Merriam-Webster dictionary defines awareness as “having or showing realization, perception, or knowledge”, according to Wikipedia, it is the “state or quality of being conscious of something”, Macmillan dictionary defines it as “knowledge or understanding of a subject, issue, or situation”, whereas Dictionary.com defines it as “having knowledge”.
Even when they differ, none of them fully define what awareness is.
The following explanation reveals a mechanism that explains how you become aware of something. Although it is not known, it is not possible to be aware of anything without using such a mechanism, as evident in the following explanation:
The human brain is full of information and knowledge stored from past interactions. It optimizes its ongoing interactions by processing them with such information and knowledge (which is explained in detail in the post How Does Our Mind Develop?).
It is estimated that the human brain can store around 1 petabyte of information. Finding and retrieving information that is relevant to the ongoing interaction to optimize it at the time of processing it from such a large amount of memory is like finding a grain of sand on a beach – almost impossible.
As a remedy, the optimizing aspect of natural selection has resulted in human brain to evolve a mechanism that makes instant retrieval of such relevant information possible. The following analogy explains how it works:
You enter a shop to purchase a t-shirt. You explain to the salesperson that you want to buy a t-shirt with a pocket.
All clothes in the shop are arranged in the racks systematically by their types and sizes. The salesperson navigates through the racks and fetches the stock of t-shirts with pockets and spreads them on the table so you can choose which one to buy.
The reason for him to fetch the t-shirts for you is to make your selection process quicker. That way, you don’t have to go through the entire collection of clothes in the shop.
Similarly, all information our brain receives is stored systematically by conceptual hierarchies linked with information that is contextually associated to it, e.g., in context with event, location, etc.
The way the salesperson fetches t-shirts of your choice by navigating through the racks and putting them on the table, our brain fetches information that is relevant to our ongoing interaction by navigating the web of links (explained in the post How Does Our Mind Develop?) and linking them to what I call “Awareness Buffer”. Such linking is equivalent to the salesperson putting t-shirts on the table, where the table represents the awareness buffer.
Awareness buffer is an area in the brain which maintains links of information that are relevant to our ongoing interaction and its related thought processes, both of which are updated on an ongoing basis.
Searching from the limited amount of information linked to the awareness buffer instead of the vast amount of information stored in the brain makes it possible to instantly retrieve information relevant to such interaction.
E.g. when you are talking to someone on the phone; information that is related to such interaction, like the subject of your conversation, nature of the person on the other side, his intentions, etc. and the pressure of your body weight against the chair, its balance, the weight of the phone, etc. are linked to the awareness buffer, so your attention can drift between them easily, if and when required.
Another thing that is not known is the fact that there are two types of awarenesses, direct awareness and contextual awareness.
Direct Awareness is information received from external sources which enters consciousness directly. It can be 1) information received from your senses and perceptions, e.g., the taste of something you eat, and 2) information or knowledge gained from other people or sources, e.g., knowledge gained by talking to your friend or by watching TV.
Any information that enters consciousness directly this way is automatically linked to the awareness buffer.
Contextual Awareness is information that is contextually connected to your ongoing interactions and their associated thought processes, which are updated on an ongoing basis.
E.g. when you enter a grocery store, links to information stored in 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.
Difference between Awareness and Consciousness
Many people use the terms awareness and consciousness interchangeably.
E.g. are you aware that you are reading this or are you conscious that you are reading this?
The answer is, when reading; you are both aware and conscious that you are reading it. Of all the things you are aware of, you are only conscious of the one you are attending to.
In other words, awareness is a group of items linked to the awareness buffer, whereas consciousness is the one thing you are attending to.
As awareness and consciousness are used together to navigate a person’s attention (i.e. navigate through his awareness buffer to attend to whatever he is conscious of), he takes it for granted that what he is aware of and what he is conscious of are the same.
The same is further fuelled by the following illusion.
The Illusion of Simultaneity
You can bet on the fact that even if you are conscious of reading this, you are aware of many things like it is daytime and that it is the month of April and that you have taken a bath and that you have to pay the house rent.
All such information seems to be available simultaneously to you, as if you are aware of all of them simultaneously. In reality, it seems like that because of 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.
Awareness is not Information
I am aware that tomorrow is Friday. And that is information. If so, how is it possible that the nature of my awareness is not informational?
To find out if you are aware of something, i.e., to find out if something exists in your awareness buffer, your consciousness needs to navigate to its link to see if it is available, even if navigating to it momentarily and returning to the original task.
The same translates to the fact that awareness is just a memory buffer of links connected to information, not information itself, which is very different in nature compared to consciousness, which, as explained in detail in my book Mechanisms of the Mind, is information generated by a mechanism in the brain.
Although it is as ubiquitous as consciousness, it is an irony that awareness about awareness is so low. There are thousands of scientific papers on the topic of consciousness, but hardly anything on awareness.
- Awareness is not just information that is linked to the awareness buffer. It can also be information that is gained and linked by processing stored information, processing information that is being received, or processing information that is being received with stored information.
- When used collectively for a group, community, location, etc., e.g. public awareness of coronavirus in Mumbai, it is about the collective availability of information related to coronavirus in the awareness buffers of people of Mumbai.
- Awareness and consciousness are the most confused and misused words, especially in topics of spirituality, where phrases like pure awareness, higher consciousness, etc. are used. To gauge the extent of how they are misused, watch the search results of “what is awareness?” on YouTube.