In 2022, humanity has no idea where consciousness comes from – and it appears we’re not close. I love this. Considering consciousness is all you and I will ever know. The fact it’s mysterious liberates us to be remain curious about the nature of reality. Liberate from what, exactly? The narrow assumptions we hold about who we are and how experience guides us. It is absolutely devastating to believe we have it all figured out. Exploring mysteries like consciousness inoculates us from such a trap, enabling us to marvel perpetually at everyday experience.
“Perhaps no aspect of mind is more familiar or more puzzling than consciousness and our conscious experience of self and world. The problem of consciousness is arguably the central issue in current theorizing about the mind.”
– Stanford Encyclopedia: Consciousness
The following are favorite excerpts from the book Conscious by Annaka Harris – someone who has devoted herself to finding and engaging with the most prominent minds in science and philosophy.
I really enjoyed this read – as it helps quickly establish the state of our collective understanding (or more importantly – lack thereof).
Locked-in Syndrome, Writing With Blinks
This condition was made famous by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the late editor in chief of French Elle, who ingeniously devised a way to write about his personal story of being “locked in.” After a stroke left him paralyzed, Bauby retained only the ability to blink his left eye. Amazingly, his caretakers noticed his efforts to communicate, and over time they developed a method whereby he could spell out words through a pattern of blinks, thus revealing the full scope of his conscious life. He describes this harrowing experience in his 1997 memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which he wrote in about two hundred thousand blinks. Of course, we may assume that his consciousness would not have been changed whatsoever if his left eyelid had succumbed to the paralysis as well.
Does Consciousness Actually ‘Do’ Anything?
The problem is that both conscious and nonconscious states seem to be compatible with any behavior, even those associated with emotion, so a behavior itself doesn’t necessarily signal the presence of consciousness. Suddenly, our reflexive answers to question 1—What constitutes evidence for consciousness?—are beginning to dissolve. And this leads us to question 2, regarding whether consciousness performs an essential function in—or has any effect at all on—the physical system that’s conscious. In theory, I could act in all the ways I do and say all the things I say without having a conscious experience of it, much as an advanced robot might (though, admittedly, it’s hard to imagine). This is the gist of a thought experiment referred to as the “philosophical zombie,” which was made popular by David Chalmers.
Perception Is Not Exactly Reality: Binding
Visual, auditory, and other kinds of sensory information move through the world (and our nervous system) at different rates. The light waves and sound waves emitted the moment the tennis ball makes contact with your racket, for example, do not arrive at your eyes and ears at the same time, and the impact felt by your hand holding the racket occurs at yet another interval. To complicate matters further, the signals perceived by your hands, eyes, and ears travel different distances through your nervous system to reach your brain (your hands are a lot farther away from your brain than your ears are). Only after all the relevant input has been received by the brain do the signals get synchronized and enter your conscious experience through a process called “binding”—whereby you see, hear, and feel the ball hit the racket all in the same instant. As the neuroscientist David Eagleman puts it: Your perception of reality is the end result of fancy editing tricks: the brain hides the difference in arrival times. How? What it serves up as reality is actually a delayed version. Your brain collects up all the information from the senses before it decides upon a story of what happens. . . . The strange consequence of all this is that you live in the past. By the time you think the moment occurs, it’s already long gone. To synchronize the incoming information from the senses, the cost is that our conscious awareness lags behind the physical world.1 Surprisingly, our consciousness also doesn’t appear to be involved in much of our own behavior, apart from bearing witness to it.
I was once at an event where my friend and meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein was asked if he believed we have free will. He answered the question with arresting clarity when he said that he couldn’t even figure out what the term could possibly mean. What does it mean to have a will that is free from the cause-and-effect relationships of the universe? As he gestured with his hands dancing above him in the air, trying to point to this imaginary free will, he asked, “How can we even try to picture such a will floating about?”
Consciousness itself isn’t necessarily controlling the system; all we know is that consciousness is experiencing the system. It is no contradiction to say that consciousness is essential to ethical concerns, yet irrelevant when it comes to will.
A highly complicated convergence of factors and past events—including our genes, our personal life history, our immediate environment, and the state of our brain—is responsible for each next thought. Did you decide to remember your high school band when that song started playing on the radio? Did I decide to write this book? In some sense, the answer is yes, but the “I” in question is not my conscious experience. In actuality, my brain, in conjunction with its history and the outside world, decided. I (my consciousness) simply witness decisions unfolding.
Unseen Factors Manipulate Behavior
Toxoplasma gondii is a microscopic parasite that can infect all warm-blooded animals but can sexually reproduce only in the intestines of a cat. While it can survive in any mammal, it must eventually make its way back to a feline to complete its life cycle. Toxoplasma most commonly infects rats, because they frequent many of the same hangouts as cats, and the parasite has evolved a brilliant and extremely creepy mechanism for overcoming the challenge of traveling from the rats, who have a deeply ingrained fear of cats, back to its reproductive home. Toxoplasma creates hundreds of cysts in the brain of its host, causing dopamine levels to rise. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mediating powerful emotions such as desire and fear, which helps explain much of the behavior we see in mammals infected with the parasite. It’s possible that these rats somehow feel that they are being manipulated against their will by an outside force, but it seems more likely that their neurochemistry is being altered and thus their desires and fears change: they no longer feel afraid of cats and are now, in fact, drawn to them.
After the wasp larva injects a chemical into the spider, the spider begins spinning a web much more suited to the larva’s needs than its own, keeping the larva safe from nearby predators and providing the perfect netting for building its cocoon. The list goes on and on. When reviewing examples like these, we are immediately struck by how often we are blind to the complex array of forces at play in the behavior taking place all around us. One can’t help but wonder what’s truly driving all our own desires and personality traits—especially ones we tend to strongly identify with.
Annaka’s Causal Sinkhole
It’s hard to see how conscious experience plays a role in behavior. That’s not to say it doesn’t, but it’s almost impossible to point to specific ways in which it does. However, in my own musings, I have stumbled into what might be an interesting exception: consciousness seems to play a role in behavior when we think and talk about the mystery of consciousness. When I contemplate “what it’s like” to be something, that experience of consciousness presumably affects the subsequent processing taking place in my brain. And almost nothing I think or say when contemplating consciousness would make any sense coming from a system without it. How could an unconscious robot (or a philosophical zombie) contemplate conscious experience itself without having it in the first place? Imagine for a moment that David Chalmers himself is a zombie, completely lacking internal experience, and then consider the types of things he says in his book The Conscious Mind when explaining the concept of a zombie:
“Because my zombie twin lacks experiences, he is in a very different epistemic situation from me, and his judgments lack the corresponding justification. . . . I know I am conscious, and the knowledge is based solely on my immediate experience. . . . From the first-person point of view, my zombie twin and I are very different: I have experiences, and he does not.”
I don’t see how a system that isn’t conscious would ever have cause to produce these thoughts, let alone how an intelligent system would be able to make sense of them. Without ever having experienced consciousness, there’s no difference that the Zombie Chalmers could be referring to. Chalmers’s explanation for how a zombie is still conceivable in theory is that the language and concepts of consciousness could be built into the program of a zombie. A robot could certainly be programmed to describe specific processes like “seeing yellow” when it detects certain wavelengths of light, or even to talk about “feeling angry” under defined circumstances, without actually consciously seeing or feeling anything. But it seems impossible for a system to make a distinction between a conscious and unconscious experience in general without having an actual conscious experience as a reference point. When I talk about the mystery of consciousness—referring to something I can distinguish and wonder about and attribute (or not) to other entities—it seems highly unlikely that I would ever do this, let alone devote so much time to it, without feeling the experience I am referring to (for the qualitative experience is the entire subject, and without it, I can have no knowledge of it whatsoever). And when I turn these ideas over in my mind, the fact that my thoughts are about the experience of consciousness suggests that there is a feedback loop of sorts and that consciousness is affecting my brain processing. After all, my brain can think about consciousness only after experiencing it (one would presume). Other than this one sinkhole I often fall into, however, most of our intuitions about what qualifies as evidence of consciousness affecting a system don’t survive scrutiny.
The self we seem to inhabit most (if not all) of the time—a localized, unchanging, solid center of consciousness—is an illusion that can be short-circuited, without changing our experience of the world in any other way. We can have a full awareness of the usual sights, sounds, feelings, and thoughts, absent the sense of being a self who is the receiver of the sounds and the thinker of the thoughts. This is not at all at odds with modern neuroscience: an area of the brain known as the default mode network, which scientists believe contributes to our sense of self, has been found to be suppressed during meditation. There are other ways to suspend the sense of self. Psychedelic drugs—such as LSD, ketamine, and psilocybin—are known to quiet a circuit in the brain that connects the parahippocampus and the retrosplenial cortex in the default mode network, which explains why people describe losing their sense of self while under their influence.
Many people assume that consciousness and the experience of self go hand in hand, but it is clear that in those moments when people report dropping the self, consciousness remains fully present. As Michael Pollan explains in his book How to Change Your Mind, on the scientific research of psychedelics: The more precipitous the drop-off in blood flow and oxygen consumption in the default mode network, the more likely a volunteer was to report the loss of a sense of self. . . . The psychedelic experience of “non-duality” suggests that consciousness survives the disappearance of the self, that it is not so indispensable as we—and it—like to think.
Pollan points out that “our sense of individuality and separateness hinges on a bounded self and a clear demarcation between subject and object. But all that may be a mental construction, a kind of illusion.”
Mindfulness Meditation – A Way to Study Consciousness
Eastern contemplative traditions have used meditation as an experimental basis for studying the nature of consciousness. Research is now being conducted by neuroscientists on the specific effects of meditation on the mind and brain. This research will hopefully lead to new discoveries about how training our attention in systematic ways can provide a better understanding of consciousness and human psychology.
The ‘Hard Problem’
While consciousness is notoriously difficult to study and even to define, most neuroscientists believe that it results from complex processes in the brain, and that we’ll eventually discover the ultimate cause of consciousness by studying its neural correlates. Many neuroscientists do admit, however, that the hard problem will persist, because scientific understanding, no matter how complete, seems to have no way of offering us direct insight into the subjective experience associated with those physical properties—studying systems like the brain simply delivers us more information about physical properties. The neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran, for example, has conceded that “qualia” (the experiential qualities of consciousness that we can label, such as what it’s like to see the color blue or feel something sharp) will remain a puzzle:
“Qualia are vexing to philosophers and scientists alike because even though they are palpably real and seem to lie at the very core of mental experience, physical and computational theories about brain function are utterly silent on the question of how they might arise or why they might exist.”
Stay Humble, Stay Curious
No matter how much knowledge we gain about the workings of the brain, the question at hand is likely to remain unanswered: How deep in the universe does consciousness run?
From our current vantage point, it seems unlikely that we will ever arrive at a true understanding of consciousness. However, we may well be wrong about the absolute boundaries of knowledge. Humanity is young, and we’ve barely begun to understand our place in the cosmos. As we continue to look out from our planet and contemplate the nature of reality, we should remember that there is a mystery right here where we stand.