The physiology of consciousness
When it comes to understanding where consciousness resides or how consciousness is initially created, few have tried to approach the topic with a scientific view. Most philosophic and abstract approaches show us how consciousness plays out in the mind and in our environment, but this only shows us how consciousness can express itself. The more physical approach to understanding consciousness can teach us a great deal about how consciousness comes into being, and what is logically required in order for consciousness to be experienced. This approach to the physiology of consciousness can unmask many hidden themes behind what makes consciousness so remarkable to us all and should be regarded as equally important as we seek to understand the overall truth behind what consciousness is.
Understanding the physical elements that come into play when we experience consciousness can provide us with a grounded approach to understanding consciousness. Though it is complex, there has been enough advancements in technologies that researchers have come to some conclusions as to where consciousness or at least awareness levels resides in the mind. Additionally understanding what is required for consciousness to occur is equally important in understanding how something or someone is conscious. This more scientific approach allows for us to answer some of the basic ideas behind what consciousness is, but also brings up additional questions as to if we as a species will ever be able to create an artificial consciousness, or fully grasp what is needed to reflect on our own consciousness.
This article was written with notes taken from part 1 of Dr. Tony Naders talk given at Stanford on Hacking Consciousness
The One Great Truth
In all of the reality, there is only one thing that I can be certain of, that I am conscious. It is impossible for me to be sure of anything more than that. I know that I am conscious because I am aware of myself, but I am unaware if you or anyone else who is reading this is also conscious. I can assume you are conscious, but knowing for sure is impossible, just like all other “facts” about reality. Since I do know that I am conscious I can explore the aspects of what I know the be true about my consciousness without having to explore what it means for you or any other person to be conscious. I would have to assume that these aspects of consciousness that I experience are the same for you as they are for me even though I can not prove that you are conscious.
Consciousness expresses itself in awareness, alertness, attention, vigilance, focus, and wakefulness. Of course, the terms used to describe my consciousness can change with others as they express their views on what consciousness is or is not, but overall the ability to be awake, aware, and evaluate the environment is a good summary of what it means to be conscious. It’s important to understand that being able to evaluate the environment is a key aspect of consciousness, as I can unconsciously be aware of something without being able to evaluate it consciously.
It’s important to reiterate that consciousness doesn’t mean the senses, the brain, or even a specific state of awareness. What consciousness does mean is the ability to be aware that one’s self is conscious. It also does mean that outside factors including senses, our brain functions, and our state of awareness can influence the level of awareness we have, or what we think or perceive in that awareness.
The human brain amazingly can be stimulated by sensations or information received by our senses an average every 250 milliseconds before we are consciously aware of that information. It takes on average 30-50 milliseconds for stimuli to reach the brain and then 150 milliseconds of processing before reaching our awareness. What we experience as a conscious reality is merely a simulated constant flow of information that is preprocessed and assigned to various parts of our awareness to make us feel as though our experience is a steady flow. In reality it is much more like a screen on a computer which is running at 60 frames per second to give us the illusion that we are seeing a consistent image; instead, that image is actually being broken up into frames which are moving faster than our eyes can perceive.
The States of Consciousness
Consciousness can be broken into three parts that are observable in all humans. the three states of consciousness are:
Waking – You are awake, aware, moving around engaged in daily activities.
Dreaming – You are most likely experiencing REM sleep and having a dream or simulated reality experience while sleeping.
Deep Sleep – You are not dreaming, or awake, but you are aware of thought. Many people who have Out of Body Experiences or Sleep Paralysis may have experienced deep sleep experiences.
Within each of these states, there is the possibility of having impaired states of consciousness where consciousness is breaking down or improperly operating. This does not mean that the individual is conscious or unconscious, it just implies that it’s an altered form of consciousness functioning differently from what is expected when fully conscious (aware). A few examples of impaired states of consciousness are:
- Anesthesia – A person is under a chemical compound which puts their body to sleep and temporarily disrupts their consciousness.
- Locked-in State – Paralysis of the body making it so someone is unable to move. This makes the person feel imprisoned in their own body and closely describes sleep paralysis or other paralysis experiences that include remaining consciously unaware during the experience.
- Minimally Conscious State – The mind goes through the normal cycles of waking, dreaming, and sleeping but is in a vegetative state. The person is minimally conscious and the brain will still respond to stimuli.
- Vegetative State – The individual is completely nonresponsive.
- Coma – the individual no longer experiences the waking, dreaming, or sleep cycles. They are locked into one state of being, which is even more minimal than the minimally conscious state.
Included in these impaired states of consciousness come altered states of consciousness which define alternative ways that awareness can be experienced. Some of these altered consciousness occurrences can be experienced as:
- Hallucinogens – Using a compound, plant, or fungi to alter consciousness. In many cases, full conscious awareness can be maintained while using substances.
- Lucid Dreams – In the sleep state of consciousness, people can become aware that they are dreaming. They become fully capable to explore the dream as though they are awake and aware.
- Sleepwalking – Though not always remembered, the individual can be aware enough that they are able to move around while in a sleep state.
- Hypnosis – Altered to the point that the individual is highly suggestible to outside influences.
As you can see consciousness can change throughout the day with a purpose or through unintentional activities. This changes not only how much we are aware but fundamentally how we see our reality and how we interact with it. Interestingly, our consciousness is directly linked to how our body reacts to the world around us including our sleep cycle. This changing in the quality and level of consciousness that we have can be expressed by the level of activation of the Default Mode Network.
Studying the Mind from the Body
There is no doubt that the body reacts to how we change our consciousness. In many traditions around the world, it is thought that the process of change originates with the spirit and is processed in the mind which then creates the reactions in the body. If we replace the word spirit with consciousness we find the same to be true today. Consciousness makes changes in the brain which then creates hormones which result in how the body is formed or reacts to those changes. The opposite could also be true, that changing how the body functions–what you eat, drink, and do with your body–creates changes in hormones which cause reactions in the mind. However, the choice to make changes always resides with consciousness.
Because of these biological changes taking place in the body, we can study consciousness changing based on the amount of oxygen that is being used by the brain. In a way, studying consciousness without being able to see it is like studying a map drawn in with magic ink where shining a black light reveals the hidden image. We can’t see consciousness but we can see neural activity and the oxygen being utilized by the brain in specific ways and patterns to indicate there is a level of awareness occurring. Using this information we can start to see patterns in consciousness, see where individuals are more aware during the day, and if they are conscious when part of their physical brain is altered or modified due to an accident.
How Conscious Information is Processed
Understanding how consciousness can change due to outside forces is just part of understanding how consciousness is malleable. Consciousness also changes based on how things are learned.
When it comes to starting to learn a new practice or goal we first spent the greatest amount of energy and time on it. This learning is taking place in our conscious mind. Once we process that information and it becomes a memory we can access that information in our subconscious. This memory information that is stored in our subconscious is called implicit cognition. Implicit cognition includes knowledge, perception, or memory, that influence our behaviors and is unknown in our conscious awareness. An example of implicit cognition is the ability to ride a bike after a long period of time. The memory needed in order to ride the bike is still available to us, however, we don’t need to think about all the necessary techniques needed in order to ride the bike. These memories are unconscious to us as we are unaware of them, yet we use them to ride the bike.
Another aspect of learning that is a bit harder to define and is also categorized as a subconscious activity is implicit learning. Implicit learning is the learning of a complex problem that requires knowledge that the individual is not consciously aware of. An example is learning how to ride a bike: where there is still conscious attention on learning some of the techniques to ride a bike, many of those requirements to ride the bike are not consciously thought about, like balancing or pedaling at the right time. Over time these processes become more and more automated until the person is able to accomplish a fully automated skill.
The unconscious is as mysterious as consciousness, but when it comes into how consciousness operates it is important to understand what is included in the unconscious. The unconscious contains everything that we are unaware of consciously but influences our conscious mind. These come in the form of forgotten memories and thoughts that make us who we are but are not normally available through introspection. You could access some of these memories through altering your consciousness which is why often archetypal experiences arise in dream states, with active imagination, and hypnosis.
The unconscious is not unconscious. It’s just that the conscious mind is unconscious of what the unconscious is conscious of. – Ryan Hurd, Paraphrased from Francis Jeffrey
Just because we are unaware of something continuously doesn’t mean that we are not equally or even more aware of it unconsciously. In fact, Jung was torn between concluding if the unconscious was more aware and active in developing who we are than our conscious awareness.
Consciousness in the Background
Having an ego or sense of self is another aspect of consciousness that is occurring in the background. Though you may not often think about who you are and what represents you as a person, that sense of self is generated by consciousness. The sense of self-generated from consciousness includes identity, name, form, origin, nationality, status, role etc.
Extending past the sense of self, actual consciousness is also an aspect of consciousness that is important to your overall view of reality. Actual consciousness includes your intentions, wishes, desires, emotions, thinking, imaging, and planning. These are the actions that are behind your consciousness, or how you play out what you desire the most. Unlike the sense of self which is tied into who you are as an individual, actual consciousness is an expression of what the self wants the most.
The collective efforts of the sense of self and actual consciousness are grouped into individual consciousness. Individual consciousness is the idea that was mentioned earlier briefly: I am aware that I am conscious but unable to prove that anyone or anything else is conscious like I am. This realization that I am consciousness makes it so that my individual self knows that it is aware of itself and therefore is conscious on an individual level. This awareness of my own consciousness is the only consciousness that I am truly able to know to be able to experience consciousness, all else is an assumption.
Though it may be hard to grasp the concept of your own personal awareness and the limited knowledge you have of other peoples or other things experiences, the problems with consciousness extend past this. The problem of explaining the phenomenon of how you perceive something and consciously understand the thing you perceive is a problem unto itself.
The Issue of Consciousness
The Easy Problem: Understanding how we sense the world around us
One day we will understand how the brain identifies the world around us through interactions with our senses. New technologies are already helping us to understand what people are thinking without having to ask them. We can use brain patterns to figure out what is being processed inside the brain without talking to the individual. Positron emission tomography is just one of the techniques being used to help us to identify these patterns. Though the technology is still very primitive it shows promise. Even these being challenges for researchers to achieve, it’s not nearly as complex as the hard problem.
The Hard Problem: Understanding a subjective experience
The hard question of what actually makes something conscious troubles researchers. How can we recreate consciousness, how can we understand the subjective experiences that we have all the time, such as what the subjective experience of the color red is to me versus what red is to you? How do we understand that experience? So far no one has a good answer to this issue. As we continue forward trying to make AI conscious, approaching and overcoming this hard problem is going to become more and more important. The reason is that true creativity or introspection is reliant of a subjective experience that no other person or thing has. That subjective experience is where imagination resides which is what makes consciousness and self-awareness so powerful. No one understands how this happens because it would require us to be able to recreate consciousness and study that creation.
Learning and Brain Consciousness Modulation
Specific areas of our brain perceive our reality, process that information, and provide us with a theme of reality that makes sense to us. What we see as reality is nowhere close to what is real, it is a tailored and processed representation of what really is. As discussed before it can take up to 1/4 of a second before we are even consciously aware of what we are experiencing. Some areas of the brain first sense the information, but you are not aware or conscious of the information. The next area of the brain becomes aware of the information.
The reticular formation is the part of the brain that regulates the amount of wakefulness you have. It also regulates consciousness and damage to this area of the brain can result in coma. All sensory information goes to the reticular formation before it is processed by any of the other areas of the brain. Other areas of the brain are responsible for very specific aspects of consciousness. The hypothalamus controls the basic bodily functions of homeostasis. The midbrain and amygdala control the core self or what we perceive as being the ego. The cortex is the autobiographical self which contains language, speech, and memory.
Because it takes time for the brain to process all of this information, and our sense of reality is delayed because of this, the brain creates a masking effect which makes a simulated continuous reality. The brain essentially makes up information that it is unable to process from our environment so that you experience a constant experience of consciousness. If an individual has specific diseases or lesions in the brain, they can experience a cinematographic version of time slowing and moments of perception, rather than a stream. A great example of this loss of time due to the failure of the brain to mask is the feeling that some individuals get of time slowing during a traumatic accident.
Theories of consciousness
There are currently two main theories about the origins of consciousness. One promotes the concept of dualism, that there is the physical material and a spirit mind consciousness and both are separate from each other. The other promotes the concept of consciousness in a monism prospective, that all consciousness comes from matter such as the brain or that there is only consciousness which creates all matter. Personally, I can think of no one more qualified to explain the origin of consciousness than Dr. Tony Nader who is a Lebanese neuro-scientist, research, and current leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement.
In order for something to be conscious according to Dr. Nader, it must:
- It must be able to observe
- It has to have observed itself
- It has to have the process of observation
This means that in order for me to be conscious of myself I must first be able to observe myself or my own awareness, I have to be aware for me to have noticed that I am conscious, and I have to have the ability to observe myself as being conscious. An analogy to this idea is like the chicken and the egg problem where we can ask: which came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case, it is even more complex. It brings a third aspect to the chicken and the egg problem making it more like both the chicken and the egg, and the process of observing the chicken and the egg all being required for the chicken, the egg or the observation of the chicken existing in the first place.
With this theory of consciousness, it logically doesn’t make sense that consciousness has a starting and stopping point as three things have to happen simultaneously in order to create the event, each as a result of the other. Unless Dr. Nader is wrong, which I don’t think he is, consciousness isn’t created, it just exists.
Dr. Nader goes into more detail about his theory and how this logically makes sense in part two of his talk given at Stanford on Hacking Consciousness.
There is a lot that we can learn about consciousness and how the human brain reacts to the environment in order to create a conscious aware experience. As technology becomes better and better we may be able to see inside our minds as well as view outwards to understand more about what the more true experience of reality is. It would seem that is where our technological advancements may end as understanding how to create consciousness inside of a computer or to understand if others are truly conscious, doesn’t seem mathematically possible.
The reason that I don’t see us every creating a unique consciousness in the form of artificial intelligence is that if it takes all three aspects of consciousness to happen at the same given time in order for consciousness to exist. First, its mathematically impossible to do this, and second, it would mean that consciousness can’t be created or destroyed. It can only exist or not exist. Since I know that my consciousness does, in fact, exist, then that shows that consciousness must exist at least for me. In that sense, it always existed. When I die since consciousness has to always exist, then my consciousness will also continue. I may not fully understand what that means (in the sense of universal consciousness that I may or may not be part of), but regardless it will continue on in some form.
Dr. Nader goes into great detail about this concept in his second video and discusses how this is true in both mathematical forms as well as the historical traditional view of reality. It also applies to modern neuroscience as well as physics. Quite honestly his perspective can be applied to reality pretty easily and though it may sound far out, it is far from that.
When it comes to understanding consciousness and the physiology of what consciousness is, it’s important to study and do our best to ground ourselves in these logical and scientific views. It gives us a view of consciousness that makes sense and that we can understand better of how we see the reality around us providing us something to stand on. Once we do that we can expand the view of consciousness to include other aspects that are creative or full of what ifs. Maybe the most important thing to learn from this article is to understand the only true thing that we can ever know, is that each of us individually is consciously aware of ourselves. The rest is just assumptions.
Lee Adams is a Ph.D. candidate in Jungian Psychology and Archetypal Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute and host of Cosmic Echo, a lucid dreaming podcast, and creator of taileaters.com, an online community of lucid dreamers and psychonauts. Lee has been actively researching, practicing, and teaching lucid dreaming for over twenty years.
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