What is Consciousness?

As discussed in the last post on the same topic, a definite answer to the question is tough to reach. Most scientists today agree that CS has two essential dimensions to it:
  • Arousal [Level of Consciousness]

General belief is that we are Conscious when we are awake and lose Consciousness when we fall asleep. Through the facts I present here, I would like to argue by presenting various facts that Sleep is a form of Consciousness. Every other form of unconscious existence, we know off is also a subset of consciousness. Let me present the facts and try and explain myself. 

  • Awareness [Content of Consciousness]
We have intentional awareness of what we decide to pay attention to as well as have unintentional awareness. The bodily operation play a key role in deciding on this content with inputs from sense organs, though here I would like to argue that experiences or perception of what we sense largely depends on the memories we form.

Let me present the facts and my arguments for perusal.

It has been observed that for AROUSAL two aspects of the brain are essential, ‘Ascending Reticular Activating System’ (ARAS) and the ‘Cerebral Cortex’. These are the parts of the brain that are essential for us to wake up every morning and are shutdown when we fall asleep. There is tremendous amount of research that has been done to understand ARAS and CC, so that cures to various sleep disorders may be found. Damage to ARAS or Cerebral cortex or the areas around it, could lead one into a state of partial wakefulness but complete unawareness either of oneself or the environment (Persistent Vegetative State or PVS). It could also lead to a state of being unawake and unaware (Coma). Sleep/Coma is popularly believed to be loss of CS brought about by the shutdown of ARAS and Cerebral Cortex (CC). However our personal experience would indicate that even when we are asleep, an alarm or someone calling our name could arouse us (factors that can arouse us vary from person to person). Also there are many instances where people have woken up from Coma (albeit with some mental disorders) indicating that the Consciousness is still present, awaiting the right trigger to wake up. 

This means that sleep or Coma is not a complete loss of Consciousness; a form of CS does exist, and ARAS and CC are not shutdown but remain in standby or hibernation awaiting a stimulus to wake them up. With progress in resolution of pictures developed using fMRI, EEG or PET, one can study the brain signals under various conditions and situations. Research done to monitor the brain signals during sleep using these techniques, indicate that during sleep the inputs from Sense organs are active but are attenuated, allowing ARAS and CC to go to standby and not stay in a constant state of arousal. Also ARAS tends to prioritize the attenuated signals from each sense organ to decide the ‘urgency of the need’ to come out of standby and arouse the person from sleep. (This could indicate an important postulate that Consciousness is omniscient). Thus sleep could be seen as a state of partial wakefulness, partial awareness, or a form of unconscious awareness. Similar research is being carried out to understand Coma and the possibilities of reversing it, and also to deal with mental disorders of the person who wakes up from Coma.

While we may not understand  unconsciousness awareness, or what is sometimes called subconscious awareness, it hasn’t stopped people from claiming that things said, done or thought during unconscious awareness can strongly influence the behavior of a person when fully conscious and fully aware. A separate field has developed to work on unconscious learning vs. conscious learning and has fueled the whole Self Help Group/Books industry to thrive on whatever minimal understanding we have of this state. However what seems to be coming through is that Unconscious is a subset of CS and not mutually exclusive as was believed it to be earlier. Here it is interesting to note that General Anesthesia (though not much is known about how it works) is a way of temporarily shutting down the ARAS and CC so that person stays in a state of “un-awakened unawareness” and hence feels neither the pain nor has any memory of the performed operation, and wakes up when the effect of anesthesia wears off. This area needs to be researched more to understand the level of Consciousness and the related brain activity. It could also help find ways of reviving a person from Coma or PVS.

The second dimension to Consciousness is AWARENESS or the content of Consciousness. What is it that we are aware of? Surroundings? Thoughts? Memories? Sensory inputs? Probably a picture could help us better understand what the bodily functions are and how that leads to the content of Awareness.

Fig 1

The stimuli mentioned in Fig 1 indicates that it should be “Changing Stimuli”; we slowly lose awareness of any stimuli that don’t change. For example if we continue to stare at one point continuously it vanishes, or if we put our feet in hot water after the initial reaction we are unaware of the feel of water on our feet unless the temperature of the water changes.

Very strong philosophical and epistemological question come up. In the above mechanical operation of the body,
-where is the sense of ” I ” or “EGO” coming from?
-where is the experience coming from?
-where are the thoughts emerging from?

 The bodily operation are definitely leading to formation of memory which I feel plays an active role in the content of consciousness and what we actually are aware of. However apart from the memories the body function generates there are other aspects of consciousness which need to be studied in detail.  Details of this was nicely put forward by David Chalmers. In a paper released in 1995, he divided the whole problem of the content of CS into two problems one of which he chose to call Easy Problem and the other (obviously) a Hard Problem. Easy problem is related to the Neural Co-relate of Consciousness(NCC popularised by Christoph Koch) and the Hard Problem is what is of the experience and is called Qualia. For example when I see the color red, the frequency of light wave is converted to signals inside my neural system and the brain helps me to recognize it as a Red color (fMRI/CT Scan could help to observe the neural processing); yet how does it feel for me to see the red color, and what that experience is like is the Qualia. As per Chalmers, Qualia is tough to understand, and it is also difficult to figure out where it is coming from? Here I would like to highlight the role played by memory

Memory possibly plays a key role in the experience that we have in a particular situation. I think it is essential that we understand what memory is and what type of memory gets formed under various conditions as (Ref Fig 2), that in a way influences the real content of Consciousness and hence our perception of what we view, and is probably also responsible for Qualia. The following diagram indicates the formation of memories in a wakeful state


Fig 2

Another area that we don’t know much about is about Consciousness and Intention and it leads to unresolved philosophical and epistemological questions: .

Where does the Intention come from?
What dictates what a person’s intention would be?

Similarly as seen in Fig 2, we have an unawake but aware state where there are possibilities of formation of memories which strongly influence our perception when awake and aware. At the moment it is not clear if there is any function of Intention in such a state. 

Most of what I have said above, has been subject of scientific research and philosophical deliberation and it applies to both Humans and Animals alike. Also there is a high possibility that we cannot rule out that plants also demonstrate similar elements however they are not scientifically proved to an extent where it could be mentioned. I would leave you with an interesting thought and Consciousness among the non-living – ‘Anybody with minimal knowledge of Chemistry knows that when we mix two elements there is a predictable and repeatable outcome or reaction. This indicates that at an atomic level each atom knows what it has to do when it comes in contact with atom of another element. This indicates presence of Memory; a memory which we cannot classify as aware, unaware, awake, unawake, intentional or unintentional, but a form of memory nonetheless. So does the atom have an experience or a Qualia and hence does it have Consciousness?