the nearest water source for a drink, rather than blundering through the forest in a hunt for water. The animal might as well be a robot. Over half an eon of evolution in multicellular life has created preprogrammed behavior that we call instinct. Given an initial set of percepts just after it is born, the animal primes its programming pump and produces behavior appropriate to its environment.
Now imagine a chimpanzee confronted with a termite nest. He can eat all of the termites outside the nest, but he knows that there are more termites inside the nest. But he has no instinct telling him what to do to get those termites. So he does something that other animals can't do: he contrives a false memory of putting a twig into the nest and then pulling it out covered with termites. He then uses that false memory to guide his actions. We call the ability to create false memories imagination and it appears to be the basis of consciousness by way of what we call free will.
When I hear the phrase free will I ask myself the question,"Free of what?" What constraint on animal volition must go away in order for us to have free will? If the constraint consists of the lack of something, then what must we add to volition to make it free will? I think that the something is imagination.
There's only one thing that our thirsty panther can do: it just goes to the nearest waterhole. We humans do essentially the same thing, but we have changed the waterhole. Yes, we can use water sources that exist naturally in the environment, as the panther does, but we can also make waterholes for ourselves. Driven by the memory of thirst, we can conceive the idea of digging a well, of capturing rainwater and storing it in a cistern, of diverting water from rivers and lakes into aqueducts, or, if we have the technology, desalinating seawater and pushing the result through aqueducts. By using memory to trigger a craving for fresh water we engage our imaginations and devise alternatives to simply looking for what Nature provides. By selecting one option out of the several that we have contrived for ourselves we assert free will.
In one way, then, we can see that consciousness and free will come to the same thing. We could function without free will as automatons, as lesser animals do. We would not need to be conscious. We also would not need to have a sense of time.
When I called up the memory of thirst I did so in anticipation of future thirst and used that anticipation to drive my conception of possible actions I could take to satisfy that future thirst. No lesser animal can do that. Yes, a squirrel caches nuts for the winter, but it does so only in response to an instinct that has been shaped by evolution. The squirrel does not think,"I need so many nuts in storage for next winter." That kind of planning is a human trait.
But if we want to associate consciousness with a sense of time, we must ask what happens when that sense goes away. Fortunately, some researchers have done the relevant experiments. They have used hypnosis to compel people to suppress or enlarge their sense of the future and/or their sense of the past.
Compelling someone to suppress their sense of the past puts them into a semi-infantile torpid state, perhaps similar to what we see in the stereotypical hippy-dippy stoner. On the other hand, intensifying a person's sense of the past makes that person egocentric and inhibited (as if anxious over some potential damage to that ego at the center of the world). From those facts we infer that a sense of the past gives us our sense of self, the sense of ourselves as unique individuals.
Compelling a person to suppress their sense of the future leads to their losing their sense of identity and gaining a euphoric, mystical sensation, free of anxiety and motivation (urgency). It's a state like the one that mystics call cosmic consciousness, existing in a boundless, immanent present. Intensifying a person's sense of the future cancels their fear of death and induces in that person serenity, contemplation, and a feeling of self-fulfillment. The latter fact reflects our expectation that good things will happen for us in the future and the previous fact reflects our lack of expectations, especially of bad things. In either case we get a sense of inner peace.
The weirdest result came from suppressing people= s sense of the present. That suppression brought on depression, the symptoms of schizophrenia, and an eerie sense of death. One person described being in a kind of stasis, of having stopped moving while the world continued moving on. But suppressing both the senses of the past and future while leaving the sense of the present unaffected had roughly the same effect. In both cases we have a dissociation of Then from Now. We thus infer that for a proper function of human consciousness we must have past and future fully integrated with our present.
As noted above, our sense of the past gives us our sense of self. It does so through its contentB our memories. That fact explains one property of consciousness -- its continuity.
For over sixty-eight years I have perceived the world through one particular point of view. That point of view rides around on what I call my body and stays with it. My consciousness is firmly associated with that point of view, so much so that I wonder whether a connection to this particular body is a sine qua non of my consciousness. In concept, there's a way to find out.
Although consciousness appears to reside in my eyes, my ears, my skin, and so on, observations and experiments have demonstrated that we must associate it with my brain. In particular, we must associate it with the electrochemical pulses that flitter among the neurons that constitute my brain: it is, after all, an activity rather than a thing. Indeed, we may ask whether transferring that activity to a different thing would take my consciousness with it.
Imagine that some mad scientist, possessed by the ghost of Victor Frankenstein, has assembled a creature, complete except for a brain. He wants to put my brain into the creature, but the tissues aren't compatible. So he creates a new brain, neuron-by-neuron, within the creature, attaching each new neuron to the connections of the corresponding neuron in my brain and then destroying the old neuron. I'm awake during the operation, so I can observe whether my consciousness survives the procedure. Does it?
As each new neuron is created it takes over the function of the old neuron, mimicking its behavior perfectly. The new neuron exchanges electrochemical pulses with the rest of my brain exactly as the old neuron did, so I won't notice the replacement. The lunatic continues the procedure, removing connections as they become redundant, and yet I still exist. There will be interesting events along the way: I'll get a strange kind of double vision when he connects my new optic nerves to my new brain, but that will go away as the new optical connections are given their full development and the old ones are ablated away to zero.
When the procedure is complete my consciousness will still exist as my consciousness. I have no reason to believe otherwise. By connecting my new brain and my old brain as one is created and the other destroyed and by giving my new brain the same pattern of activation that my old brain has developed over its lifetime, the lunatic has ensured that the mind occupying one brain or the other hasn't changed. In particular, the volition that directs my attention hither and yon and notices the percepts that I receive in consequence hasn't changed. I still have the sense of being me.
Consciousness is what I lose when I go to sleep and regain when I wake up. It occurs to me to think that I might learn something about consciousness if I could watch that process, but the process deprives me of what I need in order to watch it. I simply can= t watch myself fall asleep or wake up in the same way that I can watch myself writing this note. The closest that I have ever come to observing the loss of consciousness happened the one time I was put into chemically-induced unconsciousness.
On the day of 2013 May 09 I was, for the first time in my life, sedated. I was undergoing a bronchoscopy, so the doctors had me lying on a gurney and the nurse injected the sedative through the intravenous tube in my arm. Shortly I saw the ceiling lights begin to look blurry, so I closed my eyes to refocus them. When I opened my eyes again, I was back in the bed in my recovery room and four hours had elapsed. I looked through my mind, but I could not find any percepts from that missing four hours; that period is a total blank in my memory. Nonetheless, I still knew who I was; I still had that unique sense of I-ness. How is that possible without continuity?
I certainly don't believe that Reality is discontinuous. I'm confident that four hours elapsed in the world while I was gone. So my consciousness is discontinuous and yet my sense of self is continuous. The metaphor of the iceberg may be overworked but it's apropos here: our conscious minds rise above the surface of the Psychic Sea, supported by an unconscious (aka subconscious) mind beneath the surface. That there is an unconscious has been proven and verified by experiments which show that the brain remains active when people are asleep or otherwise unconscious (e.g. sedated). In a sense my unconscious mind is more me than I am.
Memory is continuous and I am my memories. They provide the substance of my unconscious mind. That is, the unconscious is where my memories and knowledge go when I'm not looking at them. The unconscious also controls me through what we call instinct and intuition. If I stumble, for example, it shifts my body in an effort to regain its balance. It controls habitual behaviors, such as walking. Because we are social animals it also does something else, something first described by Sigmund Freud.
Fundamentally human nature consists of two opposing principles: an expansive impulse that seeks liberation from all constraints (our basic animal nature, which Freud called the id) and an inhibiting force that imposes self-discipline and restraint (our social nature, which Freud called the superego). The ego grows, in Freud's theory, to mediate between the conflicting urges of those entities. It is the ego with which we associate consciousness.
How can I associate consciousness with the ego? At first I use the process of elimination. I can't associate it with my id, because the id consists of my biological urges and is no different from what we find in lesser animals. I can't associate it with my superego, because the superego is a representation of my social environment, the collective spirit of all the people I know and of their demands upon me. I want something that is me and only me, uniquely me, and my ego is the only candidate left to fill that role.
Note that a lesser animal doesn't have an ego. It doesn't have a superego, so an ego never develops. Its psyche is all id and that, as far as we can tell, never becomes conscious.
Given that my ego is part of my conscious mind, I must ask how it can have anything to do with consciousness. We know that the ego mediates between the urges of the id and the demands of the superego and that in that role it must devise acceptable alternatives to the perfect satisfaction of either one of the contending subsystems. It must apply imagination, certainly, but it must also apply judgement in order to decide which of the alternatives will yield the best result. If this all happens in the unconscious mind, why do I need consciousness?
In a word-- feedback. That word and the concept that it denotes are familiar to electronics engineers, especially as positive feedback. In that phenomenon a system takes part of the signal it puts out and feeds it back into an amplifier in order to keep the signal going. The example that comes to most people's minds consists of the squeal that comes from a loudspeaker when the microphone attached to it is put too close: that's an example of positive feedback with distortion.
When I direct my attention hither and yon the content of my consciousness becomes percepts when I look through my senses (outward) or concepts when I look at my mind (inward). I see what I'm seeing, I hear what I'm hearing, and so on. Those are feedback loops. I think that when I notice what I'm noticing I become conscious.
We do have some evidence to support that proposition. Science News (2014 Aug 09) reported on a woman whose consciousness could be turned off with electrical stimulation of part of her brain. She had no memory of those episodes, but from the outside she appeared bewildered and slowly stopped whatever she was doing, as if some positive feedback were turned off and the signal faded slowly away, although the consciousness seemed to end abruptly. Her awareness went away and the signal that it was maintaining through positive feedback died out.
When I attend to a notepad and a pen with the intent of writing something I am doing something perfectly un-natural: no other animal can do such a thing. The options before me are endless. What shall I write? In the service of some deeply unconscious stimulus my ego has decided that I shall write something, so I must pay attention to the notepad and the pen. Memories, in the form of habits, guide me in gripping the pen and moving it across the page so that its inky trail forms pictures of words. And I watch myself, my hand, do this. Somewhere in my unconscious mind something assembles words and I hear them in my imagination, over and over, as I draw pictures of them. And I am conscious of this.
I notice that I don't see the words in my imagination: I hear them. I don't develop a kind of double vision, writing the words as if tracing them through a translucent sheet of paper. My mind brings together visual percepts and auditory concepts. I have to watch what I'm writing to make sure it's what I intended. The nervous impulses that move my hand need constant correction, so the visual percepts of the scene before me come back into my mind to guide those corrections: that's the feedback.
I see what I'm doing, I hear what I'm thinking, and I am conscious of those activities. I also know that they are perfectly un-natural, that instinct cannot guide them: I need something purely artificial. I started acquiring that something from the day I was born, something to help me cope with the fact that Nature never intended for me to live in a house with doors that open at the turn of a knob, to sit at a table and eat my food from bowls and plates, and Nature certainly never intended for me to sit on a stool with a pool of water under it in order to dispose of my waste. With no help from Nature, I must rely on my memories of learning about those things and a great many others to guide my actions.
Those memories don't come into my consciousness when I use them. I still have some clear memories of learning how to write when I was in grammar school, but none of those memories comes into consciousness when I pick up a pen with the intent of writing something. Only the percepts from my senses and the concepts from my imagination come into my awareness, along with the observation that I am aware of those things (I'm aware of my awareness). Perception interacts with imagination in the service of unconscious desires that, based on memories of experiences that taught me how to be a civilized human, aim at satisfying even more fundamental desires. I locate my consciousness (if locate is the right word) in the feedback interaction between perception and imagination.
An experience with dreams reinforces that idea. It involves remembering dreams when I wake up. The dream originates in the unconscious, but emerging consciousness can add it to readily accessible memory. If I replay the dream as I wake up, it becomes a recallable memory, but if I don't replay it, it fades out and I can't recall it later (though I do know that I had a dream). The feedback of replaying the dream with the intent of making it memorable keeps it in my consciousness. The intent allows me to recall the dream later. I can regard the dream as a kind of false perception that came to me in my sleep, entering my consciousness as it exists then and remaining with me as my consciousness gains its full strength and begins to attend to my real perceptions.
We can't pull consciousness out of our brains and look at it. We have to examine what we can see of it and describe it through inference. So far I have figured that my memories give me my sense of self, of being uniquely me (I'm the guy who, in the summer of 1956, enjoyed seeing Saturn through the Griffith Observatory's telescope; who, in February 1972, rode the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and enjoyed hearing a group of Israeli teenagers singing "Knights in White Satin"; etc.) and that the interaction between my perception and my imagination provides the content of my consciousness. The direction of my attention comes through my imagination, driven by unconscious needs that have been shaped by my fundamental biological urges and by my experience of life (especially my education): that phenomenon also counts as part of my consciousness, more in the nature of its inner workings and not of its outward display.
I can't think of anything more to say about consciousness. This may actually be all there is, though I doubt it, and we need not say any more. But if there is more to consciousness, this analysis may provide a foundation upon which to set it.
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