This post has quite an adventurous and still diffuse concept, which is Consciousness. Even though the main focus of this website is Energy Medicine and Human Biofields, Consciousness is as mysterious as essential to understand reality and what we are.
In this post, we will see how this subject can be neglected from Neuroscience, we will also explore a couple of concepts of how consciousness works, and afterwards there will be lots of science. Some of the top-level scientists on this subject and their efforts and accomplishments.
WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS?
So, until today, there is still no scientific consensus about the properties of consciousness. Most amazingly, there isn’t even a proper definition about it. Neuroscience textbooks contain huge loads of information but it is common that consciousness is neglected in most of them. The image below is from an Encyclopedia of Neurological Sciences, which happens to have more than 4.000 pages long, and uses one, just one paragraph to describe consciousness, or more specifically, uses one paragraph to categorize the term as too broad and imprecise to be useful.
Amazing, right? Luckily there are other authors which really take the concept seriously and make the most neuroscience can actually interpret about Consciousness.
But….can Neuroscience by itself explain Consciousness??
The answer depends on who are you asking to. If you’re asking a neuroscientist then the most probable answer is yes, and if you ask any other scientist, well, the answer starts to diversify. Most of them being confident that Consciousness goes way beyond Neuroscience.
Francis Crick was a british molecular biologist, biophysicist and neuroscientist. Along with James Watson, they made one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the last century: determine the molecular structure of nucleic acids, which is why in 1962 they were awarded with the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.
After that, he was still being an active player in the development of genetic knowledge, but he made a slow transition from molecular biology towards neuroscience, being all-into it in the 80’s. In his autobiographical book, he includes a description of why he left molecular biology and switched to neuroscience:
- – there were many isolated subdisciplines within neuroscience with little contact between them
- – many people who were interested in behaviour treated the brain as a black box
- – consciousness was viewed as a taboo subject by many neurobiologists
So, evidently, Crick hoped he might aid progress in neuroscience by promoting constructive interactions between specialists from the many different subdisciplines concerned with consciousness, as he realized the huge spaces between them.
But that is not the main problem regarding Consciousness.
David Chalmers, an Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist, is one of the leading voices in this subject for a long time. He also is the Director of the Centre of Consciousness at the Australian National University, and developed what is commonly known as the Hard Problem. He implies that several of the brain functions related to Consciousness can be explained, like: wakefulness, behavior, integration of information, mental states, attention, etc, And with enough research they can be explained even with just Neuroscience and Neurobiology. These are referred as the Easy Problems.
But the most difficult one is the problem of explaining how and why we have phenomenal experiences, the state of experience, or using different words: Why does determinate systems are subjects of experience?
Why do sensations acquire characteristics and evoke emotions? Why does awareness of sensory information exist at all?
Why aren’t we philosophical zombies? Why do we wander, wonder and daydream?
Not being able to answer this questions hugely limits what we know about ourselves.
So it is clear the need of an Integral Theory of Consciousness, and actually several Theories of Consciousness already exist, but the integration comes when entangling the scientific advances in several disciplines. Some of them are being neglected by mainstream science. Here are some examples that can give a hint about it:
- – Enteric Nervous System
- – The possibility that the brain inflects consciousness, modulates it.
- – Psychic phenomena
- – Energy Fields and their interaction in and out the body
- – Accounting the subjectivity of reality, and the models of object perception. So far we have missed that the observer is fundamental, and quantum physics has a lot to say about this.
SCIENCE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
David Chalmers and Stuart Hammeroff (whose work will be reviewed at the end of the post) have created a conference in Arizona called The Science of Consciousness, and it´s really awesome. First celebrated in 1994, this event has an important role because it is interdisciplinary, gathering scientists of different areas like neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, biology, quantum physics, meditation and altered states, machine consciousness, culture and experiential phenomenology and contemplative approaches. Initially being done every two years, it gladly seems to be progressing and hooking interest from scientists around the world. I realized next year’s gonna be held at China, and David Chalmers, Noam Chomsky and Deepak Chopra will be attending, among other rock-star level scientists. Go and click here to find more info about it.
We will resume to this points after analyzing a couple of basic representations of how consciousness works.
Starting with a very common graphical representation of the conscious mind and unconscious mind, based on the work of Sigmund Freud. We could see all the information, sending input upwards, but only a small portion of it gets filtered towards the conscious realm, as thoughts and perceptions.
It is known that most of the brain activity and associated behavior occur without any conscious sensation. The same Francis Crick we have talked about has made interesting results in the so called “Zombie States”, which will be reviewed later.
So, in a very basic level, we act and say according to our conscious state (thoughts and perceptions), which then mixes with the environment and comes back as input. The unconscious elements reside at the bottom (fears, desires or wishes, sexuality, immorality, etc.) which then get filtered by the preconscious, which is the place where memories and knowledge are stored (but let’s not forget that we don’t fully understand how memory works) and then allows only a small part of information to get upwards, unto the small territory of conscious states.
So it is an unceasing flow that gives coherence to our reality.
That being said, consciousness could be interpreted as a Recurrent Competitive System. So, there exist many circuits and even more channels of information, all of them working at the same time, giving this information towards the brain. And it is impossible (and unhealthy and creepy as well) to consciously handle every bit of information that comes from the world and from our bodies. So the focus system (attention) helps us handle only whatever we consider the most appropriate for each moment.
THE FRAMES WITHIN FRAMES
Another even more interesting graphic representation of consciousness is the Frame Model, where the conscious realm is represented in a frame, pretty much like a movie, the Self-Movie, Ego-Movie, you name it. As it has been stated, this frame shows whatever our attention decides to show, so, this decision turns into awareness. Working as a extremely dynamic model, the frame’s length can be decreased, and also expanded. Therefore adding more complexity into the conscious realm
This is how it is explained that consciousness is a frame inside a frame inside a frame.
An observer observing itself repeatedly.
So a tiny frame has tiny information, therefore being similar to a monkey mind, and a very expanded frame has a lots of information, making appropiate to refer to it as “The Big Picture”, or the Buddha Mind. It is intriguing that this Buddha Mind, this complete awareness of reality “as it is” (nor good or bad or having any relation to the Self-Movie) is achieved by monks through a life-long process which involves quieting the mind, like pressing the Mute button on our Self-Movie (muting the Ego), therefore by shutting down all competition of systems trying to reach the conscious realm.
Knowing this, we can go back to analyze the different areas of science that have something to add in order to have a Theory of Consciousness. Click to continue to the next page.
This post is also available in: Spanish