Consciousness is one of the biggest mysteries of the mankind. For thousands of years, numerous studies and debates have been unable to explain what it is and how it works.
As it is interconnected with several mind and brain phenomena, consciousness cannot be studied on a standalone basis. To understand it, one needs to understand how the entire brain works as a system. As none of the current sciences study the brain as one system, most scientific explanations of consciousness are not based on causation (i.e. cause-and-effect understanding), but are based on ideas and opinions derived from observations and experimentations.
Requirements to Understand Consciousness
There are many things one should know in order to understand consciousness. E.g., it is directly connected to sensations, as their intensity is proportional to how conscious one is. Based on the same, one should know how all senses work in unison (i.e. multisensory integration), which itself is a big mystery.
Likewise, as it is closely connected to thoughts, awareness, attention, pain, etc., without understanding how each of such phenomena work, one cannot fully understand consciousness.
Following factors make it even more difficult to understand it:
1) Giving More Importance than It Deserves
May it be science or general discussions; the topic of consciousness is given more importance than it deserves compared to other mind and brain phenomena. The core reason for the same is that it is often mistaken for the richness of phenomena it enables, thereby offering rich attributes to it, as explained in the following analogies:
Window Analogy: If a window is closed, you cannot see the mountains that are behind it. Only when the window is open, you can see them. That does not mean that the mountains are a part of the window.
In the same way, if there is no consciousness, there will be no sensations, perceptions, thoughts, emotions, etc. But that does not mean that all such phenomena are a part of consciousness. Consciousness is just a window to them.
Enabler Analogy: If there is no electricity, one cannot power up a computer and browse websites on the internet. Even when electricity enables us to power up a computer and browse websites, it does not mean that the nature of such websites is electrical and can be understood by studying electricity.
2) “Higher Level” of Consciousness
As level of consciousness of an interaction depends on the amount of processing resources allotted to it (i.e. degree of attention) and how much of it is processed in the conscious part of the brain, some people use it to claim the possibility of higher levels of consciousness (especially in topics of spirituality), which is a fallacy.
Putting it differently, level of consciousness varies gradually from none to full. As we can be in fully conscious state – i.e. level 1.0, subconscious state – e.g. level 0.3, or unconscious state – i.e. level 0, some people extrapolate it and talk about the state of higher level of consciousness – e.g. level 2, which is not attainable.
It is possible for a person to be either intensely aware of a certain thing, aware of more things at the same time, or both, which happens in the state of alertness, e.g. when someone alerts you to be careful while dealing with a person while also alerting you about a tiger who is on the loose after escaping from the cage. You become alert of both such things, in which your degree of attention increases and drifts constantly between them, but that does not mean that your level of consciousness has become higher than your usual limit.
Some people believe that a person should be conscious of maximum number of tasks he or she is involved in, based on the reasoning that humans execute their tasks consciously, while animals execute them by instincts, and thus, the more tasks one executes consciously, the higher his level of consciousness. The same is not possible, as per the following explanation.
The conscious part of the brain can only process one task at a time. To process more than one task (i.e. multitasking), which it does all the time, it initiates each of such tasks, puts it into autopilot mode by sending it to the non-conscious part of the brain which is capable of parallel processing, assigns it a standby threshold, after which, the conscious part initiates another task, and so on. As can be derived from the same, the conscious brain, being a serial processor, requires a high amount of unconscious processing in order to execute multiple tasks simultaneously.
3) Mixing Up One with the Other
There are two types of consciousnesses. One is sentient consciousness, which makes us aware of our sensations, perceptions, thoughts, surroundings, existence, etc. which are subjectively felt by us and the other is universal consciousness, which is based on the idea that all matter in the universe is conscious, popularly known as panpsychism.
Both consciousnesses work in different ways. One is based on classical physics and the other on quantum physics. Many people mix up features of one type with the other, thereby creating confusion in studying it.
4) Looking for Correlations
Neural Correlates of Consciousness is the effort of finding out neural activity that correlates with conscious experiences to understand which of the brain’s components are essential to produce conscious experience.
Although it can help build a dictionary of conscious events by correlating them with brain activity, consciousness involves complex processing and is not a straightforward process like gravity that can be understood simply by observing its activity.
Looking for correlates of consciousness in the brain is similar to detecting whether result of a calculation on a computer is above or below a certain value merely by detecting the electrical activity on its printed circuit board.
Such studies remind me of the quote by George Bernard Shaw, which says, “A fool-proof method for sculpting an elephant: first, get a huge block of marble; then you chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”
5) Meaning and Importance of Awareness
Even when awareness is functionally as important as consciousness, when there are thousands of research papers on consciousness; the interest in understanding awareness is so low, that different dictionaries define the term differently.
A quick search online will reveal that according to Wikipedia.org, awareness is “state or quality of being conscious of something”, MerriamWebster.com defines it as “having or showing realization, perception, or knowledge”, MacmillanDictionary.com defines it as “knowledge or understanding of a subject, issue, or situation”, while Dictionary.com defines it as “having knowledge”.
Such definitions give the impression that awareness is a static concept, but like consciousness, awareness is a dynamic concept.
Secondly, there are two types of awarenesses, direct awareness and contextual awareness.
Direct awareness is based on information you receive directly from your senses and perceptions on an ongoing basis and their resulting thought processes.
Contextual awareness is based on a dynamic memory buffer. It maintains links to parts of information from your memory that are contextually connected to your ongoing interactions and thought processes. E.g., when you enter a grocery store, links to information from the memory that is contextually connected to the grocery store, i.e. items to be purchased like bread, cereals, noodles, etc. are updated in the buffer. Inside the store, when you see the price tag of the bread, links to information from the memory that is contextually connected to bread are updated in the buffer, using which, you realize that the same bread is available at a lower price in another store.
Even when the phenomenon is as ubiquitous as life itself, dictionaries and scientific studies neither mention types of awarenesses, nor such mechanism.
6) Difference between Awareness and Consciousness
Many people use the terms awareness and consciousness interchangeably, as they get confused between their meanings.
E.g.: Are you aware or are you conscious that you are hearing this?
The answer is, while hearing; you are both aware and conscious that you are hearing it. Of all the things you are aware of, you are only conscious of the one you are attending to.
As a matter of fact, people can be aware of multiple things at a time but they can be conscious of only one thing at a time. Even then, they take what they are aware of to be the same as what they are conscious of, based on the following illusion:
Although the brain can only be conscious of one thing at a time, all information a person is aware of seems to be available simultaneously to him, as if he is conscious of all of them simultaneously, which is when his attention drifts between such multiple things, based on the effect of what is known as ‘refrigerator light phenomenon.’
The refrigerator light phenomenon is the feeling of refrigerator light being always on, even when its door is closed, which is when a limit switch turns it off. The effect it produces is like – when communicating with a group of people standing around you, you switch communication from one person to the other, while all of them are available for communication as and when needed, giving the effect of simultaneity.
Note: As they are not defined clearly, awareness and consciousness are the most confused and misused words, especially in topics of spirituality, where phrases like pure awareness, super consciousness, etc. are often used.
7) Causal Support
If I pull a rabbit out of your pocket, the knowledge about how it appeared is not available to you, as it has no causal (i.e. cause-and-effect) support. In the same way, if one does not have the knowledge of how consciousness emerges, its causal support is not available to him.
When one comes across something that does not have causal support (especially with consciousness, as it is private and subjective), either it is classified as a part of nature (like gravity), or magic, which is the reason why many position consciousness as a “fundamental part of nature”, while to others, it seems to be magical.
According to philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers, who is famous for coining the term Hard Problem of Consciousness, “If you can’t explain consciousness in terms of the existing fundamentals – space, time, mass, charge, then as a matter of logic, you need to expand the list. The natural thing to do is to postulate consciousness itself as something fundamental, a fundamental building block of nature.”
8) Information Processing
The core reason why numerous debates and studies have failed to understand consciousness for thousands of years is that for the majority of such period, there was no concept of information processing, out of which consciousness emerges.
For the same reason, it does not make sense to consider what philosophers like Plato, Descartes, Locke, Kant, etc. had to say about consciousness, which is a common practice among philosophers even today.
9) The Brain is Complex, Not Complicated
Growth in science and technology has advanced to such levels in recent times that it has helped the mankind learn more about the brain in the last two decades than in the entire human history.
Despite such progress, knowledge about fundamentals of the brain is still a mystery. E.g., even when thoughts are the most basic building blocks of our lives, the current science does not have a clue of how they emerge and what mechanisms drive the thought process. One of the main reasons for the same is that it attributes difficulty in understanding brain to its complexity.
According to the current science, complexity of the brain is proportional to billions of neurons and trillions of connections it possesses, giving an impression that it is “infinitely complex”, and thus it is not possible to study it in a simple manner.
But then, there’s a difference between being complex and being complicated.
According to the dictionary, complex means something that is composed of many different but related elements and complicated means something that is difficult to figure out. Things that are complex are often complicated, but not necessarily.
It is true that the brain is highly complex structurally, but functionally, it is the system that drives it. To understand how it works, one needs to study such system, the complexity of which need not be proportional to the complexity of its structure.
As an analogy, let’s compare countries by their population. Even when population of United States is four times that of Germany and population of India is four times that of United States, there is not much difference in the complexity of the system that drives them, i.e. the system of government.
What’s more, brain’s complexity is further contributed by the fact that a large degree of its elements interact with each other through mechanisms which are driven by a system. Fortunately, both the mechanisms and the system are simple, as they are not a product of elaborate pre-planning of an intelligent designer, but have evolved in a step by step and gradual manner for thousands of generations through the process of natural selection.
To understand how the brain works, one must understand such mechanisms and the system that drives them.
The Core Requirement to Understand Consciousness
Even if everything mentioned until now is considered and resolved, it is not possible to understand consciousness without studying the brain as one system. The reason for the same is that it emerges when two components of the system running in the brain interact with each other, which can only be detected when you study it as a system. The best way to do so is by using “Systems Thinking” approach.
As explained earlier, consciousness cannot be studied on a standalone basis. To understand it, one needs to understand how the entire brain works as a system. The current science uses highly advanced equipment and techniques to study various aspects of brain in greatest of details, but not as one system.
The closest it has achieved is studying it as two systems, the latest one of which is explained by the Noble Laureate Daniel Kahneman as System 1 and System 2 in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”.
The reason to use systems thinking: Systems thinking is based on a simple and fundamental premise, which is, anything that has multiple parts that work collectively to reach common goals has to be driven by a system. Such multiple parts cannot work independently and still reach common goals. As the brain has multiple parts in the form of functional components that work collectively to reach common goals, the same applies to it.
As many of its components are interdependent and do not work in a linear fashion, to study how the brain works, a holistic approach of a goal driven system is required, which studies how its components relate and interact with each other, while interacting with external systems and their components. Based on the same, it is aptly called the “Systems Thinking” approach.
It can be used to study relationships, connectedness and contexts of the elements of a system. Shifting focus from parts of the brain to the whole brain results in better understanding of its system and its emergent phenomena by understanding functional roles of its elements.