by Rich Feldenberg
As research in the neuroscience continues to advance, we are gaining more and more knowledge in regard to the sophisticated aspects of higher brain function. Human neuroanatomy is well described, and the molecular biology leading to patterns of activity of individual brain cells up to complex neural circuits, containing astronomical numbers of brain cells, is also becoming better understood. In addition, there is a great deal of information on patterns of human behavior, the ways people think, and the flaws and biases associated with normal human thinking based on research from the field of cognitive psychology. One thing researcher still don’t agree about is, what is what do we mean by consciousness. There is no single concise definition for consciousness, and there are some experts that think that this is not a well formulated or coherent question, and as such, we can never come up with a satisfactory answer or explanation for what it is or how it arises. Consciousness may not be any one particular thing, but may emerge by association of multiple brain systems.
This reminds me a bit of the book, “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams, where a hyper-intelligent pan dimensional species built the supercomputer “Deep Thought”, to find out once and for all, the answer to life, the universe, and everything, only to find after running the program for millions of years the answer was 42. This didn’t seem like the kind of answer they were expecting. When they asked Deep Thought what this meant the computer told them that they really didn’t ask the right question. Our asking what consciousness is could be a little like this. If we don’t know how to ask the question, the answer may not make a lot of sense.
Some would say that consciousness seems to be the property of being self aware of one’s own existence, to be aware of having certain ideas and thoughts, to be aware of information being received externally from one’s body through the senses, as well as, being aware of sensory information being received from within one’s own body.
While intelligence and consciousness seem to be correlated to a large extent, these also appear to be two separate characteristics. Intelligence is also a nebulous sort of concept, and is probably composite of many different factors. It might be easier, in fact, to contemplate a higher level of intelligence than a higher level of consciousness. We can all sort of imagine what it might be like to be smarter, but it seems less clear what it would mean to be more self aware.
Intelligence may be a property associated with problem solving, memory storage, memory access, and predicting future events. It seems reasonable to conclude that if you have consciousness then there must be some level of intelligence associated with that. If any creature or object is self aware, then there must be some degree of intelligence that goes with it, even if both the level of consciousness and intelligence are low. It also seems reasonable to conclude that creatures with greater levels of consciousness may generally have a higher level of intelligence. It may not follow that consciousness always has to exist with intelligence, however. For example, it has been proposed that philosophical zombies could theoretically exist. In other words, some entity that can think exactly like an intelligent human, respond perfectly to complex questions, solve problems, show appropriate emotions, and so on, but internally is not self aware any more than your pocket calculator when it calculates that 2+2=4. This might apply to intelligent machines, where their very nature makes it difficult to determine if they have self awareness or not – Turing test be damned! It could also apply to other species, both terrestrial or extraterrestrial where brain structure and nervous system are so different from us that determining the presence of consciousness could be very problematic.
Down here on good old earth, it is easy to see that animals like chimps, dolphins, and our beloved family dog have intelligence. Dogs for example recognize us, form social bonds with us, display emotion, recognize patterns of behavior and can anticipate future events based on past experience. This is intelligence. Many of us would conclude that dogs have some degree of consciousness, but of course, we can never really peer into the mind of our pet to know for sure that they are self aware. I personally feel that philosophical zombies can’t really exist. If something can mimic a self aware entity so perfectly, it must actually be a self aware entity. It is just as clear that you can never prove, beyond a shadow of doubt, that anyone else really has a mind other than yourself. Solipsism, as such, while possibly unfalsifiable, is never the most parsimonious explanation for the world around us. It basically places us at the center of the universe, and so is by far the least likely explanation for the universe around us.
Our brains have evolved to accept a theory of mind that allows us to view other people, besides just ourselves, as having thoughts, concerns, intentions and emotions. This might seem a necessary requirement for a social animal, lest we forget the social insects like bees and ants. It is certainly less clear that an ant recognizes its fellow workers as being capable of feeling pain or hunger, like it itself has evolved to perceive, but perhaps it does. For an animal with a more complex nervous system, like a human, having a built in theory of mind is probably vital to working together towards common objectives and organizing patterns of society. Our ancestors with this trait of understanding the mind of others, were more likely to survive due to the reproductive advantage of mutual cooperation and understanding in the group they were a part of. We must be careful, however, since these same biological circuits that evolved to give us a theory of mind often fire even when they are stimulated by patterns that have nothing to do with human behavior. An example would be, when we as kids often feel that our toys have feelings, and could be sad if mistreated or neglected. As adults, we often have the sense that there is unseen agency in the world. Many primitive cultures believed there were spirits in the water, trees, sky and so on. There was a sense that other things must naturally have a mind like ourselves. These kinds of superstitions live on today in many forms.
So what might a higher level of consciousness look like? It seems unlikely that consciousness is an all or none phenomenon, that it is either on or off. We know that there are altered levels of consciousness that we are all well familiar with. Sleep is a prime example. During non-dream sleep we may not be aware of very much or anything at all. People awakened from non-dream sleep often have no memory of anything or may recall only a few scattered thoughts or feelings. During REM or dream sleep, we all know that we have a rich experience, but are usually unaware that we are dreaming, or that the events during the dream seem unusual. Only after waking do we recognize that the dream scenario defied common sense, logic, and often the laws of physics. The memory of the dream will usually quickly fade, unless reinforced by an active attempt to remember it. The sleeping state, therefore, represent an altered level of consciousness. During the dream state perceptions are altered, processing abilities are impaired, and our capacity for critical thinking is practically absent. Lower level consciousness may be similar to having our mental processing systems and critical thinking skills shut off.
During deep sedation or general anesthesia, our level of consciousness is artificially impaired. Of course, this is what we want when undergoing a potentially painful or unpleasant procedure or surgery. Most people have no awareness or concept of the passage of time when they are out during surgery. The time under general anesthesia is essentially lost to them. There was still brain function occurring during anesthesia, but not much higher brain function. Even much of the crucial basal brain function is significantly impaired during general anesthesia, such as respiratory drive, making it critical that your anesthesiologist is also managing your airway and “breathing for you” by placing you on a ventilator while you are unconscious. In many cases, the mechanism by which anesthetics alter consciousness is not well understood.
Drugs, such as anesthetics or recreational drugs that alter level of consciousness seem to be affecting certain brain areas that are necessary for maintaining consciousness. This is also apparent with loss of consciousness that occurs with head trauma, where brain function has been disturbed in some way. Axons stretched or sheared, neurons swollen, neurotransmitter levels in the synapses altered. These kind of details, and many other observations of brain damaged patients, makes it clear that consciousness is a function of the brain. There is no real evidence for a mind-body dualism that many people feel must be so.
I tend to think of consciousness like a flashlight that is illuminating a basement filled with files and papers. What items happen to be illuminated by the flashlight are what we are conscious of at that moment in time. Everything else in the basement resides in our subconscious. We may have some thought under the light in one moment, but soon the light has moved over to another item, and no longer illuminated, we lose the first thought from our conscious mind. Some items in the basement hide in corners where we haven’t shined the light for a very long time, and possibly will never shine the light in those spots ever again.
Perhaps a higher level of consciousness would give us the ability to hold our view over a much larger portion of our thoughts and memories at any one time, turning the flashlight into a spotlight. Take this to the obvious extreme and we could light up the entire garage and all our previously subconscious thoughts and memories would now be in full focus at the same time. There would be no difficulty finding any information that you possessed in your head, and you could think on multiple levels at one time. Our internal awareness would be complete.
If being self aware is part of the conscious experience, then what would it feel like to be “more” self aware? The Crisp and Turner, 2010 definition of self awareness is, “ a psychological state in which people are aware of their traits, feelings and behavior. Alternately, it can be defined as the realization of oneself as an individual entity.” With this in mind a higher level of consciousness may mean that we are aware of our feelings and other traits much more often than we are now. When we are focused on other activities, we aren’t necessarily thinking about how we are feeling, our internal states, or even that we exist at that moment. A being with a higher level of consciousness might be much more in-tuned with those traits. That is often the cited purpose of engaging in mindfulness exercises or meditation, so as to be more aware of your thoughts. It doesn’t come very naturally for us most of the time. Many times it is difficult to even describe what you’re feeling even when you do try to focus on it. Again, take this to the absurd extreme and a being with a vastly higher level of consciousness than ourselves would never forget that they exist, what they are feeling, or any of their internal thought processes. It would almost seem that if Artificial Intelligence (AI) is ever achieved that this kind of high level consciousness would be relatively easy to envision. If a machine can be self aware at all, then what barrier would there be to it being more aware of all of it’s inner thoughts, identity, feelings, and memory than the average or even above average human. Combine this with a superior intelligence, and wow, this may be the next giant leap in evolution.
With human level consciousness, there are so many subconscious process going on behind the scenes, such as the basic instincts to survive and reproduce, that influence our day to day lives in just about every way. Much of human behavior can be explained by these influences, even though we don’t often see this in ourselves very easily. Perhaps having a greater awareness of all these subconsciously motivating forces could help us to be a more rational species. Perhaps we will one day evolve from Homo sapiens to Homo rationalis (the rational ape).